Food Basket Challenge Kick-Off

Rom and I are doing a Food Basket Challenge for the month of March. We will limit our grocery budget to $340 for 4 weeks which is $42.50 per person per week. That is for food only. Our normal budget is $440 which is $55 per person per week. We’ll donate the $100 difference to the Food Bank.

For new readers, we are a family of 2 adults, we cook vegetarian, we both work full-time outside the home, we bring lunches to work, we cook dinners from scratch, and we make extra so we can eat leftovers. Our normal grocery budget is probably lower than average. We have a history of going out to eat a lot, but from January 1 to March 31 we are not doing it – only ONE exception for Valentine’s Day.

The reason I want to do this is to gain more empathy for those who can’t afford nutritious food or have limited access. I am surrounded by abundance and can buy whatever I like, so I want to take a step back from that, if only for a month.

To further experience what it’s like to have limited access to food, we will only go grocery shopping twice by car. That means making two 2-week meal plans and buying everything we need for them in just two excursions. To amp it up a little, if we feel we need anything urgently between trips (within budget), we will walk to a store and carry back what we buy. There are numerous stores nearby which are 2.0, 2.6 and 3.3 km away. We’ll see what we think is worth walking 4.0, 5.2 or 6.6 km round trips for!

One dilemma is what to do about all the food remaining in the house as of March 1 – our “starting inventory”. Most people living on very low incomes wouldn’t have much (or anything) left over from the previous month. I made a list of all the unopened items we have, and I recorded the price of them at our usual supermarket. If we eat any of those things, we’ll charge them to the grocery budget as if we paid for them this month. I won’t count the opened supplies of white rice, macaroni, lentils and barley. I won’t count tea and coffee, but I will note at month-end what it will cost to replenish them. I’m not going to buy unneeded cleaning supplies just to include them in the budget, but I’ll report later what these would have added to the grocery budget.

We make a meal plan and grocery list every weekend. Our last grocery shop was on Saturday February 23. Most of the time we heat up a frozen store-bought pizza on Friday nights and have the rest for Saturday lunch. This week there were none on sale, so we had grilled cheese sandwiches on Friday night. Since we had no pizza left over for Saturday lunch, and we didn’t have much “easy” food left in the house, we had tins of baked beans! A rather appropriate start to the month.

Our meal plan for Mar 1 to 15 is:

  • Fri Mar 1 – grilled cheese sandwiches and green beans
  • Sat Mar 2 – fajitas (made with vegetables, veggies sausages, fajita mix and tortillas)
  • Sun Mar 3 – lunch – scrambled eggs, steamed vegetables, toast and jam (we have this every Sunday)
  • Sun Mar 3 – dinner at my parents’ house
  • Mon Mar 4 – fajitas
  • Tues Mar 5 – Pancake Day! – with blueberry sauce
  • Wed Mar 6 and Thurs Mar 7 – Pasta with spinach and white beans
  • Fri Mar 8 – pizza!
  • Sat Mar 9 – lunch – pizza
  • Sat Mar 9 – dinner – eggplant lasagna (with guests)
  • Sun Mar 10 – lunch – scrambled eggs etc.
  • Sun Mar 10 – dinner at my parents’ place
  • Mon Mar 11, Tues Mar 12, Wed Mar 13 – Barley Succotash (barley, lima beans, peppers, corn)
  • Thurs Mar 14, Fri Mar 15 – Potato and Broccoli Frittata

Funnily enough, pizzas were still not on sale this weekend so we bought 2 plain pizza crusts and will build our own. I will have to ration the vegetables and cheese to make that happen.

For breakfasts, I am a creature of habit. I have cereal or oatmeal or toast with peanut butter and banana. I will be giving up bagels for the month since they are not cost effective – a half dozen bagels costs more than a loaf of bread.

Rom eats excessive amounts of cereal for both breakfast and snacks. If I were not around, he would eat all his meals out of tins.

We decided to buy one kind of cereal that was as cheap, filling and nutritious as possible (in addition to the oatmeal we have at home), so we bought Alpen on sale. Rom usually gets the no-sugar kind but it was sold out, so we got the sweetened one. I don’t particularly like muesli but it will do.

I made a plan for lunches. Since we just went shopping, I will have salads made with fresh vegetables all week. I will add nuts and cheese which I’ll include in my costs. Next week we’ll be low on fresh fruit and veg, so I will bring chick peas with brown rice (which I really like). I could also have baked potatoes with broccoli. I have yogurt with fruit every day, and lots more fruit for snacks. We have frozen berries and a tin of fruit cocktail if we run out of fresh fruit.

Here is a look at some of this week’s prices (gulp!)

I made one food buying mistake already. We have this thing locally – when a snow storm is coming, you make sure you have “storm chips.” Literally, chips to snack on when you are stuck in the house! Store-brand tortilla chips were $1.99 but they were sold out: maybe because we are having two snow storms this weekend! So, I chose the next price up which was $2.75. When I got home, I found our chips had cost $3.75. Maybe they were misplaced on the shelf. You can bet I will be enjoying those blue corn tortilla chips! Later I may wish I had that $3.75 for milk or apples.

Speaking of which, I couldn’t buy apples in my March budget! I usually buy 10 lbs for $7.49 at a produce market ($0.75/lb) But we are not driving around to multiple stores this month, and our local supermarket only had 3 lbs of apples for $5.29 ($1.76/lb) so that was not happening. Oranges were also expensive (3 lbs for $6.99 which is $2.33/lb) so I got clementines instead (4 lbs for $4.99 which is $1.25/lb). Ordinarily I would have stopped at several different stores when I was out doing errands.

Here is what we did buy. We will be walking to the store for next week’s eggplant and broccoli! So far we have spent $137.26 which is 40% of the month’s budget.

So those are a few challenges we have faced so far. We didn’t lose power in yesterday’s snow storm and I hope we won’t in tomorrow’s snow storm either!

Please tell me: what are your favourite low-cost meals?

The Food Basket Challenge is named for a comparison tool used by organizations and governments in Canada to establish the baseline cost of a nutritious diet. For more details, check out the previous post.

20 comments

  1. I look forward to hearing about this at the crunchy end of the month when tough decisions are made!

    So are storm chips a ‘you’ tradition, or has advertising or similar made them widely traditional? Interestingly, I don’t eat crisps/chips regularly. Every so often I’ll have a craving for the crunchy and salty snack and I will listen to my body (I also have cravings for jerky from time to time). This past week, I tried two different things – one was a not very flavoured prawn straw from South Korea and the other was… I can’t even recall, it was that memorable! I have selected them on size and price, so as to limit how many calories I’m adding, and money spent. Otherwise, I only routinely eat chips when we are on a family holiday, during ‘drinks o’clock’.

    • Hi Sara, We don’t buy chips often. Sometimes like to eat tortilla chips when we have chili. The storm chips were a social media trending thing a couple of years ago, so not my invention. When I want salty snacks I usually make popcorn, or sometimes buy pretzels.

  2. My family lived below the national poverty level when I was in junior high and high school; as a result, there are a lot of ‘cheap foods’ that now make me cringe! One budget-friendly option that works for me though is to saute and season vegetables then pair them with a starch: put them over Italian-style pasta (with or without sauce), stir them into ramen, fry them with rice, put them inside a pita or tortilla, or slice them in with pan-fried potatoes. It’s filling, and while there may not be leftovers, there will be plenty to share between yourselves.

    I’m also a fan of salads, soups, and casseroles that utilize leftovers. That way the same/previous food is getting eaten but you get to eat the same food differently. 🙂

    I’m really curious to see how this challenge goes for you — it’s a great idea!

    • When I first moved out on my own, I used to have rice mixed with frozen vegetables and a sausage, with some curry powder thrown in! Or, frozen veg inside a pita with some salad dressing. Sauted would have been better! One “cheap food” that makes me cringe is canned tomato soup – never could eat it.

  3. Fiona

    I think that’s a really challenging Challenge! Both in the dollar limit…But also the requirement to walk for top-ups. I love your motivation: to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’. It can be so hard to really comprehend the challenges others face if it’s all theoretical (a big part of the problem when trying to relate to different experiences of race.) Vegetarianism adds another layer to costs as well. Good luck!

  4. I couldn’t (probably more accurately wouldn’t) do this. But love reading about others doing this.

    I think I’d want storm cake, and storm biscuits and storm chocolate. All with a cup of tea.

    • When a serious storm is due, I make a pot of coffee in advance and put it in a Thermos (vacuum bottle) – otherwise I’d have to go without coffee if the power went out!

  5. Cynthia

    I’m not sure of the exchange rate, but my partner and I eat quite well for under US$250 per month. We eat a little meat, some organics, mostly fruits and veg, and we shop at Aldis for the most part, supplemented with things in a few pots and tiny garden. That does not include pet food, toiletries, or the occasional bottle of wine. We don’t feel deprived at all and I just find it interesting that it’s a struggle for some. We do have a car and access to stores that some don’t have and I’m sure that helps. Anyway, good luck on your journey and I’ll be interested in following you on your challenge.

    • Hi Cynthia, I just looked up the exchange rate and it’s 1.33, so your $250 US is my $333 CDN. And I am planning to spend $340 this month so maybe my experience will be similar to yours. We don’t have Aldi or Lidl – our nearest equivalent might be No Frills. If you check in on this comment, I’d be interested to hear what you pay for a few basics like bread, bananas, milk and yogurt (if you buy those things).

      • Cynthia

        This week: bananas 50c lb, organic whole milk yogurt $2.89 (changed the container art and raised the price 30c two weeks ago. grrr), almond milk $1.89, 12 grain bread $1.89, organic apples $1.49 lb,, 8 oz organic spring salad mix $2.49, 3 lb oranges $4.49, celery 95c large bunch.

      • You must live in a food oasis! Everything costs so much more here especially in the winter, and they are transported long distances. Bananas 0.89 lb (0.67 US), 3 lb oranges 6.99 (5.25 US), celery 2.49 (1.87 US), 8 oz spring mix 5.99 (4.50 US), 1.89 L almond milk (2 quarts) (4.49, sale 3.49) (sale 2.62 US) etc.!

  6. It’s tough. I stopped paying super close attention to grocery prices last year and we spent probably $1,000 more than the prior year, and I’m not sure what on!

    Speaking of making yogurt, I just started making my own a few weeks ago. I take a gallon of milk ($3.59) and turn it into about 48 oz. of greek yogurt, which would cost $5.39 to $11 depending on the brand. So is it a huge savings? Maybe if you eat a lot of yogurt, but it is a fun project so I’ll probably continue.

    • I have made yogurt lots of times with mixed results. It is OK if I eat it at home, but if I take it to work, it gets thin and runny. I think it’s from carrying my lunch bag from the car to the library (a 10 minute walk)! I don’t always have access to a fridge so I have to take ice packs. I suppose I could just eat the yogurt at home. But that would involve changing my habits, haha!

  7. Pasta is cheap but unfortunately I am no pasta fan and prefer brown rice with a load of roasted veggies thrown in or a Frittata. Vegetables are no longer cheap here the staple potato is quite expensive in UK but it is a good filler in any meal. I often do a baked potato each and then a cauliflower and broccoli bake in a cheese sauce scattered with tomatoes. It is fairly cheap and quite filling.
    Good luck with your challenge.

    • Thanks. I like pasta maybe twice a month but wouldn’t want to live on it. The price of vegetables has skyrocketed here. I read an article recently that said it is partially due to grocers making less money now that people eat less meat, so they are making up the difference in fresh veg prices. Our growing season is very short so everything is imported for at least 8 months of the year. I’m looking forward to having baked potatoes for lunches in the next couple of weeks.

  8. A Food Basket Challenge is a terrific idea! Should be exciting to see how this progresses. We tend to fall back on soups when stretching the budget. Vegan lentil soup or chili with some crusty bread is always a money saver. Check out MinimalistBaker.com. This is where I found the lentil soup recipe and so many others.

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