Mastercheap Raw: Cooking For A Week On A Total Budget Of Just $25

The Mastercheap project is back! Once again I have to survive with a total food budget of $25 for a week, and to add an extra challenge, this time I have to try and make everything from scratch. This is Mastercheap Raw. There will be many potatoes.

Picture by ripplestone garden

Long-time readers will remember that I conducted the original Mastercheap back in July 2010. The idea was fairly simple: I had a $25 food budget for the week, and I had to feed myself as healthily as possible on that sum.

$25 was chosen as a round number that roughly equates to a cup of coffee a day. It was also an absolute constraint: I couldn’t use any pantry supplies that I already had, and I couldn’t use any form of proportional budgeting (buying a $5 bag of rice and then saying I had only used “$2 worth” wasn’t on). The $25 was all I could spend, no trickery.

Mastercheap was an interesting experience, a great success and attracted a lot of comments. Fundamentally, it demonstrated that you could have a reasonably varied and nutritious diet with three meals a day while spending no more than $1.20 (on average) for each meal, and that you didn’t have to live on nothing but 2-minute noodles to achieve that. It wasn’t the most spectacularly varied menu, but it wasn’t the same meal for lunch and dinner 14 times either. And despite many dire predictions, I didn’t starve. I haven’t lived on that budget since, but I have adapted

That didn’t mean it couldn’t be tweaked or improved. One common objection raised at the time was that many items are even cheaper if you buy them in bulk; that a budget for a week was less useful than for a month; and that it would be cheaper if you were cooking for more than one person. All those assertions are true, but they somewhat missed the point. I was putting myself in the toughest, worst-case scenario. If it was doable at that scale, it would be even easier (and offer better choices) when you could buy in bulk, cook for multiple people, budget over a month, and accept meals from friends or work when they were offered.

The other comment that came up quite frequently was that it should be possible to spend even less and have a more varied listing by buying more fresh ingredients. The original Mastercheap shopping list wasn’t actually that heavy on highly processed foods: the only thing I think really fell into that category was a frozen meat pie (which I wouldn’t buy again) and a packet cake mix. But it was often suggested that if I baked my own bread or made my own pasta or cooked my own cakes or just bought lots of vegetables that I could have come up with a better and healthier menu for the same money.

I wasn’t totally convinced initially, but after a little research, I figured that trying something more like a raw food approach might be an interesting twist on the original experiment. With two years having passed, I also wanted to see how much prices for bargain-basement food had changed in the interim.

So next week I’m doing Mastercheap Raw. It’s the same basic rules and $25 budget, but everything I buy has to be, in essence, a single ingredient. If I want bread, I’ll have to make it myself. Ditto pasta, or anything else. All the other restrictions apply: no dining out; no begging meals from friends; nothing but what I can prepare myself.

One point I’ll make in advance: this menu, like the one before it, is designed to suit my tastes. You can’t eat steak on a miniscule budget, but if you really don’t like lentils, there’s no point using them as an alternative. Whatever the budget, if you fill your shopping list with items you don’t actually want to consume, you won’t stick to it. That also means there’s no universal menu everyone should adopt. Others faced with the same challenge would doubtless make different choices. I don’t imagine too many people would adopt the exact list I’m trying this time around (or the one I took up in 2010), but there should be ideas for money-saving in there which everyone can adopt.

Tomorrow, I’ll reveal my full shopping list (I even got change!). The full diary starts next Monday. As ever, comments and suggestions are welcome.

Lifehacker’s Mastercheap Raw experiment sees editor Angus Kidman living for a week with a food budget of just $25 and only basic ingredients.

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