Good food makes me happy. Artisan breads, homemade anything and organic or local produce when possible. We’ve always had a grocery budget, but when my husband suggested we cut our spending to $100 a week I resisted the urge to chuck an heirloom tomato at him.
“It’s just for a month,” he insisted. “So we can play catch-up.”
When we decided I would stay at home with our three kids, aged 7, 4 and 2, we knew we’d have to prioritize. I’m fine with eschewing a new mini-van for the 1998 sedan we cram two car seats and one booster into. I like our cozy, two-bedroom bungalow, and I don’t mind that family vacations mean pitching a tent inside of hitching a flight. After all, I could go back to work. A lot of families don’t get to make that choice. To some, $100 a week on groceries is decadence. So I’m not complaining. But cheaping out on food? No way. My grandma always said,
“It’s better to pay the grocer than the pharmacist.”
So, in an attempt to heed the word of wise mothers who have gone before, and the budget of my husband, I came up with a 3-pronged approach:
#1: Voyage to the Mediterranean
The Mediterranean diet has gained a lot of attention for its heart-health benefits. Research has shown it’s also associated with a reduced risk of cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. It’s also cheap. It involves building meals around fruit, vegetables, grains, and legumes – which also happen to be some of the cheapest things at the grocery store (unless you count KD). Fish or seafood is eaten twice a week or more, and eggs and dairy in moderation. Meat (often the most expensive item on a grocery bill) is rarely eaten.
The simplicity rule is, well, simple. When meals don’t call for a lot of ingredients they cost less. Lentil soup for dinner, anyone? This part of the strategy caused some grumbles. But when I get some lip I very gently remind my lovely husband that this was his idea (then I threaten him with the tomato again, only this time it’s from the reduced for quick sale aisle).
No one minded the final point of the strategy: do-it-yourself. Instead of buying granola bars, the kids and I made cookies from the whole-wheat flour and oats we already had in the cupboard. Rather than cereal bars they feasted on homemade banana bread piping hot from the oven. Growing my own produce could be a powerful part of this strategy, yet the massive maples that surround our home provide us with beauty and shade, but not enough sunshine for a vegetable garden.
This three-pronged strategy, Mediterranean, simple and do-it-yourself, still allowed me to buy organic versions of some (if not all) of the produce with the highest levels of pesticides. Plus, it really gave me no other option but to feed my family healthful, flavourful food. But could we do it for an entire month?
Week 1: COCKILY CONSCIOUS
After the first week I was into the $100 a week gig. I began to feel a sense of pride in eating so well on so little. It made me think about what it would be like to be unable to feed my family well. I resolved to put more into the food bank bin. I was also more committed to saving my kids’ leftovers rather than toss them into the compost. I was less likely to unconsciously chow down a box of rice crackers and tub of hummus, and truly begin to savour what I was putting into my mouth. I thought of the environmental benefits of buying less. Getting cocky, I made plans to make $100 a week my regular grocery budget – at least until my kids hit a growth spurt.
Week 2: I’LL ARM WRESTLE YOU FOR THAT SNACK, SON
I proudly returned from the grocery store with a receipt for $115 (a little bit over) and an armful of fresh produce. By the end of the day, the fruit bats that were once my children devoured the cantaloupe, pears and apples. What else is there to eat, they wanted to know. I asked my 4 year-old if he wanted to arm wrestle for the last dollop of yogurt left in the fridge. Don’t get me wrong, our meals were good – peanuty mango noodles with a handful of shrimp, Italian torta, chickpea sweet potato curry (see our weekly menu below and stay tuned to this blog for recipes), but we were seriously lacking in the snack department. I started to slack off on the do-it-yourself approach – I was too busy this week to bake cookies or bread.
Week 3: COMPETING FOR SCARCE RESOURCES
I’ve been surprised at the wide variance in prices. At one store our favourite cheese cost $8.99, at another it is regularly $4.99. Once, I found our favourite yogurt for half price. Score! But there was only one tub left on the shelf. I snagged it just as a cute girl, around five-years-old, skipped down the aisle.
“Daddy!” she exclaimed, clearly heart-broken as she surveyed the shelf. “It’s all gone.”
“Oh honey. Oh no,” her dad – also cute – lamented. “I’ll have to text Mom and see what we should do.”
From the corner of my eye, I sized up this girl wearing her pink sunglasses in the store, twirling a strand of glossy brown hair and staring at her feet in disappointment. I eyed the coveted yogurt in my basket.
“Oh take it!” I said, and hoped carrying the groceries home would bulk up my arm muscles so I could beat my 4 year-old in that arm wrestle.
Week 4: MISERLY MAMA
The farmer’s market opened up this week, promising affordable, local produce, but so far all they have is fiddleheads. Fruit bats won’t eat fiddleheads. I don’t like that I’ve begun to feel miserly; I’m less likely to donate to a school fundraiser or a neighbourhood kid looking for pledges. While our grocery bill was $100, we spent more on food this week when I got lazy and bought deli sandwiches for a picnic, or made a late night run to the grocery store for a much needed bag of chips. One night I couldn’t bear the thought of the regular evening kitchen clean up and we went out for dinner instead. Still, we are spending less on food than a month ago.
This simple, do-it-yourself, Mediterranean journey (if only I was talking about traveling instead of budgeting!) has been a lesson in what we can do without, what we can do better and what it means to prioritize. It is a healthy, cost-effective option that has taught me the benefits of buying and eating more consciously. However, it also has its challenges – it is more time consuming, doesn’t leave much money for snacks or treats, and can bring out the Scrooge in me. But the bottom line is that it allows me to stay home with the kids. And when I’m there to nurse my youngest son after his nap, visit my daughter’s class, or bike with my 4 year old to afternoon kindergarten, I know I’ve made the choice that is right for me.
About Kelley Powell
Kelley Powell has a Master’s degree in international development and has worked at a home for impoverished women and children in India, on a domestic violence research project in Laos and with the Canadian government’s family violence prevention unit. She met and married her husband, Imran, in Laos and is now happily at home with their 3 children, aged 7, 4 and 2. She teaches yoga and meditation in Ottawa and specializes in teaching parents, pregnant women, children and teens. When her children are napping or at school, she leaves the dishes in the sink and the toys on the floor and she writes. Her publishing credits include The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and New Moon Girls magazine. She is currently seeking a publisher for her young adult novel. Kelley is a partner in Satya Communications, a freelance writing company that creates compelling articles, reports and communication for a variety of clients.