Eating on a budget

Pictured above my family and I’s grocery shop for Live Below the Line

As I write this, I am hungry. My family and I are participating in the Live Below The Line Challenge. It is a poverty awareness and fundraising initiative. We eat on $2 per person, per day, for 5 days. I am writing this at 6pm on Day 4 – my last meal was a bowl of unsatisfying pasta six hours ago and all I can think about is dinner.

For us, Live Below The Line has not really been a poverty challenge – we are lucky enough to still have a roof over our heads and petrol in our car. However it has been an insightful look into food insecurity and eating on a super-tight budget. So I thought now would be a fitting time to share some tips with you on healthier eating on a budget.

But first, I would like to share some thoughts about why eating on a budget is a massive barrier to colourful, nutritious eating.

Nobody chooses food insecurity.

As a society we should never judge people for not eating healthy, because we simply don’t know their circumstances. Healthy eating on a budget is very challenging, and that’s without considering other stresses and insecurities of life. Participating in this challenge, I now understand that nutrition is often not top priority in a bid to curb hunger and fill bellies.

Food insecurity is extremely stressful, and we’ve experienced the physical and emotional effects in just a few days. With my four children (aged 13-6), I’ve needed foods I knew my kids would eat. I’ve prioritised serving foods that are bulky and cheap to fill everyone up much more than nutrition (and I’m a dietitian!).

This sneak peak into food insecurity helped us learn more than the stress of it. It let us experience more hunger than usual and realise how socially isolating it can be. We thought about food ALL the time and almost all of the joy was taken out of food.

Saying all of this, eating on $2 a day has given me some insights into feeding a family filling, nutritious and colourful foods on a budget. If you are interested, I’d like to share them with you.

Here are my five simple tips to make cheap meals more nutritious.

1. Add some protein

Eating on a budget often means eating lots of white grains (and we totally understand this – they are cheap and comforting). But consuming primarily fast digesting carbs doesn’t tend to fill us for very long and it is easy for our dietary balance (of grains, protein, dairy and colourful veg) to be affected.

Protein helps us feel more satiated (full). It helps us stay fuller for longer as it’s digestion is slower. Try adding cheaper protein sources to your meals.

Cheap protein ideas: canned and dried beans and lentils, baked beans, tuna, eggs, milk, mince (bulk cook and freeze).

PS: Did you know you can use the liquid in canned chickpeas (known as aquafaba) can be whipped up like egg whites and used in sweet and savoury dishes? Here is our aquafaba meringue recipe.

2. Consider wholegrains

Now I know wholemeal flour and grainy bread costs about 30 per cent more (sometimes 50 per cent grrr…) than their white counterpart. But these goods do fill us up for longer (their lower GI they release energy more slowly). Think about using half wholemeal flour in cooking and opting for whole grain breads and cereals. See if you feel the difference.

3. Cheap colours (fruits and veggies)

During this challenge, we were outraged by the cost of fresh fruit and veg. So, if money is tight, opt for frozen (just as healthy) and canned (just drain the liquid) fruit and veg.

Look for on sale fruit and veggies, “odd bunch” produce (they taste the same) and bargain bags at the fruit shop (we scored a bag of apples for $1). Buying more of what’s in season helps too (mandarins and bananas were $2-$3 a kilo whilst apples were $4 during our challenge).

4. Start meal planning (and cooking)

Most of us know preparing as many meals as you can at home helps to keep food costs low. But meal planning what I was going to cook definitely helped me feed my family for less. Take a shopping list to the supermarket and buy ingredients that can be used in lots of different meals.

Click here for recipes you can cook in bulk and use in lots of different meals over the week.

I understand trying new recipes on a budget can be scary (we don’t want to waste anything), so consider asking for recommendations from friends on their favourite budget meals. Do a cook up together, and learn from each other.

5. Reduce leftovers and reduce food waste

Porridge for afternoon tea, leftovers for lunch, half eaten apples cooked up were the main ways my family and limited food waste during the challenge. Remember, there are no rules for when to eat food. Leftover rice can be turned into rice pudding and fried rice. Carrot tops can be cooked into soups and fried rice. For more waste less ideas and recipes: check out our ‘waste not’ blog.

Do you eat on a budget? We would love to hear your tips, please comment below.

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