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Written by Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table

When I finished the undercover reporting for my first book, The American Way of Eating, a couple of years ago I found myself with an unexpected problem. The first round of reporting was done, as was my modest advance, but the writing and secondary reporting remained. I was stuck: As low as my wages had been picking garlic in California fields, stocking Walmart produce bins outside of Detroit, and portioning sides in an Applebee’s kitchen in New York, there had been, at least, wages. Now I had a few thousand dollars in savings and a year’s worth of work to do; money, and my grocery budget, was going to be tight.

What this meant was a creative reengagement with the idea of what it means to be broke in America, and what it might mean for my meals. One of the things that saved me was a childhood favorite: Hamburger Helper.

I know what you’re thinking: Hamburger Helper? A box meal? But allow me to make my case: One-dish meals have long been the go-to food for cooks working with limited time and money. Think chicken and dumplings, any kind of stew, and even America’s great casseroles. And while today we might startle in surprise at meal based on a flavor packet, the concept it represents—eat well, quickly, and affordably—is something I wholly endorse. So I posed myself challenge: Could I beat the box? Could I, as a cook of some skill if not wealth, make a quality meal as quickly, and more cheaply, than a box of Hamburger Helper?