Living The Simplest Life: Food

There is a current crisis in the cost of living. You may have noticed, or not, depending on your circumstances. I have noticed, but I also have a garden full of silverbeet, lemons and edible weeds, so I'm sure I'll be fine:)

I have put together a little collection of my own food-budget tips, which may or may not be useful, because everyone's situation is so different. I've put it in my Living the Simplest Life series, but again, what works for me might be very different for others. Please fill up the comments section with your own tips, and tell us how you are doing in the crisis de jour. I know many people are doing it very hard right now, and I send you all my best wishes. 

When I need to reign in the grocery budget, I start with the food I have. Most of us have food in the house, and as food does not last forever, cooking up what I already have is the most sensible way of saving on the grocery bill, and saving the food in the back of the cupboard from becoming waste. The easiest way to go about this, I find, is to do an inventory. Take all the food out of the cupboard, one shelf at a time, wipe out the shelf, and put the food back in a more orderly manner, with the food that needs to be eaten first at the front. If there is food that needs to be eaten right now, think up ways to incorporate it into every meal this week. I did this exercise recently and discovered that I have four bottles of mayonnaise that are already past their use-by dates, but not far enough past their use-by dates to panic. I have been making a lot of potato salad. I find my whole cooking life is easier if all the same kinds of food are in the same place, then I can see what I do and don't have.

Doing the same with the fridge is a big one. I try not to waste food, but often things get put into the fridge to die there, unregarded in their little glass or plastic coffins until it is much too late. Sometimes it works to have a 'leftovers' shelf. One of the great skills to attain in life is knowing what to do with a container of left-over rice and whatever vegetables are in the vegie crisper. Part of that skill is knowing how to make a basic vegetable soup, which is one of the easiest recipes to learn, and the most valuable and rewarding. This is a useful exercise even if no-one else in the house will eat your gourmet left-over wonders; believe me, I know that one. I just eat up my left-overs soup by myself for lunch, and cackle about all the practically free nutrients I am ingesting. 

Porridge with foraged hazelnuts and walnuts

The way I plow through left-overs is that I don't move on to any further meal-making until the leftovers are used up. Well, that is my game plan. Alas I am vague, and those coffins of dead food languishing at the back of the fridge. But we have ideals, n'est ce pas? And remember, it defeats the purpose to go out specially to buy extra ingredients to use up the leftovers. Use what you have. This is a marvellous way to stretch your creativity in the kitchen. It is possible that like me you may not want your creativity stretched in the kitchen. C'est la vie. Sometimes we must be creative whether we like it or not, because pennies must be saved. And who knows? Maybe that creativity will spill over into the rest of our lives. Limitations are a real spur for creative thinking, and all that practice finding ways to use up the leftover rice will no doubt make us better poets and astrophysicists. 

Another resource that is important to use up is what is grown in the garden. If you have a garden, and you grow food, learn to use it every day. I love to garden but I'm not that keen on cooking and for years I have let food go to waste in the garden. Well, it isn't ever really wasted because it gets turned into compost and therefore into soil and further food, but still, it's ridiculous to grow food and also buy it. I try to use food from the garden every day. Some days, when I really can't be bothered, I eat something really simple for lunch, like a boiled egg, then I go out into the garden and pick a salad's worth of greens right out of the garden and eat while standing right there and enjoying the sunshine and the bees. Today I ate a radish, some parsley, a huge number of baby broad bean leaves, some rocket and some chickweed leaves. It sounds like a meal Peter Rabbit would eat in Mr McGregor's garden, but it's one of my favourite ways to eat (my other favourite way is when someone else does the cooking).

There are, of course, all sorts of ways to eat cheaper and greener, and a million resources to tell you how to do that better than I can, but here is my tip: stay out of the shops, and especially stay out of the shops when you are tired and hungry. At the beginning of covid I discovered that shopping once a fortnight is perfectly possible, even if you are reduced to eating potatoes, carrots, cabbage and frozen veg by the end. That's hardly a terrible fate. The more I go to the shops, the more completely unnecessary food I tend to buy. One way to stretch out trips to the grocery store is to buy a few staples in bulk. A sack of flour, a sack of potatoes, a sack of onions, a sack of chickpeas, lentils, dried beans and rice and a few condiments and vegetables and you can get through any crisis. Oh, and don't forget the oats. And always having these staples on hand means that you can create a meal out of what you have in the house and you don't have to go out and buy more food that you don't really need. And here is another sneaky idea - if you have a strict grocery budget and you always shop once a week, say on a Monday, then next week go shopping on the Tuesday, the next week on Wednesday, and so on until in seven weeks you have saved an entire week's grocery budget by stretching it over eight days instead of seven, and you can spend that money on some sacks of rice and beans. 

You do not have to have a large pantry to store bulk food, but you may have to get rid of some useless crap. I store my bulk grains and beans in my bedroom at the bottom of my clothes shelves after ruthlessly sending three bags of things I will never miss to the op-shop to make space. My mum saved large yoghurt buckets and Milo tins for me to store things like sugar, cocoa and dried fruit in.

One of the nicest ways to use up food is to share it. Preserving excess harvest is a noble art, and one that I do indulge in, but honestly, it's easier to give it to the neighbours and happily also to accept anything that anyone brings you, ever. Sometimes, as in this week from from my friend Karlin, it is homegrown limes and mandarins, yum. Sometimes, Rosy brings us leftover food from the cafe she works at. As you know, I say yes to everything. Life is an adventure, and who knows what it will bring, but surprise food is the best!

Gifted vegies from a friend's garden

Another thing I have learnt is that you don't have to be a foodie. Being a foodie is a nice hobby if you have money. If you don't have money, garlic powder will give more or less the same garlic flavour of local, organic purple garlic. Vanilla essence in a bottle still gives a vanilla flavour to your baking and is magnitudes cheaper than vanilla beans.

In the same vein, I have given up aspirational eating. I would like to like kale, and I do, sort of, occasionally, if it is hidden in soup, but actually frozen peas and a bit of broccoli seem like a fine side dish to me. Let us embrace who we really are and just buy the peas and stop feeling guilty about the yellowing baby kale in the crisper.

It is very useful to learn how to cope without different food groups, or staple foods, because they may not always be available or affordable. Learning how to cook some vegetarian and vegan meals gives you the opportunity to get some wiggle space in the budget. Wheat prices are going through the roof - now is the time to work out some alternative bread recipes or how to live without bread. Bread was once the backbone of my diet. I still love bread and will eat all of it when it is in the house, but I mostly choose not to buy it now and have discovered that it is possible to eat soup without it... 

'Just four crops – wheat, rice, maize and soy – account for almost 60% of the calories grown by farmers. Their production is now highly concentrated in a handful of nations, including Russia and Ukraine.' George Monbiot 

The point is - if your budget is tight, or if the food you usually eat isn't available, what can you substitute? If you aren't in that situation right now, can you practice eating differently so that it won't be so stressful on the day? Being in a scary situation like losing your job is not the ideal time to be learning new cooking techniques and mastering new recipes. If you put the effort in now, come the day when you need it, you'll have the know-how and the resources. So even if you don't need to eat budget meals right now, just knowing you can will help you not to panic later. Or will give you the resources to share your budget meal plans with others.

Stir-fried greens and weeds:)

Ultra, ultra practical grocery shopping tips: I have price points beyond which I will not buy items. Fruit, for instance, I won't buy unless it is under $3/kg (approx $1.50/lb). That means here in Tasmania I can always get pears, and mostly get apples and oranges. Sometimes in season watermelon or grapes get that low. Luckily I have fruit trees and can forage and have friends with fruit trees:) I try to keep to that price point with vegetables as well, but it's not always possible. Still, I am not the person buying capsicums at $16/kg, I am the person buying the pumpkin when it is $1.40/kg. It's actually quite a fun game, working out what to do with whatever vegies are cheapest. 

My other entertainment is seeing if I can wait until the things I want are half price, and then stocking up a lot. Often sales go in six week cycles. Sometimes it's practical to stock up that much, sometimes not, but you can save a lot that way. 

Snacks and processed food are The Most Expensive Things. Technically, we can live without them, but we don't really want to. I try to not buy snacks, because if I have them in the house I will eat them. I mostly only buy snacks for Red that I don't like, such as anything mint flavoured. Vile. 

The most difficult impediment to eating really simply is Other People. I am not an enthusiastic cook and would happily exist on soup six days out of seven. However, I live with another person, and they have their own food preferences, and also they hate soup. In our case, Red is supported by their dad and their grocery budget is not as constrained as mine and they sometimes splurge on raspberries and icecream. They eat meat and I mostly don't. We mostly get around our food differences by eating completely different things. This works for us, kind of like a share house situation, but it doesn't work for everyone. In a family situation this requires a lot of negotiation, which frankly I am not good at, so no advice there. Do what you can. Or provide some tips on how you negotiate food and the budget at your place? It is a big issue, and all advice appreciated.

Hommus on bread from Rosy's cafe, pickles, grated carrots, carrot sticks. Lunch. Simple food is okay.

The last thing I have to say, is it's okay to eat simple. Really, really simple. Sandwiches. Soup. Porridge. I eat those three things nearly every day of my life. I eat boring, but yummy meals, and sometimes, to shake things up, I make a different kind of soup! It is fine not to aspire to exciting or even interesting food. Keeping myself fed and relatively sane, and not making too many dishes are my kitchen mantras. It is enough.

There is a lot to say about food, and I have said a lot about it on this blog, and will say more in the future, but now I want to know what you have noticed about prices where you are, and what strategies you are using to get by when juggling the cost of food with All The Other Things. Wishing everyone all the best with this tricky juggling act.

Jo xx

Some more posts from the Living the Simplest Life series:

Living the Simplest Life

Living the Simplest Life: The Gift Economy

Living the Simplest Life: My No-Spend Life

Living the Simplest Life: Shelter


Treaders said…
Great article! The first thing that sprang to my mind when I started reading was how much easier this is when you live alone - and then you mentioned that in your last paragraph. I will eat leftovers and weird combinations whereas my family wouldn't, but hell, taking my leftovers to work every day was one of the biggest money-savers ever, and really, really helped me pay off my 17 year mortgage in 7 years when I got divorced. When I saw what my colleagues spent in the cafeteria for what was adequate but no great shakes food, it horrified me. Heck, I've been divorced 11 years and I still remember being married and my ex spending $500/month in the cafeteria! I used to play a game to only spend maybe €10/week on the occasional coffee and it worked! I also once did the "shop this week on Monday, next week on Tuesday, the week after on Wednesday" and it was fun. Like you also, I'm pretty sure I could easily go two weeks without grocery shopping anyway - problem is I love the farmers' markets round here! Cheers from France. Anna
Kathy said…
I think everyone is trying lots of different things to reduce the grocery bill. I know when I was married and I did budget however I worked out that when we spent $350 a week on food that equated to $1,500 per calendar month which I think back to my first mortgage of $990. $350 x 52 = $18,200 which is a huge amount of money. My food budget is $150-$175 per week now with the 3 of us but I still try and reduce it where I can because some weeks are lower and some weeks are higher. I guess you get less for your $150-$175 now so even if you stick to a budget you are buying less. I noticed the 24 pack of toilet rolls that for years has been $12.00 is now $12.60. Eggs also have gone up 60 cents and that's just 2 items so if you buy 40 items overall the cost is $24 so you aren't able to buy the same thing even if you keep your budget the same.
Jo said…
Anna, that five hundred a month at the cafeteria is astounding! I was reading recently that the average mortgage repayments in Australia have gone up by $600/month this year (I still find the huge house prices in Australia unfathomable. Why?), so someone in the same place as your ex would be able to solve that problem with left-overs!
re the farmers' markets - I would say that using spare cash to support local farmers is a bargain for everyone..

Kathy, I had realised that individual prices were going up, but I hadn't done the maths, so thank you for this detailed report. I just got my calculator out and worked out that you are paying 15% extra on your groceries, or getting 15% less food for your $150 if you stick to your budget. That is significant, isn't it? And also much more than the official inflation rate, which is around 5%. But I am hearing many reports that groceries are costing around 20% more at the moment, so your estimation checks out.
I also try to stick with the $50/week for my own budget, which can be tricky, but much easier now I don't buy meat!
I did a poverty-awareness fundraising thing a few times in which you were to spend only $2/day for food (which, of course is a good deal more than people who live on $2/day would have for food). Eating from the traditions of those who manage on that budget is a good start: rice and lentil dhal; cornmeal porridge, greens and tomatoes (East Africa). I calculated the amount of protein in my provisions and, lo and behold, it was pretty close to what a person of my gender, age and size required. So I've been trying to regard food firstly as fuel, not as entertainment (remembering those Antarctic explorers who skied to the pole eating olive oil because it was the most concentrated form of energy!). That doesn't mean boring or tasteless, but it does mean repetition is fine, simple is tasty, and meals don't have to be experiential sensations. (and I actually like experimental cooking) And the family actually like a lot of those simple meals, too. Salt, garlic, chili, and all-purpose curry powder go a long way!
Anonymous said…
I live on a set income and started to notice price increases about 2 years ago. I have increased my food budget some, by reducing in other areas. No extra money coming in, so one MUST be creative! The biggest change I have made; however (like you), is using what I have. Soups, vegetable rice, sandwiches etc. I ADORE bread. In the interest of using what I have, I have learned to make oatmeal bread, and also flat bread. I put lots of things on top of the flat bread, which make surprisingly good pizzas, and hence good meals.
I am trying to grow more food, but truthfully I am not a good gardener. I am persisting but a lot of my focus is trying to enrich the soil. I don't have a lot to invest in this, so it is slow going. I compost, bury food scraps, dance, pray, anything to increase the yield.
I expect prices to continue to rise, between the severe droughts, oil increases, and overall disruptions I am reading and seeing around the world.
Take care!
Jo said…
Whistle in the light, thank you so much for this! It reminded me that I once did much the same thing when my older kids were teenagers. If my memory serves me correctly, that was where I first encountered dhal, which I now love so much:) I am thinking how simple it would be if I could just exist on spoonfuls of olive oil, but I'm not sure I could get even one down.. I am still waiting for human kibble in a bag, then I can feed me, the cat and the dog with only three bags in the pantry!!
However, you comment reminded me of a very lovely Youtube person who invents excellent menus to eat on $1 to $2 per day.

She has a lovely gentle voice which I really appreciate:) and excellent ideas. Very worth looking at. I hope I'll remember to pop this up in the next post.

Patricia, having to be creative really stretches what you can do, doesn't it. I am hoping not to have to get too creative over the next few years, as you can have too much of a good thing, but a moderate amount of forced creativity is good. Like you, I see no economic joy on the horizon. We really have tipped too far beyond the point of sustainability in our resource use.
I am sure your composting, dancing and praying will all have an effect on the energy of your garden:)
Anonymous said…
Jo, I loved your lazy girls guide to making a salad! Great that you mentioned not being a 'foodie' to save money. I think the whole foodie culture causes so much food waste - you buy 5 or 6 special ingredients to make a dish and then most of them languish at the back of the fridge or cupboard because you didn't have time to work out what to do with them.

We've mostly got the food budget under control using many of the tips you mention (I also can eat the same simple food day in, day out) but I am worried about the other price rises - energy, land rates, fuel etc...

I just learned that in NSW energy went up 18% on the 1st of July - so I had my shower without the light on this morning! Our land rates are around AUD$3200 per year and we have been told to expect another 50% increase over the next 3 years. Crikey, things are getting serious! I renewed my car, home and business insurance and I'm with one of the budget insurers - all went up by more than 10%. So keeping control of the food budget is imperative.

Like you said, limitations breed creativity. I want to build a rocket stove soon and learn how to cook on it, just in case we need it. They run on very little fuel and we have an abundance of eucalyptus twigs free for the taking in our area. I'm also considering a sun oven, but given the rain of the last few years we may be waiting days for dinner to cook!

I always appreciate you sharing your ideas Jo, it reminds me not to panic!

Blueberry said…
Jo Search Purina monkey chow. Glad I do not reside at a zoo.
Jo said…
Madeleine, my rates just went up by $500! Yikes! This is not an easy ride, by any means, but yes, I would encouraging not panicking if possible, because then you have price rises AND stress to deal with. Still, it's hard to imagine not panicking if you are right on the edge, financially.
re the Lazy Girl's Guide to Making Salad, I can give you the Lazy Girl's Guide to Housekeeping as well. For instance, mopping the floor. You just look at the floor and decide it will be fine until next week. Think of the savings on cleaning product and wear and tear on the mop:)

Blueberry, that is hilarious, but also, put me down for two 50lb bags..
56steps said…
Hi Jo,
I always enjoy this kind of post from you. And reading it just saved me some money!

I had some leftover chicken so I made some chicken salad. Then I thought, "this would be nice with some red grapes in it".
Then I started to make a list of about $20 worth of items that I, of course, do not need. Not one of those items is necessary. Not that all food should be necessary but it just goes to show you by this one little instance how we spend money when we really don't need to.
The chicken salad is delicious just the way it is and I have plenty of food right in my home for days and days and weeks and weeks if I'm being honest.

- I do need some milk though.
I will have my husband get that - he's a buy the item and get out of the store kind of guy ;)

Thanks for writing,
GretchenJoanna said…
This is related to the thrifty project I think. I wish I knew how to implement the ideas presented...
Anonymous said…
Jo: thank you for the laugh (re: mopping the floor!), implementing now!
Madeline, would love to know how building the rocket stove goes. Interested in doing one also.
Be well!
Jo said…
Debra, I am so glad to know that something I wrote saved someone money! It does my heart good to read that:) I am so pleased you have someone to rely on to just buy milk. I also find that hard..
I hear in regards to the notion that not all food need be necessary, absolutely. Sometimes it is fun and good to splurge. But also it is so useful to know that if you can't splurge, you can at least make something good to eat, like a left-over chicken salad sans red grapes.

Gretchen Joanna, "Absurd advice for common concerns" should be a motto for this blog!

Patricia, it's not a joke:):) it's how my life actually goes:);)
and, yes, it would be great to see how your rocket stove goes, Madeleine.

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