Tread lightly

A frugal shopping challenge dishes up dividends

Confession time: I’m an over-buyer when it comes to food.

I treat grocery shopping like a guilt-free weekly shopping spree rather than gathering essentials. You always need food, right? Who am I fooling? With my weekly food bill creeping up, and my pantry and freezer full, an intervention was needed.

I took the $21 challenge – you choose an aspect of your weekly food shop (or the whole thing!) and put a $21 limit on it. The aim is to get creative with what you already have to meet most of your grocery needs. I chose to set myself a $21 limit for dinners for my family of three for a week.

What I bought and what we ate

I usually spend around $200 a week for my entire grocery shop. I spent $147.16, saving around $50.

$21 challenge, food waste, #foodwastefriday, frugal shopping, budgeting

I spent $17.01 on ingredients for dinners for the week – this is what I brought.

I spent $17.01 on ingredients for dinner for three people for seven days. From these ingredients, and what I already had in the house, I made the following meals:

Day 1 – Nachos – I used toasted pita bread instead of corn chips and we liked it better this way.

Day 2 – Pizza – Instead of buying the bases, I made my own. They tasted better than I ones I usually buy.

Day 3 – Stir fry noodles – This was very similar to what I’d usually make, however instead of tofu for me and my son, and tuna for my husband, I used up an open packet of Quorn chunks I found in the freezer.

Day 4 – Vegetable curry with brown rice and quinoa – usually I buy curry paste, but I freestyled using spices I had on hand. I’d also usually use basmati rice, but substituted brown rice and quinoa. It was okay, not quite as yummy as usual.

Day 5 – Vegetable fried rice – This was missing the cashew nuts I usually add. It was tasty, but not as yummy as usual.

Day 6 – Pumpkin and tomato risotto – This doesn’t look great, but tastes delicious. I regularly make a dish like this to use up leftover ingredients.

Day 7 – Calzone, chips, corn and salad – We had unexpected guests (my Mum and Dad), so I scrapped the pasta with tomato sauce I had planned to have as there wasn’t enough for five. Instead, I used some pre-made calzones from the freezer. I hadn’t intended to use freezer meals as part of this challenge, but things change. We ate the pasta I was planning for Day 7 two nights later.

$21 challenge, food waste, #foodwastefriday, frugal living, frugal shopping, budgeting

The meals I made using what I had, plus $17.01 worth of extra ingredients.

Here’s a breakdown of the ingredients I used and their source.

Pantry Fridge Freezer Veggie Garden Bought with $21 budget
Nachos Kidney beans


Moroccan seasoning


BBQ sauce* Pita bread Salad greens Corn


Pizza Flour


Olives (from a Christmas gift box)

Sun dried tomatoesCheese
Tomato paste Spinach
Salad greens



Curry with Brown rice and quinoa Onion

Brown rice



Cumin seeds

Mustard seeds

Curry powder

Yoghurt* Peas Potato



Fried rice Oil

Pumpkin seeds

Sunflower seeds

Chilli flakes

Soy sauce

Brown rice and quinoa*
Pineapple juice Capsicum
Pumpkin and tomato rissotto Basmati rice

Assortment of spices



Brown rice and quinoa*
Cream cheese*

Tomato paste

Salad greens

Bean sprouts



Stir fry noodles Udon noodles

Sunflower seeds

Pumpkin seeds

Soy sauce

Sesame oil


Miso paste Quorn chunks

Mixed frozen veggies

Pineapple juice

Bean sprouts Capsicum
Calzones and salad Pre-cooked calzone


Salad greens

Bean sprouts


*These ingredients were from my Use It Up Shelf, where I keep items such as leftovers or those close to their expiry date that need to be eaten as soon as possible.

The verdict

There was a lot of food already in my house and, with a little bit of imagination and substitution, this was a very doable challenge. The meals were simple, so it made for an easy week in the kitchen. Making the pizza bases took the most effort, but was worth it as they turned out great.

I would have been sunk without my veggie garden though. I only have a small veggie garden and it’s amazing what you can grow in a small space without much skill and attention. Its value shone through.

I bought more than I needed! I could have easily done without the potato ($1) and I only used half the salami. Even though I considered how much we’d need more thoroughly than usual, in the supermarket, I was worried we wouldn’t have enough to eat. The challenge highlighted my “it’s better to have too much than not enough” attitude to food, which drives much of my food-shopping behaviour. However, it’s unlikely I’ll be caught short, there is a well-stocked (if pricey) convenience store a 10-minute stroll away and it’s only a 10-minute drive to the supermarket. Hardly a food desert.

The good news is that this challenge made a difference! In terms of my spending, the next week, I spent $160.81 and the following week only $117.53. I thought I would probably run down my supplies during the challenge week and stock up again in the following weeks, with no net effect. This didn’t happen. I still have a well-stocked pantry and freezer, but I’m happier to let things run out first before I re-stock. Turns out, a day without raspberry jam won’t kill us.

Post-challenge, I’m better at meal planning starting from existing ingredients and sticking to my shopping list. I’m enjoying the extra space in the pantry, and with my new habits, I can see my grocery spend dropping 10% from what it used to be.

If you tend to over-buy, I recommend setting yourself a similar sort of challenge – there’s nothing to lose.

Note: I undertook this challenge as a fun experiment. I made this choice with the privilege of having plenty of food in the house, just as I came to minimalism with the privilege of having excess stuff. Come the problem of too much versus not enough food, I know the one I’d rather have.

For a great discussion on minimalism and privilege please check out Minimal Privilege  by Patrick Rhone.

Are you an over-buyer when it comes to food? Have you every tried the $21 challenge or something similar?


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