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Money & Career

How I survived on $21 a week for groceries

Our money expert, Caroline Cakebread, recently wrote a post on the $21 a week for groceries challenge. I was skeptical — like many of our readers — afterall, I usually spend $20 in one day — how would it be possible to make one twenty last a whole week? I decided to put the challenge to the test.
groceries, vegetables, receipt, grocery bag Masterfile

Our money expert, Caroline Cakebread, recently wrote a post on the $21 a week for groceries challenge. I was skeptical — like many of our readers — afterall, I usually spend $20 in one day — how would it be possible to make one twenty last a whole week? I decided to put the challenge to the test.

I spent a Saturday planning my meals for the week. I was determined not to let my wallet take precedent over my taste buds or health — which meant no instant mac 'n' cheese, no instant noodles, no instant anything. So I posted a message on Facebook and asked friends to recommend their cheapest, most delicious recipe ideas and I got a flurry of responses. The best idea came from my friend Gillian who suggested I get a full chicken, approximately half my budget — but the meat could be used a few different ways and the bones could be made into stock.

That weekend, I went to the farmers’ market and local grocery store to gather my ingredients for the week, and then I got cooking. Here’s what I got: whole wheat bread $2, whole rotisserie chicken $10, English cucumber $1, brown rice penne pasta $1.43/package, mixed greens $2, broccoli $2, eggs $2.29/ package of 6.

Here’s what my meals looked like for the week:

Monday Breakfast – toast with organic strawberry jam (which I already had in my fridge) Lunch – long grain wild rice mix salad (from my pantry) with cucumber and tomatoes (from my garden) and salad dressing (already in my fridge) Dinner – chicken and celery brown rice pasta salad. (For extra flavour, I added dill and mayonnaise that I already had on hand.) Tuesday Breakfast – toast with organic strawberry jam Lunch – previous night’s dinner: leftover chicken brown rice pasta salad with celery. Dinner – vegetable and chicken stir-fry (with broccoli, celery, chicken) on top of rice (from the pantry). (For flavour, I added garlic and soy sauce which I had on hand.)

Wednesday Breakfast – toast with organic strawberry jam Lunch – previous night’s dinner: vegetable and chicken stir-fry with rice Dinner – toasted chicken sandwich with mixed green salad

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Thursday Breakfast – toast with organic strawberry jam Lunch – rice salad with cucumber and tomatoes (same as Monday) Dinner - brown rice pasta with herbed tomato sauce. (I made the tomato sauce from scratch using my garden tomatoes and herbs and garlic from my pantry.)

Friday Breakfast – toast with organic strawberry jam Lunch – previous night’s dinner: brown rice pasta with herbed tomato sauce Dinner – I went to a friend’s house for dinner. FREE MEAL!

Saturday Brunch – scrambled eggs on toast Snack – I cheated and bought a chocolate croissant (Hey, I’m only human!) $1.50 Dinner – vegetable stir-fry on rice (I was all out of chicken but the rice cooked in chicken stock added a nice flavour)

Sunday Brunch – toast with organic strawberry jam Lunch – cucumber tomato salad with homemade croutons (using the end bits of the leftover bread and seasoning from my pantry) Dinner – my fridge was pretty empty and I was lazy so I decided to throw in the towel and made myself instant rice noodle soup ($1)

As Caroline advised in her post, anyone doing the challenge really has to rely on existing ingredients already on hand. And because I had a lot of other pantry ingredients, I could have been more creative with my meals if I wanted to, like making curries or soups. Also, if I had chosen not to get a whole chicken and do a full vegetarian week instead, I would have had an additional $10 to spare, which is a lot in the veggie world! (Think: bok choy, cabbage, snap peas, lentils, split peas, carrots, spinach!)

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Could this $21 a week for groceries challenge work for a family of four? It would be difficult but doable — you'd have to rely heavily on ingredients already in the house. Here is a list of family-friendly recipes from Simple Savings: $21 Challenge Survival Guide.

Personally, I really liked doing the challenge. Sure, I missed my takeout lunches, my wine and my post-dinner sweet treats, but I had saved over $100 and had loss a couple pounds too – now that’s progress! I probably wouldn't be able to commit week-to-week (I would miss my wine too much), but taking part in this challenge one week every month is something that's manageable and good practice for making smarter money choices.

How would you do the $21 a week for groceries challenge? Share your cheapest recipe ideas below!

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