Sandra Reynolds – Author and Blogger, The $120 Food Challenge

Posted October 13, 2011, by Josie Chun
‘I am passionate about teaching people not so much how to cook but how to eat, how to plan a menu for the week, how to stock up their pantry, how to use seasonal produce.

This isn’t about teaching how to cook or even how to budget, it’s about adopting the attitude that with a bit of organisation you can come in knowing what you’re going to cook, you can keep hungry children at bay, and you can keep it under some budgetary control.’

Sandra Reynolds – single mum, sometime office administrator and previous disability services manager – recently found herself unemployed and having to face the seemingly impossible challenge of feeding her family on $120 a fortnight. She took up that challenge with aplomb and, in the process, reinvented herself as a professional blogger practically overnight. She spoke with Career FAQs about the secret to frugal but delicious cooking and how to turn life’s lemons into lemonade.

How did you come up with the idea for your blog?

I’d been working for my employer for three years as a casual, and at the end of a particularly difficult day, I got extremely annoyed and upset. Because I was employed as a casual I didn’t have to give them notice – so I just left.

A few days later when I had come down off my high, I started looking for work and quickly realised that it was going to be a lot more difficult than I’d thought. I sent off my resume to several agencies thinking I’d find some temp work as an administrator, which is what I’d been doing. When nothing came of it, no feedback or follow-up or returned phone calls, I decided to go to Centrelink.

I’m a single mum, I have two teenage children in the house, I’d just paid the rent and had $20 in my purse and no prospects of any further money. So I went to Centrelink – which is a none too pleasant thing to do, but you do what you have to do – and they said that as a single parent with two teenage children, I was eligible to receive $499 per fortnight. My rent is $335 a week, and even with family tax benefits, by the time I’ve paid my electricity and phone bills, it doesn’t leave a lot left over.

The shock of it really hit me and I started to get a little weepy, so the woman at Centrelink suggested I get food vouchers from the Salvation Army. I’d never had to do that before and it hit me hard – that was probably my lowest point.

It was not easy walking in there but I will forever be grateful to the woman who sat me down and said, ‘It’s ok, you’ll be fine. In the meantime, until you get yourself together, we will support you.’ She gave me a $60 voucher to spend at Coles and said to come back the following week and they would give me another $60.

With only $120 for the next two weeks, I knew I would have to think very, very carefully about how I was going to feed my family. So I did what I always do, which is I had a look at what I had in the pantry and what I had in the fridge and freezer, and I figured out where the gaps were and what I would need to replace, and then I worked out a menu. I have always shopped with a shopping list based on what I would be cooking for the week. On the back of an envelope, I’ll put Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday etc, and the different meals I will cook, and then what I would need to purchase that wasn’t in the freezer or pantry. And that’s precisely what I did – and I had to do it to a $60 budget.

It came in at around $62 or $63, and a couple of days later I wrote on my Facebook page, ‘Is it possible to feed your family on $120 a fortnight? Centrelink seems to think so.’ A friend of mine shot back, ‘Hell no, it would cost me $400.’ It prompted a discussion between my friends and I about what had happened and how I was going to manage.

I said that I’ve got $120 a fortnight and this is what I’m going to be cooking. I just listed Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, down to Day 14, and what I was cooking, and one of my friends said, ‘Ooh, that sounds delicious, could you please give me the recipe?’ I said I would post it so I put it up and it went from there, just on Facebook. By the time I got to Day 4, a few of my friends said it looked really good and that I should put it up on a blog.

I thought no more about it, but I then went to another website to which I’m a contributor, and the topic of discussion there was ‘What are the things that you have learned?’ I wrote that I’d learned that it’s possible to feed a family of four on $120 a fortnight (I always cook for four as the kids often have friends over or take leftovers for lunch the next day). And straightaway, the buzz started. It generated a lot of discussion, so I copied and pasted the menu I was writing for my Facebook page. Someone immediately asked for a recipe and again, out of nowhere, people were saying that I could really put this together in a blog. They said, ‘This is so interesting, people need to know this stuff.’

I was sitting at my computer, it was 10 am and I had nothing better to do, nowhere to be and no interview to go to, so I started writing recipes. I clicked on the first website I could find and happened to find WordPress, so I chose a template and just started, cutting and pasting those recipes that I’d already uploaded onto my Facebook page.

At the end of the day, I said to the blog community that I’d had this discussion with, ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve started a blog. Thank you very much for your support and encouragement – here’s the address.’ After two weeks I’d had over 8000 hits, and by the end of the first month it was 20,000.

How did you get word out about the blog? 

It’s been purely through word of mouth. I’ve never sent a tweet in my life. I’m so technically clueless about social media and how to promote myself using social media, and I still haven’t worked out how to set up a Facebook page just for my Challenge. I’m starting to get an idea of how things work by seeing where the blog traffic comes from and what sites people jump from into mine, and I’m starting to get an idea of who to contact about considering my blog for promotional purposes. But it’s such early days. I originally thought it would be really fun if I got a thousand hits in one month, and it’s taken me a month to get 20,000! So I’m around 10 months ahead of myself! 

How are you coping with the technical aspects of writing your own blog? 

I would really love some technical support. The blog template I’m using is wonderful and people have commented on how great it looks, but it doesn’t lend itself to a print function or links to other social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and it doesn’t have an archiving function the way that I’d like. I’m just not technically savvy enough to link up the pages the way that I want to. 

What do you see developing from this? 

If you’d asked me three weeks ago, what I would have told you would have seemed like my wildest dreams. Now I think I’ve probably not made my dreams big enough. I’m getting so many comments from around the world about how it’s really great to have recipes written from an Australian perspective, and how this is such a useful idea.

One of my favourite sayings is that ‘It can be cheap but it doesn’t have to be cheap and nasty.’ People are really respectful of how I’ve done it with a bit of dignity and a bit of humour and passion, and they’re really embracing it with enthusiasm and can see that it can be done. I am passionate about teaching people not so much how to cook but how to eat, how to plan a menu for the week, how to stock up their pantry, how to use seasonal produce. This isn’t about teaching how to cook or even how to budget, it’s about changing the way that people think about eating a meal. It’s about adopting the attitude that with a bit of organisation you can come in knowing what you’re going to cook, you can keep hungry children at bay at that horrible time at 6 o’clock in the evening when they just want to be fed, and you can keep it under some budgetary control.

This is a food challenge – and it is a challenge. It challenges all those preconceptions about nasty, calorie-dense, nutritionally poor meals. If it stops one person from reaching into the supermarket freezer and pulling out a frozen meal, that’s got to be a good thing.

If I can get a book published out of this, that really explores this over the course of a year with different seasonal foods, and can develop a program that really supports people long term, not just in short-term financial circumstances like a period of unemployment, then that has a good chance of changing people’s habits and influencing their family’s eating habits as well. So if there’s a book that comes out of it that’s great. I would love some PR and a book agent! 

Do you see this as a long-term thing?

I plan to do this for a year, until the end of February next year. More than anything else, I want to see for myself that the budget can be adhered to. It is at times quite difficult. We’re coming into the leaner months of winter, where the food choices and the bounty of summer aren’t there. It also has to be flexible across different occasions like the end-of-year party season and Christmas and birthday parties, and it doesn’t always lend itself to that. People don’t always have extra money to spend on food for those extra-special occasions, but I have included a category of special meals that you can have once in a while to celebrate the good times and to use more expensive products.

I want to see how it goes over the course of the year and develop a bit more depth in terms of what foods are there, rather than sticking to the same old, same old. I’ve already got enough recipes to take me to July of this year, but ask me again around October or November how I’m doing. If I can do it for the whole year, then we’ll have something that can be used by community groups and welfare workers in teaching people how to cook on a budget. We’ll have something for families to have in their kitchen alongside the Jamie Oliver cookbook. 

Are you working at the moment?

The irony of all of this is that three days after I started the blog, I got a job. One of those job agencies that I thought had completely ignored me rang me out of the blue. It’s a great job, and I’m enjoying it. 

How do you find the time to blog while working?

The blog is compiled very early in the morning and last thing at night, quite separate from my work. The blog is who I am and is where my passion lies, and the other job pays the bills. It’s pretty awesome to be able to step very lightly between the two. 

Can you give examples of some of your favourite recipes that will feed a family for cheap?

There are three recipes that have done extremely well in terms of traffic and the comments that have come back. The first is the very first one I wrote on my Facebook page, the very first recipe I thought of when I had the coupon in my hand. It’s a chicken and tomato braise that just uses cheap chicken pieces, a tin of tomatoes and a couple of onions. You cook it for around 45 minutes and it’s absolutely delicious, served with some steamed rice. Everyone has said it’s so fantastic. People from grandparents to young children all love it.

The next one is also one of the very first recipes that I posted, and that’s lemon delicious, which I think should take the place of vegemite as the national Australian dish. It’s foolproof and it’s cheap, it’s something like $3 for 8 serves, but in my recipe I say it serves 4, because it’s so good that you just have to have two serves!

And the last one that people have responded really well to, that gets so many hits, is a recipe for Boston baked beans. It’s about $4 for six huge serves that will keep you going all day. It cooks slowly, you can put it on in the morning and go to the football and it will be ready for lunch, and I’ve had comment after comment about how sensational they are. It’s the cheapest dish and I say that if you’re serious about this, you’re going to have to cut down on how much meat you eat and eat more dried beans, pulses, lentils and chickpeas. You have to get your head around it, because at $60 a week you’re not going to be eating steak every night. 

What advice do you have for parents trying to feed their family on a tight budget?

Don’t be scared of a budget, and don’t be nervous about your cooking ability. Buy in season. Buy fresh food and whole foods first of all, and packaged or processed food only if you have money left over. Shop at Aldi, buy in bulk. Know when your supermarket is discounting prices – for example, if you’re going to buy meat, buy on a Monday night because that’s when they reduce their meat prices – half price sometimes. Develop your talents for re-using leftovers rather than composting your food waste.

Plan your meals, plan what you’re going to buy, make a shopping list and stick to it. And it will follow that you will save money – and you will eat well while you’re at it.

Josie Chun

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