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Radio Days

plate-&-stuff

Here at North/South Food we’ve been blogging since 2010, and more than anything else it’s been a fun way for us as brother and sister to share a common interest, background and communicate when we live hundreds of miles apart. It means we talk about more than just what we had for our tea when we chat on the phone.

But almost by accident, I certainly discovered another side to blogging. It taught me to be more creative about eating on a budget. This happened naturally. I have only ever had a small budget to cook and eat from due to my circumstances. So as we both developed and honed our skills in writing and social media and photography, I definitely expanded my budget horizons while we blogged.

I just never thought to mention it. While I love other frugal blogs and check them regularly, my own lack of money seemed irrelevant. Everyone has a budget after all: some people’s are just smaller. In fact although Mister North has a larger budget than me, he’s a careful shopper, knows his prices and the value of things and neither of us are are excessive financially when cooking. It didn’t seem that important to highlight this.

And to a certain extent it isn’t. Good food is good food. We cooked and blogged and people enjoyed it both in person and online. No one ever noticed the price of things. But when I realised I’d developed good skills for budget food and then heard people like me doing their best being criticised for it, I accidentally ‘outed’ myself by writing a piece of what challenges living on a budget can cause.

We couldn’t have foreseen the response. No one was sniffy or judgemental, and we realised there’s a massive appetite for frugal food that allows for some pleasures, and builds on skills and ideas. It’s been an honour to be asked to write for the Observer Food Monthly, to be interviewed for the Radio 4 Food Programme, and a privilege to meet and talk to others also eating well on a budget.

In many ways I can’t knock the tone of things like Delia’s Frugal Food (I bought my mum a copy for Mother’s Day when I was about 8, not knowing what frugal meant…) but I don’t love the tone of parsimony that accompanies them. Having a small budget is not a failing, and it shouldn’t be a punishment.

My budget is £15-20 per week, including store cupboard essentials. I’ve got a wee bit of wiggle room – because food is my hobby – and sometimes I buy stuff for fun so I might spend £25 one week and £15 the next. I’ve learned to adapt to seasonality and to plan without being so rigid I can’t trust my instincts. This flexibility is how I not only cope, but genuinely enjoy budgeting week in, week out, for the last 13 years.

I’ll happily eat boiled rice and veggies a couple of nights a week so I can bake something occasionally. But then I’m only catering to myself and that’s a luxury in itself. Mister North cooks for two and that enhances my skills by teaching me to cook big sometimes. This isn’t a blog necessarily aimed at feeding a family, but I think we’ve proved useful for helping singles and couples how to enjoy food in a world often aimed at families of four.

It isn’t solely about budget for us. You’ll see a few items in here that don’t scream counting the pennies; except when you look more closely, they might be from a market, farm shop, friend or other place that offers a different type of value to the ‘Big 4’ supermarkets. Mister North has a bit more money, but less time than me, and he lives in a more rural environment so has access to different sources than I do. However we both feel it’s important that the north/south aspect of our blog covers all the places you can shop because budgeting is not one size fits all. It’s finding what works for your circumstances.

My circumstances are that food is more than just fuel. It is often my friend and companion as well. My health is poor and especially at times of relapse or flare up, days blur and food punctuates that. Making something to eat can be my big achievement for the day or the week and my only pleasure. It can help or hinder me depending what I eat and I try to keep my recipes relevant to that, but not be the dominant factor in either my life or my cooking.

When you dip into the blog, you’ll find recipes that make you hungry, tips to try, skills to be built on and a connection to food that entertains you. There are no prices per portion, no talk of cost per se; more just a selection of love letters to food and all the aspects that make up eating, drinking, cooking and shopping… along with lovely helpful comments from our readers. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!

A week’s worth of shopping….

Some key groceries for a weekly shop

First of all: thank you! Thank you to everyone who emailed, commented, Tweeted, followed, pinned and got in touch after the Observer Food Monthly piece. We were overwhelmed by the amount of debate, discussion and support it received. We’ve found some amazing new blogs, talked to some great people and had a wonderful time. Even the notorious Comment is Free was positive!

So to say thanks properly I thought I’d give you a sneak peek to the bits of the original article that didn’t make the final cut at Food Monthly. Not content with taking over the entire magazine, I did in fact write more than you saw and while I’m thrilled to have had so much published, a little bit did get lost in the edit. A few people asked if I was using organic for my recipes because it didn’t seem right that they came to £20 per head for that many dishes, but in fact there was a lot more food in my basket and I’m going to give you a cut-out and keep guide to see where I bought food for this week and began building a storecupboard for future ones.

I costed out my basket using Sainsbury’s online as I wanted to use a baseline that the largest number of people across the UK could have and an online ‘big four’ supermarket was the best for that. Not everyone can reach an Aldi, Lidl or a proper market, and online shopping removed regional variations. Using a discount retailer, local greengrocer, market or getting reduced products at a supermarket can help you cut the budget. Remember it’s a guideline, not a diktat.

I allowed for a bare minimum of storecupboard items: salt, pepper, one chilli product (powder, hot sauce, Tabasco, your choice), smoked paprika, one dried green herb of your choice, Worcestershire sauce and mustard powder. The fresh herbs and ground ginger mentioned were optional as was the parmesan and olive oil. I didn’t include butter in the basket as it’s an essential to me, nor  did I include milk as the amount you buy depends on your tea and coffee consumption.

We’ve listed everything you need to buy to do the 7 day menu I wrote for OFM, and in the future I’ll be giving you some more ideas for using the store cupboard items you’ve built up from here.

P.S. At the bottom of the post is a version you can print out if you’d like – it’s just the ingredients list in black and white, with space for your own notes. It prints two copies of the list per sheet of A4 paper, so one printout can be used over a couple of weeks.

Fruit and veg

Bananas – Basics Fairtrade  x8 £1.15

Potatoes – white 2.5kg              £1.95

Leeks 1kg                                      £2.59

Beetroot – Vacuum pack            £0.70

Celery – untrimmed                    £0.90

Carrots – loose 1kg                     £0.90

Onions – 1kg bag                         £1.10

Apples – Basics bag                    £0.82

Parsnips – loose x2                    £0.48

Savoy Cabbage                            £0.80

Swede (turnip)                            £0.90

Garlic (2x bulbs)                        £0.46

Mushrooms – sliced 1kg           £2.50

 

Frozen

Garden Peas  – frozen bag 910g      £1.60

White fish fillets – Basics 520g      £2.00
Tinned and dried goods

Butterbeans – 400g tin                         £0.69

Kidney beans – Basics 400g tin         £0.27

Chopped tomatoes – 400g Basics       £0.35

Condensed milk 379g                           £0.99

Lemon juice 250ml                               £0.59

Creamed coconut 200g                       £0.99

Semolina 500g                                     £0.89

Pearl Barley 500g                               £0.55

Porridge Oats 1kg                               £1.29

Popping corn 500g                            £1.09

Rice – Long grain rice 1kg               £1.39

Plain flour – Basics 1.5kg                £0.65

Ryvita 250g                                        £0.99

 

Meat, fish and dairy

Chicken – whole approx. 1.75kg              £5.00

Low fat Natural yoghurt – Basics              £0.65

Eggs – 12 free-range                                     £2.65

Double Cream 600ml                                  £1.68

Total:                                                            £39.95

If you wanted to buy the store cupboard essentials from Sainsbury’s I’ve included what they would cost below:

Store cupboard essentials

Worcestershire sauce 150ml    £1.19

Mustard powder 57g                  £1.35

Olive oil 500ml                           £2.00 (offer price)

Smoked paprika 50g                  £1.19

Ground ginger 32g                     £0.59

Bay leaves 10g                          £0.60

Fresh tarragon 20g                    £0.80

Tabasco sauce 57g                   £1.69

Sea Salt 350g                             £0.55

Black peppercorns 100g           £1.78

Butter – own brand 250g            £1.50

Total:                                                               £12.16

It shocked me when I costed this out. For me, these are the absolute bare basics of a herb, spice and condiments cupboard and with the exception of the fresh tarragon, they’d all last for ages, but they add another 30% onto the cost of your shop just to get some flavour into those fresh foods you’ve bought. You could save some serious cash here by shopping around if you can. Asian grocers or ‘ethnic’ supermarkets will usually have bags of peppercorns, bayleaves and ginger at twice the size and half the price. Bottles of hot sauce will be cheaper than big brand name Tabasco but everyone likes a different heat so it’s hard to advise what to buy. Olive oil often crops up in pound shops or on offer. Smoked paprika is often cheaper in delis in the cute little tins when you look at price by gram. But if you can only get to a supermarket, products like this really add cost to your shopping.

You’ll use nearly all the fresh vegetables in the course of the week, but should have some of the frozen ones left. Other items like the flour, porridge oats, pearl barley, coconut, rice and popping corn will last for ages and form the basis of following weeks’ meals and snacks. I’ll be talking you through the ways the meals came together and how with a bit of planning you don’t have to be tied to a cooker all week but still enjoy your food and your spare time on a budget. In the meantime, what are your number one herbs, spices or flavourings? Could you give up cumin? Is soy sauce essential? Go without garlic?

Click here to get a PDF version of the shopping list

grocery list

A small announcement…

Miss South's piece in the Observer Food Monthly, 20th Jan 2013

We’ve got some exciting news for you. Just as our blog enters its fourth year, an article and series of recipes I’ve written is published in this month’s Observer Food Monthly!

Based on my piece about food poverty and eating on a budget not being just as simple as it might seem, I’ve written another piece and a week’s worth of recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a treat or two for them. They’ve very kindly published the whole lot, both online and in the magazine itself.

I’ve budgeted that everything feeds 2 for £20 a week each, priced at Sainsbury’s online. There’s a minimum of energy costs, kitchen equipment and herbs, spices and condiments; but the opportunity to add in the things that you absolutely can’t do without to flavour your food. I’ve intended it as a guide–not gospel–and tried to make frugal food seem fun.

I’m so pleased to have been given the opportunity to do this and at risk of sounding a bit like I’m giving an Oscar speech, I’d like to thank everyone for the overwhelming support and encouragement they gave me over the first piece. Many of you took the time to tweet and email me personally as well as leaving personal, thoughtful, honest comments that created a real discussion on the subject. Some of you even went out of your way to suggest a piece by me to the Guardian/Observer and I hope I’ve thanked you personally.

Both Mister North and I would like to thank you all for the fun, support and encouragement we’ve had in our blogging career. It’s been brilliant so far. I’m certainly a much better and resourceful cook than I was and it’s introduced me to wonderful people and opportunities. Here’s to many more years!

Miss South's article online for Observer Food Monthly, 20th Jan 2013