Last week as I got ready to make my weekly trip to the grocery store, I decided to see if it was actually possible to maintain a healthy diet on a fixed income. I set myself an initial budget of $20, and sat down with pen and paper to make up a weekly menu and corresponding shopping list. The menu would need to include large one pot meals that would produce many leftovers, or one meal that could be re-fashioned several times over. It would also need to rely on the healthiest ingedieants that my meagre funds could supply. As I scratched items off my list to make less expensive substitutions, I realised it was a near impossibility to subsist, healthfully, on that $20. I revised my plan, confident that I could be successful on $30.
I made the trip to my regular grocery store. I started loading my cart in the vegetable aisle. Bulk bags of carrots ($1.99) and apples ($2.99) were the first in, as they were inexpensive, packed with vitamins and nutrients, and in the case of the carrots at least, multi-purpose. I scoured the produce section for other inexpensive options. Green peppers were on sale, so I tossed one in. I added an onion. Grapefruit, in season, were 2 for $1.49 and large as they were would cover four breakfasts. Green beans, a relatively inexpensive vegetable, were tossed into a bag, and then half of the quantity were pulled back out, worried that they would end up costing too much. This did not seem like an overwhelming amount of fresh food, so I wracked my brain for other inexpensive vegetable options. Salads of any type were out of the question, with both lettuce and tomatoes being too expensive. I recalled my university day saviour... the lowly bean sprout. Handfuls of beansprouts can bulk up a quick stirfry meal for literally pennies. Well, in those days it was pennies; currently a decent sized package costs $1.59. In the freezer section, I added a block of frozen spinach.
Next stop was the meat aisle. I grabbed a loaf of multi-grain bread on the way, adding $1.99 to my current tally. In the meat aisle, I added a full chocken, reasoning that I would be able to toss in the crock pot, have a nice chicken and vegetable meal on night and then use the rest for soup and sandwiches a few more times through the week. The cheapest chicken that I could find was $10. Right there, that was 1/3 of my total budget. I left it in the cart, but continued to fret about it. I added a small package of ground beef for $3.88, and then a package of very thinly sliced pork chops. Cooked alone, and again cut into strips for a stir fry, I should be able to stretch those to two meals. They were a good buy at just $2.91 for 7 chops.
I added a carton of milk to make sure I got some dairy (though in truth I hate milk and it will likely be used simply in coffee and perhaps in a quiche), and a carton of 12 eggs for aforementioned quiche, and for protein on days when I have no meat. I added a small block of cheese. Cheese is my fatal weakness, my kryptonite. I can never pass the cheese aisle. This was my worst splurge, although I laboured over the decision for a full five minutes or more and finally settled, dejectedly, on a small store-brand brick of mozzarella. It was the least expensive cheese there, plus, the one that would be multi-use for pasta, eggs, to top chili, or to simply snack on. If I had to do it again, I would have just avoided the cheese aisle completely.
I moved into the heart of the grocery store. I added to my cart an inexpensive box of whole wheat pasta, luckily on sale that week. In the canned foods aisle I added tomatoes, an inexpensive plain spagetti sauce, chick peas and red kidney beans; inespneisve sources of vitamins and proteins that could be added to various recipes, as well as being the basis for a great big hearty pot of chili that I would be eating often through the week.
I left the canned foods aisle and found myself face to face with a meat freezer, where somewhat poorly packaged and looking sad were gigantic turkey drumsticks - 2 drumsticks for $4.44. I looked into the cart at the $10 chicken. I added the drums to the cart and wheeled back around to replace the chicken. It was simply too much money.
I went to the checkout and watched the figures add up. They added up quicker and higher than I anticipated. Despite a very thoughtful and laboured tour through the grocery aisles, I had well surpassed the $30 budget. I finished at $39.13. I still had a trip to the bulk food store to make. I would have to be very careful there, as it was going to be impossible to stay below $40, I didn't want to break $50.
It was a quick run through the bulk store to avoid the lure of the candy, dried fruits, and other beckoning bins. I picked up few simple, but very useful items. Oatmeal, for hearty, sustaining, hot breakfasts; brown rice to provide healthy carbohydrates to meals, rounding out chilis, stirfries, soups, and if I can stretch it, for use in a rice salad; couscous to mix with beans, and carrots for a simple meal; raisins (which probably should have been skipped as they cost more than anticipated though I chose the most inexpensive option available)to be used to add a little excitement to salads, and as a snack; Sunflower seeds, for the same purpose as the raisins with a little protein punch; and finally falafel mix, an afterthought, but a good alternative to a meaty meal, and a very inexpensive option, costing less than a dollar for a healthy-sized scoop. The total at this store was $5.40.
The total that I spent on my total grocery trip was $44.58. I hope that at the end of the week there will be some food left over. Maybe enough even to stretch my purchases to almost ten days. If I can do that, then I will have spent less than $5 per day. The caveat, for this experiment, I am assuming that staple items are already in place such as flour, sugar, salt, a modest spice rack and cooking oil.
Looking back at the receipts and the purchases that I made, there are changes that I could have made that would have helped stretch those dollars a little further. I should have left the grapefruit and instead bought another three green peppers. I could have bought dried beans for half the cost of canned, which would not have resulted in a huge savings, but when on a budget, every penny counts. I would have left even the turkey drums behind and instead added two cans of tuna and more beans. Proteins are expensive and finding inexpensive alternatives is a challenge if you have any carnivourous tendencies whatsoever.
Hints and reminders:
Buying at bulk food stores is an excellent way to shop as you can control the portion purchased, and you save on expensive packaging.
Store brands are much cheaper and of similar quality when it comes to staple products such as canned foods.
It is more difficult to shop for one as you can not take advantage of bulk or family sizes of meat. If you have the outlay of cash to buy them, split the trays into individual portions and then stash them in the freezer to be eaten throughout the month. This is a great way to reduce costs.
Bringing your own bag saves you a penny per each bag used. Not significant, but as they say, a penny saved is a penny earned. Plus, it does a favour to the environment.