Thursday 26 October 2017

£1-a-day Food Challenge - Follow Up and "Trucs" of the trade

I intended to write this post months ago. Actually, I did write most of it months ago, but life then got rather busy, as it does, and so I never got round to finishing it. On the basis of better late than never, here it is.

If you read any of my ramblings on my £1-a-day food project and wondered about giving such a thing a go yourself, you might find it helpful. It's a collection of twenty little tips and "trucs" that I found made the going easier. I love the French word "truc" - it's almost the equivalent of the English word "trick" but not quite - more "creative-and-serendipitous-solution-finding" than "get-round-it-by-cheating-solution-finding", although sometimes there's not much, if any, difference.

1 Be ingenious. All the best frugal "trucs" are born of the felicitous partnering of necessity, creative ingenuity and determination. One of the biggest hurdles of the challenge, for me, for example, was that the budget was so tight that it looked set to scupper my tea-drinking completely. Not good news. To circumnavigate this, firstly, I cut back my tea consumption before the project began which was a good start and probably better for my health in the long run too.
Secondly, I found a way of eking out a minuscule quantity of tea by brewing it in my biggest tea-pot, shrouding it in a thick, old-fashioned tea-cosy and leaving it to brew for at least half an hour, before pouring some to drink immediately and the rest straight into a large thermos flask. This gave me several bonus cups of tea to drink later, for the price of one. Of course, it's not that strong a brew but I drink my tea quite weak anyway and it's a good deal better than nothing. Coffee is more expensive, relatively, than tea but, if you are a coffee-lover, you could, in principle, apply the same system. Not exactly rocket science, obviously, but nonetheless not second nature, or not in this household anyway, where we tended to boil up the kettle and reach for a fresh tea bag, every time.

2 Compare and contrast. The website, is a very useful, quick tool to compare prices of different food items across all the main UK supermarkets and identify the cheapest deals. Make sure that when comparing items you are comparing them accurately, weight for weight.

3 Adopt a scientific /mathematical mindset. If you do the challenge the way I did it and use more ingredients than you can buy in one spend of the budget, you need to be able to cost foods by weight and recipes accurately. A pair of digital weighing scales that weighs in 2g increments, or less, is essential for this. As is a calculator! I am sure it's plum obvious to everyone else, but I am an arithmetical numpty and had to sit down and work out the maths carefully: to calculate the cost of any ingredient you divide the price you paid for an item by the weight in which it was sold and then multiply by the weight you are actually using. So if you are using 50g of sugar which cost you 69p per 500g bag, you divide 69 by 500 and then multiply by 50, giving you a figure of 6.9. Round anything above 0.5 up and less than 0.5, round down. (On this basis,  50g sugar cost 7p.) Some you win, some you lose! Be careful not to muddle pounds and pence, as I did on occasion! (I told you I was a numpty!)

4 Plan as for a military operation! Detailed planning was essential, I found. Work out meticulous meal-plans well in advance. Avoid the temptation to skip meals to leave more of the budget for later in the day. The challenge is quite tough and letting yourself get absolutely ravenous and then not being able to eat much is bad psychologically. Probably physiologically too. Better to spread your intake over the day, if you can. And what you certainly wouldn't want to do is find you've blown your budget by midday, leaving a very hungry gap indeed until the next day.

5 Go with the grain of your normal eating pattern. If, like me, you need something to eat around 4.00pm in the afternoon, factor it in. Do you normally not have more for breakfast than a hot drink or a smoothie? Stick with that, if it suits you, but don't skip meals entirely. See 4 above.

6 Use recipes and foods that you know you like and can cook easily. This is not the week to try some new food that you don't know how to cook or that you may really not like. If you think you might like to use a new recipe, or a new cooking technique, it's best to do a dry run in advance and iron out any glitches. I found this very helpful with getting up to speed with the soaking and cooking times for dried beans, for example.

7 Get swapping. The cost of recipes can often be drastically reduced by substituting cheaper ingredients and / or cooking smaller quantities. Cost out recipes that you think you'd like to use, on a piece of paper and look carefully at where the costs are falling most heavily. There may be some surprises. Ask yourself, "Can I use exactly the same ingredients but more cheaply from a different source from usual? Tinned tomatoes, say, from Aldi or Lidl, as opposed to Sainsbug's or Waitrose? Can I substitute an alternative for more expensive ingredients? Pulses, instead of meat, or sugar instead of honey or maple syrup? Can I reduce the overall cost of a dish by changing what I serve with it, really cheap rice, for example, in place of a baked potato? How can I get an intense flavour hit from a small portion?" With this last one, don't immediately think you must reduce seasoning. You may find it more strategic to increase the seasoning, say, in a dish like chilli sin carne, in order to be able to serve smaller portions overall. (Bulk the meal out with rice instead.) Keeping food highly seasoned and well-flavoured was crucial, if small portions were to feel satisfying.

8 Take care over the presentation of your frugal fare and the way you eat it. Our perception of taste and satisfaction in eating is strongly influenced by a lot more than the food itself. So I tried to use nice china and proper cloth napkins. Use any fresh herbs you have growing to garnish dishes or plates - there's nothing more depressing about a frugal meal than it looking like some indiscriminate brown slop, that might be served up in a prison camp. But the herbs aren't just cosmetic - fresh herbs are full of vitamins and minerals that very usefully supplement the challenge's meagre rations and you can grow them for free, or next to nothing, yourself.

9 Eat slowly. I tried not to rush meals and to enjoy every mouthful - it's precious and there isn't much of it on this lark!

10 Dilute stuff. This is a quick and easy "truc" for stretching liquids both in cooking and eating although it does have its limitations. As I mentioned, I diluted milk with water to use in cooking my porridge, scones and muffins on the challenge and I also measured out soya milk for my tea-drinking at the beginning of the day and added water to that too, to make it go further. Boiling water added to soup, fills the bowl (and you) up, if portions look a bit meagre. As I say, it had limitations - too much dilution and stuff tastes "thin" and unappetising as well as losing significant nutritional value, gram for gram.

11 Cultivate opportunism. Keep your eyes peeled for bargains or reduced "yellow sticker" items. In Soviet Russia, where food supplies were erratic at best, and absent at worst, people kept what was known as an "авоська" (avoska) bag, tucked in their pocket. "авось" (avos) means "perhaps", "what if?" or "may be" in Russian. An avoska bag was a "maybe bag", a "just in case bag" so that if you came across a queue forming because suddenly a shop had got in a supply of oranges, or flour, or sugar, or whatever, you could join it forthwith and and not miss the opportunity to acquire whatever was suddenly available after weeks of "deficit".

The bags were string ones, that folded up very small. They were almost all made made by people who, for reasons of disability, were not able to earn their keep by other means.

Making the universally used bags provided a modest, but steady, independent income. A sad consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union and the arrival of the ubiquitous, western, plastic carrier-bag was that these people suddenly found themselves out of work and without any income. A small casualty in the big scheme of things, perhaps, but one that got to me somehow. Happily, plastic, disposable carrier-bags are now personae non gratae everywhere, and we are now all returning to using permanent baskets and shopping bags the world over.

And there's been a heart-warming initiative to revive the avoska bag-makers' jobs again in Russia. Have a read about it here.

12 Grow stuff. Having my cress seedlings, rhubarb from the garden, some foraged blackberries and home-grown raspberries in the freezer, remnants of spinach and sorrel in the vegetable patch, herbs on the windowsill and in the garden made a huge difference to the viability and enjoyment of the challenge. Pick the season for your challenge carefully - fruit is expensive and almost impossible to include unless you grow it yourself or can forage for it. Unless you have a stash of free fruit in your freezer or have dried, or bottled it, winter and early spring will be virtually fruit-free. Doing it in the autumn would be a good deal easier. Autumn also gives you access to cheap potatoes too which would be a big bonus.

13 Know your weeds! Find out what grows wild near you and when, and use it if you can. Always err on the side of caution, if you are not absolutely sure of the identity of any wild food. No point in saving money but poisoning yourself!

14 Choose your carbohydrate. You need to centre meals around a basic carbohydrate in order for meals to be filling. As came up in the comments, one of the distinctive things about my meals is that they were heavily grain-centred. For the simple reason that grains represent one of the cheapest, easily available food-stuffs and the budget won't easily stretch to include big portions of protein, even cheap, plant protein in the form of pulses. Interestingly, potatoes were not a good competitor for cheap grain. I was surprised about that but in part that may be due to doing the challenge in late Spring when my homegrown potatoes were all used up and commercial potato prices are higher than in the autumn.

15 Use your freezer cannily. If you lay your hands on a bargain ingredient and can bung it in the freezer or cook it and freeze it ahead of time, do so. I did this with my thrifty carrot and banana muffins and my homemade tagliatelle because I was anxious that my free, home-grown egg supply would have run out by the time I wanted it, with the bantams all going broody after Easter. I was also very grateful to find a couple of hidden bags at the back of the freezer containing blackberries foraged from the hedgerows last autumn and some raspberries from the garden.

16 Take stock. Get into the habit of making your own vegetable stock from the trimmings of vegetables and fresh herbs. As I indicated earlier, I found that a tightly-lidded plastic container in the fridge keeps vegetable trimmings fresh and useable for two or three days if I can't make the stock straightaway and the finished product is well worth the effort for adding a depth of flavour to otherwise plain dishes. It is also effectively free, apart from the salt. You can freeze what you don't immediately need in plastic containers - old 450ml yoghurt containers work well - and I found it invaluable on the challenge to add to my bean dishes and soups.

17 Lose weight only reluctantly. With smaller portions, cut back or diluted ingredients and few extras, you may find you lose weight. That might be something you are quite pleased about in the short term but in the long term, potentially, it's the beginnings of malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies. I still have some thinking to do to get round this. Possible solutions would be to increase food intake right up to the wire of the £1 limit. Most days I found I had a bit of spare slack that perhaps I should have used up with something high in calories and nutritional value. My advice, for what it is worth, is that combining an attempt to lose weight with doing a £1-a-day food challenge is not a terribly good idea. Essentially the foods you can eat on the challenge are not those you necessarily want to prioritise nutritionally, when trying to lose weight. There is also an uncomfortable psychological mismatch between treasuring every morsel of food because it's a precious life resource and deliberately choosing not to eat, in order to lose weight.

18 Preparation is vital - see 2 above. I began preparations for this challenge about six weeks before starting it and that was none too soon. Swapping over cheaper ingredients for more expensive ones takes time if you are not to waste stuff and cooking everything from scratch is labour-intensive and time-consuming so it's sensible to make life a bit easier and cook items ahead and freeze them - see 15 above. If you are planning months, or even further ahead, you can obviously do more - foraging for, or growing stuff in season and stashing it aside either in the freezer, bottling or drying it, or using it in preserves such as jam or pickles. Be circumspect about the cost of other ingredients in your preserves as they can turn a very frugal make into much less of one. For example if, like me, you tend to use jam sugar with added pectin in it for jam-making, which makes the process of setting easy and hassle-free, be aware that it also sends the cost of a jar of homemade jam rocketing up, as opposed to using plain granulated sugar. Watch for things like the cost of spices, lemons and vinegar too.

19 Get company! Psychologically this isn't the easiest thing in the world to pull off. I found it was OK for the first two or three days but the second half of the challenge was much harder going. Moral support is important and I found that made a big difference. D although not strictly observing every single one of the limitations of the challenge himself, was very supportive and put up with a pretty restricted menu for a week and an intrepid friend in London, to whom I had chuntered about doing this project, bravely undertook to do it in parallel. Comparing notes was fun and made the whole thing more of an adventure and less of a grind. He is an avid coffee-drinker and for the coffee-drinkers among you, be warned, my awful Aldi Earl Grey tea was more than matched by his experience of very cheap, instant coffee replacing beautiful, freshly-ground beans! If you can, pool resources - that can helpfully widen the variety of foods available to you. Blogging about the challenge also helped - it made me accountable because there was a public dimension to it and knowing there were a few kind folk reading my posts and taking the time to comment was wonderful - thank you again so much for that, if you were one of them.

20 Reclaim feasting after fasting! Plan a nice meal to look forward to at the end of the challenge. Having something to look forward to helps with the psychological impact of there not being much to go round. Our forbears, both recent and more distant, were very familiar with "making do" on scant rations and saving up good things to have a periodic feast to celebrate special occasions. These days we seem to blacklist the idea of waiting for anything, by and large, and to have lost the joy of feasting after fasting, either literally or metaphorically but this challenge offers a nice opportunity to rediscover it.

There's a lovely entry in Nella Last's wartime Diary, "Nella Last's War" for Good Friday 1941 in which she talks about preparing a simple Easter picnic*. The picnic includes one of a pair of fruit cakes she had made the previous June "when butter was more plentiful". One cake, she had cut for her husband's and son's birthdays in mid-December 1940 and eked out over Christmas a fortnight later; the other she has preserved for the last nine months, "I wrapped it in grease-proof paper - four separate wrappings - and then tied it and put it in an air-tight tin". No wonder it seems to her husband "perfect cake, in perfect condition". The anticipation and careful saving-up lend the cake, at a remove of seventy-five years, now contained, not in greaseproof paper, but the pages of a paperback, a delicious frisson of enjoyment that you can almost taste, even as a reader. How much more delicious it must have been in reality; long awaited, then savoured, on that Spring afternoon in 1941, in the open air along with "tea, greengage jam in a little pot, brown bread and butter, [and] a little cheese."

* ed. Richard Broad & Suzie Fleming Nella Last's War - The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49, (London: Profile Books LTD, 2006), p116

Now, five months after doing the challenge, I am also conscious of some of its longer lasting effects. Some of them have been small and unobtrusive, others a bit more dramatic. I'll write an update on that, may be in due course, but suffice it to say that my shopping, cooking and eating habits seem to have changed quite a bit and more than on just a temporary basis, which I find interesting and a bit surprising, actually.

E x