The Hunger Games Week Three has us sitting pretty much at our "new normal." It's humbling to think that it took us three weeks to get here - to recover a good chunk of my pantry and set myself up in a decent position where we had a good variety of food, enough of every food group to get us comfortably through the week (according to the Canada Food Guide), have some of the treats that my family has requested, and finally actually be below budget.
I played a little loose with my grocery game this week. I went in with virtually no shopping list and no calculator. I wanted to see if I could stay on budget without being obsessively careful. This week, I tried to hit only one grocery store instead of visiting a grocery store and then Costco, and then I realized how much of a penalty that would be to us. More on that later.
Had to shave off a few bucks from last week, so this week's budget was $111.37. Also, fair warning, because I ended up having to go to Costco (but later that week), the photo is short the soy milk and bread. It's also short the maple syrup (which I forgot to put in the photo) and some of the items which were consumed.
The grocery list breakdown (and you'll notice some asterisks on a few items - more on that below):
Pantry Items ($23.40)
Rice (2kg) - $4.44
Flour (5kg) - $5.99
Maple Syrup (250ml) - $4.99
Wowbutter - $4.49
Becel vegan margarine - $3.49 *
Grocery Items ($85.43)
Bread (5 loaves) - $11.05 *
Apples, loose - $1.00 *
Bananas - $2.88
Lunch Meat - $7.00
Cheddar - $4.99
Canned Tomatoes (28oz) - $0.99
Blueberries/Raspberries (3x170ml) - $5
Cheerios (525g) - $4.99
Oreos (300g) - $1.88
Grapes - $4.54
Apples (3lbs) - $2.88
Hashbrowns (bulk split) - $5.00
Potatoes (10lbs) - $3.97
Peppers (4 sm) - $2.97
Broccoli (2 sm head) - $2.47
Cucumber (1) - $0.88 *
Frozen blueberries (2x600g) - $5.76
Carrots (5lbs) - $3.47
Soy Milk (6x980ml) - $7.49
Chips (2 bags) - $6.22
Other: Wendy's Grilled chicken - $2 (MY "act of treason" this time, cause payback - and more on this later).
Total: $110.83 (Under by $0.54)
This week was weird, given that we returned from our excursion on the Victoria Day Monday and were unable to shop. So, I ended up buying a couple items (bread, apples) to see us through Tuesday from the convenience store. I'm sure everyone's well aware how much a convenience store makes you pay for the convenience. I wanted to try to avoid going to Costco this week, but after realizing I would be paying ~45% more for every loaf of the same bread I had been buying and 80% more for milk, I ended up making a run later after all. We're burning through almost 3 loaves per week, which means (assuming I never make my own bread and the prices are roughly consistent) I'd lose the purchasing power of over one loaf of bread per week - $2.68 or more - or about $139.36 a year. That's just in the cost of bread.
Soy milk, I've found, also makes shopping at Costco worth it, and the tetra packs don't have to be refrigerated until opened, which means that I can buy it in larger volume than the bread if and when I'm so inclined. Soy milk is traditionally sold either in the 980ml tetras, or refrigerated 1.89L cartons (equivalent to about 2 tetras). In the grocery store, cartons generally run between $3.50 and $4. Even when the soy milk isn't on sale at Costco, the tetras are about $2.50 for the same volume of soy milk, they travel better, and have a much smaller chance of spoiling before finished.
As far as I can tell, Costco can't be beat by anyone on the price of eggs and spinach... even though I didn't need to buy any this week.
Other than that, I again went to Food Basics, which I've generally found to be the best overall quality for the best overall price in my area.
Friday was a weird day for us because we were on the road. We packed a bunch of sandwiches, soy milk, and other goods that we thought might be allowed across the border, so we probably didn't do a very good job adhering to the Canada Food Guide this day.
Otherwise, breakfasts were much the same all week, but I was able to mix it up a bit on the weekend by offering frozen hash browns as a treat on Saturday.
Lunches consisted mostly of Wowbutter & Jelly, leftovers, and turkey, with fruit and homemade muffins (see Wednesday).
We did some really good dinners this week. Tuesday I used a can of tomatoes and my last strained tomato jar and made some slowcooker spaghetti sauce with a little ground beef and some of my cayenne. I used only a half of a pound of ground beef; it would have been a better Bolognese with a full pound, but it was still pretty good. Since it needs more work (I'm used to the old Italian method of having it simmer on the stove all day, tasting as I go), I will work on the recipe more before sharing.
Wednesday shaped up to be such a nice day that I gave the trusty slowcooker a break and made some packets of potatoes, carrots, and a half of a chopped up red pepper. I tossed them in a bowl with some olive oil, salt, pepper, dried thyme, garlic and onion powder, then packed them up in a double layer of foil and baked them on the grill for about 20 minutes, and then made pork chops with the store-bought BBQ sauce from last week on. We made a side salad using the last head of the romaine lettuce, cucumber, and the other half pepper and had a little mini-feast. I also felt motivated enough to make a dozen muffins with the cocoa powder and some of the raspberries and blueberries.
Thursday, I was tired, so hubs volunteered to make supper of grilled cheese for us and we finished off the salad. Kidlet ate scrambled eggs and corn and proclaimed he had a "yellow dinner."
Friday we all foraged of leftovers and random items. This is the day I was the bad one. I was out with my Costco-shopping friend, and she was hungry and wanted to stop to eat. We went to Wendy's and I ordered a grilled chicken wrap off their $1.89 value menu. Here's a photo of what about 36% of your daily budget looks like in convenience food for posterity. I even added the receipt for scale.
Saturday I felt motivated enough again to try a yeastless quickbread (mostly) veggie pizza (the dough came together and with kneading and rolling out was ready in 10 minutes) with one of the remaining roma tomatoes and some leftover onion. I can't say it was fully veggie because the sauce was my leftover Bolognese, and there was a very small amount of hamburger in it. It turned out pretty good, although I still like my yeast grilled pizza dough better, but given that I was able to make this in a hurry with just baking soda on hand, definitely it merits saving (so recipe coming soon). I don't remember what kid ate... he declined my offer to make him a cheese-less pizza, but he's been fussing over his tooth and asking for sandwiches at practically every meal, so it may have been a sandwich.
Sunday was a real helter-skelter day, so meals all day were random and consisted of rice with more leftover Bolognese, toast, Wowbutter, eggs, fruit, etc. But I did get a good breakfast on the table first with blueberry pancakes from scratch. Kidlet finally got his maple syrup sugar on, and he proceeded to bounce around the house all day.
Monday (today) I will probably make spaghetti again, just to use up the Bolognese (apparently the recipe made more than I thought) because wasting food on this budget is a big no-no.
You've probably noticed that I've had to start buying some of our pantry goods again: Cheerios, Rice, Wowbutter, flour, margarine. I used up the last of the 2.5kg of flour early in the week, and I haven't even been baking that much. It didn't go very far. I finished off the first jar of Wowbutter today (the Monday). Margarine's nearly entirely gone too. The small amount of spices I've bought has been pretty severely depleted. The small amount of baking powder I bought is gone now, and I will have to budget for more on next week's grocery bill. I've also got about 25% of my oil left. We have just enough apple sauce snacks to get us through the next week.
I didn't have to buy meat this week, but I will next week to extend the supply again. All I have left is a half of a pound of hamburger left, six pork chops, and a half a pound of stewing pork, and I've got a request for chicken.
I have lots of lentils, lots of barley, lots of rice and flour now, and enough eggs to see me through the end of next week. Lots of potatoes and carrots. Due to my grocery shopping, fresh (green) vegetable supply was toast pretty early on, leaving us mostly with peppers, frozen vegetables, and vegetable cocktail.
It's taken over two weeks, but I'm finally getting concrete benefits from making food from scratch in payback in the budget. Generally I'm feeling pretty good about where we're at right now. Week three looks like a veritable feast compared to Week 1 and Week 2, and I can celebrate knowing that I've balanced the budget.
Still, I'm faced with the sobering reality that if we continue eating with our set of rules and restrictions (allergies, no chest freezer, Canada Food Guide), this is probably as good as it gets... give or take a few bucks. It's true, I wasted some money by not being careful and having to shop at a convenience store. I also "invested" in some junk food to prevent mutiny on the home front. But on the whole, we're talking about under $10 this week that might have been better (or even just otherwise) spent.
$10 might be saved up towards giving us a family night out once a month (or let us order in a pizza), but hubs and I have concluded it's not really worth it. You saw my value menu meal). It's more satisfying to buy something like Oreos and chips for a regular occasional treat than to be lazy about making dinner. And at least going forward I probably don't have to have my six year-old son be grumpy anymore about not having lunch meat and and maple syrup to the point where I'm in tears.
This is if I continue to exert ironclad control over the budget, and I don't happen to get screwed by circumstances. This can happen more easily than you might think. Case in point: four items I bought this week (cucumber, margarine, grapes and carrots) went on sale a mere 24 hours later, and I could have saved about $5.
You can see based on what I have left that over the next few weeks, I would have to top up the dwindling items, eating more into the weekly budget again. Hopefully, though, I could begin to get them staggered out and in larger supply, to begin to gradually "get ahead" a little further. But it's a process that would take weeks and months, and I would be continuously handicapped by the inability to lay food away in larger storage. Without a chest freezer, I can't really buy a lot of extra meat when it's on sale. I don't have enough padding in the budget to buy and make the kinds of things that I can cook all in one day and stockpile for using through the week (what I used to do when I worked full-time outside the home). I don't have room to make a month's worth of freezer dinners, so I would continue to be forced to cook most weeknights (even if it is just in the slowcooker or a grilled cheese). This feels a bit like a grueling marathon on some long days.
I've had a few people question some of the purchasing choices I've made, and I welcome your questions. When you see wine (which I've been using for cooking) or lunchmeat on my grocery bill, you don't see the things I've sacrificed instead. So I'll let you know some of the things that we're missing from our fridge/pantry this month that you probably wouldn't have noticed unless I specifically itemized them:
You also don't see things like a serving for us was a half of a porkchop (yes, we ate pork chops by the halves this week).
It also doesn't cover any of the cravings that we want but can't really afford. Right now, I would wash your windows for a meal I don't have to make myself. I might consider indenturing my son, too, if it was a risotto loaded down with grilled chicken breast, pecorino cheese, fresh roasted in-season veggies and a nice glass of wine. Pardon me while I go cry/drool in the corner.
As you can see, there's no real right or wrong way to buy groceries when you're on a limited budget. You have to decide what's important to you: what your nutritional goals are, what your limitations are, and what you can live without. Part of the "without" includes lots of leftovers or seconds, a good variety in meat and greens vegetables, large quantities of the healthiest foods, foods that require little effort or time on your part, and certain foods in their entirety. Meals are mostly humble to strike a balance between plenty and nutrition.
But can it be done? Yes. Can it be done relatively well and delicious? Sure. Can it be done without some careful planning and sacrifice? Nope. But that's another story.
I've got 2/3 of a bottle of wine left. I think I'm going to indulge in a glass and say cheers: we've made it through week three together. (Plus it's scurvy protection.)
Read back to the start of Anne's Hunger Games Challenge: Could you Feed Your Family on a Strict Budget
Follow Anne's Budget Eating Challenge from the start: