I'm seated at a media launch at Otto Ristorante, one of Sydney's more exclusive restaurants. Options on the menu include eye fillet of Angus reserve beef and red wine rigatoni with a pork sausage ragu and buffalo ricotta. It's all utterly tempting, and that's before the waiter recites the specials. But I'm not paying attention, because I can't eat any of it. Those are the rules for Mastercheap Raw.
Breakfast: 1/3 cup of quick oats, cooked with 1/2 cup milk and served with 2 spoonfuls stewed apple
Lunch: Tuna, steamed mixed vegetables
Dinner: Fried eggs, chilli beans, orange for dessert
Snacks: 3 pieces shortbread, 1 carrot chopped into sticks
Hot drinks: 7 cups black tea
I'm not expecting (or receiving) any sympathy. "You did this to yourself! Just be a #mastercheat and be done with it!!" my colleague Marisa tweets at me. On one level, she's right of course. Anybody operating on a strict food budget wouldn't turn down a free meal of any description, let alone one as elaborate as this. But I want the Mastercheap Raw experiment to be as pure as possible. If it's doable with those constraints, it should be even easier to stick to a food budget in the real world, where you rarely start with an empty pantry and occasional free meal options show up.
As I've noted before, "occasional" translates into "frequent" in my life. I got offered food at other launches twice this week already, and a tray of free food showed up in the office on Thursday as well. So I've been saying no. I ate my own lunch — tuna and vegetables — before hitting the restaurant, so I wouldn't be tempted. Everyone else eats; I take notes on my laptop and answer endless questions about what I'm doing.
And here's something to consider: while I like the sound of the red wine rigatoni with a pork sausage ragu and buffalo ricotta, that one dish alone costs $26. For the price of a single dish at a fancy restaurant, I have fed myself for a week. That feels like an achievement, even if it's an imperfect one. So I don't waver.
As well, I know the end is in sight. The experiment ends on a quiet Friday night, with fried eggs and beans for dinner, and the orange I've been saving all week for dessert. On Monday I'll sum up the challenge: how it worked financially, nutritionally and psychologically, and the lessons that everyone can learn from it about budget and menu planning.
Lifehacker’s Mastercheap Raw experiment sees editor Angus Kidman living for a week with a food budget of just $25 and only basic ingredients.