Week Two of the Hunger Games Challenge has us pretty firmly in stride. We stopped feeling so hungry all the time, our stomachs adjusted (mostly) to the change in diet, and the quality of food improved significantly after the second grocery trip. Kidlet has stopped giving us so much grief about the lacks of certain things and he appears to have filled his hollow leg. We had a bit of a breather on Sunday, too, as we were invited to a BBQ by friends and Mother-in-Law for Mother's Day.
Honestly, the best part about it was not having to cook. But the other nice thing about the upcoming Mother's Day was that a lot of meats went on sale. This was doubly good cause after being over by nearly $40 last week, this week's available cash was only $75.87.
Here's the breakdown of the grocery list:
Pantry items ($15.22)
Cinnamon (500g) - $1.49
White Wine - $7.75
Popcorn (1/2 cup) - $0.50
Saltines - $2.99
BBQ Sauce - $2.49
Grocery items ($64.78)
Bread (3 loaves) - $5.99
Spinach - $2.99
Eggs - $5.99
Bananas - $1.69
Onion - $1
Chicken (whole) - $6.57
English cucumber (3) -$1.99
Romaine (3 heads) - $2.45
Hamburger (2 lbs) - $5.76
1 Lemon - $0.60
Zucchini (2) - $1.02
Baby Eggplant - $2.66
Sour Cream - $1.44
Frozen Corn (2kg) - $4.79
Frozen Green Beans (1kg) - $2.49
Lunch meat (500g) - $7.00
Roma tomatoes (5) - $2.11
Mozzarella (450g) - $6.44
Other - bagel, Tim Hortons - $1.80 (more on this "act of treason" later)
Total: $80 (over by $4.13)
Since I had blown through the bananas and spinach, and also virtually all the bread and eggs, I trooped back to Costco with a friend to get more of all four items. We also split a package of romaine lettuce and a club pack of lunchmeat for the week. The other major grocery shopping excursion was to Food Basics, where ground beef and chicken were on sale; there was also a small wine shop inside that had white wine on clearance, which I couldn't resist since I love to cook with wine. Hubs happened to be near Sobeys one night and picked up the mozzarella. I split the couple pounds of ground beef I picked up into half pound packages and put them in the freezer for convenience.
Breakfasts remained the same, since none of us are big breakfast eaters: oatmeal for him, cereal and toast for kidlet, toast with Wowbutter more often than not for me. We had pancakes on Mother's Day, prepared by my husband, and kidlet also ate the leftovers of them throughout the week.
Lunches were a little more diverse this week: hubs finished off a couple days of egg salad (~$0.69 each); kidlet ate a couple days of Wowbutter & Jelly (~$0.65 each); and hubs and kidlet had turkey sandwiches (~$.80 each) made with two slices of lunchmeat (1/2 a serving of protein) lettuce, mayo, and mustard. Leftovers were taken a couple times (but mostly consumed by me). I sent them also with apples, bananas, carrots, cucumber, salad greens, and fruit cups.
Friday, we celebrated a change in diet with tacos (~$1.10 each) using a half a pound of ground beef, cheddar, tomato, lettuce, sour cream, and the tortillas I had made, plus most of the taco seasoning mix I had purchased and a sprinkle of flour to help it to stick to the meat. Saturday, we had sandwiches and tried a cold vegan barley salad made with corn and roasted tomato, zucchini, and eggplant (~$.45 /serving), but I think I'm the only one who enjoyed it (and frankly I thought it was better hot). Sunday was Mother's Day -we had the mother-in-law's favourite food for lunch, hamburgers, and found we were too full to eat dinner. Monday was a delicious crockpot-roasted lemon chicken (recipe coming soon) with vegetables, rice, and a green salad. Tuesday we had whole wheat pasta again, this time with spinach, garlic, and leftover chicken (~$0.95 / serving). I also made stock with the vegetable peels I've been saving the last two weeks and the chicken carcass Tuesday, in the slow cooker. I've never used the slow cooker for stock before, but it turned out well (and incidentally, I've got a recipe for making vegan vegetable stock using vegetable peels, too). Tuesday's stock became Wednesday's chicken soup, fleshed out with lentils and frozen vegetables, plus the remainder of my carrots and celery. Hubs and I also enjoyed it with a side of grilled cheese, and kidlet ate scrambled eggs and spinach for supper. Thursday is frozen tortillas and the leftover chicken again, making quesadillas (~$1.05 each) with a side salad.
For dessert, I also made a half a batch (1 dozen) Crazy Cake cupcakes on the weekend using white sugar and apple cider vinegar instead of white (which worked out fine). At about .12 cents each, they're delicious, vegan, allergy-friendly, and best of all, they refrigerate well. Kidlet has been eating them all week.
Similar to last week, we've polished off all the bananas, spinach, and bread. In fact, very little remains of the two weeks of groceries and pantry items, leaving me kind of in the red again I also burned through a lot of the leftovers that we had from week one: the rice is gone, the cheddar is gone, the Cheerios, remainder of the 8 lbs of apples, the carrots, and the celery. I've polished a little over half of my olive oil off, about half my lentils, and my flour is pretty depleted. 3/4 of the Wowbutter is gone, and kidlet has also made extensive inroads on the apple sauce packages... currently only 12 remain of 36.
I've got some flour, and plenty of oats. I've still got 3.5 boxes of pasta. I've got about a half a litre of oil, 2 zucchini, a cucumber, an onion, and 2 tomatoes. There's 3/4 the bottle of wine, all the popcorn, still about half a bag of frozen peas and 3/4 of each bag of frozen corn and green beans. I do have quite a bit of meat: 10 porkchops, 1/2 lb of pork stewing meat, about 3/4 of the package of lunchmeat, 1.5 lbs of ground beef, and a few ounces of leftover chicken that I'll put in the freezer to consume at some point next week. We also barely touched the eggs this week - we have about 27 eggs left.
I will buy little in the way of meat next week, focusing on replenishing my vegetables and the depleted pantry items like rice.
Hubs and I are having persistent minor digestive problems, mostly gas and heartburn; I think it may be that we are unused to lentils and barley in this quantity (things that we seldom ate before). We are having trouble with the food guide standards; often we are eating not because we are hungry but to try to meet requirements, and this isn't helping our gas and heartburn situation. Aside from this discomfort, morale-wise, things are looking up. The new groceries and the little luxuries like the crazy cake have gone a long way to cover the things we still lack.
Kidlet's binge-eating settled down at the beginning of this week, and he has professed a newfound love of Wowbutter (which he originally gave me huge pushback on). He's actually started avoiding eating many things - probably due to the fact that he has developed his first loose tooth. My son has asked me every day he had leftover pancakes to put syrup on next week's list. I will comply.
I've stopped obsessively tallying and measuring everything, as I feel that is unrealistic, but hubs and I find we are still hesitant to take seconds or cook much more than we need. We don't feel any longer like we will starve on this budget, but there is no feeling of "plenty" or like we can safely treat ourselves to food prepared outside the home. This plainly came to a head when hubs stopped at Tim Hortons to buy a bagel on his way to work on Saturday instead of eating oatmeal at home. He confessed later, and I realized that made me feel deprived and annoyed, especially since we were already over budget yet again. There are many foods that I would like to have but can't afford or justify. There are days I would like to not have to look in the fridge and ask "what can I make with what I have left?"
No major ones, at this time, although I wish I had overspent more to take advantage of the pre-Mother's Day sales. But with so much stuff in my freezer already, it wouldn't have been possible or practical. Hopefully the sales continue to be good to us.
I will be heading out of town briefly to visit my 92-year-old grandmother this weekend. Due to the circumstances, after consulting with Jeni, we've decided that the most practical solution is to briefly suspend the challenge and continue it into June for three days instead. (Ed. Note: I'm a softie: what can I say?) Friday, we'll make do with food we already have, and we'll go shopping on Tuesday instead of replenishing the groceries Thursday night.
For those of you who say "where's the challenge in eating on $5.50?" the challenge is mostly emotional. The challenge is trying to make sure we eat balanced diets, trying to ensure that we have enough when we know that there's a specific and finite amount of money money, trying to find the motivation to cook day after day, and trying to get ahead when there's so little extra money to work with and such limited resources (e.g. no garden or chest freezer). There's a significant amount of strategizing and planning effort that doesn't happen when you know, deep down, it's no big deal if you see a good sale on and spend an extra $50 this week, or if you have a stocked pantry to help float you.
I'm grateful to all of you who have been following this food challenge, providing us with your meal ideas and stories about your lives on such restricted budgets.
Follow Anne's Budget Eating Challenge from the start:
We're just at the end of week one, and it's been a bit of a rough week for us, in all honesty. Morale was a bit low throughout the week as we tried to make do with things that weren't our usual fare and the discomfort that came with the sudden change to our diet, and it was compounded by the fact that my son appears to have just started stocking up for a growth spurt.
Before we started, I prepped for this challenge by getting to know the prices of most things I never paid too close attention to. I made a list of a lot of the stuff that we liked to buy, and then found an average price for them so that I would have some idea of about what price was good and fair without having to spend an hour calculating prices in the grocery store every trip. I also knew I was unlikely to be able to keep to budget this week, since my pantry would be completely empty except for salt and pepper. And I didn't. I was over by nearly $40, restocking the basics like oil, margarine, spices, flour, sugar, and vinegar.
I got really lucky; just days before the project kicked off, good sales began to kick in. Prices on fresh fruits and vegetables, which had me seriously worried at the start, began to decline. That gave me a lot of wiggle room that I might not have had if I had started this in April; in April, I would have been stuck with mostly canned and frozen fruits and vegetables.
Here's the breakdown of the grocery bill:
Pantry Items ($58.62)
Flour (2.5kg) - $5.69
White Sugar (5lbs) - $1.67
Brown Sugar (2kg) - $2.59
Olive Oil (1L) - $3.88
Cocoa Powder (2 cups) - $2.56
Baking Soda (1 small box) -$0.50
Baking Powder (approx. 4 tbsp) - $.50
Vegan Margarine - $2.47
Cinnamon (1/4 cup) - $0.30
Other Bulk Seasonings in small quantity - $1.00
Oats (2kg) - $3.20
Barley (900g) - $1.29
Rice (1kg) - $2.22
Cheerios (525g) - $3.97
Mayo (890ml) - $1.99
Mustard - $0.88
Apple Cider Vinegar - $1.69
Vanilla Extract - $4.99
Lentils (900ml) - $1.79
Soy Sauce - $1.99
Wowbutter - $5.99
Pasta Whole Wheat (4 boxes) - $4.97
Raisins - $2.49
Grocery Items ($96.01)
Bread (3 loaves) - $5.99
1 Lemon - $0.60
Strawberries (2lbs) - $3.89
Spinach (1lb) - $2.99
Eggs (30) - $5.99
Mixed Fruit Applesauce (36) - $8.99
Brick Cheddar (legacy) (800g) - $6.44
Pork Loin (3.34 lbs) - $21.03
Carrots (5lbs) - $3.47
Bananas (9) - $1.68
Celery (2 hearts) - $2.88
Peas (500g) - $2.49
Apples (8lbs/32) - $2.88
Zucchini (2) - $0.77
Garlic (1) - $0.84
Green Onions (bunch) - $0.69
Red Onion - $1
Pears (3; legacy) - $1.65
Potatoes (2.5lbs; legacy) - $0.74
Soy Milk (12x980ml) - $14.98
Strained Tomatoes (2x28oz) - $2.50
Motts Cocktail (4x945ml) - $3.52
Total: $154.63 (over by $39.13)
Mostly, I shopped at Costco and Food Basics. I also "bought" a few of my remaining perishables (and items I already had in excessive quantity, like olive oil) from before the challenge started at going prices so they wouldn't be wasted.
I butchered the pork loin I bought Thursday evening, after the shopping trip (and you can read about how to do it on FoodRetro) so I could make the slow-cooker pork stew the next day. It's a bit messy, but pretty easy and not that time consuming.
I spent a couple hours on the weekend and prepped ahead in the pantry for the month by making a single jar of Strawberry Jam (recipe coming) ($1.51) and about 12-14 half-cup servings of instant oatmeal ($2.37) for my husband, on Saturday. On Sunday, as I made lunch, I also made a dozen chocolate zucchini muffins ($2.02/doz.) and a dozen unleavened 10" flour tortillas ($1.94/doz). I should note I could have made the tortillas for about half that if I had spent an extra couple bucks for the 10kg sack of flour (something I regret).
Breakfasts were fairly simple: usually toast with or without Wowbutter for me, oatmeal for my husband, and cereal for my son. On Sunday, to adhere to tradition, I whipped up a double-batch of 1/4 cup-size pancakes (about 11 1/4 cup batter pancakes from scratch for $1.67), served with margarine and jam, and he ate them through the week as well.
Lunch options were poor this week, consisting of mostly leftovers, egg salad sandwiches ($0.69/ea), Wowbutter & strawberry jam sandwiches ($0.65/ea), grilled cheese ($0.35/ea), plus fruits and vegetables such as we had them. There was also a vegan lentil & barley stew (recipe NOT coming) which was neither very good nor very satisfying.
For dinner, we had slow-cooker pork and lentil stew (recipe coming) ($3.68/6 servings) which was very good; broiled pork chops served with rice, spinach and strawberries; fried rice with eggs and pork ($2.37/6 servings); and a slow-cooked pork roast on top of potatoes and a spinach salad (about $7 for the roast, but there was tons of leftovers). Tonight, after hitting the grocery store, kidlet had scrambled eggs and spinach; I dressed up a version of spaghetti and olive oil with some frozen peas and a newly-bought cubed, pan-roasted tomato.
We're sick of pork. So sick of it. I can't even.
As I write this at end of day, Thursday, I have about a third a loaf of bread left out of three. The spinach is gone. So are the potatoes, strawberries, and pears. I used up almost all my cinnamon making the oatmeal. The bananas were gone by Tuesday, and there's only 6 eggs left out of thirty. I've used up a quarter of my oil, one of my two zucchini, about a third of my Wowbutter, one of my Motts Cocktails, half of my carrots, and about half of my rice. So, while many things are out and running low, I've still got some food to see us through the next week, which is good, because I'm short $39.13 for next week. I have barely used some of the items, like the barley and pasta.
When I try to estimate where we stand for family budget every day, we're mostly running between $8 and $9.75. While this seems like we're doing super well, I have to keep in mind the reality that it took us virtually the entire week of eating in this price range to make up for the budget deficit I created. But given that I still have many things left over and most pantry goods, I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll be able to introduce some of the things my family misses most. I intend to bake crazy cake for my son this weekend, if nothing else. Even with the more expensive flour, I can produce a dozen cupcakes for $1.41, or about $.12 each.
Aside from being sick to death of pork, as I mentioned previously, morale has been kind of low. I've been trying to not obsessively calculate everything until I have a better idea of how much we eat and how cheaply we can do it. Husband and I are coping with our options, even if they are unexciting and the variety is poor. My son, however, is not coping as well with the changes. For the first three days, he was vocal and unhappy about the lack of certain items in our diet that we were precluded from buying because of price, like Oreos, his usual lunchmeat, and maple syrup for his pancakes. In fact, every meal for three days, he was unhappy about something that he couldn't have that he was used to eating, we fought a lot, and this brought a lot of stress to hubs and I.
I'm not proud about this, but on Sunday, after more than two full days of complaints and attitude from my son about his meal options, I cried. We explained that there was just "no more money right now" to him. Unsurprisingly, he didn't get it; six year-olds are not well-known for having a great financial acumen at the best of times. As I'm sure I'm not the first mom who has been put between this rock and hard place, I feel for the parents who have had to explain the facts of low-budget living to their child.
We've been adhering fairly well to the Canada Food Guide (with the exception of dairy, which sometimes we forget because dairy is not a part of our normal diet). We have to be good about adhering, though, because with the minimums I listed in the rules, sometimes I'm still barely skating by with about 1200 calories (by the estimate of Myfitnesspal). Fruits and vegetables are not super-high, calorically, and I believe this is the trap that a lot of low-income people fall into: healthy, or plenty?
Kidlet is fine, hubs says he's fine, but I find I'm a little hungry some days, and I have to graze more frequently. We still have leeway in the daily budget - even though kidlet is eating like a horse - so I don't feel guilty about having another piece of toast or an extra piece of fruit. Still, knowing that we're limited is enough to keep me mindful of making it through the month.
It's oppressive, worrying about food all the time, and I've lost a pound.
I regret my decision to buy a whole pork loin without having someone to split the cost and butchering of it. It was a good price, but it meant that our only protein options for the week were lentils, Wowbutter, eggs and pork, and we are all sick to death of pork and lentils right now. The good (and bad) news is that I still have quite a bit of pork to spread for the rest of the month.
There were a lot of people who commented how easy this challenge would be just by bulk buying. Bulk-buying is a double-edged sword. I actually discovered that in many cases, Costco was actually far more expensive than the grocery store, even before items went on sale. But there are still a few really good purchases to be made there routinely, especially my son's soy milk, bread, and eggs. The other problem with buying something in bulk is, even if it's a really good price, it takes a big chunk out of the budget, and that can hamper one's ability to get variety. I usually go to Costco with a friend, and we often split packages. I would recommend that anybody on a limited budget split bulk items with another purchaser, at least while trying to build up a pantry, unless the items are a reasonably priced staple like eggs or bread.
As far as other bulk options go, while this is certainly feasible for many, we were restricted heavily because of my son's allergies (he's allergic to dairy, nuts, and peanuts). Most items in bulk bins have some risk of cross-contamination with one or more of these items.
So, cheers! We've survived week one. I'm hoping this week was the hardest part, and it gets easier from here.
Read about Anne's Hunger Games Adventure from the beginning.
Follow Anne's Budget Eating Challenge from the start:
If you came here thinking we were going to talk about Katniss, I'm sorry; we're not fighting a war by lotto.
This is a different type of adventure, and it evolved from Gwyneth Paltrow during the SNAP challenge and how she brought attention to all the right things, and whoosh, it went over people's heads.
Probably because they were busy arguing over what she was using the limes for (and by the way, my friend and I figure it's for flavouring her water).
I was intrigued by the love-hate response to her taking the SNAP challenge for a week and the speculation and condemnation that erupted from her choices. Mostly, people were peeved because she made healthy choices, and people considered that elitist or something, that she didn't choose peanut butter and Kraft Dinner. Loving to hate Gwynnie aside, I thought she actually made an excellent point of demonstrating the big problem with poverty-income. Fresh, healthy food and low income do not work well together.
Still, I thought it could be done. The nutrient-void high calorie food-bank offerings and preferred low-income diets have always been vexing to me. Convenience food isn't cheap, after all. SURELY there was lots of wiggle room in there if you were willing to put a little effort into it. So I thought (arrogantly): I could do this. I can eat healthy and I know a crap load about scratch cooking. NO PROBLEMO. And I told our YMC Editor Jeni all about this awesome thing I was going to do, doing the SNAP challenge for a freakin' month... while being compliant with the food guide.
Jeni said: challenge accepted.
(Ed. Note: I'll cop to giggling a bit because seriously? Grocery shopping is expensive and time-consuming enough when you're not preoccupied with sticking to a firm budget.)
What I didn't have a clear vision of when I put myself out for this challenge is exactly what the food guide looks like in the US and Canada when you break it down to dollars and cents and the size of food servings. MY idea of healthy, and the government's idea of healthy, are completely at odds. I could feed a dozen people on $5... if I didn't try to meet certain nutritional restrictions. After a few days of price checking and spread-sheet plotting, I realized that under their rules, my initial meal plans were doomed to failure on paper before I even began.
I needed more fruits and vegetables for less money. This intrigued me even more. And also, I wasn't willing to back down from the challenge without a fight. Could it be done? Can a family live on such a very limited budget, and be compliant with the food guide? How does one do this?
And then Jeni and I worked out some rules.
1) The goal is to eat as healthy and as tasty as we can on a budget of $5.50 per person, per day. This is the $4.15 of the SNAP challenge with about 33% added on for the increased cost of food in Canada. The money is to only be used for food, and no other household items. I will generally try to stick to a weekly grocery budget ($115.50), but I may have to borrow a few bucks against the next week here and there, to take advantage of sales and especially in the beginning to cover the pantry outlay.
2) I can't spend an unrealistic amount of time buying and preparing food. It's a good bet that many people on an ultra-low income aren't WAHMs or SAHMs, and even if they are, nobody's got as much time to devote to this project as a curious work-at-home food blogger. Therefore, "weekday" recipes will be all under an hour (or be built for slow-cookers), and shopping excursions (outside of my initial pricing research) will be minimal, brief, and not all over the city every week.
3) My challenge "pantry" consists of only salt and pepper at the start of the challenge, and no unusual equipment in my cupboards. Everything food-related must be purchased (I confided to Jeni if I was this hard up in reality, I'd be sneaking this stuff out of fast food joints, anyway). And I can't whip out any immersion blenders or blow torches to prepare anything (which I don't have anyhow).
4) I will TRY to adhere to the Canada food guide. Mostly. So to break it down, about (2) servings dairy, (2) servings protein, (5) 1-cup or equivalent servings fruit and vegetables, and (4-6) servings of grains per day. Seven to eight 1-cup servings of fruits and vegetables per day (as recommended by CFG) for hubs is probably just not going to happen. In fact, to be brutally honest, this will still give us more fruit and vegetables than hubs and I usually consume. Probably more than a lot of us do.
5) The kid always gets what he needs and will not go hungry. Because trying to adhere to the food guide means that there's very little spare "fat" in the budget, hubs and I can stand to miss part of our daily allotments, if necessary.
6) I will not force my family to eat to meet the food guide if they aren't hungry, I will not make them eat anything they don't want to just to make this challenge work, and I will make sure they have foods that they enjoy. I must somehow find enough room in the budget for treats and "luxury" items. Being poor absolutely doesn't mean you don't deserve to ever treat yourself to a candy bar or your favourite meal. So we are not going to become vegans living exclusively on diets of beans, rice and salads just for the sake of the challenge. Unless they want to. And they don't.
7) If worst comes to worst, I will borrow from the "food bank" (otherwise known as my old pantry). Hamilton in particular has an (unfortunately) thriving food bank program that helps help keep everyone fed by stretching their groceries with non-perishables. But this program isn't available everywhere, and where it does, it may not be as generous as it is in Hamilton. As I would never take food from someone who really needs it, my existing non-perishables will serve as a destination of last resort for the hungry Radcliffe family, just as if it were one of these resources, and I will document what was needed to continue to eat.
8) I will acknowledge the astonishing limitations and unusual scenarios that are unique to this project and my household. The initial research took a bunch of time, and documenting throughout the month will take time, and I've got restrictions on best times to photograph. I'm also deliberately simulating limited to no help, adding on the fact that trying to adhere to the food guide makes this extremely challenging, and that food allergies in my household preclude us from some of the easier and cheaper food options such as peanut butter, regular milk, and many bulk bin foods.
As this challenge will last for the month of May, and there will be posts on many subjects, I am ever welcoming of helpful comments and suggestions from readers for stretching the budget!
Who knows, perhaps someone fighting hunger in their household will find our efforts useful.
Follow Anne's Budget Eating Challenge from the start: