Supermarkets claim food is cheaper than ever, but just how inexpensively can a single person eat? Lifehacker editor Angus Kidman sets himself the challenge of eating healthily for a whole week with a budget of just $25 — no extras allowed.
Getting on for two decades back when I was an impoverished university student, I found myself living away from home on a very minimal budget. By the time I'd paid rent and set aside a little for other household and study bills, my total sum left over for food was just $10 a week. That was a lot less than my housemates were prepared to spend, so I had to come up with a way of feeding myself, and only myself, for that amount.
Was that doable? Yes — though it meant I didn't really eat enough, the food was pretty boring and very repetitive, and I scrounged free meals from friends and family at every possible moment. As soon as I worked out how to fit a job into my university schedule, I upped the food budget and breathed a sigh of relief.
Nonetheless, I've often wondered since if that approach could be sustained again, especially since I now know a little more about cooking and nutrition than I did at the time. Supermarkets also claim that food has become cheaper in many cases, so it should be possible to eat kind of reasonably at those prices.
That kind of thinking has led me to the "Mastercheap" project: seeing if I can come up with a week's worth of meals for $25 that meet basic nutritional requirements (enough energy and protein, not too much fat and salt) and which don't drive me completely up the wall. I won't be doing this for more than a week, but I do want to try and come up with a model that I could keep using if financial necessity dictated, and see if I can permanently adjust some of my food shopping habits.
The experiment will take place from this Saturday, July 17, through to Friday July 23. In tomorrow's Loaded column I'll reveal my shopping list for the week. From Sunday, I'll run a daily post covering the menu from the day before, how the project is going and some of the tricks I'll use to try and survive a what can only be described as sustenance diet. I'll also be posting occasional updates on the go through my Twitter account, using the tag #mastercheap.
Setting the budget
$10 a week didn't go very far in the early 1990s, and it would go even less distance these days. Apart from sounding reasonably neat as a figure, I settled on $25 for a couple of reasons. My brief experiments with trying to create a $20 a week budget suggested that was pretty hard to do without resorting to eating 2-minute noodles for every single meal. $25 falls just short of $3.60 a day, or a bit less than $1.20 a meal. That daily figure also demonstrates that buying a take-out cup of coffee every day could easily cost you $25 a week. I want to entirely sustain myself for the same amount (hence no dining out, no visiting friends or family for meals, and no grabbing snacks at work meetings).
My nutritional targets are to consume around 9000 kilojoules a day, with 55 grams of protein, no more than 1500mg of salt and no more than 90 grams of fat — all reasonable targets for a man of my height, weight and activity level. Lots of cheap food uses ridiculous amounts of salt, so that required some careful label reading. In practice, actually getting to the kilojoule and protein targets proved quite challenging.
No existing supplies
In order to replicate my student experience, none of the stuff that's already in my cupboard is allowed to be used. The main challenge this poses is flavouring: you can buy a packet of pasta pretty cheaply, but the herbs used to flavour a sauce for it can easily cost more. That certainly would make the meal more appealing, but for the sake of this exercise it has to be considered supplies (and money) I just don't have.
No bulk budgeting
On a related note, I also think it would be cheating to spend more than $25 and then just "use" $25 worth of stuff. That is, a pinch of spice might only be worth a few cents, but you have to spend at least a dollar to buy it in a packet, or a few dollars if you want it in a jar.
Recipe designers use this kind of calculation all the time. The $10 to feed a family of four recipes promoted by Coles fall squarely into this category, for instance; in many cases, they resort to saying "you'll have this in your pantry" and excluding those elements from price calculations. To draw on the linked example: you probably do have olive oil in your pantry, but you might well not have red wine. But if you're missing either, you'll be spending more $10 to make the meal.
In practice, that kind of spending doesn't matter if your budget has some elasticity. But if it doesn't — and that's the case for many people, either through force of circumstances or electing to try and save — then it's not logical to calculate costs in that way.
For our purposes, I can only spend $25, and in practice I need to eat most of what I buy. (With my particular budget, all I expect to have left over is some margarine, teabags and mustard.) If you were running this kind of budget week in and week out, you'd undoubtedly allow for buying goods that would be useable over several weeks.
Solo eating is pricier
The cheapest way to eat is to buy supplies in large amounts, but buying in bulk doesn't work if you're looking at a very restricted budget and only aiming to feed a single person. Or to put it another way: it's possibly slightly easier to feed four people for $100 than to feed one person for $25.
I live on my own, so I can't experiment with how that would work in practice, but my pre-research definitely confirmed the evident fact that most food is cheaper if you buy it in bulk. The problem with buying large supplies for my purposes is that it would instantly condemn me to eating almost exactly the same thing at every single meal, as well as reducing the impact of my food dollar on what I can consume straight away. So that won't be happening much.
Check in tomorrow to see how I've decided to spend my $25 for the week ahead. Let's go!