Week Four of my Budget Eating Challenge started with a conundrum. This was the last week of the challenge. Should I:
a) Live like I would if I knew all budget restrictions come off me next week? Or
b) Live like a person would knowing that they were stuck on a restricted budget for the foreseeable future?
Why was this a conundrum? Because to be perfectly honest, I could probably have done little or no shopping this past week. It wouldn't have been comfortable or very tasty, and I might have skimped on some of the Canada Food Guide recommendations some days, but TECHNICALLY I could have drained all of my resources.
This is what I had left over:
Half a bag of lentils
3/4 bag of barley
Most of a new 5kg bag of flour
Plenty of sugar, both white and brown
About 1.75 kg of rice
1kg of rolled oats
Plenty of mustard
Most of my apple cider vinegar and soy sauce
1 cup of cocoa powder
Most of a new jar of Wowbutter
A few meals worth of seasoning
Half a jar of mayo
About 1 cup oil
About 1 cup sour cream
A bottle and a half of Motts Garden cocktail
About 8 lbs of potatoes
5 homemade tortillas
Most of my cheddar and about 2/3 of my mozzarella
1 lb hamburger
6 pork chops
½ lb stewing pork
1 roma tomato
About 4 lbs of carrots
Almost 3/4 of a 1kg bag of frozen green beans
1.4 kg of a 2kg bag of corn
500g of frozen peas
11 single-serve apple sauces
2 1/4 loaves of bread
4 boxes of soy milk
Some lunch meat to get through the week
2.5 boxes of spaghetti
Half of our hash browns
2 700g bags of frozen blueberries
Now, BEFORE YOU SAY OH MAH GAWD...
As much as that looks like on paper, it’s really only about a week’s worth of food. For example, this represents about 8 days’ worth of protein servings remaining in meat and eggs (excluding lentils and Wowbutter)—assuming I didn’t use eggs for baking and we ate only the bare minimum of 2 servings (of 2.5 oz / 2 eggs) per person per day.
If I treated all of this money as expendable, a person who has to continue on with the diet would be bumped back to somewhere where I was between weeks 1 and 2, pretty much with only dry goods, spaghetti noodles, and vinegar in their pantry. But if this were an ongoing thing - if this was my life - my shopping would obviously look very different. Let's face it. Week one was hell, and if I were living on a severely limited budget, I would prefer to remain at my current standard of eating.
In the end, I opted to show you a little about how one should use this ongoing surplus to restock and expand the pantry. In limited budgets, the pantry is the great enabler. Since this week I was out (or nearly out) of baking powder, seasonings, oil, and convenient, easy to pack lunch items, I would need to repurchase those over the coming two weeks. I would also be using it to help expand my pantry, buying things that we’d like - like tea, coffee, and salad dressings (yes, we’ve gone this month without any of these things).
Pantry Items ($44.03)
Baking Powder 450g - $3.39
Olive Oil (1L) - $7.50
Condensed Milk 1 can - $1.25
Salad Dressing - $1.97
Coffee - $17.99
Tea - $4.47
Vegetable oil (3L) - $3.98
Thyme - $1.99
Red Pepper Flakes - $1.49
Grocery Items - ($64.83)
Chicken Breasts (5 / 1.06kg) - $8.03 53 cents per serving
Peppers (4) - $2.97
Chips - 3.36
Bananas (5) - $1.35
Elbow Macaroni (900g) - $0.97
Romaine (2 heads) - $2.47
Grapes (.9 kg) - $2.23
Cucumber (1) - $0.97
Watermelon - $2.99
Cream of Chicken soup (1 can) - $1.89
Onion - $1.00
Bread (3 loaves) - $5.99
Hotdog Buns (8) - $1.99
Wowbutter - $4.79
Hot dogs (10) - $4.49
Lemons (bag) - $2.97
Apples (3lb) - $3.97
Strawberries (454g) - $2.99
Spinach - $3.99
Tortillas (10) - $1.49
Tomatoes (4) - $2.23
Lil Caesar's Hot-N-Ready Pizza - $5.00
Total: $113.86 ($2.18 under weekly budget of $115.50 plus $0.54 surplus from week 3)
Yes, holy crap, I ended up under budget, but you can see I didn't end up under budget by much.
As it happened, I needed to use up some of the early-purchased items. Everything is more susceptible to freezer-burn when you don't have a chest freezer handy, so to avoid food waste, be sure to use your older items on a regular basis.
Breakfast was mostly traditional - I ended up having to make some more instant oatmeal for hubby. We had cereal and Wowbutter on toast through the week; eggs, and hashbrowns on Saturday, and pancakes for kidlet on Sunday.
Lunches for work consisted of leftovers and sandwiches (wowbutter & jelly or lunchmeat). After serving as a replacement for Maple syrup and all these lunches, my 500ml strawberry & cocoa jam is just about used up; I will have to make more, or buy more.
Tuesday - I had that lonely tomato wilting in the fridge and peppers to use up, so I made tacos again with the last of my bulk-purchased taco seasoning (which you can also make a ton of homemade, by the way, for much cheaper than you can buy taco kits), half of my remaining ground beef, the 5 remaining tortillas, the tomato, a pepper, cheddar and sour cream. While I was making tacos, I grabbed my full bag of veggie peels from the freezer and one of my last remaining garlic cloves, sauteed them in a little olive oil for about 5 minutes, and then filled the pot with water, some salt, and a couple bay leaves, and simmered it over the next hour while we were eating. Set a colander over a large pot or bowl, pour the liquid through, and voila! Instant vegetable stock for the next day.
Wednesday - I used my homemade vegetable stock, the remaining ground beef, and my last bell pepper from week 3 to make a variant on my hearty Cheeseburger Soup. 1/3 cup of dried green lentils and about a half a cup of frozen peas helped me extend the ground beef since I didn't use a full pound, and a little cheddar and my remaining cayenne pepper substituted for the spicy jalapeno Monterrey Jack. Since I didn't have my food processor, the soup was chunky in style, but it was still really good.
Thursday - Hubs and I went shopping, and we were so tired by the time we got home that we broke down and got a Hot-N-Ready from Little Caesars. Apparently hubs was right when he said our new diet was verging on "disgustingly healthy for us," because the pizza was so rich that it upset our stomachs.
Friday - I let kidlet have some input on what he wanted to eat for supper. We ended up with quick-broiled pork chops, rice, and boiled frozen corn. I have concluded that you can never trust a kid to pick out anything but frozen corn for vegetables.
Saturday - it was a nice enough day I sent hubs out to grill the hot dogs we had bought. I threw together a quick salad with a little romaine, a handful of spinach, a couple leftover pieces of broccoli, half a tomato, and a chopped pepper. Chips and fresh fruit rounded out the picnic.
Sunday - we had half the package of hotdogs left over, so we packed two for kidlet (food allergies) and he chowed down on those as we made the rounds visiting friends and family up north. We had lunch at the mother-in-laws and mostly grazed at home for dinner.
Monday - Kidlet decided to make himself a sandwich for supper, so Hubs and I threw together some homemade mac & cheese with the last of our cheddar and a salad, because easy and fast. I have decided that oil makes excellent roux--though I've heard it doesn't hold up as well as butter if you have leftovers. But really, leftovers are pretty rare. Anyway, roux will be a topic I cover in the future.
Tuesday - Hurray, last day! Kidlet's first game of soccer was tonight, so I decided to cook up the chicken breasts I bought before they spoiled, since I forgot to throw them in the freezer. You're probably like "OMG you bought boneless skinless chicken breasts?" Yes. I did--they were the only meat on sale this week. Hear me out, you can actually buy boneless skinless chicken breasts at "whole chicken" reasonable prices from time to time. Don't forget, you've got about 30-40% inedible waste in a whole chicken... so the 1kg of chicken worked out to be about 53 cents a serving (no waste). Given that most meat has been ranging between 45-50 cents a serving, it's actually in the right ballpark. ANYWAY - I used the can of chicken soup, some wine, chopped potatoes and carrots and the last of our sour cream to make crockpot chicken breasts.
I still believe I'm mostly at a maintenance standpoint, with maybe getting a few bucks ahead every week (assuming one can maintain this effort). I've been replenishing things that were out and almost gone (there was a wicked sale on vegetable oil this week), but there are more things that will require replenishment over the next week - cheese, spices, shelf-stable snacks, and I've all but wiped out my meat. Because I went shopping a few days later than normal, I'm better than usual right now in the fresh food department for the early part of next week, meaning I don't have to go grocery shopping right away tonight or tomorrow. There's room - now - to take some of the extra budget to grow and take advantage of sales and situations as they come up.
I guess I've proven that one can eat relatively healthy and well on low budget (fat content's a little high when you have to opt for the fattier meats and cheeses, but hey). Food may not be fancy; there's a lot of sandwiches and salads. Except that doesn't really feel like that should be the takeaway here.
I would be lying if I didn't say that there wasn't a sense of profound relief that this challenge is over... though possibly not in the way that you think. I've had people asking me what my first meal will be once I'm "free." But the thing is, is that NOW we are not eating too far off from the way we were before, and I'm pretty happy with our diet.
Why, then, am I feeling relief? Well, what most people don't know is how damned constant the food challenge made cooking and shopping. This is crazy to admit, but I actually don't usually cook every day - I like to spend a couple days a week cooking and storing meals for eating throughout the week (and sometimes I just get lazy, and we order pizza). I definitely don't usually shop two stores every week. But the limited budget meant I had to opt for smaller quantities of things, and the quantity of fresh meant I had to go more often. Limited money and time meant I couldn't cook so many things at once - it was about all I could do to prep stuff ahead to make the next day a little easier.
The fact that we ate as well as we did, that we had as much extra money as we did, I have to credit almost entirely to scratch cooking and the eating of whole foods. But there was a hefty price to pay in time and effort. And it's crystal clear to me that not everyone might have the time, inclination, or cooking knowledge to do so, especially if they're working multiple jobs. I don't know what the answer is, but I think if we want society to be healthier, we need to find a way to enable them to have the time and ability to choose and make more healthy, satisfying meals.
So the answer to what my first meal will be is "something I don't have to cook." Don't get me wrong, a steak or the cheesy risotto and a nice glass of wine would be nice. But honestly, I would be happy with a grilled cheese if it met the "I don't have to cook" criteria.
My friends, I thank you for joining me on this wild ride all this past month. I hope you found it as informative as I certainly did--for me, taking this challenge has been nothing short of life-altering. I will never look at grocery shopping the same way again, at the very least.
I will have more posts and recipes related to this challenge trickling out this month after this follow up (these get too wordy as it is). But I appreciate your readership and support during May.
If you have been moved by this series and you are of means, please consider donating nutritious food options (whole-meal baby food, canned fruits and vegetables, and canned meats) to your local food banks to help offset food insecurity for needy families. Let's make sure that all children have what they need to grow and thrive.
Small luxuries--like chocolate, coffee, and tea--would also do much to improve quality of life for those in need.
Thanks for reading.
Follow Anne's Budget Eating Challenge from the start: