Can you really cut your food bill in half – and still eat healthily?
Recently, we challenged our reader panel to answer that very question. And we were delighted when tips, suggestions and budget secrets poured in by the hundreds! After careful consideration, we selected 10 families to slash their food bills for a week, then chose three of their stories to share with you. But we couldn’t ignore the other fantastic suggestions you gave us – so we’ve also picked our favourite reader tips for you (see bottom).
From $230 a week to $150
The Abrahams family challenge
Kerry Abrahams, 44, from Perth, lives with husband Nigel, 39, and children Michael, 21, Brittany, 13 and Brayden, 5. They eat out around once a week, and usually shop at the supermarket.
My usual shopping style would be called ‘carefree’ – I simply go into the supermarket, and buy what I like!
I usually do have some sort of idea of what I might cook in a week, but I’m often influenced by in-store specials – or I’m silly enough to take the kids with me, which usually results in a very full trolley and a heart attack at the register! I’m also used to buying pre-packed ‘extras’ for the kids’ lunchboxes – rice bubble bars, muesli bars, two-fruit tubs; that kind of thing.
Wow, what a week! I expected meat, fruit and veg to be the biggest ‘budget munchers’, so I was shocked at just how much I’ve been paying to ensure we get our recommended dairy intake each day. It was impossible to afford yoghurt without severely cutting back in other areas, so we went without – which we need to work on.
There’s normally a couple of sweet treats in the house too, but this week the only thing I caved in on was a packet of marshmallows – I bought them because I thought the kids might go a bit crazy without any ‘treat’ foods. But incredibly, at the end of the week the marshmallows were still sealed. In fact, no one even complained of being hungry! I think this was because we were all eating more wholefoods and less processed rubbish than normal, so we were actually fuller than normal. We all felt healthier, too.
Overall I’m happy with our result and don’t feel that we fell too far short of the mark where nutrition is concerned.
Kerry’s top tips – savings $80
Know that shopping close to closing time doesn’t always work out. I had heard that shopping close to closing time could save you quite a bit on ‘marked-down’ items. However, this really worked against me as the cheaper bread I usually buy and meat specials I was after had both sold out! Some veg was also hard to buy at that time too, as there wasn’t much left and what was left wasn’t of the best quality. Though I did have a small win – I got one bag of rolls marked down.
Have a backup plan for your menu. With some of the items I had planned to buy sold out, I suddenly had to make changes to my menu plan without the benefit of being able to consult recipes or sit down and do a rough costing for them. This made it hard as I was unsure if I would have all the ingredients needed to make the new ‘replacement meals’. I will certainly make sure I have a separate list of ingredients for a replacement meal or two with me in future to save the stress.
Keep track with a calculator as you shop. This saves unpleasant surprises at the checkout – although it pays to use a calculator that doesn’t turn itself off, if not used for a certain period. Yes, I got caught on this one too! I ended up switching to the calculator function on my mobile phone, which avoided this happening a second time.
Choose the most necessary items first. These things (such as meat, vegies and dairy) can often be the most expensive, so once you have them in your trolley you can see how much of your budget is left over for items you can do without, or items you can find a cheaper substitute for.
Include one vegetarian meal every week, to reduce cost. I didn’t think this one would work too well with my meat-loving family, but it was a great success. It will now be a regular thing.
Buy whole cuts of meat, and dice or mince them yourself. It’s cheaper than paying extra for the butcher to do it for you.
Bulk up with extra vegies and pulses. This actually gained us an extra dinner and an extra lunch, so I got a night off cooking without doing what I normally do – getting take away!
Breakfast: Weet-Bix and milk
Lunch: Tuna, tasty cheese and salad sandwiches on wholegrain
Dinner: Spaghetti bolognaise bulked up with lentils, grated carrot and zucchini
Snacks: Tinned peaches set in jelly; air-popped popcorn
Breakfast: Toast and honey; juice
Lunch: Cold pasta salad with ham, capsicum, carrot, onion and cheese
Dinner: Chicken, potato and veg rissoles, bulked up with extra vegies
Snacks: Pears; air-popped popcorn
Breakfast: Toast and Vegemite; juice
Lunch: Egg and lettuce rolls
Dinner: Tuna pasta bake and vegetables
Snacks: Apples; yoghurt; air-popped popcorn
Kerry’s tuna pasta bake
200g wholemeal macaroni 2 tablespoons reduced-fat table spread 2 tablespoons plain flour 1 1/2 cups skim milk 1 cup extra light tasty cheese, grated 425g can tuna in spring water, drained 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Step 1 Preheat oven to 180ºC. Cook pasta as per packet instructions.
Step 2 Melt table spread in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and stir until mixture bubbles. Gradually add skim milk and whisk until smooth. Cook for 3–4 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent lumps, until sauce thickens.
Step 3 Remove from heat and add half the cheese. Combine tuna, pasta, parsley and sauce and spoon mixture into a 1.5L baking dish. Top with remaining cheese and bake for 25–30 minutes, until cheese is browned. Serve with salad.
The Abrahams have done a fantastic job of slashing their shopping bill, while maintaining nutritious meals. But Kerry is right: they do need to eat more yoghurt, as an adequate calcium intake is particularly important for healthy bone development in Brittany and Brayden, and maintaining bone strength in the rest of the family. A weekly meat-free meal is also a great money-saving idea, as long as Kerry remembers to include a variety of plant-based proteins for optimal health. Overall, well done! Caitlin Reid, HFG dietitian
From $330 a week to $150
The Iavasile family challenge
Laura Iavasile, 45, from Mickleham, VIC lives with husband, Angelo, 45, and children Matthew, 19, Kristopher, 16 and Sasha, 12. Angelo has recently been diagnosed with cancer and Matthew suffers with Crohn’s disease.
I’ve always wanted to be able to sit down and work out a budget, and a menu, but I never seem to have the time. Usually, I go out and buy whatever – so I’d describe my shopping style as ‘all over the place’!
In our cupboard, there’s usually a lot of chips, snack foods and donuts. Normally, I buy a lot of frozen meals – sausage rolls, hot dogs, pies; lots of ready-to-eat bits and pieces. To help save money, I try to buy fish from the fish markets and chicken from the chicken shop (rather than the supermarket), and I try to shop only once every fortnight. But with teenage boys who are constantly hungry, that can be pretty difficult! We normally eat takeaway once a week; sometimes twice a week.
I didn’t think I would be able to do this – but I’ve really surprised myself! I’m cooking with herbs now, we make omelettes instead of hot dogs, and we all feel healthier. I’ve also lost a kilo this week, and my son Kristopher has noticed that he’s got more energy. It used to be a nightmare to get him to go for a walk, but now he wants a dog so he can go walking more. You’ve even inspired me to tackle my next challenge – starting a vegie patch!
With Angelo and Matthew’s recent diagnoses, I have felt that eating more healthily isn’t an option, it’s a necessity. Angelo is no longer working, either, so saving money has become much more important. This challenge couldn’t have come at a better time! I’ve learnt so much.
Laura’s top tips – savings $180
Have a ‘staples’ list. I produced a list with every item that I keep stocked in the house, which I broke up into different categories. I now keep this list on my computer desktop, so when I go shopping I simply print it out, cross off everything I don’t need, and only buy what’s left on the page.
Try to shop once every two weeks. I have done this by accident recently, simply because I haven’t had the time to go shopping – but I don’t spend as much!
Make your own breadcrumbs. They’re versatile and free! I simply kept all the ends of our bread loaves, placed them into a bowl in the pantry, covered the bowl with a tea towel and allowed the bread to dry out slowly. Once dried, I simply broke up the bread into small pieces and put it through the food processor. I began to do this primarily for health reasons – I wanted to eat multi-grain bread crumbs, and the only type available I could find at the shops was white. But it’s not only healthier, it saves you some money – and you know that what you’re eating is breadcrumbs, with nothing else added.
Grow your own herbs. Fresh herbs can be very expensive, so this definitely helped a lot! I began growing some in a small pot, and then added more to a small garden plot near the house. Dried herbs don’t have the same flavour, and with Ange’s taste buds changing a lot because of the chemotherapy, it’s important that I use fresh wherever possible. You can also freeze leftover herbs, so you’ll always have something fresh on hand. I now have fresh basil, parsley, oregano, chives, lemon thyme, common thyme, lemon grass, sage, bay tree and marjoram, right at my fingertips!
Make extra for dinner. Dinners that allow for lunches for the next day not only save time, they save money – and they guarantee you’re eating something healthy. For example, one night I roasted a chicken, and made a nice salad and chicken sandwiches with the leftovers, for the following day.
Use your freezer for good. I used to keep party pies and sausage rolls in the freezer for those emergencies when people come around, but now that I make things in bulk (see the tip above), I know I will always have something stored in the freezer, like a vegie soup, that will be ready in minutes.
Breakfast: Grilled cheese and tomato on toast, 1 piece of fruit, tea or coffee
Lunch: Sandwiches with leftover chicken, tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise; 1 piece of fresh fruit
Dinner: Spaghetti marinara, salad
Dessert: Low-fat ice cream with canned peaches
Breakfast: Cereal with chopped banana and milk or yogurt
Lunch: Homemade foccacia with tomato, cheese, lettuce and cucumber; yoghurt with fresh berries
Dinner: Fried rice with green salad
Dessert: Banana split with chocolate sauce (HFG April 2009 issue)
Breakfast: Homemade pancakes with berries and low fat ice-cream; juice
Lunch: Fried rice leftovers with soy sauce; yoghurt with berries
Dinner: Chicken casserole with potato and carrots
Dessert: Fresh fruit salad
Roast chicken with potatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1/2 cup fresh herbs, finely chopped (I like bay leaf, rosemary, sage and marjoram) turmeric (optional) 1 x size 16 whole chicken 600g potatoes
Step 1 Preheat oven to 180ºC. Pour oil into a small bowl and mix with garlic, herbs and turmeric. Rub mixture all over surface of chicken and place into a large roasting dish. Set aside.
Step 2 Cut potatoes into thick wedges. Place potatoes into roasting dish, together with chicken.
Step 3 Roast chicken and potatoes for 1 hour and 10 minutes; basting every 30 minutes. Remove from oven. Chicken is cooked when juices run clear when pricked with a skewer.
As Laura says, healthy eating is a necessity for this family and the Iavasiles have done really well with their budget challenge. Laura should remember that shopping fortnightly reduces the likelihood of having fresh produce in the house (which is antioxidant-rich), so it’s important she keeps a variety of frozen and canned fruit and veg on hand. Laura, congratulations on reducing the processed foods in your house! Caitlin Reid, HFG dietitian
From $180 a week to $50
Jessica Merrett’s challenge
Jessica Merrett, 28, from Frankston, VIC, lives alone with her two dogs. She eats out around once a week, and shops at the supermarket.
Normally, I’m someone who goes to the shops almost every day and buys useless bits and pieces that end up sitting in the pantry – things that aren’t for a specific meal, but look nice to eat! It’s for this reason that I usually end up buying too much fresh produce, and having to throw it away. I like to cook all my meals from scratch, too, which is why I get sucked into buying ‘specials’ on produce. I’ll see a big bag of potatoes and buy them, because it’s ‘cheaper’ than buying just one or two – and then end up throwing them out, because there’s only one of me to eat them. What a waste!
I was pretty impressed with my week of meals. I didn’t have to sort through cupboards to find things, because I knew I had all the ingredients I needed. I was full the whole time and looked forward to my pending meals.
I also was a little more adventurous than normal by trying some new recipes of my own; I sorted through the Healthy Food Guides I have safely stashed away to find some creative meals to eat. I even went so far as to buy $2 per kg chicken mince for my dogs, which I cooked with vegies and rice. Homemade pet food is much healthier and goes so much further, price-wise, than the tinned variety! I had fun doing this, and learnt plenty along the way. Best of all, I didn’t celebrate my week with take-away – I bought a nice steak to cook.
Jessica’s top tips – savings $130
Store your vegies the way they’re supposed to be stored. I hadn’t done that in the past, and it made a huge difference to their fridge-life.
Buy a whole chook at once – and roast it on Sunday night. It’s particularly cheap, especially when you consider the cost of a kilo of chicken breasts. Having roast chicken in the fridge helped me avoid takeaway on those days when I’m usually too busy to prepare lunch before work.
Invest in a yoghurt maker. I did! You can make a whole litre of unsweetened, creamy yoghurt with one sachet of Easy-Yo yoghurt mix. Much cheaper than buying yoghurt yourself.
Look at your pantry with fresh eyes. I had some chilli sauce in the pantry, which is something that normally takes forever to get through – but this week, I mixed it with cottage cheese and it made a nice change of scenery on corn thins. (Actually, that’s another tip – you can do anything to cottage cheese and it continues to taste nice!)
Try jelly. I made up a sachet and had jelly for dessert. I had about one-third of the sachet each time; dessert for 22 cents!
Freeze your bread. I mostly eat it toasted, and it keeps better for longer (particularly when it’s just me).
Try vegetarian meals. They’re cheap, yummy, and a good way to use up eggs and tofu.
Choose a small range of your favourite vegies. Having a specific selection to work with each week, of all different colours, is better than getting too much of a few different types of produce, and then having to throw things out because you got sick of eating the same thing.
Prepare a meal plan, then a shopping list. It doesn’t take long, and this way, I ended up buying just what I needed, instead of half of the grocery shop! I’m also usually quite adventurous with putting meals together, which can mean that sometimes, my dinner is a ‘flop’. With a meal planner, however, I am proud to say there were no flops in my $50 week!
Breakfast: 2 pieces of toast with cottage cheese and 1 poached egg
Snack: Yoghurt, fruit and cinnamon
Lunch: 3-bean mix with salad; 1 apple
Snack: Handful of peanuts; 1 apple
Dinner: Roast chicken breast, potato, pumpkin, peas and carrots
Dessert: 2 scoops of ice-cream
Breakfast: Omelette with 2 eggs, mushroom and cottage cheese; tea
Snack: Small packet of Smarties
Lunch: Sandwich with leftover chicken, onion and lettuce; an apple
Snack: Nectarine smoothie
Dinner: Tofu patties with pumpkin; Carrot, shallot and vermicelli salad
Breakfast: Omelette with 2 eggs, mushroom and cottage cheese; tea
Snack: Yoghurt, fruit and cinnamon
Lunch: Leftover tofu patties and vermicelli salad
Snack: 2 corn thins with cottage cheese/chilli sauce mix
Step 1 Preheat oven to 180ºC. Spray ovenproof dish with cooking oil. Set aside. Steam pumpkin until soft.
Step 2 In a bowl, mash pumpkin together with tofu. Mix through breadcrumbs, egg, carrot, soy sauce and pepper. Roll into balls and cover with breadcrumbs. Place into dish and bake for 20 minutes. Serve with salad.
Jessica has clearly shown that being organised helps you save money. She’s done a fantastic job of planning meals and writing a shopping list, which reduces impulse buys and wasted produce. And her variety in meals helps ensure she reaches her daily requirements. Congrats! Caitlin Reid, HFG dietitian
$$ budget tips
"Learn to love your local Asian supermarket. They’ve got some delicious food – and great bargains." Lisa Schmierer
"Try shopping in a smaller supermarket. Big supermarkets tend to stock a huge range of varieties of the same product, and have specials on unnecessary food items – both of which just tempt you to purchase unnecessary things!" Lea Compton
"Whenever you have leftovers, make them into patties and serve them with a tomato-based sauce." B Driver
"I shop with a friend who does her whole shop in 30 minutes. I usually take an hour and end up with a full trolley, but shopping with her, I’m much faster and I save heaps!" Elizabeth Jennings
"Write your grocery list the day before grocery shopping. The next day, before shopping, go through it again and delete what you can do without. There are usually some ‘wish’ purchases there!" Claire Bielski
"One of the quickest ways to blow your food budget is to buy takeaway! I beat temptation by making a quadruple batch of bolognese sauce, then freezing the remaining portions for almost-instant meals next time I’m too tired to cook. And bolognese gets better with time!" Katya Stojanovska
"I stalk the supermarket shelves, looking for foods that are close to their ‘best before’ dates. You can get some great cheese and meat bargains!" Lynley Marshall
"Buy apricots, prunes and dates in bulk and wrap little packets in wax paper for kids’ lunchboxes. It’s much cheaper than buying packaged treats." Annie Gerrand
"Store dried goods, such as rice, in airtight, plastic containers. It keeps your pantry neater, you won't buy more than you need by accident, and it keeps everything fresher for longer." Danielle Archer
"Our family has a 'rummage night' on a Sunday: we look in the pantry and fridge and make dinner from what we find. It's good for using up random cans hiding in the pantry?" S. Van Dyk
Less leftovers: "I haven't looked back since buying a vacuum-sealing unit. I use it to extend the life of meat, cheese, noodles, rice and sugar. It was a bit pricey to buy, but well worth it in the long run." Adrianne Blainey
Clever cooking: "My daughters each cook one dinner a week. If they can prepare it for less than $5 a person, they get to keep the difference! This teaches them to be economical." Sarah Whitham
Cheap sweets: Bake or poach fruit for a hot, 'proper' dessert: try coring apples or pears, stuffing with mascarpone, wrapping in foil and cooking in a moderately hot oven for 30 minutes.
Souper saver: Save money at your next dinner party by serving a low-kilojoule soup as your entrée. Studies show that this helps curb the appetite, so you can serve a smaller amount of the higher-energy, more expensive foods (such as meat) for the main course – and still satisfy everyone's appetites.