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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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.

I read Daniel's list of purchases for $18 for a week. In my opinion, this is not healthy. The purchases are loaded with salt and preservatives and there are no dark green leafy veggies, and no yellow or orange veggies (beta carotene and Vit. A).

"iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium) and vitamins, including vitamins K, C, E, and many of the B vitamins. They also provide a variety of phytonutrients including beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which protect our cells from damage and our eyes from age-related problems, among many other effects. Dark green leaves even contain small amounts of Omega-3 fats."…

Canned, frozen and processed foods are a lot more expensive and contain a lot of salt and preservatives.

Non-GMO and organic foods are becoming easier to find in the U.S. at lower prices than before and some fruits and veggies are not victims of harmful pesticides. Google for the list. Mangoes are an inexpensive non pesticide choice just as an example.

As for rice and potatoes in the U.S. they may have a lot of arsenic. Brown rice is the worst because arsenic concentrates in the bran of the brown rice. Potatoes need to be peeled. The reason: Some of the fields where these foods are now grown used to grow cotton. Arsenic based pesticides were used to kill boll weevils in order to boost production.

Another problem with all, veggies, grains, seeds, beans and nuts is phytic acid. All these need to be soaked and/or cooked to help get rid of it. Phytic acid binds vital minerals to it so that the body cannot absorb them. Specifically calcium and iron are not absorbed. In soybeans, trypsin (inhibits digestiblity) is also a problem. They need to be cooked to get rid of it.

The up side to phytic acid is for diabetics. It retards starch absorption which raises blood sugars.

Daniel may find fruit and veggies expensive but it is better to remove some of the the unhealthy choices and preserve one's health.

Personally, I would not follow a prescribed diet but rely on common sense. More veggies, lean protein, less fats and smaller portions. I am sure this would work for anyone and better nutrition means less wasted calories and less money spent on them.

If you are interested in my post to him, please follow the link to his blog that you will find in the post on this page.

This is just my list and I amsure many of you will also have many of great suggestions for Daniel to experiment with.

As a college student, I've been eating as healthfully as possible, as cheaply as possible with as little time and effort as possible for 2 years. Money, time, and energy all tend to be lacking between school and work. My staples tend to be

- mixed nuts

- tuna

- nut butter (yay for bulk sections that allow you to grind your own, ensuring that ALL that's in it is nuts)

- eggs

- plain Greek yogurt and ranch/other dressing mixes

- milk (almond milk is my "splurge")

- baby carrots

- prepared salad mixes/veggie mixes, fresh and frozen both, when on sale (stock up, save big, and have plenty to get through to the next sale)

- potatoes
- onions
- apples
- bananas

- large leaf lettuce for wraps (cheaper than bread, tortillas, etc)

- pasta (before I was gluten free this was a great cheap filler)

- rice (or quinoa)
- beans
- dark chocolate (80-90%)

Some items cost a little more, such as the quinoa, but used in reasonable amounts they really bulk up the nutritional value of anything you add them to.

Part of it is simply changing snacking habits: most people think of chips, jerky, candy, soda, or highly processed "juice" when they hear the word "snack". If you're having a banana for your snack, with a tablespoon of nut or seed butter to dip it in, you're consuming maybe $0.50 worth of food AND staying within the 200 calorie reasonable-snack range. My wallet and my body seem to like my snacking habits.

You need to visit she did it on £10 a week. Her story is amazing and her recipes are amazing. A single mom with a little boy who had to cut corners when she was unemployed. I started following her blog about 4 months ago and have used a lot of her recipes since.

It's possible to do it, at least some weeks, when there are plenty of in-season fruit and vegetables to buy inexpensively but it requires the ability to turn raw food into edible food. I do a lot with dried beans, quinoa, and whole chickens (I don't care about the chicken so much as the stock I make from the carcass but my husband is happy to eat chicken). To these I add whatever leafy greens and root vegetables I can get fresh or frozen. Then I make relishes and toppings with tomatoes, radishes, and anything else that might either a cool or spicy note to my bowl. The variety comes in seasonally as well as the herbs and spices I use. We as a society seem to think that variety is necessary but really daily variety is overrated. It's variety over the course of the year that's important. And the staples really don't have to vary. This post just brings up so many things for me that people say as excuses why they don't eat better. You have to do the best you can and you can change your eating habits. My husband and I have made many major changes in how we eat during our marriage to the point where our diet now would be unrecognizable to our newlywed selves. But we've never been healthier and have weathered extremely stressful times better than we thought in part because our eating best fuels our bodies and our spirits.

Good advice, I_Fortuna. I, too, have approached balancing out my meals on a daily basis rather than meal by meal. Remember though that diabetic requirements might still require balancing the components of each individual meal.

I'm guessing that many who are diagnosed as pre-diabetic would not have gotten to that stage if they'd eaten as you describe.

I just wanted to point out that Americans spend way less of their income on food than pretty much every other industrialized country, and I think this is part of the problem. Food should not be "cheap" unless you're growing it yourself. As for this challenge, I think I could eat on $18 too if I bought a bunch of 10 for 10 pasta - but this is absolutely not healthy. I'd rather cut out something else - like buying an extra pair of shoes or going out - before cutting out fruits and vegetables. I realize a lot of people don't have this option, but I think a lot of people really CAN "afford" to eat healthy but prioritize wants over health needs.

Yes, Julie Phelps, as a diabetic, I can safely say that high protein meals are essential. But, too much protein is hard on the kidneys so there is a necessity for balance. I do not include grains like bread or rice in my morning meal but I inculde them in the evening meal. I dry roast rice and that helps with a lower glycemic count. Pasta is also a better choice as it takes longer to digest. In between meals, I usually have veggies, yogurt, or cheese.

Diabetes is not necessarily caused by food choices. Stress is a major factor as well as other factors such as my hubby who also has diabetes caused by exposure to Agent Orange and the stresses of war. People with relatives who have diabetes can be more prone to develop it. This is the case with my mother who was always very thin and very active. Many people also believe that only overweight people can have diabetes. This is absolutely not true. Examples I like to use are my mom and Mary Tyler Moore who have always been thin. I also have a friend who is extremely thin who has diabetes. When the pancreas gives up or stops performing as needed, then diabetes may be the result. For instance, I am not one who has ever had a propensity for sugary drinks or pastries and yet with all the good diet choices I have made, I still have diabetes.

There are many misconceptions about diabetes. Yes, when one is diabetic, it is important to make good food choices and there are many good choices out there without having to spend a fortune.

I seriously doubt that packaged soup has the same nutritional value of fresh or frozen veggies. That makes me doubt his nutritionist's counsel. Packaged soup has tons of sodium, and other additives that if he had made that soup from scratch might do the job. I try to avoid almost ALL packaged and processed foods. Can't do it completely and live in America unless you're on a farm or have a very good garden. But, certainly when it comes to soup, that is an easy homemade item.

Hi Marjorie!

You're most correct about the soup! The advice I got given was based partly on what I could get with my budget. Many told me that it was not sufficient - nor a good idea. However, for the sake of proving a point about the nutritional values - or rather lack therefore - I think it was time well spent.

As the weather here is good at the minute, I'm enjoying a lot of feta cheese salads - I typically have a portion of dark greens every day of the week and eat a minimum of two apples a day. I've also been having more strawberries since the weather is good and feel great!

Appreciate the concern though - I'll be giving homemade soup a try myself soon enough!


Hi Deb,

"You get what you pay for" would have been a great way for me to sum up this project.

It's a sad reality for a lot of people living below the bread line though - the reliance on food banks is alarming and you cannot guarantee that the food they supply you with, will be nutritionally good! :(



I think you echo the struggle of many, many families. Sadly, it's hard to keep the food you feed your family stable, as the prices vary so greatly.


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