How A 26 Year Old Lived on $18 Worth of Healthy Food For One Week

July 11, 2013   31 Comments

Anyone else find themselves in shock after visiting the supermarket? I spent a small fortune there.

Daniels experiment

One of my readers, Daniel, e-mailed me his attempt at spending only £12 ($18) on an entire week of food. He lives in the United Kingdom and I thought what he did and how he did it was fascinating. Check out the link here: Daniel’s experiment.

What I found most revealing is that one of the hardest parts of the challenge for Daniel was not buying and eating sugary and fatty snacks. If we tried budgetary restraint versus caloric restraint we might end up thinner, no?

Snack Girl: Why did you take the BBC challenge of eating for a week on $18 (12 Pounds)?

Daniel: I really enjoy challenges - though I blame that on my overly competitive nature which I developed as a child - and I strongly believe that you don't fully know yourself until you're put into a position that's well outside of your comfort zone. The article got me hooked with the concepts of wasteful spending, thrifty eating and meal planning. The more I read about this challenge, the more it began to fascinate me - I knew I had to give it a go! After much deliberation with a colleague, I hatched a plan to document my adventures: could I really make it through a week of seriously cheap eats?

Personal curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to find out where I stood in the grand scheme of cheap eating; I was well aware that I could spend a lot less by swapping over to economy brands, but when you're not given any real reason to do so, why bother? It was this mentality, that ultimately drove me to do this challenge.

I had never considered myself lazy until that moment of realization - when had I become so lazy with my food shopping? Why was I buying expensive brands, when cheap ones were just as good? I began to wonder when this change had occurred in my life and in doing so, felt a certain obligation to complete this challenge - partly to prove a point to myself, but also because there was a mix of journalistic and personal intrigue that needed satiating with answers!

Snack Girl: How did you decide what to buy?

Daniel: I based my purchases off what I would normally buy over the course of the week, with the only difference being the brands. I did have the recommended list of food stuffs (courtesy of the BBC) to hand, but figured that not everyone would have access to this information - so for authenticity's sake, I made the decision to buy like I've always bought.

My normal diet consists of a lot of carbohydrates and I decided to keep that principle the same for my budget week; plenty of pasta, potatoes and bread. Complex carbs are great for fueling us through the day and I know I cannot survive without them. I'm also very aware that a lot of people hate carbs, but when you consider how much of our diet they actually take up - you'd be foolish not to have any at all; have some carbs by all means, just ensure they are complex ones!

Knowing that my shop was already carb heavy, I then needed to figure out where my protein would come from. I bought some cheap ham, a box of eggs and a tin of sardines, only to realize just how much of my budget they had consumed. The sardines would only make for one meal - along with the eggs - and the ham would only be used for my sandwiches at lunch, which is not great if you're accustomed to a diet that's high in protein.

One of my biggest - but at the time, least thought about - priorities should have been getting an ample supply of vegetables; maintaining your 5-a-day on a budget is surprisingly difficult with limited options. Many nutritionists argue that root vegetables should make up a large portion of your daily intakes, but it's extremely hard to achieve when you aren't budgeted for big and varying buys.

The decisions I initially made were not guided by any dietician or nutritionist. Essentially, it was my own attempt at creating a balanced menu on a small budget and I think it turned OK, but it was far from optimal! On reflection though - and having been able to speak with several registered dieticians - I think my attempt at creating a balanced menu was below par from a nutritional standpoint.

Snack Girl: How did you get enough fruits and vegetables?

Daniel: I was limited to buying different types of fruits and vegetables, but managed to get enough by sacrificing variety. I managed to get some soup, chopped tomatoes, beans, satsumas and a bunch of bananas - all of which covered my 5-a-day for the week.

When it comes to fresh produce, you cannot have the best of all worlds - hitch your bets on quantity and stock up on one or two types of fruit. The same could be applied to vegetables, however due to costs you may only be able to grab one or two portions worth of veg. A solution pointed out to me by registered dietician Laura Tilt, was to stock up on soups that were rich in vegetables - as these are generally cheaper than the main product, but equal in nutritional value.

Snack Girl: What was the hardest part about the challenge?

Daniel: Not being able to snack freely - urgh! Having set meal plans and one bar of chocolate allocated for an entire week meant that there was no leeway with regard to snacking once the chocolate was gone - and it went quickly. This is unbelievably hard if you come from an office environment - or similar - where snacks are commonplace. If you struggle making it to lunch without snacking - this challenge will really test your worth.

Snack Girl: What is your favorite snack?

Daniel: I'm a recently converted seed-a-holic. I love whole grain seeds and regularly have them as a filler between meals. Failing that, I've always enjoyed dipping carrots into some hummus!

Thanks, Daniel! I know I am inspired to think about how I spend my food dollars.

What do you think of Daniel’s experiment?

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First 20 Comments: ( See all 31 )

That is awesome! I wonder if I could do that? I'd try, if I didn't have to feed my family too! :)

Great Jennifer, I would love to try it...if I didn't have to feed other people. I bet it was very hard to do!

HE could have roasted a can of chick peas for a snack - protein and crunch!

I'd also love to try this, while I could make different food for my family I need a lot of fruit and veg (which as Daniel said is very expensive) as I am doing weight watchers and could never stay within my points on £12 a week!

When is "plenty of pasta, potatoes and bread" considered healthy? Did he buy economy brand whole grain bread and wheat pasta?

Interesting! Last year I took on Mario Batali's similar challenge, which was to only spend what the average Food Stamp recipient can spend - about $18 per week (I forget the specific amount). One was allowed to use existing kitchen condiments such as salt, pepper, spices, mustard, etc.

Like Daniel, I felt the lack of affordable fresh veg and fruit. I did purchase 1 onion (not enough), dried beans, frozen peas & carrots, 2 apples, 1 jar of applesauce.

Protein was a hunk of turkey ham, 1 lb. tube of ground turkey and a dozen eggs. It worked, but was really not adequate. I threw in generic white pasta, 1 generic pack of flour tortillas,1 can of tomato paste, 1 generic version of V-8 juice, 1 small wedge of Asiago Cheese. Without shopping at a WalMart grocery I don't think I could have pulled it all off.

I had to forget about eating sweets but the hardest part was giving up dark chocolate - my end of the day treat.

I cheated by not purchasing coffee - instead using what I already had on hand.

I seriously missed whole grain items and fresh produce.

I found myself only eating to survive rather than for any enjoyment.

One thing I don't recall for certain is whether or not I purchased a small pack of white rice. I think I may have, in order to supplement or round out each meal.

It became obvious that the average weekly Food Stamp allotment for one did not allow for the bulk purchasing that could be managed when using the combined amount available for multiple household members.

A normal morning meal for me is a bowl of cooked oat bran with Flax Seed, nuts, applesauce and whatever berries or other fruit I have on hand. Later each morning I generally eat plain yogurt with melon pieces or other fruit. For the challenge I ate an egg with a sprinkle of Asiago Cheese, fried with a few beans (and rice, I believe), all wrapped in a tortilla. A few times I included a bit of diced turkey ham.

I would take a swig of the vegetable juice and be done eating until later in the day.

The hunk of turkey ham really helped stretch things out.

A piece of apple became my daily treat!

All told, it was an interesting way to engage my food creativity. I sure was glad to get back to having dark chocolate, however!

Note: I also "cheated" by consuming red wine each evening, as it was already in the house and helped make things feel all better.

Another note: I could have saved a lot of money and trouble by just throwing things together with packs of ramen noodles, but just could not steel myself to do so. Thus the generic white pasta (I normally enjoy multi-grain)

I think I would go crazy not having the variety. Oh and the daily recommended fruits and veggies is 9 - 13 servings a day, not 5. It keeps going up. Makes one think... Now that gets expensive! And just plain hard to accomplish. We fill in the gap with Juice Plus+.

If you have an Aldi's grocery near you, GO THERE NOW. Their produce is about half or less of supermarkets--no lie. I compared once with Krogers. We have gotten $1 fresh pineapples, broccoli crowns and cauliflower. Package of red, orange and yellow peppers for $2 (Kroger's was $5). Crazy wonderful.

Well, I like the concept considering groceries are very high these days and it's tough stretching that paycheck, however we need to consider people that have to watch their salt intake(blood pressure), and Carbs.(husband is diabetic). Thank you

Very interesting. I think I would be pretty miserable trying to do this, but it might be worth giving it a try. I think my kids would hate me for it though! :P

I completely agree with Barbara about going to Aldi! Remember to bring a debit card or checks or credit cards accepted. By shopping there, my food budget is cut by 50%...seriously! Their store brands are of great quality. Their produce, breads, and dairy are always fresh. We rarely buy processed food. I buy lots of what we eat at Aldi and pick up what I can't get at a local health food store and Costco. Most health food stores carry bulk bins full of whole grains, nuts, beans, seeds, etc. at amazing prices. I buy those items by the pound and do my own cooking and baking with my kids. It is possible to eat VERY healthy food and do it inexpensively. It just takes planning and imagination. :) Oh...and by the way... I am a single mom who works full time and runs her kids to activities. It is something you could do if you make it part of your life. :)

That photo of a receipt at the top of the article isn't actually his is it cause those prices are not at all realistic at all

at least not here in the USA.

Agree with Melissa, this didn't look all that "healthy" to me. I think it's great that he afforded a week's worth of food on $18, but with such little variety and so much starch, I don't know how it qualifies as healthy.

Buying from the bulk section is a great way to save money. Beans and lentils are pretty cheap that way.

Take those lentils, add part of an onion, a carrot or two, a potato and a can of tomatoes and you've got lunch w/ veggies AND the protein needed. Probably could get a couple of servings our of it as well.

How can ham be healthy? I would try this if I, too, didn't have a family of fussy eaters to feed. And I am sure I would be able to live quite happily. My choice of protein would have been anything beans.

I thought this was healthy food. Cheap ham isn't healthy food.

I could not help but wonder why he did not get a few baqs of frozen veggies. I also agree with the various grains he could have tried.

To defend ham (in response to Apple's comment) if you purchase it from a small family farm and it's organically and humanely raised there's nothing wrong with ham once in a while. Whole Foods does offer a variety of hams that are also "happy meat." :)

I very often have to do this "challenge" just to make it through to pay day. Instead of $18 I allot $50-60 for a family of three. Eggs are a great source of protein but cereal is cheap and horrible for you. I regularly fluctuate between healthy and pricey and cheap meals meant to get you through. It is still better than dollar hamburgers at MacDonalds

GMOs are much less common in the UK than here in the US. It would be easier to avoid them there, but here in the US, if you buy "cheap" food you will most likely be eating them, not to mention pesticides if you buy conventional produce. You get what you pay for (mostly!)

I would rather spend a good portion of money of frozen/fresh veggies and beans. Brown rice, barley are also reasonable. My market usually has the organic lettuce on sale also.

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