The $90 a week Food Budget Challenge!

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By Emma Chow

Last week I did a live Q & A on the Mamabake Facebook page and there was a lot of interest in how my family and I survive on no more than $90 a week for food shopping. I’ll be honest with you, sometimes it is $70, sometimes $80 and the only time it ever gets over $90 is if we happen to be hosting anyone for lunch or dinner that week. Otherwise it operates on the principal of no more than $90.

My four year old goes to kinder three days a week and requires a lunch and snack. My partner works five days a week in the city and he brings lunch from home every day, as well as a couple of snacks. Baby is now nearly eight months old and has been having solids since he was four months. He has three little bowls of home cooked and blended fruit and vegetables  each day and is enjoying having a go at finger food like bread and whole vegetable pieces that he can’t actually get his (very new) two little teeth through. I work and study from home and look after the children and house. On the weekends we often have a cooked breakfast both days (porridge, pancakes or waffles) and we might eat lunch out on one weekend day; there is rarely more eating out than that, unless there are social engagements we have to attend.

We do experience that awkwardness when invited out to brunch with friends or to go out for dinner; we cannot afford to do this often and so turn down a lot of invitations or make alternative arrangements like picnics or have people over. This sounds strict, and I’ll admit it feels that way on weeks where I’m overworked. On the flip side, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t generous. When we have people in our home, they eat well and there’s always more than enough. Someone always goes home with a little something.

I make as many foods as I can from scratch, which means a lot of extra effort from me. I do have an advantage being professionally trained and having worked in a commercial kitchen for several years. I can perform many kitchen tasks at the same and with limited time, and cook robotically on no sleep. However I believe that most mothers who do a lot of cooking at home reach get to this point pretty quickly and would give most professionals a run for their money. I’ve learnt more about cooking from other mothers than other chefs.

My rules for surviving on $90 a week

Make a list, check it twice: The night before I go to market, I make a list of the meals I plan to make that week. It includes dinners and weekend lunches. At first you might balk at having to stick to what you’ve planned to do; what if you don’t feel like what you’ve decided anymore? Much of what I buy is not so specific that I can’t change the meal if I feel the need; I don’t buy any outlandish cuts of meat or veggies that I can’t turn into a different dish. Always check the fridge, freezer and pantry to make sure you’re not about to double up on something you already have.

Shop once a week at a fresh food market: It is a 35km drive from home to the Dandenong Fresh Food Market. I always bring cash and I give myself a general limit for each section: no more than $25 for meat, fish and smallgoods. $30 for fruit and vegetables. It never costs more than $4 for a dozen free range eggs. No more than $10 at the nut shop (where I buy grains and pulses). $6 for cheese. It’s all interchangeable; if you don’t need something that week or you spend less in one area, then you have more to spend on another area. I try to get everything I need in one hit: one trip to the market, one trip to the supermarket. I don’t want to go out shopping again. This way I’m less tempted by impulse buys and I budget effectively.

Every week is different: You won’t need to buy the same things every week. You’ll have leftovers from previous weeks, pantry staples in bulk, and meals in the freezer than should be used before they get freezer burn; you’re not always going to need to buy everything from the ground up again.

Keeping it interesting: the Mamabake recipe database, internet food blogs, Pinterest, magazines, cook books, friends; these are endless sources of different ideas for how to cook and eat well. Even if you buy similar ingredients every week, you can make a huge range of things from them and your diet never need be boring.

Big pieces of cheaper cuts of meat: My favourite things to buy are big pieces of beef bolar blade (we usually get $5.99 per kilo), pork shoulder (much cheaper than belly or leg at $5.99 per kilo) and whole chickens (about $10 each). Sometimes we get a piece of salmon or some blue grenadier. The salmon is pricey but also very rich so a large fillet should do a couple of meals, usually Japanese style on rice. Blue grenadier is a soft white fish and I pan fry it on market shop night. The beef and pork needs to be used for at least 3 meals. A whole chicken should be able to do 3 as well. Please refer to the Mamabake articles on how to make one piece of meat last for several meals. I also sometimes get chicken thighs (cheaper and far more tasty that breasts) or chicken wings (there is always a cheap deal for large amounts). I always get 6-10 slices of speck or bacon. The same store sells ham hocks for about $6 and sometimes I’ll get one of those to make a couple of soups. So for example for one week I’ll get the bacon, bolar blade, fish, 4 chicken thighs; this should amount to less than $30. Another week the bacon, pork shoulder, blue grenadier and some chicken wings.

Fresh fruit and vegetables: I get one large basket-ful (overflowing basket most of the time) of fruit and vegetables. I always have a specific list of how much I’ll need for each meal, but depending on price will buy a couple pieces extra of something to make sure I cover myself. I don’t want to have to duck to the supermarket where the prices are twice as high or higher. It’s usually half fruit, half veggies, though in the summer I go a little crazy and buy every delicious fruit available for the season.  We have a policy at home that everyone can eat as much fruit as they want. My four year old can reach the fruit bowl and helps himself when he’s hungry. We have about 3-4 serves per person each day. At the moment I’m buying a lot of apples, mandarins and bananas.

Eat vegetarian meals or bulk up with pulses and beans: I can easily pare down the meat bill if I add several vegetarian meals to the week: simple basil pesto pasta, pumpkin soup with home-made bread, baked potatoes with a range of vegetable toppings and cheese, egg based dishes. It’s easy to cut down the winter food bill by having 2 different vegetable based soups in the week and make fresh bread to go with it; the simplicity of the soup is boosted by the always appealing smell of fresh baked bread. You can extend and bulk up meals with pulses and beans which are both healthful and filling; these are great bases for meals themselves but can also extend a piece of meat further. Think like the Italians do; meat is often used for flavouring a dish but only on special occasions is a large cut of meat the centre of a meal.

Grains in bulk: the market has several nut shops which also sell flours, grains, pulses, beans and dried fruit. Ethnic food stores, bulk stores and health food shops often sell things in this way also. This is a great way to buy bulk amounts of things like pulses which are handy to have and keep easily in the pantry. However this is also a good way to be very specific about your money, by buying exactly as much as you need and can afford. Because you’re not constrained by how much you need to pay for a pack (like at the supermarket) your last few dollars could buy you a kilo of polenta, lentils and beans.

Buy from the cheapest source: Asian noodles, sauces and seasonings are always cheaper at an Asian grocery store. I never buy noodles – fresh or dry – from the supermarket; the prices they charge are crazy. Often ethnically specific ingredients will be cheaper from their own stores. I try to stop myself from buying an expensive ethnic ingredient because it happens to be convenient at the supermarket; it might be obsessive but within the week my necessary travels should get me close to one of these ethnic stores and I’ll postpone the meal that requires the specific ingredients until after this trip happens. Plus these places often have really exciting and fun ingredients to discover that are also dirt cheap.

Supermarket specials: apart from toilet paper, tissues and toiletries, the things I buy from supermarkets are mostly baking ingredients, chocolate and dairy products. And I only ever buy things on a reasonable special. If I can’t find what I need for a good price, then I weigh up whether I need it or not and come up with something else. You can occasionally get kilo tubs of yogurt for $10 for 3 tubs. I’ll pay this and maybe not be able to buy something else (probably chocolate), but in the long run it’s worth it and balances out. I admire anyone who makes yogurt; I want to add this to my list of home made things.

Home brands: I remember a time when we used to think of buying by brand; you didn’t buy the plain packaged low-price item because you didn’t want anyone looking in your basket to think you were poor. Who cares what anyone else thinks? I buy home brand flour, sugar, and oats. These will only cost a couple of dollars each and the saving is significant between brands! You could spend $1.80 for 900 grams of oats, or $5.00. I don’t find metal shavings in anything; it is all perfectly good quality and fine to use.

Staples from scratch: I make a huge batch of muesli once a month. In it are about 4kgs of rolled oats, 250g cranberries, 250g sultanas, a large handful of coconut chips, 250g almonds which I toast at home, 250g sunflower seeds and 250g pepitas. This costs about $20 and lasts for one month. My partner, my four year old and I eat it with yogurt, fruit and milk every day. If we need bread, I make bread. It costs mere dollars to make a large batch of quick rolls and home-made bread is always far more delicious than store bought. All cakes, cookies, slices and a lot of confectionary I make from scratch. It is always cheaper and this way I know exactly what goes into what we’re eating. I make shortcrust pastry in a large batch and freeze half for another week.

Get them used to home made things and not store bought: It’s true that once children get used to the taste of processed, store-bought snacks, it can be hard to drag them back. These things have more salt, more sugar and more who-knows-what chemicals in them to keep people coming back. Because I started the habit of making my son’s treats early, he has the taste for home-made and is frequently suspicious of anything that comes out of a packet. My son is the only child at kinder to eat his lunch with a fork. He is happy to eat cold leftovers for lunch, though not everything is suitable so I often knock things up like simple noodle salads for him instead.

Freeze some for later: if you don’t need the whole cut of meat, freeze it. If you’ve made so much of a dish that you’ve got more than enough for lunches the next day, freeze it. You can refer to many Mamabake articles for things that you can freeze, such as things to freeze in ice cube trays etc. Don’t ever throw out leftovers. Cookies, both the dough and baked cookies, freeze really well. I always have balls of dough waiting in the freezer for when I need them. Even if you have that weird thing where you hate eating leftovers (me when pregnant), you need to bite the bullet and come up with a way of ‘re-making’ the meal; add something, re-cook it in a different way, just as long as it appeals to you again.

Store things properly: You need plastic containers that seal properly and in all sorts of sizes, large glass jars, spice jars etc. If you don’t want to waste ingredients then you need to make sure you store each thing properly so that it is fit to use for as long as possible, be it leftovers or an ingredient.

Use every little thing: Try not to throw anything out, unless it really is mouldy or insect infected. Little odds and ends of vegetables, fruit that is too soft each fresh, bits of cheese, the end of a packet of pasta; all of these things and more are good to use. Vegetables can go into soups, fruit made into cakes and crumbles, cheese can be grated and combined in all sorts of things. If you don’t tend to use whole packs of pasta, have a jar of odds and ends that you can use in soup. If you throw out something still useable, you effectively throw out money.

Grow something! If you have even a little garden space or a balcony area, then get some pots and start sprouting some seeds! Herbs are expensive to buy but very easy and cheap to grow. You can get little glasshouses that can sit in the sunny spot on your kitchen bench, these are great for herbs.  The minimal amount of money spent on setting up a small kitchen garden is far outweighed by how much you can grow and eat from a small packet of seeds.

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