Tag Archives: poverty

Eating for £2 a day, part four: pulses

4 Jul
Simple spinach dal

Simple spinach dal gets its second run-out on this blog

Fourth in a vaguely self-important series of posts on cheap eating, in which I attempt to give inspiration to the moderately skint by preparing meals within a budget of around £2 a head per day.

If you’ve followed this blog over the last 18 months, you may have noticed that there are times when I appear to be promoting the joys of eating pulses with a near-suspicious level of zeal. This isn’t because I’m being paid to do so by the lentil-farming lobby; it’s because they offer (usually combined with rice) the cheapest and tastiest way of properly filling yourself up.

There’s one hurdle – pulses benefit from spices. For years I’ve spent 50p here, 70p there on bags of turmeric and chilli powder, cumin seed and cardamom pods – and eventually the more exotic likes of fenugreek and asafoetida – when I’ve found myself in the vicinity of an Asian grocer. For many recipes though, if you’ve got cumin, coriander, turmeric and garam masala you’re pretty much sorted – and for non-veggies, the small investment means you’re rarely stuck for a full-flavoured meal on weeks when shelling out on meat is out of the question.

As part of this week’s cheap eating exercise I’m making the basic spinach dal pictured above, featured here last year (cost: about £3 for four portions). I’ve previously covered mejaddara, and more recently have taken to its Egyptian cousin koshary – rice, lentils and pasta on the same plate may not sound appetising, but it’s a strangely addictive meal. As and when you can get your hands on more fancy-pants spices then the likes of this chickpea curry and this amazing recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi take things up another notch.

Best of all, these dishes taste even better the next day. So make twice what you need and take them to work, saving further pennies and avoiding one of my most hated tasks: preparing a sandwich pack-up when you’re knackered just before bed (or worse still, in the morning).

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Eating for £2 a day, part three: simple pasta

3 Jul

Pasta with green beans in tomato sauce

Third in a series of posts on cheap eating in which I feed two adults (one of which is me) a selection of meals that taste good, on a budget of around £2 each per day.

Ever had a conversation about which carbohydrate you’d choose to live off, if you were only allowed one? It’s a tough call, but I always get a nagging feeling that pasta would be the safest bet – even if you’ve got next to nothing to put it with, you can fix up an ace, frugal meal.

The recipe below is as simple as it gets, but punches a long way above its low cost – to the point where a contented ex-housemate named it Alex’s Pasta and continues cooking it (as far as I know) to this day. Sadly I didn’t invent it – its origins are lost in the sleepless mists of my early twenties – but for two people it will set you back well under £1.50.

Other basic winners I cook every month include amatriciana (which I’ll also be eating as part of my £2 a day shop) and pasta alla Genovese (it’s illegal to still be hungry after taking down linguine and potatoes in the same dish). Also strong is a variation of the one below in which an onion is gently fried at the start, the chilli is omitted and a red pepper – grilled black, skinned and chopped – is added near the end in place of the beans.

Pasta with green beans in tomato sauce

You will need:

  • 1tbsp oil
  • 1 large or 2 small cloves garlic
  • 1-2 chillies, fresh or dried
  • 1 can tomatoes
  • 100g green beans
  • 200g pasta – if your beans are long and thin, spaghetti or linguine are best, if they’re fatter dwarf beans then shells are ideal
  • Cheese to top

To prepare:

  • Heat the oil very gently, slice the garlic and chilli finely, add to the pan and soften (but do not burn!).
  • Add the tomatoes, bang up the heat, break up the tomatoes and bring to the boil.
  • Simmer over a medium heat for around 20 mins until a thick spicy sauce has formed.
  • Meanwhile bring a pan of water (or kettle) to the boil, pop it on the stove and lightly salt.
  • Top and tail your green beans, leaving them whole if thin or cutting into halves/thirds if thick. Pop them into a sieve and set them to boil/steam until tender over the boiling water.
  • Lift out the beans, add a dash of oil to the water and get your pasta on. When it’s nearly ready add the tender beans to the tomato sauce.
  • Drain the pasta, reserving a few teaspoons cooking water. Toss it in this, then mix up with the tomato and green bean mixture.
  • Top with grated cheese and get it down your neck.

Eating for £2 a day – part one

1 Jul

A few days ago I posted a semi-coherent rant, provoked by the UK government’s dismembering of the welfare state and by reading tales of people in work (the ticket to self-improvement, according to ministers) yet struggling to eat well.

Off the back of this, I’m penning some posts looking at how far you can get on £2 per head, per day – that’s a few pence more than enjoyed by UK prisoners, or a few pence less than the minimum NHS hospitals lavish on patients. It also roughly equates to the ‘Feed your family for £50’ campaign run by Sainsbury’s – recently shelved over concerns it was misleading shoppers.

I’m not trying to demonstrate the bare minimum you can part with to keep from starvation, but rather some routes to eating cheap things that also taste good and aren’t bad for you.

I spent £25.20 at a supermarket on a week’s eating for two adults. An additional £2 went to a greengrocer, one of my meals uses £1.50’s worth of chicken that was in my freezer – and I had some cupboard items in: oil, rice, lentils, spices and soy sauce.

Against that, I’ll have cheese, bacon, onions and potatoes to carry over into the next week – and a couple of items, including that bacon, would normally have been cheaper but were replaced by pricier versions owing to what was in stock. All in all I may be running fractionally over my £28 budget, but if so it’s by pence.

I’m not going to exhaustively detail everything I’m eating this week – you can take it as read it’ll be toast breakfasts and leftovers or sandwiches in the middle of the day. But everything I’m including, I still tuck into regularly now I’ve hit the dizzy heights of £3 per head, per day.

My point, and the original reason I set up this blog, is that you can dine pretty well for a small amount of cash. But it takes planning, and pence saved on a given week needs ploughing into stuff that sits in the cupboard like salt, rice, spices and oil.

Given the coalition government’s fondness for using Channel 4 presenters to burnish its caring credentials – and the unlikelihood of low-income households becoming better off while it is in power – maybe it could extend my exercise via an information campaign. It sounds an ideal challenge for former face-of-Sainsburys Jamie Oliver.

A diet for the breadline?

25 Jun

Over the past seven days the Guardian has run a number of articles on what it terms Breadline Britain, highlighting people struggling by, and in many cases working hard to do so, in a condition one slip away from being unable to make ends meet.

Giving the lie to the pernicious myth – ably assisted in recent times by Iain Duncan Smith – that the poor are scroungers who should try a bit harder if they want to do better for themselves, the series struck a chord with me.

Closer to the trapdoor

During the six years I worked in social housing, I read hundreds of homeless case files of people seeking a council property. Many of the neediest had been dealt a heartbreakingly shitty hand from the outset – and yes, a proportion were trying to chisel the system.

But it was always striking to see instances where a divorce, debt problems or simple misfortune had ripped the rug out from under seemingly settled lives. For many, the ongoing erosion of the UK’s welfare safety-net is bringing these kinds of scenarios nearer.

I got a milder taste of austerity after coming to Bristol last summer, thousands in debt after retraining, to start a £15,000 entry-level journalism job. On my second day I learned my team was being axed and that redundancy was imminent; my girlfriend, who moved with me, was unable to find full-time work.

We turned the situation around thanks to luck – and the privilege of having qualifications, job experience and families seemingly desperate to part with the odd tenner. But I can confirm that watching rent and bills swallow three quarters of earnings while interest on money owed ticks upwards is a bit stressful.

Eating happier

During those months, having something decent for tea was about as exciting as life got. So I was unsurprised that some of the case studies in the Breadline Britain series vented frustrations that they couldn’t manage to eat healthily.

But interestingly, next to the tales of hardship was a report on prison food, costing £1.87 a day for each adult, which hinged on the argument that good food could be prepared from fresh for “a fraction of the cost” of foodstuffs “in a packet or a tin” – and had a pronounced impact on self esteem.

Drawing a comparison between incarceration and working poverty would be glib, and stupid on a number of levels, but that £1.87 figure – the cost of four chocolate bars, and less than the minimum daily patient spend in NHS hospitals – got me thinking about how far I’d be able to cut things back, while still actually enjoying eating.

So later this week I’ll be devoting a few posts to exploring what you can do for £2 a day; it’s the kind of thing this blog was originally intended for.

A food poverty trap?

19 Dec


Interesting Guardian article by Zoe Williams this week, framing the links between poverty, bad eating and poor health as a consequence of economics, not just education.

It riffs on a lighthearted piece at the Student Beans website about cooking a cheap and cheerful/nasty Christmas dinner out of processed food, making the point that if a site was discussing hard-up people other than studes (“the acceptable face of poverty”) doing the same, the tone would be pretty different.

I wrote a list two weeks ago about some of the independent retailers I’ve found to buy good food for relatively little cash since moving to Bristol. Having the choice to shop at these places is down to a couple of factors:

  • Living in the inner city, close to the intersections of many different areas. On one side is a main road packed with independent supermarkets catering to local BME communities; on the other a neighbourhood heavily populated by relatively affluent hippies and their brethren in which local food shops are a given.
  • Being young and mobile enough to get to these different places by bike and therefore shop cheaply – or do the same at a big supermarket – meaning the lack of a car isn’t an issue.

In north Sheffield, where I worked for five years, many outlying areas where money is tightest and car ownership lowest have fewest amenities – so least choice – within easy walking distance. This pattern is typical of many parts of the UK, especially in today’s chilly financial climate.

Education about eating well is clearly important – it’s grim as hell meeting kids barely able to identify a vegetable or a piece of meat. But if keeping your family fed is manageable from your local cut-price freezer centre, and a struggle from the expensive supermarket franchise next door, then putting that theory into practice isn’t necessarily straightforward.