I lived off 30p meals for a week – but I barely ate enough calories to survive

‘There’s not this massive use for food banks in this country. You’ve got generation after generation who cannot cook properly. They can’t cook a meal from scratch.’

Conservative MP Lee Anderson’s words in the House of Commons earlier this month were greeted with outrage by many, as were his claims that you could cook a meal ‘for about 30p a day’.

He has since cited as evidence a team who, in an industrial kitchen, cooked 170 meals from a £50 shopping list.

But what happens when you try it at home? There was only one way to find out, and that was to give it a go — and so began my week-long, 30p-a-meal challenge.

I researched carefully before planning my menu for the week, but the unpalatable truth is that 30p buys you very little.

Meat, dairy and fish (even canned) are all off the menu, but so too are most fruits and any salad ingredients. Lentils, beans and root veg were the order of the day.

Expensive, too, was anything wholegrain — white bread is cheaper than brown, white pasta cheaper than wholemeal. The more I looked into it, the more I realised that staying healthy while eating so cheaply was going to be a challenge in itself.

It must be stressed that my figures depend on nothing being wasted. If one carrot goes mouldy, or a slice of bread turns green, the budget is blown. But buy big and you can buy cheap.

This presents two problems. First, that you need to outlay more than your 90p-a-day budget and secondly, while pasta, lentils and the like will sit in your store cupboards, any fresh greengrocery must be used up.

Batch cooking is the obvious solution to this, but then you need a freezer (and the money to run it) to store it in.

I haven’t included cooking costs — a not inconsiderable omission amid the current energy crisis. Nor did I include store cupboard ingredients, such as oil/butter for cooking, herbs and spices or flour.

Here’s my diary of how I got on…

DAY 1

Total calories: 811kCal (Breakfast 307, lunch 221, dinner 283)

I get off to a good start — two crumpets and a (small) banana. My first breakfast costs me a total of 26p. I add a smear of butter and honey, so call it 30p, especially given the escalating prices of butter and marg right now. On target.

Lunch is a depressing affair — as I start on the 800g white loaf that cost 36p. There are 22 slices in the bag, cut thinner than I could by hand, so that’s just 1.6p a slice.

I doubt it’s one of the ‘whole range of breads’ to be found in Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s larder but it does an adequate job of providing the surrounds for an egg, mashed up with a teaspoon of mayonnaise.

I’ve a bit of money left, and a single tomato brings me up to 30p.

Dinner: Vegetable stew

Onion, carrot, parsnip, leek and potato, stewed gently with a tin of baked beans. I check the price of a stock cube (5p) and decide not to include it. The leek is a mistake.

At more than 30p each, I can afford to eat only a third of what I’ve made — and I’m still over budget by 3p. I am left hungry. In the bowl you can see on the side, by the way, are the veg peelings baked in the oven with a little oil — they are good.

Costed ingredients

Makes three 33p portions

  • One potato, 11p
  • One leek, 31.6p
  • Six carrots, 8.2p
  • Tin of baked beans, 21p
  • Two parsnips, 16.8p
  • One onion,10p

Total: 98.6p

Not costed: Tsp chilli flakes, tsp of cumin, salt, pepper, splash of Worcs sauce.

DAY 2

Total calories: 832kCal (Breakfast 307, lunch 153, dinner 372)

I wake up hungry, a feeling that becomes increasingly familiar as the week continues. Breakfast yesterday was a winner, taste-wise, so I stick with what works.

For lunch I decide to try much the same as yesterday, but I hard-boil the egg and serve it with two rounds of toast… it takes longer to eat and the bread is better toasted. I swap the tomato for what Sainsbury’s sell as a mini-apple.

Dinner: Pasta with tinned tomatoes and peas

I’d like to give this dish a fancier name, but it really doesn’t deserve one. I’m horrified by how quickly the price of even the cheapest ingredients add up.

Still gnawingly hungry, I think a full portion of pasta will go down well, so this is my starting point with this evening’s meal.

The cheese, which I add as I have a few pennies left, turns out to be a pointless addition — the paltry bit (10g per portion) is so measly I can’t tell it’s there. Still, this meal cost 30p on the nose — if you don’t count any of the herbs or spices.

Costed ingredients

For two 30p portions

  • 150g pasta, 10p
  • 100g frozen peas, 12p
  • One tin of tomatoes, 28p
  • 20g cheese, 10p

Total: 60p

Not costed: Tsp chilli flakes, squeeze of garlic purée, salt, pepper and a pinch of caster sugar.

DAY 3

Total calories: 908kCal (Breakfast 307, lunch 204, dinner 283)

I ditch the egg today for lunch and, desperate for things that go crunch, I add an extra apple into my rations instead.

Dinner: Spinach, sweet potato and lentil dhal (31.5p) with home-made roti (2p)

What a winner! Cheap, tasty and filling. This was the culinary highlight of the week. It’s already a staple meal in my house and while I knew it was cheap, I had no idea HOW cheap.

Even so, I have stretched the budget. The spinach (past its best in the bottom of my fridge, but fine for this) pushed me over.

If you want to stay within the 30p margin, you’ll need either to cut your portion size or skip the green stuff. While you won’t get away with dried ginger, I used garlic purée instead of fresh garlic and chilli flakes rather than fresh.

The original recipe also calls for spring onions and Thai basil — again, for budget reasons, I left these out, and it still tasted great. Here’s my cheap take on the original version, which can be found on BBC Good Food.

Roti: costed ingredients

Made simply with flour and water, I added in a sprinkle of cumin seeds (uncosted). Delicious. They price up at about 1p each. I ate two.

Dhal: costed ingredients (makes four 31.5p portions)

  • Onion, 10p
  • Thumb-sized piece of ginger, 15p
  • 400g sweet potato, 38p
  • 250g red split lentils, 45p
  • 600ml veg stock, 5p
  • 80g fresh spinach, 13p

Total: £1.26

Not costed: Oil for frying, squeeze of garlic purée, ground turmeric, ground cumin, chilli flakes (I used 1tsp in place of the fresh chilli suggested in the recipe).

DAY 4

Total calories: 863 kCal (Breakfast 307, lunch 204, dinner 352)

Unfeasibly tired, I wake up and even my bones beg me to go back to sleep. Thankfully, it’s the weekend.

After breakfast, housework and lunch, I head out to walk the dog, and by the time I get home at 4.30pm, I’m ready for a nap (unheard of). I wake at 10.30pm.

By now I am really worrying about calorie intake and my energy levels, but it’s too late for proper cooking from scratch.

I grab baked beans on toast, which leaves me enough money for a banana. I head back to bed, where I sleep the sleep of the hungry.

Dinner: Baked beans on toast and a banana

Costed ingredients

  • Two slices of toast, 3.2p
  • Half a tin of baked beans, 10.5p
  • Banana, 14p

Total: 27.7p

DAY 5

Total calories: 903kCal (Breakfast 307, lunch 153, dinner 443)

I’m so famished I contemplate seeing if I can overcome my hatred of porridge, but can’t afford to try something and find myself unable to eat it, so I stick with my breakfast and lunch as normal.

I am cold ALL DAY, and throw on a jumper. In May.

Dinner: Jacket potato (11p) and home-made coleslaw with kidney beans (18.8p)

A winner. I cut the size of my coleslaw portion, so I can add a few tinned kidney beans for protein.

This is the most fuel my body has had in one sitting for nearly a week. 443 very welcome calories.

Costed coleslaw ingredients

  • 1/8 of a cabbage, 7.5p
  • Two carrots, 2.7p
  • 2/3 onion, 6p
  • 1/6 tin kidney beans, 10p
  • Mayo to mix, 2p

Total: 28.2p

I only use two thirds of this (18.8p’s worth) to stay within budget, saving the rest to have with lunch tomorrow.

DAY 6

Total calories: 900kCal (Breakfast, 307, lunch 317, dinner 276)

I struggle to concentrate today. My diet is affecting my ability to do my job and the tiredness and cold persist. Lunch finally varies with a third of last night’s coleslaw to go with the toast.

Tonight’s potato and egg curry is tasty but insubstantial, though the runny egg yolk is a treat. I add lots of water and thicken the sauce with cornflour, for bulk. At least it looks as if I’m eating a reasonably sized meal.

But don’t be fooled by the photo. This dinner provided just 276 calories — the least energy of any of my evening meals this week. I add a slice of toast.

Dinner: Potato and egg curry

Costed ingredients (or one 30p portion)

  • Half a potato, 5.5p
  • Two carrots, 2.7p
  • Third of an onion, 3p
  • Half a parsnip, 4.2p
  • Egg, 13p
  • Slice of bread, 1.6p

Total: 30p

Not costed: 1tsp ground cumin,½tsp coriander, 1tsp chilli flakes, pinch of garam masala. Cornflour, butter for frying.

DAY 7

Total calories: 803kCal (Breakfast 307, lunch 208, dinner 288)

The last day. If I wasn’t in the fortunate position of being able to return to my normal eating habits tomorrow, I would be past despair. I am hungry, cold and fed up.

I would be looking to supplement meals with whatever a food bank could provide. As it is, I’m on countdown.

Dinner: Veggie chilli and rice

The last meal is, put bluntly, diabolical. Its one saving grace is that I’m on budget.

Had I been able to find dried, rather than tinned beans in my local supermarket, I could have afforded to add more.

Costed ingredients (for one 30p portion)

  • 50g rice, 1.5p
  • Half tin tomatoes, 14p
  • Third of an onion, 3p
  • One carrot, 1.3p
  • Kidney beans (40g cooked or 1/6 of a tin) 10p

Total: 29.8p

Not costed: Cornflour to thicken sauce (I added a lot of water to bulk up the meal), tsp of chilli flakes, ½tsp of cumin, ½tsp oregano, black pepper, salt.

Nutritionists’ verdict: ‘Over a period of time, there would be a risk of malnutrition’

by Sarah Coe, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation

Each day on average, Liz’s diet has around 850 calories, less than half the recommended daily intake for an average adult woman.

In the very short term (a week), there may be less concern, but a diet with very limited calories and with limited variety over a period of time could put an individual at risk of malnutrition and increase the risk of not getting enough essential nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, to stay healthy.

The NHS indicates malnutrition and unintentional weight loss can make you feel weak and tired all the time, and lead to you getting ill more often.

This plan includes plenty of fruit and veg and meets the target of at least five portions a day, but other food groups are missing and some nutrient recommendations are not being met.

The low budget available has not allowed Liz to meet her dietary requirements and over the long term, the amount of energy, the lack of food from some food groups and lack of variety would be of concern.

Living with such restrictions over prolonged periods are likely to have a poor impact on quality of life.

The final verdict

Exhaustion. That would be the main memory of this week.

Physically my body simply didn’t get enough fuel. The weight loss was alarming, I dropped a staggering 8lb during the course of the seven days. By any measure, that isn’t healthy.

But mentally it was tiring, too. The meal preparation itself was straightforward, but the painstaking financial planning behind each meal was gruelling.

Even so, I found the British Nutrition Foundation’s analysis shocking.

The British Nutrition Foundation crunched the figures and this graph shows the percentage of the government’s recommended daily intake (RDI) of macronutrients for adult women that my meals averaged across the week (salt and fat figures are the recommended daily allowance).

I guessed my calorie count was low. I had no idea how low. I was running on half-empty. Nor did I reach even three-quarters of my daily recommended intake of carbs, protein or fibre.

But my week-long challenge is over and I rejoin the ranks of the lucky ones who do not need to count every penny as they cook.

Yet there remain many for whom this is a relentless week-in, week-out necessity, who after paying their escalating energy bills, may not be able to scrape together 30p for their next meal.

So yes, Mr Anderson, you can cook meals from scratch for 30p. I just have. What you can’t do is live off them. You can barely survive.

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