Mastercheap Day 4: Psychology & Plating

Here's a newsflash for everyone who keeps asking: I really, truly, absolutely am not starving on the Mastercheap menu.

Tuesday's menu

Breakfast: 100g muesli, 100ml skim milk Lunch: 2 sandwiches (one with boiled egg, one with cucumber),1 slice chocolate cake Dinner: 200g pasta spirals served with 300ml pasta sauce and 150g mixed vegetables, 1 portion lime jelly Snack: 35g peanuts Totals Energy 10045kj: (target 9000kj), Protein 77.9g (target 55g), Sodium 1893mg (target 1288mg max), Fat 57.2g (target 90g max) Total cups of black tea: 6 (I'm being remarkably consistent with this!) In summary: No, I don't want to steal your chocolate.

There's a standard and quite understandable reaction whenever people hear about Mastercheap and then read over what I've got to work with: that I'm going to spend the week starving. I've had friends and colleagues speculate that I'll be found passed out at home, threaten to surreptitiously deposit hot chips on my doorstep, and suggest to others that mentioning food in front of me would be dangerous. The underlying implication of all of this is that I must be suffering from massive hunger pangs.

As we cross the halfway line, I'm happy to report that it's simply not true. I'm spending much more time thinking about what I'm eating than normal, but I've yet to experience anything other than the same "it's 6pm, I could go some dinner about now" sensations that I feel pretty much every day around that time.

One reason for that is (as I've tried to emphasise throughout this project) I've ensured that I'm getting enough kilojoules each day. There's a little variation day to day, but I am hitting those targets in pure energy terms, and eating food that in itself is filling (lots of pasta, lots of vegetables). But I think the psychology of the menu is equally important, and it's a point I find myself hammering again and again when I respond to the many and varied comments Mastercheap is inspiring (and do keep them coming, folks!)

The first key element is that I've chosen foods that I actually enjoy. That might seem like the most obvious advice, but I genuinely don't think anyone will make an effort to stick to any kind of food budget if it involves regularly buying things which they don't actually like. That doesn't mean you can buy everything you like -- I can't buy cheese or fresh tomatoes or pepper or couscous or wine this week -- but there's more than enough cheap food available in Australia to make it possible, and desirable, to match your own preferences as much as possible.

So to the people suggesting lentils: Yes, they're cheap. Yes, they're full of protein. But they're utterly dull without a lot of flavouring elements (which I can't afford), and still not that great even when those get added. So I've skipped them without regrets.

The second key strategy is that while there a lot of recurring elements in these meals, I'm not eating exactly the same food at every single sitting. Making a big pot of something (soup, stew, or similar) and dividing it up for dinner over seven nights is a really popular suggestion, but I think it's a self-defeating strategy. It's much easier to get dissatisfied with your food if it never changes, and it seems evident that you can vary your meals much more than that without suffering financially or nutritionally.

The final way to make food enjoyable -- and it's a point which national culinary TV obsession MasterChef makes again and again -- is to take some effort in serving it and eating it. Like many people, I don't think I'd ever heard the term '"plating" in common use before MasterChef took off, and I certainly haven't been having to try and make elaborate presentations of my meals (I don't have any garnishes, for a start).

But I have been putting more effort into serving them up than normal -- I'm normally a "slap it anywhere on the dish" kind of guy. More importantly, I've been sitting myself at a table and savouring the food, rather than wolfing it down in front of the TV. That's very basic food psychology, but it's working for me. And no matter what your shopping list contains or what your budget is, it's well worth a shot.

Today's lunch menu sees me downing two sandwiches, one filled with a boiled egg and the other with one-third of my sole fresh vegetable for the week, a Lebanese cucumber. I always planned to incorporate three sandwich meals into the menu, with the idea of eating them in the Allure offices (where Lifehacker is produced).

Lots of people need to eat at their workplace every day, so I figured that should be part of my planning if possible. As it happens, my schedule meant I ended up working at home over the lunch hour after an early start, but the sandwiches were still very satisfying, and they'll have their office journey later in the week. Getting multi-grain bread was definitely sensible.

Dinner was another pasta variation, this time combining the pasta and mixed vegetables with the pre-made pasta sauce that first appeared on Sunday. This made a flavourful and filling combination, but it was also largely responsible for blowing out my sodium total. Buying a pre-made pasta sauce got me more flavour than if I'd just used a plain tin of tomatoes, with added onions and garlic that wouldn't have fitted in the budget, but it does come at a cost, salt-wise.

Lifehacker's Mastercheap experiment sees editor Angus Kidman trying to survive with a weekly food budget of just $25.


Comments

    So how's the no coffee thing going? reckon you'll be keeping it up post challenge or are you counting down the days until your next cup of brew?

      After the headache on Sunday, it's been fine. There's a tiny part of me that thinks "hmm, maybe this is a chance to give up coffee altogether" but given the brevity of that comedown, I figure I can't be ODing that much and will probably go back to a cup or two when I'm done. But it won't be the first thing I want on Saturday morning.

        my life would suck without coffee, i feel for you

        Your still getting caffeen from your tea, so it is a reduced amount but your not totally off of it.

        Personally I've tried a caffeen and non-caffeen diet and for me all I can say is that Caffeen free is the way to go.

        Also for caffeen to really be out of your system, more then a week is needed. (without top ups from tea, coke, mountian dew, redbull etc)

        What will be the first thing? You feeling a 3 course breakfast? Perhaps just dinning out?

          In a fairly typical development for me, I'll be heading to an airport first thing. Vegemite on toast is actually sounding distinctly appealing.

    Out of curiosity Angus, how would you describe your regular eating habits - big main meals? Lots of snacking?

      I generally go for a big main meal, snack a bit during the day, and tend to consume a lot of hot drinks (usually more varied than this week). Lunch is very often eaten out because of my job, and I eat a ridiculous amount of food on planes and in Qantas lounges.

    Is there anything in particular you're starting to crave?

      "Crave" feels like a strong term, but I am missing cheese, pepper and red wine. And Vegemite.

        Why don't you take advantage of free food or at least grab a free pepper sachet from the food court?

          I've covered the free food issue in the FAQ.

    Sounds like you're doing well, especially with hitting those kilojoule targets!

    Just thinking, this could just as easily be spun into a diet with a little more control over the food, so you can show eating healthy and cheap is entirely possible. I'm not sure what the effects on cholesterol will be with eggs daily (old wives tale?), but it certainly looks like with calorie control you'd be able to shed excess kilos without too much difficulty.

      I believe the "eggs are bad because of cholesterol" theory is discredited (see this BBC story for instance). Turning this into a diet of sorts wouldn't involve much more than dumping the desserts on some days!

    I wouldnt cope without the caffiene I dont think, even though I only have 1-2 coffees a day. I like that you chose $25 cos it was about 7 coffees. Not buying coffee is a huge money saver!
    I also dont think I could go the week without red meat. I dont think you've mentioned anywhere about the decision on not including red meat, apart from the obvious price. Its just that it would be a more realistic experiment with meat included as it is a large part of many peoples diet.
    Then again, there are lots of ways you have admitted this particular form of experiment wouldnt be sustainable for too long.

      I like red meat myself -- but outside the meat pie (which I'm eating on Thursday night), I just couldn't see a way to add in red meat without sacrificing something else equally or more important. It comes down to this: what would I have to remove from this budget to get even one piece of meat added, and would that be worth it? I never found anything approaching a sensible answer to that which would work for me. For instance, I could have dumped the peanuts and bought a tiny quantity of mince -- but that would get me one burger on one meal, versus a snack I've been able to use all week. Didn't seem sensible to me. As protein sources go, red meat is at the pricey end of the scale.

      I've done fine on the protein and fats front, so that's necessarily an issue. Iron potentially could be a problem, but should be partially covered by the pie, the kidney beans and the mixed veg -- I haven't crunched the numbers fully though.

    Hi Angus,

    I'm sorry if you've already answered this question, but on perusal of your docket - couldn't you have bought the 650g HomeBrand multigrain loaf for $1.09 rather than the $2.49 "Woolworths" brand?

    I just see $1.40 worth of fresh garlic for my pasta sauce is all.

      This has been mentioned a couple of times -- I've just never seen Home Brand bread in my local Woolworths, the Woolworths one has generally appeared to be the cheapest available option. This might well mean I wasn't looking hard enough, of course!

      On searching the Woolworths site, the price for an HB Multigrain loaf is $1.79 (not $1.09). 70 cents worth of garlic (or an extra cucumber!) certainly would have been a welcome addition, will have to check to see if I'm blind or if my local store doesn't stock it (or stocks so little it's rarely there, which happens with some bakery goods). Wouldn't have changed my overall strategy but definitely useful info.

    Good work reporting your progress & experience Angus, not to mention handling the abundance of user comments & questions. A+

    Pretty impressive to have lasted this far and in such good spirits!

    I'd love to see what the menu would look like if it was say $100 for the month. Given the bulk buy quantities do you think you could survive this long? or would flavour (or caffiene and wine) drive you back to spending more..

      I'm sure $100 for a month would be doable, and in some ways I think it might be easier -- bulk discounts would apply across several categories and I could cook large quantities of stuff and freeze them to spread out over the whole month, minimising repetition. A lot more planning effort up front (and the effort for a week wasn't inconsiderable) but achievable.

      In practice, it's not going to happen soon in my case because it's quite rare for me to spend even a week in one place, so there'd be no way of making it representative and informative. And I do think there's something useful about being able to say "even if you've only got $25, you can eat quite well for a week". There'll be a full in-one-place summary of the list and menu, along with what I've learned more generally, at the end of the project.

    Great work keeping us updated Angus!

    Considering the amount of money saving ideas that ACA has been running on their show lately, maybe you could contact them about your adventure and share it with the country! there are a lot of under privileged people out there who would benefit from this info.

      With all due respect, the underprivileged would be better served doing exactly the opposite of this. Having flour, sugar, salt and pepper in the cupboard gives you a ton of extra options and buying fresh fruit and vegetables gives you nutritional value and variety.

      The thing I've been asking (mentally) for a whole week and I don't think has been answered fully yet is "why?" I know you want to see if you can live on $25 a week but WHY? As many have pointed out $100 a month or $50 a week for two is actually a lot of money if you shop well and proving you can survive on home brand packaged crap doesn't seem to serve much long-term use: why not show how you can eat *well* for that much? You've agreed at every turn that you aren't really enjoying this, so why??

      Also, you can totally make bread cheaply: I make enough bread for rolls for lunch + a loaf on the weekend for two for about $5 a week. Tastes better, better for you (wholemeal), and homemade bread is a real crowd pleaser. Requires buying flour in bulk and a little time but as long as you think ahead it's easy.

        Lots of selective interpretation on that comment, and (with all due respect) a fairly large portion of self-serving rubbish which suggests you've not actually read much of this before jumping to conclusions that match your own world view, which might make arguing against it a bit pointless. But it's so inaccurate on so many points. Where to start?

        First and most obviously, I've not "agreed at every turn" that I'm not enjoying this. I've said on one occasion what foods I've missed, but I've more often pointed out that I've never felt hungry and how much I've enjoyed a lot of the food.

        On some minor points, being told to add salt to the list to improve the available options is just ludicrous, and how exactly wholemeal bread would be better for me than multigrain wholemeal bread is even less evident.

        As I've said time and time again, I've never disputed that buying in larger quantities can get you different choices, or that cooking for two or four would be cheaper -- I made those points right at the start. But the reality is not everyone who finds themselves in financially constrained conditions has that option. Sometimes, $25 a week (or whatever the figure is) really is all you have to feed yourself and yourself alone. In that scenario, there is no bulk buying of flour (or anything else), and every item you buy represents something else you don't buy.

        I've lived through that experience before when I was younger, and I figured it was instructive to see if I could do a better job, offering more variety and a better health picture, with similar constraints. To judge from the reader reaction (and traffic figures), other people have found that useful too, and it's exposed some interesting gaps in conventional wisdom (e.g. the widely held belief that Aldi is invariably cheaper). If you haven't found any of that helpful, there's an equally simple reality: no-one's forcing you to read it!

        As for the "packaged crap" remark: the cake mix and the meat pie aside (and I'll write about that tomorrow), what I've bought is indeed packaged in the sense it's in a package (just like the flour you suggest I buy), but it's been basic goods (pasta, vegetables, milk, eggs, margarine). Most Australians buy their food at supermarkets. Knowing how to buy more effectively is, for those people, potentially useful information.

        Notably, I've yet to see anyone who has said "I could do better with this money for one person" so far in these comments actually come up with an example of how that works in real, costed, practical terms, and how it's an improvement on what I've done. This comment is no different: enough bread for two people for a week is said to cost "about $5 a week". No indication of the volumes involved (how many rolls? how big a loaf?), what other ingredients are needed, etc. And even if we presume the quantities match up, it comes out at $2.50 a person -- just marginally below what I paid (and I was paying for multigrain in the process). As with so many other suggestions, it's a possible alternative, but not a materially cheaper one.

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