On Monday afternoon, I received a message from the Daily Mirror, asking if I would be interested in writing a piece about food. Having discussed almost nothing but my body for a fortnight, I leapt at the chance to get back into the kitchen with gusto, and said yes.

They asked if, in response to Prince Charles plea for us all to support British farmers, I could write a meal plan for a family of four, on the Living Wage. Hmm, I thought. Impossible to know what their food budget is without knowing household costs, bill commitments, gas, electricity, whether they have a telly and what subscription service they have, how many hours a week that Living Wage is being paid for, and if it was the real Living Wage or the Government’s pretend one? So, I sat down at my desk and started to rifle through my books. I decided instead to use my £10 a week as my benchmark, that was my average when I started writing this blog. I was a single mum on benefits, unemployed, with endless trouble with my Housing Benefit payments meaning that quite often I missed my rent, accrued bank charges, missed bills because the bank charges took me into a negative overdraft, got late payment charges from the missed bills and more bank charges as the unauthorised overdraft spiralled. To put it bluntly, I was in shit. It has taken me three years to get out of that shit, and I’m still not quite there.
Anyway – they came to me because I guess they thought I know a thing or two about planning meals around miniscule amounts of money, and making those meals something that children might actually eat. All of my recipes have been run past my son, and the general rule is that if he doesn’t eat it, it doesn’t end up in my blog or books – what’s the point in cooking two separate meals every night?
And so, I set about it with gusto. Copied recipes onto small pieces of paper and stuck them on my wall for breakfast, lunch, dinner. Shuffled them around, started to make a shopping list, whipped out any that needed ingredients that wouldn’t be used up in the week or couldn’t be put in anything else, shuffled again, added some more. Made a new shopping list, dug out my recent receipts to see the prices of ingredients, cross-checked them online to check they hadn’t changed, and started typing up condensed versions of my recipes, deducting things from the shopping list every time I ‘used’ it to make sure it would all last the week.
Now normally, week to week, I do this without thinking about it. I just open the cupboard, see what’s in there, rustle it into something, type it up afterwards and do the cost calculation. But if I was going to make a truly helpful resource, on the basis that someone was starting with nothing but a bit of cooking oil and a pinch of salt in their cupboards, I had to be forensic.
I finished at 7am the next morning – up all night with copious cups of tea and occasional flails into the kitchen to check if I could thin my berry bircher pot overnight with milk and come back to it thickened up in the morning (yes, I could). I made my mushroom risotto with tea instead of wine at 4am and prayed my upstairs neighbours were heavy sleepers as I smooshed berries and yoghurt in my blender shortly afterwards.
And in the end, I did it. A menu plan for two adults and two children, for a week, for £35. It won’t meet everyone’s dietary requirements, but it’s a start. (I’m working on a vegan one now, and a gluten free one too, with no promises for a delivery date because I need to speak to the paper to see if this is something we can do again – but I am working on them.)
So, as a starting point, a foray into cheap and simple cooking that doesn’t require fancy gadgets or too much technical ability, it’s all here. It’s not too carb-heavy, as my own diet was back then, I’ve learned a lot in the last four years or so! It averages 5 fruit and/or veg a day, and protein is the biggest section on the shopping list. It’s not perfect – but if you find yourself in a sticky situation financially, or know someone who is, or just want to learn to cook a little, save some money, or live a week in the life of my stomach, here you go.
The Shopping List: http://jackatapinch.com/2015/11/11/feed-a-family-of-4-for-less-than-9week-the-shopping-list/
The Breakfasts: http://jackatapinch.com/2015/11/11/feed-a-family-of-4-for-less-than-9week-breads-breakfasts/
The Lunches: http://jackatapinch.com/2015/11/11/feed-a-family-of-4-for-less-than-9week-lunchtime/
The Dinners: http://jackatapinch.com/2015/11/11/feed-a-family-of-4-for-less-than-9week-dinnertime/
The Desserts, Snacks & Juice: http://jackatapinch.com/2015/11/11/feed-a-family-of-4-for-less-than-9week-dessert-treats-and-juice/

Enjoy, good luck, and please share it – you may not need it, but you probably know someone who does.

Jack Monroe. Twitter: @DrJackMonroe. Instagram: @MxJackMonroe