Saturday, June 18, 2011

Food Trade Offs and a Food Budgetting Challenge

There are lots of choices to make about the food we eat these days, to the point of it being tricky to know what to buy sometimes. There's organic, free-range, fair trade - all sorts of options when it comes to just about anything. And then there's the price of it - how much has the price of dairy, for example, been in the news lately?

I reckon everyone has a different view and there's not necessarily right and wrong, just shades of grey - but I do think it's really important to figure out what you value and what you can afford, and work from there (you can tell I live with an economist, right?). As an example: free-range eggs are expensive. I use a lot of eggs, and always have. When I was a student, I valued having cake over happy hens, and felt my student budget couldn't reasonably stretch to free-range. Some people might judge me for that - but that's how it was. Now I earn enough to be able to buy free-range (which I also happen to think taste better), so I do - but I like knowing that folks who maybe aren't so flush, or who rank other things higher on their priority list, can still have their cheap eggs.

I've been getting a bit riled with the media lately, as there have been quite a few reports along the lines of people-can't-afford-to-eat-anymore. I know there are people who have it tough - but this line often seems to come from people whose lifestyles have expanded to fit their generous budgets and think that those with less clearly need the same budget to survive. I've had times when money has been tight (as have most of us!) and so know there are corners to be cut, and I've devised a bit of an experiment.

For the next week, Mr Cake and I will be going budget on our food. I'm not setting a spend limit - I just want to see how little we need to spend to be well-nourished. We'll plan out our meals, and pare down the luxury stuff (which we do have a fair bit of) but we certainly won't be subsisting on weetbix and rice alone - and I'll share a couple of updates of what we spend and what we're eating.

Because I am focussed on food I'm not counting other groceries so this isn't necessarily a great reflection of normal household spend - but I think it'll be interesting to see how it pans out.

We normally budget what we think is a fairly generous $160 a week on groceries (this doesn't include eating out), being keen foodies who like some luxury items and a lot of baking stuff. $20-$30 of that might be non-food items - so I'm working on the assumption that our food would normally cost about $130 (which is probably conservative, I'm sure I sneak in more top-up shops than I care to think about!). Because Mr Cake and I a) value our fancy food and b) tend to be time-poor, a lot of the savings we make won't be sustainable for us - but it will be interesting to see how much it costs to feed the two of us for a week.

Have you ever done anything like this? What are your cost-saving tips for eating on a low budget?


  1. get The Destitute Gourmet books from the library (Sophie Gray) as they are very good for budgeting advice , her face book page is also good and she chats .We eat lots of noodles, rice and pasta. We are not on a strict budget at the moment but having an extra mouth in the form of a constanly hungry 8 year old girl adds far more to the bill than you could imagine. Sometimes I dread her teen years. I make lots of our bread and baking.
    In try to buy only local seasonal fruit and veg and watch food miles. I also buy fair trade where possible. As for eggs, I would never buy the basic cheap. I am now buying with SPCA blue tick as they have been checked. Free range is not monitored and does not gaurantee a chicken has more than a hole in the wall they can go out through if they want.
    Good luck with the budget. I Do a strict one every so often for a month to clear cupboards and use the books and resources I have carefully.

  2. Thanks Emma - will check out the Destitute Gourmet Facebook page. :-) She is great! Seasonal fruit and veg is also definitely the way to go.

  3. I spend $10 per week at the weekend fruit and vege market, and $20 per week at the supermarket - I take along notes and no eftpos card so I have to stick to that! I'm only feeding one, but like you it makes me cringe when people say they can't afford to eat, or can't afford to eat healthily - take it from me, it's definitely doable.

  4. Head down to the vege market at Waitangi Park tomorrow! So much cheaper than the supermarkets. Good tip about checking out Sophie Gray MuffinMum. I made her tomato and red lentil soup today: such an economical and delicious recipe. Good luck!

  5. Amy, wow! That's very impressive! Good work. :-)

    Libby, yes - markets for the win! And I love lentils - so good, so filling.

  6. Since being made redundant in Dec, we're down to a one salary household and one of the first things that we started budgeting on was our food bill. We're both huge foodies and our weekly shopping always included a lot of 'extras'. We also ate out a lot. We still wanted to eat well (and I still wanted to bake/cook decent stuff to blog about!), so to help cut the food bills, here's what we're doing and its helping heaps:
    - supermarket shopping once a fortnight instead of weekly, buy our vegetables & fruit from the Sunday market once a week (cheaper than supermarket), decide on the weekly dinner menu and stick to it, as much as possible cook dinners that are suitable to take leftovers to work for lunch the next day, eat and buy seasonal and also NZ grown/made.
    - free range eggs are a bit expensive for us (especially with all the baking) but we still want to be responsible, so we buy cage free barn laid eggs. Pams do them now and is the cheapest in new world, AND they have the SPCA blue tick!
    - again, we still want to be responsible when it comes to cleaning and laundry products, so we get refills at commonsense organics, which do really work out cheaper than buying eco friendly every time from the supermarket.
    - make every effort to use what we have in the pantry (it's amazing how quickly the pantry gets chocka with can food!)
    - We didn't want to cut every 'luxury' out, so we allow ourselves takeaways, cheap & cheerfuls and cafe visits up to 4 times per fortnight, and treats like chocolate when its on special.

  7. Food budget-ers here.
    >We buy cage free barn eggs, free range organic chicken, and free range pork and ham. The rest of the meat we buy is from the butcher. We buy small quantities of meat and make it go a long way. We buy cheaper cuts, like beef cheeks, and make yummy stews. We use the freezer a lot.
    >We buy our vege at the weekend markets (not our fruit though, it never lasts).
    >Fruit we buy at the fancy supermarket (expensive, but we buy what's on special, and we don't eat heaps anyway).
    >We buy in bulk whatever we can (olive oil, spices, rice, vinegar).
    >We shop at the budget supermarket for everything else (cannelini beans, yoghurt, cheese, tomato paste).
    It works for us and we're constantly refining our approach to get the right mixture of quality and price. I think developing a sustainable approach is important. Those budgeting websites that advocate "feed the family for $21 a week" just mean that the cupboards become bare. I find it works better if you actually have a range of staples to choose from (but acknowledge my privilege in that statement).

  8. Go Mrs Cake! Think this is a great experiment. I've returned to study this year and had been struggling with having a student budget when I was used to having plenty of moola. But you just end up prioritising what's most important to you, buy in bulk and making friends with the freezer. Can't wait to hear how you get on! :)

  9. We do a fortnightly meal plan with the aim of not returning to the our meal starts out with the "fresh" things first, then is storecupboard/freezer based towards the end of the fortnight. It's those inbetween shops that are budget killers for us, so we stay away. We stretch out meat servings with lots of lentils/beans to make it go further. Time is definitely a big factor though, home made tortillas cost virtually nothing but you have to have time to make them!

  10. We're living in the UK now and were on an extremely tight budget when we first arrived and watched our dwindling pile of NZ dollars turn to pounds and then get eaten up by bills and rent while we job hunted! Apart from becoming a lot more vegetarian and eating a lot of rice dishes (chilli and rice? Risotto? Curry and rice...?) I found online supermarket shopping a godsend. Mainly because I'm terrible at sticking to lists so not being able to "see" the great special/giant bar of chocolate meant I wasn't tempted. But also because we don't have a car and so more difficult to access big supermarkets, this way we can buy tins of tomatoes and 9-roll packs of toilet paper without our arms falling off on the way home. NOt sure about home but delivery is actually cheaper than a bus fare for two of us as well. Good for meat that's on special and cupboard staples but not so great for fruit and veges (as I want to be able to choose my own). Also, can do it while eating dinner so not shopping hungry! I find it much easier to stick to a budget because you can add and subtract things at will to get the price you're aiming for at checkout. I know it's becoming bigger back home and while it's not available at the "budget" supermarkets, home brand stuff at the others are still fairly cheap. If I were on an extremely cheap budget it wouldn't be that economical but for reducing supermarket trips and impulse buys (and nicer to the planet - one truck carries groceries for multiple households, rather than all jumping in the car) it has helped a lot.

  11. what you really need is a big vegetable garden ... tis a pity you cant just drop in and share the stuff your father grows.

  12. Very keen to see how you go with this, we have been trying to adopt a very similar approach, with varying degrees of success. One thing I have focused on is reducing waste, the amount of food, & therefore money I was throwing away was pretty alarming, although I have to say sometimes trying to be creative with leftovers can be a challenge! My sister & her partner are fantastic budgeters, and their top tip is a menu plan for the week, make one, shop for it and stick to it, they eat really well, and don’t spend a fortune either. Good luck:)

  13. Che and I covered a lot of this over at Frugal Me (, back in the day.

    What I learned is that most strategies for eating cheaply assume that you have a reasonable amount of time for food preparation, unless you decide that eggs and cheese are going to be your only significant protein source. All cheap meat and pulses take significant time to cook and prepare. Frugal eating advice also presumes that you have time to cross town and source each item on your grocery list from the cheapest provider instead of shopping at the supermarket only.

    I have a lot of sympathy for low-paid people who work long hours and live in far-flung suburbs because frankly, if all the adults in the house have to work fulltime, the extra labour in feeding the household cheaply is significant. (Assumption here that you want a somewhat healthy diet that includes vegetables and isn't just instant noodles and porridge). This is the paradox of frugal eating -- it is a game that is easiest to win for well-off people.

    Funnily enough the big win I found and still practise is baking bread. Once I realised that you could make bread with long slow rises (not time critical) and little-to-no kneading I discovered that I could bake with bugger all actual time spent. Flour is much cheaper than bread, and since I have a sourdough culture, I don't even pay for yeast.

  14. Shirleen, I think we need to move to the fortnightly shop, seems to be a winner! And planning dinners - must be more organised!

    Anne, I have to agree on fruit from the market - we've found the same.

    Nessie, it's hard making the transition back to studentdom (I worked before my degree) - but yes, the freezer is your friend, and you just have to be smart about what you eat, I reckon. Our student flat always ate pretty well on not very much, and I lived with four ravenous boys!

    Bridget, yes, being time-poor adds to the challenge.

    Traveller Jo, I guess it would depend where you are here - delivery for supermarket shopping tends to be $10-15 but you can often get discounts or free delivery. I suspect with my wandering eye for candy I would probably save lots shopping online too - and not having your arms fall off on the way home is a nice bonus. ;-)

    Mum, that's true, and a good way to save, but perhaps might be a bit distortive since lots of us don't have the time or space for a big garden (never mind my black thumbs, killing all plants that come in contact...).

    Plum Kitchen, two days in and I'm already realising how much we usually waste - I'm finding it a good way to refocus!

    Stephen, great tips, and the time/money trade off is key. Bread is something I think I need to experiment with - Mr Cake goes through a huge amount of the stuff so making it cheaper would be very beneficial to us!

  15. See my 5 minute dough recipe for bread, pizza etc.


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