Well, it’s day three of The $35 Challenge and I have to say I’m a little…fatigued. Last night’s dinner was an inspired but ultimately unimpressive pasta bake in four layers – a tomato-tuna-zuchini-garlic-penne layer, a spanikopita filling layer (half a portion), the pasta again and a layer of bechemal. It was fine, but it was 9:00pm by the time we ate it and I have to admit I was pretty over it by then. That’s a recipe which needs some work, maybe it’ll make an appearance here once it’s fixed. We’re eating a lot of veg, but we’re also eating a lot of carbs, more than usual. We started off with pizza, we’ve had three days of porridge breakfasts, and dinner leftovers for every lunch.

Shopping at the Markets
To be honest, after all the veg we bought, I’m doing a worse job of cooking balanced meals than I expected. The big shop at Paddy’s Markets was relatively stress free; the two of us had $70, we’d spent $10 on pizza ingredients and bought a steak at the butcher, so we went into the markets with about $55 in our pockets. Putting aside $20 for the non-fruit-and-veg items (and inspired idea on the part of my beau), we roved the markets that Sunday arvo and we were ruthless. Brocollini $3.50? Tell ‘em they’re dreaming. Hard tofu $2.30 for 500g? Well, silken firm is $3 for 900g, so that’s the one we’ll get. We came out with everything we were after (or substitutions) and money to spare.

Shopping at Aldi
Our next stop was Aldi, where we planned to buy tinned beans, tuna, flour and pasta. At this point it was about 2pm and we were pretty damn hungry, so we decided we needed to make a lunch decision stat. We went with pork sausages at $2.99 for a pack and a discount loaf of fluffy white bread, to be served with salad. The whole bill came to only $11.50 for 9 items. I spent another $2.95 today for tinned tomatoes and milk. At 59 cents a tin for tomatoes and $1.19 for a litre of full cream milk, I did pause briefly and consider whether or not someone producing these goods could ever make a decent wage. But to be honest, on this budget, that kind of concern is a luxury we can’t afford.

Total Spend
In total, we’ve spent $62.85. And when I look at the numbers on the receipts from Aldi, they are so so low. At an estimate those tomatoes and milk would’ve cost twice that price at my local IGA, and the quality would be no better. That raises another question – that of proximity to cheap food. It’s easy for me to walk the half hour to aldi and pick up a few things for my two person household. But what if you have kids? Or what if you live 50 ks from the nearest large market or supermarket? Or don’t have a car? Or there’s no public transport? It’s a lovely thought that we could all shop at local markets, but if I rock up to Eveleigh Farmer’s Market of a weekend, it’s unlikely I’ll be able feed my household for a week on less than $200.

The final numbers
In the week prior to the challenge this year, our household (2 people) spent a total of $519 on food and drink. $519. On food and drink. Yes there was booze in there, but only eighty bucks. It’s an average daily household spend of $74, $37 per person per day. So basically, this week, we are spending less money of food in a week than we would usually spend in one day.

It’s not too late to support The $35 Challenge. During Anti-Poverty Week, from October 14-20, you have $5 a day to spend on food. By experiencing poverty for just 7 days, we come to a better understanding of the realities and stresses of living in poverty. By blogging or tweeting this experience, we can raise awareness of an issue so often swept under the rug. And by donating the remainder of the money we would usually spend on food to Foodbank, we can make a real difference. For more info, click here.

I chose this image as I doubt I’ll ever see so much fruit in our apartment ever again.

Yesterday, we grabbed the few grocery store items we needed at woolies. This was relatively stress-free as the number of things we needed was dictated by our budget – $35 x 2. At woolies we spent about $18 and this got us cottage cheese, 2 litres of milk, tinned tomatoes, 59 cent spaghetti, frozen spinach and not much else. It took all of 10 minutes and at this made me wonder if maybe extreme cost cutting is the way to go.

However, this morning at Paddy’s Market (Haymarket) was more of a trial. We only had one shopping bag with us and I had decided we needed to buy heaps of fruit because we never eat fruit so now is obviously the time to start. We spent about half our budget there and walked out with more fruit and veg than we could carry. I wondered how we’d feed ourselves on such a budget if we didn’t have a really cheap market nearby.

I knew this would be a hard day, mostly because both Senhor R and I are exhausted. Also because I hate going to Paddy’s Market’s to buy fruit and veg almost as much as I hate exercise.

When we got home, we realized there was just over $16 left in our budget and we were out of coffee. The coffee we buy that costs $13. And we still hadn’t bought any meat. At this point we were at each other’s throats but we finally bought steak for $5 and downgraded to the $12 coffee. Yep, that’s right the challenge is already technically broken – I have spent $35.50.

After Senhor R had his coffee and things calmed down, I decided it was time for a massive serve of some of the fruit and veg we’d just bought in the form of a salad. This is a great summer salad, everything is really finely chopped and you get all these different textures – from mushy mango to crunchy macadamia and everything in between. I served it with a massive black sesame rice cracker we had in the pantry, but it’s fine just as it is. You don’t have to stick to what I used – you can sub in or add ingredients like red onion, cucumber, pineapple, lime juice, red basil, spring onions, grilled chicken, nectarines, tuna, cannellini beans, cashews, peanuts…the list is endless.

Everything Summer Salad
Serves 2 very hungry people

1 ripe tomato, chopped
½ bunch mint, finely shredded
½ cup chopped macadamias
1 mango, chopped
½ a large carrot, grated
A handful of lettuce, chopped
¼ of a red or yellow capsicum, finely sliced
½ packet tofu puffs, cut in half

For the dressing
1 long thai chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
¼ cup fish sauce
The juice of 1 lemon
2 tsp brown sugar
2 Tblsp water

Put all the salad ingredients into a large bowl. Stir the dressing ingredients together. Pour over about half the dressing and stir the salad well. Serve immediately.

It’s not too late to support The $35 Challenge. During Anti-Poverty Week, from October 16-22, participantshave $5 a day to spend on food. By experiencing poverty for just 7 days, we come to a better understanding of the realities and stresses of those living in poverty. By blogging or tweeting this experience, we can raise awareness of an issue so often swept under the rug. And by donating the remainder of the money we would usually spend on food to OzHarvest, we can make a real difference.

What grocery item can you just not live without?

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I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan on dying of some kind of vitamin or mineral deficiency in the next week. Sure, I could complete The $35 Challenge on nothing but mee goreng, oranges and beer, but that’s not really a sensible way to play it, and I’m nothing if not sensible. Below are my top ten tips for menu planning, your money and sanity saver. And not just during The $35 Challenge.

1. Take stock of your pantry
I just did and there is waaaaaaaaaaaay more stuff in there than I realized. 4 kinds of rice, three shapes of pasta, tins of tomatos, legumes, beetroot, pineapple, tahini, enough condiments and sauces to open a deli, at least 18 different spices and various baking ingredients – sugars, flours, cocoa, almond meal, rosewater, vanilla pods…the list goes on. Any and all of these things can form the starting point for a menu, so take a quick look in your cupboards.

2. Take stock of your fridge/freezer
Before I write a menu, I so often make the mistake of not checking what’s in the fridge or freezer. More condiments. A dozen eggs. Half a kilo of greek yogurt. Five kinds of cheese? All that’s really needed is a shitload of veggies and some meat and I should be able to sort out at least 5 main meals.

3. A menu is just a list
Here’s how you do it: write down every meal you’re going to eat. Then write down every ingredient you don’t already have which is in that meal. Then add anything else to your list that’s not technically part of a meal – snacks, fruit, cleaning products etc.

In fact, why not just write down everything you ate last week as a starting point? Maybe you eat all your lunches out and have toast for breakfast every day. In that case, a menu would just cover dinners. Maybe you order takeaway once a week? This doesn’t have to change, just pencil it in.Suddenly, your shopping list is done.

4. Plan regularly – about as often as you shop
I prefer to shop once a week, so I write a menu once a week. This is a trick I learned from my mum and it’s what has always worked for me. I find fortnightly shops mean I end up with stuff going off or getting forgotten about, and shopping every few days means I end up making a lot more impulse purchases. Find what works for you and stick to it.

5. Be realistic
This is key. You need to be realistic about what you’ll cook, how often you’ll cook and what you’ll actually eat. There are a few dishes that crop up again and again on my menus but never get made because they’re either too boring (chick pea stew anyone?) or too much effort come 6:00pm on a Thursday evening (yes, I will stuff and roast an entire chicken on a week night, without a recipe). Make it easy on yourself.

6. Consider what’s in season
Taste.com.au publishes a monthly list of all the fruit and veg in season. It’s often a good idea to have a look at something like this before you decide what to cook as it will give you some idea of what will be available, tasty and cheap.

7. Be flexible
Maybe you thought you’d serve grilled fish with mashed potato and green beans today – that’s what’s on your menu. But when you get to the supermarket, asparagus and pumpkin are on special, so you change your plans accordingly. Flexibility should also apply to when you want to serve something- just because your menu says taco Tuesday doesn’t mean you can’t switch it to Wednesday ‘cause your plans have changed. In my case, I don’t allocate specific days on my menu – my menu is just a list of meals in no particular order.

8. Throw in a few wildcards
Try and prepare one new dish a week or, failing that, try one new ingredient. Or, use an ingredient in a new way. This will stop your taste buds getting bored. Until recently I’d never really cooked steak or fish (I was vego for 10 years). A few weeks ago I finally tried pineapple as a savoury ingredient when I made this pineapple salsa. Try new things whenever there’s time or the mood takes you.

9. Stop asking yourself ‘what do I feel like eating today’?
If your menu is realistic, flexible and varied, you won’t need to ask yourself this question each day or for each new meal. By taking choice out of the equation on a case-by case basis, you’ve also taken out the work. Once menu planning is a habit, you’ll never look back.

10. Make your final weekly meal ‘odds ‘n ends’
Chances are no matter how meticulous your planning, you’re going to have a few things left at the end of the week. Maybe you didn’t make one of your meals or maybe you just ended up with too much of something. Either way, you can probably whip something up with what you’ve got. Then you’re all ready for your next menu.

It’s not too late to support the $35 Challenge. During Anti-Poverty Week, from October 16-22, participants have $5 a day to spend on food. By experiencing poverty for just 7 days, we come to a better understanding of the realities and stresses of those living in poverty. By blogging or tweeting this experience, we can raise awareness of an issue so often swept under the rug. And by donating the remainder of the money we would usually spend on food to OzHarvest, we can make a real difference.

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