The challenge: To cook dinner for four for one week, at less than RM10 per meal.
The caveat: The RM10 ceiling does not include staples like rice, flour, noodles, pasta, cooking oil, sugar and seasoning.
The point: We don’t have to spend a fortune on healthy, tasty meals.
FOOD is a necessity and good food should be everyone’s right; we really shouldn’t have to pay luxury prices for daily meals. The reality, however, is that food prices are steadily rising and a head of broccoli that used to cost RM3 a year ago now goes for about RM6 in the Klang Valley (and that’s broccoli from China, more expensive if it is from Australia), while a 250g block of butter can cost anywhere between RM6 and RM12.
As a result, we end up paying an awful lot for our meat and potatoes, and it’s not unusual for households (with children and/or pets) to spend more than RM1,000 a month just on groceries. Lawyer Jacqueline Lee admits to being a “chronic over-spender” when it comes to groceries, claiming she needs help to reboot her shopping system. “I live with my husband and I easily spend about RM800 every month just on edibles for the both of us. I do most of my shopping after work which means I only shop at supermarkets. I don’t shop for the week; instead, I go to the supermarket three or four times and buy just what I need for, maybe, two dinners. I definitely know I am overspending and I welcome help,” says Lee who lives in Puchong, Selangor.
She isn’t the only one. A random survey among friends and colleagues revealed a general sense of discontent about grocery spending. Determined to find a way to eat cheaply but well, I decided to impose a food budget on myself. After all, there is enough literature offering consumers tips on how to manage spending, specifically on foodstuff.
I decided to compile these tips and put them to the test: would they really help stretch my ringgit (without having to sacrifice my appetite) or do they just sound good in theory? I set a target and I set it high: RM10 for a meal for four. If I could stick to this, I’d be spending an average of RM300 a month on food – quite an amazing feat, if successful.To be fair, pantry staples like rice, flour, dried noodles, pasta, spices and seasonings, oils and sauces weren’t included in the budget as most homes are (or should be) well-stocked.
Also to make it more practical, I shopped for a week’s worth of groceries at the wet market and averaged the spending: RM70 for seven dinners. I bought:
> 1kg chicken (RM7.50)
> 20 eggs (RM7)
> 1kg spinach (RM2)
> 1kg kangkung (RM1.50)
> 1 packet of oyster mushrooms (RM2.69)
> 1kg potatoes (RM2.20)
> 4 pieces tofu (RM2.40)
> beansprouts (RM1)
> 2 cucumbers (RM1.30)
> 1kg fish (RM10.90)
> 1 head of lettuce (RM4.40)
> 1kg tomatoes (RM4.30)
> parsley (RM4)
> 2 grated coconuts (RM2)
> 500g anchovies (RM9)
> 2 blocks tempeh (RM3.20)
> 2 carrots (RM1)
> 500g dried chickpeas (RM3)
That brought the total to RM69.39. I also got a handful of red and green chillies and the vendor threw in some complimentary scallions – one of the benefits of shopping at a wet market.
The results were astounding. Not only did I reduce my grocery bill by half, I actually started eating more healthy and varied meals. All it took was a little planning and some discipline, although to be honest, it was a little hard-going in the beginning.Sticking to a budget means no impulse buys. Making a weekly shopping list meant I had to plan my meals ahead for the week. Finding the cheapest alternatives meant I had to scout around for the best prices instead of just popping over to the nearest supermarket. Once I did the legwork though, it was easy. RM10 may seem a paltry sum but it’s actually enough to cook a hearty dinner.
Dinner 1: Nasi lemak with chicken curry
> One-third of the chicken
> 1 cucumber
> One-third of the anchovies
> 4 tomatoes
> One of the grated coconuts (to extract coconut milk)
Dinner 2: Chicken burgers with homemade fries
> One-third of the chicken (mincing the breast meat and combining it with breadcrumbs, onions, flour and seasonings)
> Half the potatoes (sliced and fried)
Dinner 3: Rice with three dishes
> Chicken korma (using the balance of the chicken)
> Oyster mushrooms, stir-fried
Dinner 4: Fried mee hoon
> 4 eggs
> 2 pieces tofu
> A quarter of the beansprouts and scallions
Dinner 5: Egg briyani
> 4 eggs
> 1 carrot
> The remaining potatoes
> 4 tomatoes
> 2 pieces of tofu
Dinner 6: Rice with three dishes
> Fried fish
> 1 block tempeh
> Chickpea curry
Dinner 7: Fried rice
> 4 eggs
> A quarter of the anchovies
> 1 carrot
> 2 tomatoes
Balance: 300g fish, a couple of tomatoes, 1 block tempeh, 250g chickpeas, 1 cucumber and half the beansprouts.