More than half a million people in Britain are relying on food banks to eat, a charity has found, as rises in prices combined with high unemployment and cuts to benefits leave them below the breadline.
But how low can you realistically cut your food bill without compromising your health? I decided to find out by following the example of Jack Monroe.
Jack had to quit her job as the cost of childcare and her daily commute meant she simply couldn’t afford to work. She couldn’t find a job closer to home, so she ended up flat broke – and with just £10 a week left for food after bills.
So Jack launched a blog – A Girl Called Jack – where she chronicled her efforts to cook good wholesome food for herself and her child, despite her small budget.
It’s won her a legion of online fans and a £25,000 book deal, so I decided to try out a few of her recipes myself…
How much did I spend?
When Jack prices up her dishes, she only factors in the cost of the specific amount she used. So if a 750ml bottle of economy red wine cost £3.48 but she only uses 30mls, she’ll price that up at 14p.
I don’t think that’s cheating. Many of her recipes allow her to use up leftovers and a lot of the dishes are freezable. I felt it would be easy to choose recipes from her blog that allow all leftovers to be eaten up, so I’ve priced my ingredients the same way.
I went to the supermarket and bought ingredients for the bolognese below, soup and also carrot and coriander falafels. I spent £7.29 but only used £3.32-worth of the ingredients. According to Jack’s recipes, I created eight portions in total, meaning an average cost per portion of 41p.
That means I didn’t get the price as low as Jack. I think that’s because she has perfected her shopping technique. She paid 5p for one carrot, where I paid 11p – probably because I shopped at my local Sainsbury’s, whereas she is almost certainly using a cheaper supermarket.
However, I am confident that if I was buying enough food for a week and shopping at one of the budget stores, I’d be able to match her prices.
Red Lentil Bolognese
- 1 onion, 5p (part of a 20pc veg pack, £1)
- 1 carrot, 5p (part of a 20pc veg pack, £1)
- Fistful of thyme, free (window ledge)
- Fistful of parsley, free (window ledge)
- 1 garlic clove, 3p (46p for 2 bulbs, average 8 cloves each)
- 100g red lentils, 10p (£1.09/500g)
- 1 carton chopped tomatoes, 35p
- 1 vegetable stock cube, 1p (10p for 10)
- 30ml red wine, 14p (Table Wine, £3.48/750ml)
When Jack cooked this dish up it cost her 21p a portion and the recipe makes up four portions – although I have to admit that I ate two portions at a sitting and still felt it was quite a light meal.
However, it was really, really tasty. I served it with toasted pitta breads and we all cleared our plates, including my fussy toddler.
Verdict: Cheap, tasty, nutritious - but not a lot there. You might need to increase the portion sizes to fill up and this will increase costs.
- 150g mushrooms, 30p
- Half an onion, 3p
- 1 clove of garlic, 3p
- Handful of thyme, free
- 30ml red wine, 10p
- 1 vegetable stock cube, made into 300ml stock, 2p
Jack’s soup costs 24p a portion, although you’d need to add some bread or potatoes to make it a meal.
And even then it would be a lean meal. Although this soup was surprisingly tasty, there wasn’t much to it and we felt hungry afterwards.
Verdict: Again, nothing wrong with the recipe but the portion was small. Factor in bread or other things to go with it and the costs rise.
Will I use her recipes again?
“It’s actually quite nice!” That’s what my husband and I said each time we sampled these dishes – they are really tasty. She uses cheap herbs to give her dishes a big punch of flavour and, because she grows her own herbs, she’s able to make meals with great depth of taste without spending much at all.
Yet I’m fairly sure that I would lose weight eating these dishes every night and, while I’d love that at first, I’m not sure it would be sustainable. I didn’t always agree with her portion sizes.
Also, she rarely uses meat, as it’s expensive. That’s not a problem for me, I’m a vegetarian, but I fear my husband would crack after a few weeks substituting lentils for beef – clearly we are very lucky that our budget is not as tight as Jack’s.
However, there’s a lot to learn from her cooking. The recipes are full of low-cost staples like onions, mushrooms and potatoes. Where other recipes might use expensive dairy and meat products to add flavour, she’s clipping the herbs on her windowsill instead and saving a fortune.
The dishes I cooked and the other recipes I read were all incredibly simple and quick. As the mother of a toddler and a newborn, I really appreciated how fast they were.
In fact, I wish this blog had existed when I was a student, as fast food on a very tight budget would really have appealed. In the future, I’ll certainly turn to this blog for long months when money is a bit tighter – a couple of austerity dishes a week would stretch my household budget much further.
What do you think? How much do you spend on food a week? How would you manage with just £10 a week for food? Let us know in the comments below.