When Sandra Reynolds found she had $120 a fortnight to feed her family, she set herself the challenge of using that budget not only to stave off hunger but to eat well, too. One year later she's proved that 14 family meals on $120 is not only possible but may have put her on the path to a new career.
"I was an admin assistant at a local council – very conventional, a single mother, very ordinary," she says. "I hated the job. I actually walked out the day I decided to quit. For a week it was wonderful but then I woke up and realised that maybe things weren't the best."
Two weeks later, when no other work became available, Reynolds was forced to take Centrelink assistance. When phone and electricity bills consumed the whole of her first payment, there was nothing left to feed herself or her two children, aged 18 and 16.
"I actually went to the Salvos and they gave me a food voucher for $60," she says. "And they suggested I come back the next week and get another one as well. I went home and whinged on Facebook, I wrote, 'Is it possible to feed your family for $60 a week?' "
The response from friends discussing and debating the financial realities of feeding a modern family prompted Reynolds to keep the conversation going.
"I literally had nothing better to do, so whenever I had a recipe I wrote it on Facebook," she says. "It just went from there."
As the Facebook postings gained followers, Sandra sought to broaden her audience by blogging about her challenge to feed herself and her children – and feed them well – on $120 a fortnight. A week later, after Googling "How to start a blog", she found her forum.
Now, she uses her blog to share recipes for seven main meals, two desserts and one sweet treat each week – all of which can be prepared for about $60. On top of the monetary restrictions, she also maintains a high standard of taste and nutrition. "I said I wouldn't do a lot of mince, or horrible pre-packaged, frozen foods," she says. "I like to eat good food."
Reynolds advocates pre-planning to take advantage of economies of scale in household kitchens, as well as avoiding products that have undergone costly processing steps.
"I make as much as possible from scratch," she says. "The more processes you perform for yourself, the more money you save. The other thing is to buy generic brands and buy in bulk, buy at wholesale prices. That doesn't mean you eat badly."
Bargains are also cyclical. Cherries in the middle of winter or hazelnuts in summer make saving money impossible, she says. Reynolds buys seasonal fruit and vegetables. "Even now with the wild weather there's still a lot of bargains," she says.
She is still living, eating and writing on a restricted budget, though she has a book that is due to be published next year by Penguin. She says continuing her new career is a balancing act.
"I do hope to keep going but at the same time I have to be careful with Centrelink, I have to keep looking for jobs," she says. "I'd like to work until I can do this full time. I kind of like being a food writer."
Sandra Reynolds' blog: 120dollarsfoodchallenge.com.
On the menu
Having overcome the challenge of preparing 14 main meals on $120 a fortnight, Sandra Reynolds outlines the menu for a cheap, satisfying dinner.
Baked capsicum with pesto risotto
Reynolds made this for four people. She made a basic risotto using arborio rice, onion, garlic, stock or water then added basil pesto at the end. She stuffed risotto mix into capsicums and baked them for 45 minutes. $9 for four serves
Blackberry and apple parfait
Reynolds picked up two punnets of blackberries for $5 and used granny smith apples to extend the quantity. She made an egg custard with three eggs, 300 millilitres of milk, cornflour, sugar and vanilla extract and a bit of cream because it needed using. She also had some leftover Anzac biscuits, which she smashed up with macadamia nuts and tossed with brown sugar and two tablespoons of butter. She then layered all the ingredients. $8 for six serves
Recipe: White bread
A master of the thrifty kitchen, Sandra Reynolds nominates her white bread recipe as the pinnacle of economy and flavour.
"The best taste-for-dollar recipe is, without doubt, the everyday loaf of plain old white bread," she says. "It's completely foolproof. People have made it by hand, in a bread maker, whatever, and it always comes out right. It ends up costing something like 75¢."
500g plain white flour
1 level tsp (5g) bread improver (found in the same aisle as flour, yeast and breadmaker's flour)
1 tsp salt
7g sachet of dried yeast
275ml water at room temperature
¼ cup of salted water
A little canola spray
Put ingredients into breadmaker pan in the following order: water, flour, salt, yeast, bread improver, then set to Bake setting for large loaf to cook the bread in the breadmaker or set on Dough and follow maker's instructions to knead, then prove bread.
Place flour, bread improver, salt and yeast in a bowl, then add warm water and mix until well combined. Empty out on to a flour-coated surface and knead for 10-15 minutes until bread is soft and stretchy. Place in clean bowl, cover with cling wrap and leave to prove for one hour until risen or doubled in size.
After the dough has proved, turn it onto floured benchtop and knock back dough by kneading for two to three minutes. Roll dough to a leaf or oval shape using your hands and make three or four slashes across the top of the loaf with a sharp knife. Using a pastry brush, brush top of loaf with salted water, then sprinkle with some more flour. Place the bread on a baking tray that has been oiled with a little canola spray or lined with baking paper. Sprinkle some more flour on the tray or baking paper, then place the loaf on top. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rise until it has doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 240C. Place oven tray in centre of oven and bake bread for eight minutes. It may well rise some more during this time. Open the oven door, then bake for another two minutes with the door open. Reduce oven heat to 190C, close the oven door and bake the loaf for a further 25-30 minutes. Bread is cooked when you can rap your knuckles on the crust and it gives a hollow sound.