What Is Frugal Food?

What is Frugal Food? According to the BBC Good Food Show on Monday evening, a meal of lamb belly with a mash was incredibly frugal, costing just under £2 per portion (€2.40 but effectively up to 40% more than this as grocery prices in Ireland are higher). The guidelines under the new Insolvency legislation in Ireland suggest that an adequate food budget for a healthy diet is €57 per week per adult.

You’re excused if you need to stop and rub your eyes for a second. You read that right, €57 per week for one person for food. It’s not that far shy of my food budget of €70 per week for the entire family. In our household, allowing for all our family members, if we were to be assessed under the ISI guidelines, that would give me a food budget of just under €146 per week. Over double what my budget is.

The ISI guidelines don’t refer to a frugal food budget, nor do they claim to.  The guidelines have been well researched and I believe represent a fair price for a decent food budget in Ireland.  A frugal food budget to me is a budget that requires you to skimp on this fair price even further.

Let’s return to the portion price of just under €2.40 for the meal detailed on the BBC Good Food show on Monday night. The meal that they described, more than once, as frugal. If I were to feed my family a “frugal” meal like this I would have to allow for the meal to cost €12. There are 7 days in the week and 3 meals a day (plus snacks) to budget for in every household. Eating “frugally” in this manner every night would cost €84 per week just for the main meal. It would put me over budget without even considering breakfasts, lunches and snacks.

To eat frugally I am faced with 2 options. I can either:

Buy cheap convenience food with a long list of ingredients, high fat content, high sugar content and which is unlikely to be fresh.

OR

Buy fresh ingredients in the fruit and vegetable, meat and dairy sections of the supermarket. Then invest my time and skills to make healthier frugal food for my family.

I have the time because I’m based in the home with the toddler. I have the skills required to convert these raw ingredients to great food. Not everybody is as privileged as I am. I completely understand why people on a budget choose to buy convenience food. I have done so myself in a pinch and I am sure that I will do it again.

However, meals that are described as frugal on a premium cookery show give the impression that it’s easy to cook decent food on a budget. Those who live this lifestyle know it’s incredibly difficult.  So the myth of eating well on a budget was perpetuated by yet another cookery/food based show. Except the budget doesn’t hold up.

It annoys me greatly that the debate surrounding eating well on a budget is filled with expert panelists such as chefs, professional cooks and dieticians. Commonly they have little personal experience of what it’s like to live this life, day in day out.

What’s your opinion on frugal food? Is under €2.40 per portion frugal food to you? I’d love to hear what other people think.

  • The Dublin Diary

    Initially, when you hear it first, €2.40 sounds like great value but when you put it like you have above it doesn’t sound frugal. I bet though (guessing!) if you tried to make the same meal Caítríona you could do it cheaper with home grown veg and paying attention to special offers in butchers/supermarkets etc.

    • http://wholesomeireland.com/ Wholesome Ireland

      Honestly L I wouldn’t even attempt to make it on a budget. Lamb belly is hard to come by in Ireland & the costs for some cuts of meat are higher, along with some of the unusual ingredients in the meal I reckon the dish would cost more than €2.40 a portion in my kitchen. That’s saying something!

      • The Dublin Diary

        Wow! Really? Well that is saying something! :)

        • http://wholesomeireland.com/ Wholesome Ireland

          I’m afraid so yes.

  • Gastrogays

    An educated and informed post as always C, we watched the episode in question as well and felt a lot of the same. It may have been a frugal recipe for a Sunday dinner splash-out on a rare occasion but it certainly wasn’t frugal in the everyday sense. A lot of broadcast corporations and media production companies would do well to really champion a chef or home cook who actually knows what they’re talking about and isn’t condescending or out of touch. I do understand they have to make TV, and so have to be entertaining, with a bit of ‘WOW’ and stir a reaction in people and, say, a bowl of chickpeas may not have the same pizazz as an underloved cut of meat.

    Another notable chef in the past year has made a big shout on TV about budgeting, ‘meal costings’ and price breakdown, but it was (almost always) still unreasonable and unattainable to eat like that every single day. I’m sure thousands of people quicker trust everything you write then anything that’s fed to them about frugality from rich TV chefs.

    • http://wholesomeireland.com/ Wholesome Ireland

      Many thanks guys. I really appreciate your input because you understand where I’m coming from. I feel so much of the coverage is out of touch & condescending it’s disappointing.

  • Looking for Blue Sky

    I totally agree, their idea of frugal is not the same as that of ordinary families – my expenditure is only higher because we tend to like to drink a lot of alternatives to water in this house :)

    • http://wholesomeireland.com/ Wholesome Ireland

      Cordials are incredibly expensive. Particularly when you have dependants who will only drink certain types. totally understand.

  • Sharon Ni Chonchuir

    I agree with what you have to say here, Caitriona. I live with my partner and we both work so we don’t have to cook on that frugal a budget but any meal involving meat counts as a blow-out in my book!
    I find that cookery shows in general are far removed from how people cook and approach food in real life. The chefs who front them and the various people involved in producing them have little understanding of what life is like for people who struggle to find the time or the money to produce good food for themselves and their families. In fact, I think a lot of the problem is due to the way that food is presented as part of a lifestyle on these programmes. They perpetuate the idea that you have to be rich and live your life in a certain way in order to eat good food. The rest of us can make do with convenience food. It all makes me mad!

    • http://wholesomeireland.com/ Wholesome Ireland

      I think what has irked me about the Good Food series this time around is that they have mentioned frugal/cheap food in some form in both of the 2 episodes to date. While they do mention them, they are unrealistic. Arrabella Weir had some great points to make on Monday evening but I wonder why they couldn’t have sourced someone who does cook on a budget to make them. Good food is a lifestyle in this house but it’s done on a budget. Cooking meals that are out of our budget reach, and yet calling them frugal is so disheartening.

  • Nickki McB

    2.40 a portion? Our food budget for the week is a little extravagant at €50 for two of us. Within that we make soup and sauces, bread for the weekend because we don’t eat it during the week. And all that is excluding meat as we’re vegetarian, we don’t eat many substitutes opting for beans, eggs and lentils as protein sources but I’d say 2.40 a meal (for two) would be frugal not 2.40 a person a meal. I saw your tweet about it, I even get annoyed when I see Jamie Oliver pricing things, I’m like “you have 4 kids, you know what it costs to feed them, why are you cooking for 4 people at 4 quid a head!”

    To live “frugally” you also need time to prepare the food say on Sat/Sun just 1 to 2 hours to set things up for the week. A lot of families out there don’t have that time nor do they have the skills needed. Food knowledge and education is greatly needed and I feel these cookery shows, while you can pick up tips are completely delusional to the everyday cook that needs to get 3 meals out, work 8 hours a day and stay sane!

    • http://wholesomeireland.com/ Wholesome Ireland

      I completely agree Nikki. Well said!

      • The Dublin Diary

        I have to agree completely with Nikki also “delusional” is the only word! I was watching a chef who’s series is called “Home Chef”. Even if you had a huge budget and all day to cook the meal he makes are outrageous! No way a regular home cook would attempt half of them. How many home cooks have a water bath? lol!

        • http://wholesomeireland.com/ Wholesome Ireland

          As was so eloquently pointed out to me by another blogger earlier, asking a chef to compile a frugal menu is like asking Imelda Marcos her advice on shoes….

  • CatherineAnn Minnock

    I’ve never thought of the word “frugal” as anything to do with price… though I’d be an idiot if I said that wasn’t pretty much the most important thing for a family! I’ve always thought of eating frugally as eating as naturally as possible: the fruit, veg, grains, meat, fish nature intended, without all the additives!
    I find that it doesn’t take up too much time, once you organise yourself and know what you’re doing.

    • http://wholesomeireland.com/ Wholesome Ireland

      Organisation really is key alright. ;-)

  • http://wholesomeireland.com/ Wholesome Ireland

    Definitely. x

  • Rachel McElroy

    Enjoyed reading your post. Living in Southwestern USA, I am finding that I’m having the same problems. My husband and I decided to go grain-free this year for a few months for health reasons. Our grocery budget (two adults, one toddler) is mostly spent (or over-spent, I suppose) on meat/poultry/eggs, basic dairy items, and fresh produce. I am having a difficult time making the money stretch, since the healthy items (especially anything organic) come at such a cost compared to “non-food” processed stuff. For instance, I can buy good locally-raised, pastured and hormone/antibiotic-free beef starting at $5.69/lb (4.15 EUR), and it’s likely that we will eat it all at one meal (maybe two). I have tried buying the cheaper beef at the local grocery, but the flavor and texture doesn’t compare, and I don’t know how the cattle were raised to produce it– probably fed GMO grains and given antibiotics, too. I guess we should try to raise our food budget and cut out other areas of spending; I really don’t see how I could make it work otherwise. Is this style of “clean eating” extravagant? I don’t think so, but maybe I’m wrong.

    • http://wholesomeireland.com/ Wholesome Ireland

      Hi Rachel
      Thank you so much for dropping by and giving your perspective from your part of the world. I guess we are spoilt where we live as in general we have very little GMO food in the food chain. Our cattle are grass fed and so this means that meat and dairy products are things that I don’t have to worry about. We do grow a lot of our own food to keep costs down and that way I know what I’m feeding our family. It’s not an option for everyone and I understand that – all the prices that I work out on the blog allow for purchasing the groceries in the shop.
      I don’t see living this way as extravagant but I know that some do!