18 tips for minimising your food costs + a final $2 a day menu [5 ingredients | 10 minutes]

spiced chickpeas with almonds macaroni

I’m a little surprised how much I’ve been loving the challenge of feeding myself for $2 a day. It’s been refreshing to look at the world in a different way. It’s also been great hearing from people, especially their tips for saving money on food.

And after a wonderful long weekend eating and drinking my way around Melbourne, my bank balance was screaming out for a little moderation. So I’m back with one last $2 a day menu and a list of tips for minimising your food costs. Some that I use myself, other that I’ve picked up from readers both here on stonesoup and over at Casual Kitchen where my mate Dan put a call out to his readers for their own frugal food tips.

For those that missed the original post, you can read about how and why I’ve been taking the challenge to eat for $2 a day HERE.

18 tips to minimise your food costs

1. cook from scratch
Convenience is expensive so it’s best to cook things from scratch where possible. I’ve used canned chickpeas in the recipe below because I could afford them (only just) and I wanted to share some quick recipes after last week but if I had cooked dried chickpeas myself it would have only cost about 25c instead of the 50c for canned.

2. reduce your meat intake
We all know that animal products tend to be expensive and if you do find cheap meat, you’ve got to question why it is. If the thought of turning vegan scares you, why not start with eating meat-free a few times a week or decreasing the amount of meat in a recipe and supplementing with lentils or beans or even tofu. A few thin slices of proscuitto as a ganish can keep the carnivores happy without the cost of a steak.

3. try ‘unfashionable’ foods
Alex, a reader who had some wonderful suggestions in the comments, had a great insight to look for food that isn’t fashionable. I don’t know if I’ll get the courage to try her sheep’s head this winter. But I do love the idea of a fish head curry.

4. buy in bulk
A good rule of thumb, but larger pack sizes aren’t always better value, so it does pay to check the price.

5. shop with a list
Planning ahead is a great way to economise and reduce the risk of expensive impulse purchases.

6. shop without a list
No I haven’t just done a backflip, well maybe. This probably should read be flexible with your list, or have contingencies withing your list. The aim is to be able to be flexible to make the most of the things at reduced prices.

7. buy veg in season / on special
Fresh fruit & veg are one of the most price variable foods. So it is generally better value to buy in season, although with the whole global food trade, it can be tricky to predict what you’ll find discounted in your supermarket from one week to the next.

8. find an ethnic market
As much as I love shopping in some of the ‘farmers markets’ in Sydney, they can be incredibly pricey. If you’re on a budget, better to head to the far less glamorous ethnic makets in your area. Shop where the migrant communities are.

9. shop at closing time in the large markets
While closing time at the markets can be a scary thing, it can be a great chance to pick up some really great deals.

10. reduce your portion sizes
I’m stating the obvious here but serving less and eating less are one of the most immediate changes you can make. And your waistline will thank you.

11. avoid processed, packaged foods
Marketing costs money, so does fancy packaging. Boxed cereal is one glaringly expensive item that comes to mind.

12. consider frozen veg
Until I started this project, frozen peas and an occasional bag of frozen broad beans were about as far as my frozen vegetable knowledge extended. Have some fun experimenting, especially if you find things on special.

13. invest in a water filter
Buying bottled water, juices and soft drink is an easy way to blow out your budget (lets not even think about luxuries like red wine). I love my water filter, it tastes great, is better for the environment and my budget, and saves me lugging heavy bottles up the stairs.

14. don’t peel your veg
I tend not to peel things because I’m lazy and I prefer a more rustic look. But why throw away valuable nutrition when you don’t have to. Besides, there can be a lot of flavour in the skins.

15. avoid ‘lite’ foods
Someone made a comment not to buy lite milk but to dilute regular milk with water. Not a bad idea when you think about it. So rather than paying a higher price for the ‘lite’ version, just dilute or use less of the full fat product.

16. grow your own
One of the most difficult things I found about the live below the line campaign was the rule about not using home grown ingredients. I was itching to throw in a few sprigs or rosemary or a bay leaf or two. While a veggie patch can be a real source of savings, starting small with a little rosemary plant or some fresh mint can be a great way to supplement your food budget.

17. get creative with spices
One commenter, Martjin spoke about travelling through Central America and living on beans and rice and how boring that can get after a while. This is where a little judicious use of spice can come in handy. It doesn’t take much to change the flavour profile with a little curry powder or ground cumin. And don’t forget the wonderful mood enhancing properties of some chilli warmth.

18. become a forager
Another activity banned in the campaign but a great suggestion if you are trying to save on food in the real world. I have dreams of one day learning to forage for wild mushrooms but so far I’ve got as far as wild fennel and olives growing on the roadside when I lived in the Barossa Valley. And I have been known to occasionally ‘prune’ the rosemary on Jersey Road in Paddington. Best to check up on the legalities of foraging in your area before you get started though.

a final $2 a day menu

breakfast
porridge with milk & brown sugar 25c
tea with milk 9c
lunch
macaroni with buttered peas 39c
dinner
spiced chickpeas with cauliflower 120c
TOTAL – $1.93

macaroni with buttered peas

[5 ingredients | 10 minutes]
macaroni with buttered peas

serves 1

I was really surprised that the cheapest pasta in my local supermarket was only 59c /500g – about 1/10 the price I normally pay for my artesanal Italian pasta. Happy to report that the cheap pasta (pictured above) tasted pretty good.

I was also surprised how tasty and satisfying this one pot meal was. Normally I would have slathered something like this in parmesan but the sweet peas and even the pasta flavour really shines through as is. If I did have some extra money to spare, some fresh mint stirred through the hot pasta would be nice.

For a vegan version use olive oil instead of the butter.

85g (3oz) pasta 10c
100g (3 1/2oz) frozen peas 19c
20g (3/4 oz) butter 10c

Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to the boil and add pasta. Set timer according to the packet directions.

When there are 3 minutes remaining add peas and cook until pasta is just tender. Drain and return to the saucepan with the butter. Stir to crush the peas a little. Taste and season.

Cost per serve 39c.

spiced chickpeas with almonds

[5 ingredients | 10 minutes]
spiced chickpeas with cauliflower

serves 1

Feel free to use fresh or frozen cauliflower for this recipe. The day I was buying my cauli the fresh stuff was on sale for $1.98 for a whole head, but normally I think frozen would be far cheaper.

You could play around with the spices here. Some may find a whole teaspoon chilli flakes a little on the hot side. I kept it simple with some ground cumin and chilli but a spice blend like garam marsala or baharat or even a good curry powder would be lovely. Again if I weren’t making this on a budget, I’d used some fresh herbs for greenery. Corriander, parsley or mint would all be good.

1 tablespoon olive oil 10c
100g (3 1/2oz) cauliflower florettes 50c
1/2 can chickpeas (200g / 7oz), drained 50c
1 teaspoon ground cumin 5c
1 teaspoon chilli flakes 5c

Heat oil in a small frying pan and cook cauliflower over a medium high heat until starting to brown.

Add remaining ingredients and continue to cook, stirring for a couple of minutes or until chickpeas are hot and everything smells fragrant.

Taste and season. Lovely hot but also good a room temperature so great for a packed lunch.

cost per serve $1.20
____________

budget class logo

Like to learn more about Cooking on a Budget?

Then I highly recommend taking the ‘Mastering the Art of Cooking on a Budget‘ program at the Stonesoup Virtual Cookery School.

The program is ‘pay what you can afford’ and I created it as a chance to help people who can’t afford my other programs.

While cooking real healthy food on a budget may seem difficult, it’s not impossible and in this class I’ll show you exactly how to do it.

For more details go to:
www.thestonesoupshop.com/budget/

With love,
Jules x

ps. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to keep offering the class as a ‘pay what you can afford’ so signup today to make sure you don’t miss out on this great deal.

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{ 23 comments }

Franko July 29, 2010 at 11:24 pm

I think what you’re doing is absolutely spot on!!! This is what we want! Every topic that i scroll past I want to read. It relates to me and I’m sure it relates to most. I have been a uni student where my main meal consists of pasta with oil, pepper and salt. Yummo!! A bit of OJ stops you from getting scurvy!
This is fantastic – keep doing what you’re doing. We need it!

Wei Wei July 30, 2010 at 1:56 am

It’s so amazing – less than two dollars, a DAY! That’s jut a tiny fraction for the cot of a meal out! Gosh.

Wei Wei

Dan @ Casual Kitchen July 30, 2010 at 2:23 am

Jules, thank you for both the link and for the entire concept of your $2 a day food challenge. It’s inspiring.

In a world where it’s so easy to make carping complaints like “healthy food is too expensive” or “I don’t have time to cook,” you operate in the realm of solution thinking and share dozens of inexpensive, easy and delicious meal ideas with your readers. Keep doing what you’re doing!

Dan
Casual Kitchen

Vaclav July 30, 2010 at 3:49 am

The 15th tip reminds me something from your other post: Avoid foods that are pretending to be something they are not.

Erin S July 30, 2010 at 4:02 am

I find myself really looking forward to the $2 posts. I think many of us want to practice simplicity and this is such a wonderful way to think about it, and keep the food budget from being too extravagant. We posses, use and eat more than we need in many cases. I know we could all eat steamed rice for a month and eat for $2, but this is much more fun, interesting and tasty!

Red Icculus July 30, 2010 at 6:57 am

3 things that have saved my budget are 1) sprouts for spare vegetation 2) homemade bread and 3) seitan as a meat substitute (for those that aren’t sensitive to gluten).

They allow me to eat for pennies and cover 3 of the 4 food groups in a sammich.

jules July 30, 2010 at 8:59 am

red icculus
great idea to make your own sprouts – I’ve never done it. and I’m not familiar with seitan – will have to do some research. thanks

vaclav
good spotting – funny that food pretending to be something its not also tends to be expensive

thanks dan. really appreciated having your post to draw ideas from

Susan July 30, 2010 at 3:23 pm

This is a great post with some sound advice!

here’s something I’ve been doing recently to reduce my fuel use. When cooking pasta, I boil it for a couple of minutes, then switch off the heat for 6-7 minutes and let it sit in near-boiling water. It will cook just as well. Switch on the heat again and bring it back to the boil for the last minute or two of cooking.

Same with eggs – to hard boil, put them in cold water, bring to the boil and then switch off the heat, cover and let them sit for 10 minutes.

thanks again!
Susan

Tracey July 30, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Susan makes a good point about fuel/energy use. I know I do try to consider that when I select recipes or plan a meal. Some recipes are quite ridiculous in that respect – I’m thinking of a chicken stir fry recipe which involved browning whole breasts in a wok, then heating up the oven to finish cooking them (cooking time about 10-15 min from memory), then slicing them and putting them back in the wok right at the end, after stir-frying the other ingredients. The oven step wastes a lot of energy, heating up the room as well as the chicken, (although that can be a useful side-benefit in winter!) and is unnecessary if the chicken is sliced smaller at the beginning.

I think recipes like that are as much a symptom of lazy western affluence as the ‘forever summer’ approach to ingredients, or expecting to combine in a meal ingredients that grow in different seasons.

My Restaurants Melbourne July 30, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Thanks for those useful tips on saving money. And it’s amazing hwo you can eat off $2.00 a day if you needed too. great inspiration.

Joanna in the kitchen July 30, 2010 at 9:37 pm

What a great collection of tips. And they really work!!! I’m the best example :-) maybe except “grow your own” ;-)

sarah @ syrupandhoney July 31, 2010 at 2:05 am

I enjoyed your posts on $2/day so much, and this list is similar to one I’ve been working on for my blog! Oh, and macaroni and peas is a childhood favorite of mine…mmm…

Jen July 31, 2010 at 6:58 am

Finding your blog and these posts has been fortuitous timing, having just been laid off work, AND having a kitchen returned to proper use after being a construction zone (read: tonnes of take-away). I made your Red Lentil dish and Potato soup this week and Love them! Cauli & Chick Peas are on the menu for today. Thanks for the help in a return to good, real, food!

paula July 31, 2010 at 7:13 am

I have been tracking my expenditure on groceries this year. Just recently I worked out I am spending $5.50 per person per day on all grocery items, including dog food, toiletries and cleaning products (bicarb and vinegar, basically). I buy wholemeal flour, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, wholemeal cou-cous, free-range eggs (!! it can be done – but maybe not on $2 a day :) ) -when our chooks are not laying- and free-range chicken, freshly ground 100% peanute butter from the health food shop; the bulk of our trolley is fresh (albeit not organic) fruit and veg. I supplement our diet with some veg from the garden, but this is minimal, and I do most of our baking – bread, tortillas, cakes, biscuits etc from scratch.

So it is certainly easy to eat healthily and well for not very much money – whether I could get it down to $2 a day on a regular basis is questionable, but if i stopped buying TimTams (as if), icecream, Thomy mayo, vegemite and the ingredients for your peanutbutter/choc tarts (but the kids would kill me if i did this!) I reckon i could give it a good shot.

Jesús July 31, 2010 at 11:27 am

Good for the soul and lets not forget the pocket. Buen provecho

Jeff July 31, 2010 at 11:42 pm

I enjoyed this article but can it be done if you are Celiac like I am. Everything that is gluten free is more expensive. I will experiment and see how close I can get. Thanks

Majeeda August 1, 2010 at 3:17 am

Oh, good on you for giving the challenge a go Jules! Well done!! I liked your tips too. You are dead right about shopping where the migrants shop. :) I raised my eyebrow when I read this: “frozen peas and an occasional bag of frozen broad beans”? – you don’t cook Algerian couscous with peas and broad beans do you? That’s why my freezer always contains those items.

@ Paula $5.50 is pretty good and … well it’s hard to give up everything (i.e. timtams) when we live in such abundance isn’t it. It’s nice to cook a lot from scratch though and not be so reliant on buying processed foods. I very much wish I could keep some chooks too.

Sarah August 3, 2010 at 2:45 pm

I live in Juneau, Alaska. I will have to adjust to $6.00 USD per day. A can of garbanzos runs about $1.50. But, I just picked 4 cups of fresh blue berries, got a nice halibut, and will be going out next weekend to forage for chanterelles and rosehips :) There is a lot of foraging and fishing to be done around here in the summer – thank goodness!

Mike August 3, 2010 at 2:47 pm

@Jeff – I’m Celiac as well, and what I found is that I was able to cut my food bill significantly by avoiding buying anything marketed as gluten-free (GF). By going to a simpler, less processed diet, I was able to save a little money and still eat pretty well.

There are some things I can’t give up yet – rice tortillas, a little rice pasta, gluten-free English muffins and GF vegan breakfast patties seem to come to mind right away – but it sure beats paying US$6 for a loaf of not-so-great GF bread or scones, or expensive GF flour.

chris August 5, 2010 at 8:02 am

What do you use to season the macaroni with buttered peas?

jules August 5, 2010 at 8:12 am

hey chris
just salt and pepper for seasoning. I guess I cheated a little and didn’t include these in the costings

mike
great call on avoiding things marketed as GF – my dad is intolerant and I think it’s a bit criminal the way some GF products are priced

jen
sorry to hear about your job but glad to hear it’s getting you cooking again. yay

susan
excellent point about energy use – thanks for sharing your tips to minimise

Emily August 6, 2010 at 1:24 am

My only concern: for those of us who know the value of fruits and veggies…how do you eat your 7-9 portions of fruits and veggies on $2/day? I don’t see any fruits in your menu, I am unwilling to give up fruit but would love to cut my budget.

Debra February 4, 2012 at 6:12 pm

#14 – do peel your veggies. I use that ‘waste’ to make homemade veggie stock. Carrot peels, onion peels, broccoli stems, dark green leek parts (the list just goes on and on – but I don’t use potato peels) Wash well and put in a a gallon bag to keep in the freezer. When the bag is full, add some peppercorns, bay leaves, herbs, whatever in a stock pot and just let simmer for a while. Pros – the ‘waste’ is no longer wasted, you control the sodium. Cons – it never comes out tasting like it did last time, LOL.

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