Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Foodie on a budget

I can't remember how it first arose, but recently D and I decided to enter into a challenge.  We are neither of us particularly frugal individuals, particularly when it comes to what we eat, and so we undertook to each design a week's menu and make it as cheap as we could while trying not to compromise too much on the quality of the dishes.  (You can see our respective menu plans here and here).

Lamb with gratin dauphinoise
We made it fairly easy for ourselves by allowing quite a broad definition of the word "pantry": dried products such as pasta and rice were included, as was flour, a box of eggs (any more than six had to be counted), a packet of butter and a bottle of milk, plus herbs and spices, seasoning, stock powder, and, perhaps slightly more controversially, breakfast cereal.  Apart from these items, anything that we already had in the fridge, freezer or cupboards could be incorporated but they had to be counted using the original cost and the proportion utilised.  Likewise, any items purchased that were not used in full were only charged proportionally - so, where I bought two half legs of lamb for £10 and committed one to the freezer, the total value of the lamb recorded in my half of the spreadsheet was £5.  We thought this was a fair reflection of the fact that anyone on a budget would be daft not to take advantage of the savings offered sometimes by bulk purchasing.

Smoked haddock and leek macaroni cheese
We usually do our weekly shop in our local Waitrose.  D decided that he would carry on as normal and not look elsewhere.  I took a slightly different approach and visited Butchers' Row in Leeds Market for the Sunday joint and budget supermarket Aldi for some of the produce I needed.  The results were surprising.

The total cost of my week was £34.49.  If we call this lunch and dinner for two adults, seven days, this works out at just £1.23 per head per meal or £2.46 a day.  Not too shabby, right?

Spicy lamb flatbreads with Moroccan couscous and carrot salad
D's, shockingly, was just £30.97.  Bear in mind that this was buying everything at Waitrose.  That's just £1.10 per head per or £2.20 a day.

Now, as I've mentioned, our definition of pantry was pretty loose.  But still, the result was surprising - we managed to eat pretty well over the course of two weeks while not spending a huge amount - and certainly not living on beans on toast.

Turmeric and lemongrass chicken

We both commented that good planning was absolutely paramount; not just sitting down and making a list of meals but working out how ingredients could be utilised in different ways to minimise waste.  However, a degree of flexibility within the plan can mean you get the best deals - D managed to get his week's meat on a 3 for £10 offer by compromising slightly on the ingredients for his curry, which meant that his chicken, which provided one dinner and two lunches, was just £3.33.  Vegetables, particularly root vegetables, are a cheap way to add bulk as well as additional flavour - I caramelised a handful of onions at the beginning of the week and used them both with shredded spicy lamb in a flatbread, and stirred through basmati rice, ribbons of carrot popped up in a Moroccan style couscous salad and a herby pasta dish.

Spaghetti with carrots and herb pesto
We also both agreed that a good spice cupboard is also pretty essential.  The likelihood is, on a budget, you will be buying cheaper, possibly less high quality, meat and fish which will need help in the flavour department.  And it's worth spending a little on other ingredients which will add a lot of flavour for not a lot of volume - cured meats such as bacon (a couple of finely chopped rashers can transform many a recipe) or strong cheese like Parmesan which, as a seasoning, can wake up pasta and rice dishes.

Lamb and cauliflower curry with cucumber raita
All in all, I'm pretty pleased with the experiment, and hope that we can be a bit more thoughtful with regards our food budgeting in future.  In terms of the challenge - D won on cost and also won the prize for the dish of the fortnight with Diana Henry's absolutely sublime turmeric and lemongrass chicken.  However, I flatter myself that I edged it in terms of diversity of menu (four out of his seven planned dinners were pasta based).  Perhaps a very worthy tie?  And (cringeworthy final sentence pun on its way) definitely food for thought.

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