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Column: What is a frugal food budget to you?

Do you plan every cent you spend or throw caution to the wind? Caítríona Redmond looks at the intricacies of living on a budget.

Caitriona Redmond

WHAT IS ‘frugal food’? The guidelines under the new insolvency legislation in Ireland suggest that an adequate food budget for a healthy diet is €57 per week per adult.

You’re excused if you need to stop and rub your eyes for a second. You read that right, €57 per week for one person for food. It’s not that far shy of my food budget of €70 per week for the entire family. In our household, allowing for all our family members, if we were to be assessed under the ISI guidelines, that would give me a food budget of just under €146 per week – over double what my budget is.

The ISI guidelines don’t refer to a frugal food budget, nor do they claim to. The guidelines have been well researched and I believe represent a fair price for a decent food budget in Ireland. But a frugal food budget to me is a budget that requires you to skimp on this fair price even further.

According to the BBC Good Food Show, a meal of lamb belly with a mash is incredibly frugal, costing just under £2 per portion (€2.40 but effectively up to 40 per cent more than this as grocery prices in Ireland are higher). A meal that they described, more than once, as “frugal”. If I were to feed my family a “frugal” meal like this, I would have to allow for the meal to cost €12. There are seven days in the week and three meals a day (plus snacks) to budget for in every household. Eating “frugally” in this manner every night would cost €84 per week just for the main meal. It would put me over budget without even considering breakfasts, lunches and snacks.

A frugal meal plan

To eat frugally I am faced with two options. I can either buy cheap convenience food with a long list of ingredients, high fat content, high sugar content and which is unlikely to be fresh; or buy fresh ingredients in the fruit and vegetable, meat, and dairy sections of the supermarket, then invest my time and skills to make healthier frugal food for my family.

I have the time because I’m based in the home with the toddler. I have the skills required to convert these raw ingredients to great food. Not everybody is as privileged as I am. I completely understand why people on a budget choose to buy convenience food. I have done so myself in a pinch and I am sure that I will do it again.

However, meals that are described as frugal on a premium cookery show give the impression that it’s easy to cook decent food on a budget. Those who live this lifestyle know it’s incredibly difficult.

I manage our budget by doing regular stocktakes of my store cupboard to make sure that I know what I have in storage. The first time I did a stocktake it was such a pain, it took ages and I couldn’t believe how much food I actually had. I did the stocktake because we didn’t have any grocery money for the week, due to some unexpected medical and transport expenses. We ate from the food stores only for a week, and we didn’t need to go to the shops for much apart from milk and bread. I learned my lesson though.

Now I only buy what I need. I plan my meals for the week based around the food I have and what I can afford for my budget.

The right way to use the discount aisle

When I get to the supermarket, I go straight for the discount aisles to see what I can pick up from the shopping list, then afterwards do the rest of my shopping. To be honest my shopping list doesn’t vary very much because our budget is low enough, so I jazz up our meals spices and herbs instead.

The proportion of people eating on a tight food budget in Ireland may be higher than you think. According to Healthy Food For All (a charity addressing poverty on the island of Ireland) more than 1 in 10 people in Ireland experience food poverty.

What’s your opinion on frugal food? Is under €2.40 per portion frugal food to you? I’d love to hear what other people think.

Caitríona blogs at wholesomeireland.com with a particular focus on living on a tight grocery budget. Her first cookbook “Wholesome – Feed Your Family Well For Less” is due for release in April 2014 and is published by Mercier Press.

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Caitriona Redmond

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