What I've learned about food while living on less

What I've learned about food while living on less

As promised, here’s the next instalment of what I’ve learned living on less.

If you haven’t yet read the prequels this may make very little sense to you. Go read them first. I’ll wait.

Today I’m covering off what I’ve learned about food during my first 22 days of living on less to help raising money for highly effective poverty-alleviation charities.

A budget of $2.50 is very restrictive, but it’s certainly not impossible.

Here’s what I’ve learned (plus my menu and costs)…

Snacks, drinks and nutrition

So far I have lost at least 3 kilos. For a lean guy that’s a lot – about 5% of my bodyweight.

Looking through the data I can see three main causes:

  1. Drinks & snacks normally give me 15-20% more energy
  2. It’s hard to eat when you’re bored of your food
  3. Protein, vegetables, and variety are expensive

I normally eat very healthy but snacks are expensive or if they’re cheap then they are super unhealthy. Snacks are also my rewards that I use for doing good things like exercising.

By the third day I was already in calorie deficit. Although I’d planned to eat close to ten thousand kilojoules it was hard to stay interested in the same food.

To keep up my interest and introduce snacking I re-introduced simple carbs like rice, pasta and white bread (for peanut butter sandwiches). This helped but it also meant that my protein consumption is down to the bare minimum.

Food is social

One of the hardest parts is removing the social aspect from food. I’m a really social person, I use food as a way of spending time with people. I see my morning coffee as payment for a seat and a chat with a friend.

This month the choice has often been to either (a) excuse myself attending events at pubs, restaurants, cafes, or anything that’s catered or (b) pre-eat or bring something along (if appropriate).

To avoid the awkwardness I’ve tried inviting people to ours more, or inviting people into my office for a cup of tea. However, only having people over really limits your options.

The saying goes that you’re the average of your 5 closest friends. I guess that probably applies to the cost and nutrition of your food also.

Food is also much easier to prepare more cheaply and with more variety if you eat in a group.

Brands and convenience are costly

Some things can be up to 10 times the cost for brands and convenience. You may not notice much on smaller items (“What’s the huge difference between 85 cent and 4 dollar pasta?”) but they certainly add up.

Buying brand name black beans by the tin can cost over $3 whereas buying them dried by the kilo worked out to cost about 50 cents for the same amount.

Solving the brand problem was easy but solving for convenience was harder.

After almost bonking on the bike for lack of anything convenient to eat while riding I had to find a solution.

That’s when I introduced peanut butter on white bread. It’s about the only conveniently palatable thing I could afford.

My menu

At the time of writing this my menu has included:

Servings Recipe Cost / Serving
6 Bean lentil curry $0.66
1 Brewed Coffee
this morning I treated myself
6 Chickpea bean dip $0.15
8 Chilli and rice $0.50
4 Creamy bean soup $0.30
16 Curry pasty $0.26
11 Curry pasty #2 $0.24
7.5 Flatbread $0.06
1 Homebrew beer
this was my half way reward!
2 Instant coffee $0.03
23.85 Oats $0.25
12 Patties $0.14
57 Peanut butter $0.09
5 Pumpkin soup $0.45
14.75 Soynuts $0.04
6 Spaghetti bolognese $0.43
23 Tea $0.02
2 Veggie pasta $0.78
54 White bread $0.04

For the first 21 days here’s my daily spend totals:

Date Cost Energy (kj) Macronutrients
1-Feb $1.87 9,043 20% (P), 28% (F), 49% (C)
2-Feb $1.94 9,027 20% (P), 29% (F), 48% (C)
3-Feb $1.24 5,626 21% (P), 28% (F), 47% (C)
4-Feb $2.27 12,331 18% (P), 29% (F), 50% (C)
5-Feb $1.04 6,005 19% (P), 31% (F), 47% (C)
6-Feb $1.31 6,092 20% (P), 33% (F), 44% (C)
7-Feb $1.86 9,323 19% (P), 31% (F), 49% (C)
8-Feb $1.47 6,923 16% (P), 31% (F), 50% (C)
9-Feb $2.01 10,173 17% (P), 29% (F), 52% (C)
10-Feb $1.83 9,120 16% (P), 27% (F), 55% (C)
11-Feb $1.90 9,835 17% (P), 31% (F), 50% (C)
12-Feb $2.14 9,842 16% (P), 29% (F), 53% (C)
13-Feb $1.58 6,414 15% (P), 26% (F), 57% (C)
14-Feb $2.13 8,619 16% (P), 34% (F), 47% (C)
15-Feb $1.91 8,979 17% (P), 28% (F), 51% (C)
16-Feb $2.02 8,042 15% (P), 29% (F), 48% (C)
17-Feb $1.92 9,201 19% (P), 35% (F), 43% (C)
18-Feb $1.47 6,740 16% (P), 27% (F), 56% (C)
19-Feb $2.05 9,759 18% (P), 31% (F), 48% (C)
20-Feb $2.37 9,293 19% (P), 28% (F), 50% (C)
21-Feb $2.30 10,805 19% (P), 32% (F), 47% (C)

If you’re interested in more details (such as the ingredients to all the recipes) you can find it all in my food log.

Shameless plug

Please donate to help end poverty, read about what I’m doing, and share if you haven’t yet.

10 Replies to “What I've learned about food while living on less”

    1. Yeah – I’m not so pleased with the macronutrient profile. Ideally I’d have much higher fats and protein. The cheapest calories came from grains (flour and rice) and legumes (various beans and peanuts) and oil (canola) – oh, and sugar but I don’t really count that as any value except Kj.

      I’ve done the maths and I think I can change the profile and maintain below $4-5 a day quite healthily – I plan to aim for this afterwards.

  1. A few years back I cut my food costs massively by packing my own lunch and eating more carbs. Chicken and rice becoming much more rice didn’t change the calories but halved the cost. What you’re doing is next level and is making me rethink the family shopping I did Monday.

    1. My head still spins on nutritional science… so many mutually exclusive ideas out there with varying degrees of support. I definitely look forward to reducing my simple carbs after this… and fewer beans ?

  2. Totally understand the boring-food aspect of this. About 20 years ago I was living on a reduced level of austudy while studying (pre my first “real” job) and my food budget was $10 a week for over a year. I ate a lot of meals that were essentially plain pasta with tomato sauce (not passata, but actual tomato sauce like you put on pies) and a bit of cheese sprinkled on top. 😛
    Of course it wasn’t until much later that I discovered that bulk rice was much cheaper than pasta.
    Herbs were an amazing luxury and really important for avoiding the boredom – ditto curry powder.

    I used to buy milk-powder for my coffee as it’s much cheaper and lasts longer (though I couldn’t stomach it on cereal unless I was desperately short).

    Took me a while to discover, but buying at a co-op was really important for fruit/veg variety. Also – I discovered all the things you can eat (and are tasty!) that people often throw away… broccoli stalks and beetroot leaves etc etc.

    1. Just thought of another thing… in your list of advantages (eg appliances and healthcare etc) you didn’t mention that another advantage you have is that you know how to cook, and therefore how to combine boring ingredients in a way that is probably quite palatable.

      At the time I was below the poverty line I was still learning that skill and it makes a big difference.

      When you’re below the povtery line, “oops I burnt dinner” changes from “well I guess I’ll just order pizza tonight” to “…well there’s no other food in the house and I don’t get paid for another three days, I’ll have to eat it anyway – charcoal’s good for the digestion right?” 😛

    2. Some great comments there! Yeah, I’ve found that I notice the nutritional difference a lot more as I get older too. I used to survive fine on raman noodles while at University.

      Boredom can really help with creativity 🙂

      It was at university that I gave up on milk in my tea and really learned most of what helped in this challenge.

  3. I’ve challenged myself to live on $10 for a week for some years now. I do it in winter when my lemons, rhubarb, parsley, rocket, lettuces, broccoli and cavalo nero (black kale)are at their best. Yes, I have a garden and I can cook. An orange a day (cheap in winter) a fresh chicken, chickpeas, 6 eggs, the cheapest white bread, a bit of flour, vegemite and gelatine and I’m set for the week. I take my hat off to you for your month-long challenge.

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