How a 28-Year-Old Field Scientist Eats on $30K/Year in a National Park in Washington

She eats tuna packets in the field and makes spinach-zucchini smoothies and miso-marinated chicken at home.
Food Diary How a 28YearOld Field Scientist Eats on 30KYear in a National Park Near Ashford WA
Illustration by Maggie Cowles

Welcome to The Receipt, a series documenting how Bon Appétit readers eat and what they spend doing it. Each food diary follows one anonymous reader’s week of expenses related to groceries, restaurant meals, coffee runs, and every bite in between. In this time of rising food costs, The Receipt reveals how folks—from different cities, with different incomes, on different schedules—are figuring out their food budgets.

In today’s Receipt, a 28-year-old field scientist eats tuna packets in the field and makes spinach and zucchini smoothies and miso-marinated chicken at home. She lives in a National Park (it’s a volcano!) near Ashford, Washington. Keep reading for her receipts.

Jump ahead:

The finances

What are your pronouns? She/her

What is your occupation? I work as a field scientist in a National Park. The job is seasonal and summers are busy because of the limited window we have to collect data. I love my job and I’ve worked here for three years.

How old are you? 28 years old.

What city and state do you live in? I live near Ashford, Washington, during the summer, and in Bellingham, Washington, in the winter.

What is your annual salary, if you have one? Last year I made around $30,000 before taxes.

How much is one paycheck, after taxes? $1,300 to $1,700. We can work a lot of overtime and the backcountry camping cost per diem can add up.

How often are you paid? (e.g., weekly) Biweekly.

How much money do you have in savings? Around $3,000.

What are your approximate fixed monthly expenses beyond food? (i.e., rent, subscriptions, bills)

  • Rent: $475.00
  • Spotify: $9.99
  • Adobe Creative Suite: $19.99
  • Phone: $76.00
  • Internet: $30.00
  • Dog food: $70.00

The diet

Do you follow a certain diet or have dietary restrictions? I am an opportunistic omnivore! I try to eat as local as possible when I can—we have an awesome farmer in the neighboring town who we can buy food from.

What are the grocery staples you always buy, if any? The nearest good grocery store is an hour and a half away, so I usually only make the trek once or twice a month. My last grocery run cost $143.72 at WinCo and $48.60 at Trader Joe’s. I’ll buy as many bulk grains, eggs, and milk cartons as I can fit in the kitchen I share with two housemates. Transporting meat usually requires a cooler that I don’t have, so I don’t buy it as much. I always keep a couple of flavored tuna packets, olives, and eggs on hand for cheap and easy meals I can take into the field with me. I’ll splurge on good loaves of seedy whole grain bread, tea, French butter, and hard cheeses. I also keep a rotating box of cookies in my pantry to boost morale on especially exhausting days.

How often in a week do you dine out versus cook at home? I cook almost all of my meals at home or with friends in the area. Going out to eat is expensive and too long of a drive after work. I might go out to eat when I’m visiting my partner or friends in other towns on weekends or doing my monthly grocery haul.

How often in a week did you dine out while growing up? Maybe once or twice a week. My mom really loved trying new cuisines and made dining out an event when she could. I felt lucky to accompany her on her food adventures. We especially loved visiting the nearby Japanese supermarket in the summer for cold soba noodles and green tea ice cream.

How often in a week did your parents or guardians cook at home? Although she loved going out to eat, my mom cooked most meals at home and was always experimenting with new recipes. She was a huge fan of Food Network and loved to recreate meals from Lidia Bastianich, Ina Garten, and Giada De Laurentiis. She’s Italian and cooking is her love language. She grew a garden with summertime staples like tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants, salad greens, and peas. One summer she tried to grow Cucuzza squash and we didn’t realize how huge they’d get. I have a photo of myself with a three-foot squash!

The expenses

  • Week’s total: $46
  • Restaurants and cafés total: $0
  • Groceries total: $46
  • Most-expensive meal or purchase: DiGiorno Rising Crust Supreme Frozen Pizza, $7.79 (Covered by friends)
  • Least-expensive meal or purchase: Cucumbers from Trader Joe’s, $2.99
  • Number of restaurant and café meals: 0
  • Number of grocery trips: 1

The diary


7:05 a.m. I’m running out of my kitchen to head to my office, which is two minutes from my house. I wanted to be there earlier to get a head start on some projects, but I overcomplicated a smoothie recipe: spinach, a half of a banana, Brown Cow plain yogurt ($5.29/tub, previously bought from Whole Foods), zucchini, apricot, local honey ($6/jar, previously bought). I tried to spice it up with a little invasive mint I found growing near my house, but it didn’t do much for flavor. Smoothies are a summer staple for me; I get a couple of servings of veggies in and I don’t feel too heavy before heading out into the field. I grab my turmeric and fish oil supplements and head out the door.

1:45 p.m. I sit with some coworkers by a small pond after completing a test of a new sampling protocol. I sniff my hands to make sure they don’t smell too much like pond gunk before pulling out two slices of seedy whole grain bread out of my backpack. I eat the bread alongside a can of gigante beans in tomato sauce ($1.99/can, Trader Joe’s) and a handful of Castelvetrano olives ($6.99, Winco). Everything’s previously bought. The olives taste especially good on this hot summer day—I think my body is telling me I need more salt.

6:15 p.m. I’m back in my kitchen from a day of data collection around one of the park’s large glacial rivers. I’m covered in sweat, which makes an excellent adhesive for the pine needles I am always brushing out of my hair. I remember that I have some pad thai left over from a weekend trip to Zest SriThai, a food truck ($12.50), so I heat it in a skillet. While that warms, I chop up red cabbage, orange bell peppers, jalapeños, and cucumbers. I pull out some spring roll wrappers and wrap them around the fresh veggies and warm pad thai. Then I make a peanut sauce out of PB2 dehydrated peanut butter ($10.99, Safeway), soy sauce, gojuchang, and a little bit of sesame oil. Despite bushwhacking for a good portion of the day, I find the heat has killed my appetite, so the light, crunchy spring rolls are easy to get down after a long day.

Monday total: $0


7 a.m. I’m lucky enough to share an office with a friend who has stress-baked three batches of scones last evening. He brings all of them to the office to share and I turn on the kettle for tea. After a heavy debate between the bacon red pepper or the orange chocolate, I grab the bacon one because it seems a bit more breakfast-y. I eat it with a generous serving of fireweed jelly that some coworkers and I made and kept from last summer. The salty pork and the tart yet subtly sweet jelly pair well together. We accompany the scones with a Gong Cha milk tea ($14.99, previously bought from Costco) and discuss little details of our day together.

10:15 p.m. We take our first break from training to try some other baked goods my coworkers brought in. Today is one of our two training days, and to keep morale up during long PowerPoint sessions, we bring in baked goods. One of my coworkers brought a blueberry coffee cake that we all take generous helpings of. It’s sweet and rich and I get a sugar rush almost instantly.

1:10 p.m. We take another break from PowerPoints and group discussions on safety to eat lunch. I brought in some of my meal-prepped food for the week, a bit of chicken that I had marinated in miso paste, red cabbage, roasted broccoli, peanuts, and some sesame oil. I had cooked the chicken the night before and realized in the morning that I left it out on the counter all night. I debated tossing it but it was the fancy organic free-range chicken ($13.98, Safeway) and a lot of work went into the miso marinade, so I took the chance and ate it. Hoping I don’t feel the repercussions of my actions later. So far, it’s an energizing meal that balances out the excessive amounts of sugar I ate after breakfast.

7:30 p.m. After I finish a run, I have an intense craving for pizza. Since the closest pizza place is about an hour away, I make a quick pizza dough with flour, yeast, sugar, salt, dried rosemary, and olive oil. I let the dough rise a little bit while I take a shower, and by the time I’ve washed the pine needles out of my hair, the dough is ready. I like using pizza as an excuse to bury all of the slightly rotting vegetables in my fridge under a layer of melted cheese. This fridge-clean-out pizza has zucchini, beet, pesto, and mozzarella. It’s so good you wouldn’t know the beets are a little soft! I make a little extra dough for some savory breakfast rolls to share with my office mates and coworkers, folding parmesan and pesto into the rolls and letting them bake with a bit of sea salt sprinkled on top.

Tuesday total: $0


6:40 a.m. I have my usual smoothie of banana, spinach, zucchini, apricot, and yogurt. I bring in the first batch of rolls to share with my coworkers, but I’m not hungry enough to join them in eating them.

12 p.m. We finish up our last training PowerPoints and celebrate with the rolls, cinnamon buns someone else brought in, and the remains of the coffee cake. I want to limit my consumption this afternoon to avoid a sugar rush and eventual crash, but I have a bit of everything anyway. It’s all so good and I’m grateful to share snacks with my coworkers.

3 p.m. I’m crashing from the baked goods. I need some protein so I sit with some folks from another work group and eat more of my leftover miso chicken and red cabbage. The chicken sat well with me yesterday so I decided it was safe to eat this week. For the marinade, I let the chicken marinate in miso paste for at least 24 hours so it tastes perfectly salted and juicy. Making a mental note to always commit to the 24-hour marinade.

6:15 p.m. For dinner I have the last of my meal-prepped miso-marinated chicken and I am so sad to see it go. I roast a head of broccoli with a bit of olive oil and sea salt to eat alongside it.

Wednesday total: $0


7 a.m. I’m all out of smoothie ingredients and the weather is starting to cool down, so I make a hot cup of Bonne Maman rose tea ($6.90/box, previously bought) and the millennial classic, avocado toast. I put some chopped cherry tomatoes, shaved Parmesan, sea salt, and fermented peppers on the toast and take it to the office with me. I’m surprised by how well this avocado has held up. It’s been sitting in my fridge since my last grocery trip three weeks ago.

1:20 p.m. I break for lunch by one of the rivers in the park and pull out a field favorite, a Bumble Bee Thai chili tuna packet ($13.57/pack of 12). I have eaten these tuna packets almost weekly since I started working as a field scientist, and I have yet to get sick of them. I feel a bit bad about always eating packaged tuna but I do what I can to make sure I’m eating enough protein in the backcountry. I have the tuna with two slices of Cabot white cheddar cheese ($3.69/bar), a hunk of cucumber, and a handful of Triscuits ($2.98/12.5 ounce box). I’m hungry but don’t want to fill up too much; hiking on a full stomach is an uncomfortable feeling I try to avoid at all costs.

6:30 p.m. I’m out of meal-prepped food so I make an incredibly lazy dinner of leftover rice that has been sitting in my fridge for a week, fried eggs, and soy sauce. I’m not proud of this meal but it’s cheap, quick, and satisfying.

Thursday total: $0


8:20 a.m. It’s my day off so I sleep in a bit and make myself a golden milk latte. The base of the latte is coconut milk mixed with a paste I make once a month by mixing coconut oil, turmeric, black pepper, and cinnamon. I always keep a jar in my fridge for myself and my dog. Years of field work has not been kind to my knees or hips, so I put a lot of faith in turmeric and fish oil to do the heavy lifting of keeping me limber through another summer season. The temperatures are starting to really dip so the hot latte and warming spices are welcome on this chilly morning.

1:20 p.m. I have the closest thing to a real meal all day: a couple of slices of Seeduction bread ($6.49, Whole Foods), black tea and fig jam, a couple of slices of Cabot white cheddar, and some Whole Foods shortbread biscuits that I share with a couple of neighbors who have wandered into my house this morning. On rainy and cold days like these, there’s not much to do around our area except gather together, drink tea, and eat an excessive amount of snacks.

3 p.m. I’m hungry and in need of some actual sustenance so I cook a small pot of farro on the stove. I salt the water and add a bit of butter for richness. I chop up some red onion and cherry tomatoes, put them on a sheet pan, and drizzle them with olive oil and sea salt. Then I combine the tomatoes, onions, and farro into a bowl with some leftover pesto, and shave a bit of Parmesan on top. It’s chewy and a bit nutty; the tomatoes add a good amount of brightness. The meal is comforting and hearty on this rainy day and I eat it slowly to savor the flavor.

9:00 p.m. Two friends have come to visit for the weekend and they bring a large DiGiorno Rising Crust frozen pizza ($7.79, covered by them) for dinner as well as a much-needed grocery delivery from Trader Joe’s and a nearby gas station. We split the cost of groceries and my share is $46 total. They put the pizza in the oven and we huddle around it waiting for the timer to ding. Once it does, we’re all so hungry we burn our mouths eating the pizza as fast as we can. I honestly don’t remember much about its flavor, just that it had calories I badly needed. That’s a problem frozen pizzas fix well.

Friday total: $46


10 a.m. It’s still raining and my whole house has slept in late. One of my visiting friends brought a box of Trader Joe’s mini chocolate chip pancake mix ($3.99, covered by them), which sounds perfect on this gloomy Saturday morning. We put an entire package of Oscar Mayer bacon in the oven and mix up a batch of the pancakes. We add bananas to the pancakes for a little extra decadence and use up some of my old bananas. Finally, we make French-pressed coffee mixed with a bit of Trader Joe’s almond and coconut vanilla creamer warmed in a milk frother. Breakfast is heavy and rich and we eat it over the course of a couple of hours. We pick at the pancakes and add slabs of Kerrygold butter and maple syrup to the stacks.

4 p.m. We finish a drizzly hike and head home to warm up some pita bread in my oven. We slice up cucumber ($2.99), avocado ($3.99), tomato ($3.49/pound), and cheddar slices ($3.99) to add to the tops of the pita. I add some spicy fermented peppers too. Everything’s from the Trader Joe’s haul.

7 p.m. The rain has cleared, my friends are in town, and it’s time to celebrate! Nothing brings our community together quite like a grill session and a warm box of Rainier beer ($20.99, previously bought from Safeway) on a mostly clear night. The visiting friends have worked around here before, so lots of people are excited to see them. I provide mustard and approximately 36 hot dogs that a visiting friend left at my house about a week ago. I realize a real grocery trip is in my future. Some of our other neighbors bring pre-marinated meat packs from Trader Joe’s, meatballs, broccoli, sweet potatoes, a large pot of rice, and an endless amount of snacks. The little picnic table is crammed with mismatched pots of food. Most folks bring their own bowls and sporks to dish up whatever they can. Together all of our dishes come together to make a pretty hearty meal for the 30 people that end up stopping by.

Saturday total: $0


8 a.m. It’s the last morning my friends are staying with me, and we cook the final shared meal they brought with them, chilaquiles. I soak old tortilla chips in an enchilada sauce one of my friends has brought. While that softens I cut up onion, green onion, avocado, and jalapeño to add to the finished dish. I fry up the tortilla chips in a bit of oil and crack a couple of eggs into the skillet to cook. When it’s done I take the whole skillet to the table and layer it with the fresh veggies. It’s a comforting and easy group meal to make. We eat about half of the skillet before we are full and follow with some hot French press coffee.

1:20 p.m. I make a light lunch of toast with Dijon mustard, dill pickles, sliced tomatoes, and a hard-boiled egg. I love putting a smattering of food on a piece of bread and calling it a meal. I eat the toast on my porch enjoying the beams of light that make it through the dense trees.

8 p.m. I skip on dinner tonight because I’m full from a weekend of decadent group meals. Instead, I have a cup of Bonne Maman tea in its Dream flavor (it has verbena, rose, and lavender) and a couple of Whole Foods’ shortbread biscuits to unwind before I go to bed. And I arrange a tuna packet, slices of cheddar cheese, and a couple of small dill pickles near each other in the fridge to prep for my work day tomorrow.

Sunday total: $0