Tuesday, 24 May 2022

£1-a-day Food Challenge 2022 - 10 Takeaways

So these were my totals for my recent £1-a-day Food Challenge. No overspend and in fact 91p spare that, looking at my summary would easily have catered for a seventh day. That corresponds more than favourably with my totals in 2017 which came out at a total of £5.63 for six days containing the same number of meals. To say this was unexpected is something of an understatement. I really expected catering for myself on £1-a-day in 2022 to be virtually impossible five years down the line but what do you know? Thinking about this, various things have floated to the surface that I thought I might share here in the aftermath of the challenge, for the sake of completeness, if nothing else. 

My initial reflection, as I talked about at the beginning of my post about the final day of the challenge here, was about how the experience felt at the time - the initial enthusiasm and engagement of the first couple of days giving way to a low point of disenchantment and the temptation on Day #3 to throw in the towel but then picking up a second wind and sufficient momentum to mean that the final day almost came as a surprise. I felt initially (and still feel) that's because any kind of artificial challenge like this, is an extremely condensed experience and even with a degree of preparation and having done it before in 2017, it's a shock to the system, if you're not used to operating within such tight parameters. Writing about it here I enjoyed very much and made me feel accountable which was helpful as an incentive to keep going but in order to make it more interesting to write about (and hopefully to read), my menus included more diversity than they might otherwise have done and the work-load in the kitchen was at times slightly overwhelming. However, (see 5 below) I felt the week's menu was still quite repetitive and more so than in 2017. Perhaps I'm getting lazy in my old age!

But a bit further down the line, what are the takeaways? It's perhaps too early to assess the seriously long term impact but these are my 10 Takeaways so far:

1 It's reset the lens through which I view all sorts of costs. By that I mean, I've started seeing cost not in terms purely of numbers of pounds but in terms of units of a day's meals. For example, stopping for a cappuccino on a recent visit to our local farm shop cafĂ© last week, I was taken aback to see that the cost of said cappuccino was £2.85. Not at all unreasonable for a coffee shop coffee, these days. But the numbers I saw were no longer just representative of pounds and pence - they suddenly registered as three whole days' meals on the basis of my challenge which made me sit up and think. I think all of us have become, or are becoming, more thoughtful about where we are spending our available funds - is this purchase really necessary? Do I really need this or that? Is this something for which I am prepared to deplete my precious resources and potentially go without something else? Sometimes, of course, the answer will be, and should be, 'yes' but the challenge has definitely accentuated that process of questioning and thinking through what I spend money on which is no bad thing bearing in mind I probably do too much shopping and not just for cappuccinos like this one last week!

2 Before this year's challenge ever started I knew that my habits around shopping for food, as well as cooking and eating it, had shifted, quite drastically in some areas, over the five years since my 2017 challenge but I wasn't aware of quite how much until I had completed this year's. Despite it being five years on and the fact that we are in the middle of spiralling price rises for food and everything else, the fact that the total spend on this year's challenge, for exactly the same number of days and meals, came out  54p cheaper than the total in 2017 of £5.63 really brought me up short. Why was that? For sure, it wasn't because individual items I was buying in the shops were costing less. Being able to draw on home-grown / home-preserved fruit in terms of fresh rhubarb, bottled and dried apple from the garden, frozen foraged blackberries and home-pressed grape juice and dried home-grown tomatoes was a major factor - in May 2017 although I did have a little bit of rhubarb in the garden, it was scanty; I also had a few frozen home-grown raspberries and foraged blackberries but again very little and I had to buy a certain amount of fruit and all my vegetables (apart from some mustard and cress grown from some elderly date-expired seeds) to include any in my meals. Even using the cheapest possible options this immediately pushed the cost of my 2017 meals higher. If ever my ventures into food-preservation needed validation this has been it. 

3 The same thing goes for growing stuff - there isn't a huge amount available to harvest at this time of year for free - April and May weren't traditionally called 'the hungry gap' between what was left of last year's harvest and the arrival of the new one to come, for nothing, but my home-grown walking onions and rather sorry-for-themselves, woody leeks, ground elder patch, herbs and baby courgettes were a godsend and punched way above their actual weight. During WW2 under pressure of short supplies of food and rationing, people dug up their gardens and planted vegetables wherever they could. We aren't all able to do that but, if we want to cut our food costs, then anything we can grow, we should,  - in the garden, on a balcony, or just on a window-sill. And that includes weeds - 'Love your enemies, Eat them & Save money' should perhaps be 2022's equivalent of WW2's 'Dig for Victory'! 

4 For this year's challenge I invested in a pair of micro scales. They weren't terribly expensive and I found them invaluable for weighing out tiny amounts of spices, tea etc Their accuracy and smaller calibration made it possible to use very small quantities of items that I would have rejected out of hand as being too costly and this I think, paradoxically, helped to keep costs down overall. 

5 On balance, there was, I think, less variety in my meals in this year's challenge than in 2017's which also helped to keep costs lower. The risk with too much repetition is boredom, of course, and in order to make the challenge sustainable, it was really important to combat that. Things like using very small quantities of different spices as well as lots of different herbs from the garden helped to keep things interesting and repel the big B-factor.

6 My actual eating habits are probably slightly more budget-friendly these days - for example I don't drink as much tea as I used to; in particular, I don't drink nearly as much tea with soya milk so it was much easier for me to switch to homegrown mint tea this time which I could make for free.

7 I began to be bothered about the energy costs involved in the cooking on the challenge and to worry that may be I was only spending £1 per day on ingredients but a lot more on the fuel I was using to cook them. If I do the challenge, or a version of it, again, I think one of the ground rules I will impose on myself is a limitation on cooking times, especially cooking times in the oven. Homemade breads, crackers or buns may be cheap on ingredients but they need a stonking hot oven in which to bake them. 

8 Similarly, I felt uneasy that I wasn't counting ingredients such as a teaspoon of salt, or a grinding of black pepper costing less than a penny, at all. I think another time I will make a notional allowance for this. In fact, as I had 91p left over in my budget I am sure that more than covers what I used in this way. By definition, we are talking peanuts (figuratively!) after all. Alternatively, I might weigh out a set amount for the period and include that cost divided evenly over the number of days. 

9 Perhaps the simplest and yet also most valuable takeaway from a challenge like this is the renewed appreciation that comes on the back of it for the everyday things it's very easy to take for granted. A budget that is not normally restricted to £1-a-day for food and all that goes with that. The availability and quality of ingredients and the infrastructure I have at my disposal - unrestricted (if now increasingly expensive) fuel, clean water from the tap, a garden to grow stuff in, the experience and the kitchen kit I've accumulated over the years that makes cooking from scratch, even on a very limited budget easier, quicker and more fun. Much of this is identical to what I felt on the back of my 2017 experience but it does no harm, and actually quite a lot of good, to reacquaint oneself afresh with it, I think.

10 This year's World Hunger Day on 28th May has a new urgency about it bearing in mind the impact of the war in Ukraine and the blockade of Ukrainian wheat exports to countries that in normal times have been reliant on Ukraine's huge grain harvest so I'm pleased to be donating this year the money I've saved on my challenge and a bit more to The Hunger Project. A drop in the ocean, of course, but every little helps.   

Thank you so much for reading and / or commenting after my long absence from the blogosphere - I've enjoyed being back in the zone of writing here and taking photos very much so I'm toying with the idea of returning more regularly - we'll see how things go! 

E x