Lenten Project 2009

There is discontentment amongst the crew.  I suspect the deckhands are plotting a rebellion.  Meanwhile, in truth, I’m just fantasizing about café latte.


My kids have been a little testy at breakfast without their butter croissants and fresh strawberries.  I don’t feel sorry for them – croissants are not good for you and strawberries have no business being on my table in March. 


The boys were invited to a Senators game and I told them I could spare them each $5.  I thought it fairly charitable given our 14.66/day budget.  They did not share my enthusiasm when they discovered that bottled water cost $4 at Scotiabank Place.  They were quick to figure out, however, that by splitting their treats, they felt like they had two.  Lord knows how my husband survived without a beer (or did he I wonder?).


Our family groovy movie night without microwave popcorn is not so Norman Rockwell anymore.  No amount of melted butter could make air-popped corn taste as good.


Now my daughter is eyeing the calendar.  “How many more days until this stupid project is over?” she asks.  While they long to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, I bet they’re pooling their piggy banks and plotting my crucifixion. 


Whoa!  Did I spy a Tim Horton’s receipt in my husband’s vehicle? 


Even my local Independent is plotting against me as they now charge 25¢ for coffee to offset the cost of the cups!


After buying some fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs and bread I am down to $40 to month-end.  There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow though:  I pulled a Starbucks coupon for a free coffee out of Maclean’s magazine today1.


1 Offer valid at participating locations only. Void where prohibited, taxed, or restricted.  Do they think this is funny??

We are just completing Week Four of our Lent project.  Financially and nutritionally, so far the budget seems to be within our capabilities.  Socially, it has been a major challenge. 

We could have sequestered ourselves for the 10 days over March Break but that is not our reality.  We tend to spend vacations and holidays with friends and/or family.  Months ago we committed to spending part of March Break with friends at our cottage and the latter part of March Break with other friends at a cabin at Blueberry Lake Resort in Labelle, Qc, some 20 minutes north of Mont Tremblant.  I was committed to bringing my fair share of the food and so we packed as much as we could fit from home (two boxes and two coolers of food).   Thankfully, restaurant meals were not convenient to either location so I was grateful that our guests and cabin mates were more than happy with home-cooked meals.  We managed a lovely BBQ and homemade birthday cake with 12 adults and 13 children to mark my eldest son’s 13th birthday celebration (thanks largely due to the salads, sides and beverages contributed by friends). 

My kids astonishingly did not complain too violently over brownbag lunches at the ski hill but even I had to summon all my willpower to ignore the sizzling outdoor slope-side BBQ and tantalizing bar in the beautiful spring sunshine that we enjoyed over March Break.  The requisite trip to Place Bonbon in Tremblant’s pedestrian village was strategically avoided by parking at the Porte du Soleil chairlift instead of at the base of the mountain (though there were a few denied requests nevertheless).  In doing so, the kids learned a pretty valuable lesson:  treats are a lot more plentiful and economical at the grocery store than in a touristy sweet shop.

Despite our best efforts and considerable self-control, we have $75 left of our food budget to last to the end of March.  We’re out of bread, milk and eggs and the last two bananas and apple were shared among 5 people for breakfast this morning.  I did however find a little extra Van Houte ground coffee at the bottom of my kitchen freezer this morning, so I for one am pretty chirpy.

The sad truth is, though, that ski passes were still purchased, weekly allowances still dispensed and the Tooth Fairy still arrived…and these are not Basic Needs. 


On that note, if you are looking for a beautiful year-round lakeside retreat that was fairly economical, check out the rustic chic of





I find that grocery coupons are no longer widely distributed.  When I was young – I mean younger– I’m pretty sure my mom went to the grocery store every Thursday (payday) with a wallet-ful of them and saved our family a hefty sum of money.  I’m pretty sure that grocery coupons appeared in my mailbox even more recently but I quickly tossed them along with the weekly retail flyers.  Oh sure, once in a while I would put one in my wallet (for something I’m buying all the time anyway so might as well use it, right?) only, upon check-out, to completely forget that I had it.  Months later when I’m cleaning out my purse and wallet, there’s the coupon… expired, of course.  Maybe they no longer appear in my mailbox as regularly, possibly because I am not of the Pamper and Gerber buying demographic anymore.  Some marketing wizard probably realized most people are just like me and has advised food retailers and consumer products companies that they’re just not worth printing and distributing anymore. 


If you’re interested, the Internet contains thousands of sites worthy for the thrift-conscious.  I spent hours one evening, checking out various grocery coupon websites. ([“Well, someone has a little too much time on their hands”], I heard that).   Once you eliminate the US-only based sites, however, there were very few that I thought would help my cause.  After all this, I only had a couple of useful coupons in hand:  50¢ off Sourceyoghurt and $1 off Cheerios.  When I got to the grocery store with coupons in hand (not in wallet), I also found them neatly hovering the shelves right above the products! What a colossal waste of my time.


Here are a few sites I found that deal with Canadian products:






 Nevertheless, a dollar or two off here, a re-useable bag incentive there, and I’ve saved enough coins to buy a tin of concentrated orange juice.  The chits are happy…today.




I call my struggle with this daily food budget a “project”.  “Melissa” calls it “Thursday” (or Friday, or Monday or any other day of the week for that matter). 
I spoke with Melissa.  She is a single mother of two boys (ages 6 years and 10 months) on social assistance.  At the moment she has $5 to her name.  This sum will be replenished next week, but in the meantime, she hopes she’ll have enough food to last until then.

When Melissa receives her cheque at the end of the month, her biggest challenge is stretching it to the end of next month.  Once the bills are paid and whatever clothes and necessities are bought for her kids, there is very little leftover for food.

Her 6 year-old is a picky eater.  What a surprise.  He prefers grapes and green apples over steamed vegetable.  Another shocker. A typical dinner for him is fish sticks, French fries and grapes or apples.  Mid-month, however, with little money left in her wallet, green grapes can get pretty far of reach for her boy.  At $32.99/tin for formula, feeding her infant is no picnic either.  As for Melissa, she rarely cooks herself a full meal but never let on to me that it was because of cost (how could she? She typically eats Mr. Noodle), more likely that with 2 young children in the house, she has little time or energy.

She shops at Giant Tiger not because it’s cheaper (which it is) but because it’s right next door.  A health nurse visits occasionally and offers milk vouchers which is a big help. 

I am selfish and missing my Friday night Mr. Mozzarella pizza night, so I ask her:  “When times are better for you, what food are you most looking forward to adding to your shopping list?”  What an stupid question.  Melissa can’t even think that way right now.  She said she’s just looking forward to not having to limit her family so much on everything and not having to worry about running out of whatever food she can buy.

I ask her opinion of our social assistance programs in Ontario.  “It’s just not enough”, she answers, though she is quick to add she is very grateful for the help.  She is optimistic and is working towards getting herself a job by next year.  She knows she’s having a hard time, but she sees people around her ever day who are much worse off.  

I would need a miracle to make $5 last until next week, but I am beginning to realize there are lots of miracle workers, like Melissa, living among us.

Chocolate Cake!

Try this next time you’re bored and you have no money and your kids are whining for a sweet treat:

4 tbsp flour
4 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp cocoa
Mix together in a microwavable coffee mug
Add 1 egg and blend, then add
3 tbsp oil
3 tpsp milk
Mix thoroughly
Microwave on High for 3 minutes

Make sure your kids are watching it “bake” in the microwave!

Tastes better with whipped cream and loads of sprinkles, I am sure.

We faced our first huge budget challenge this past weekend…the away hockey tournament weekend.  Many hockey parents embark on such a weekend with great intentions and a cooler full of healthy snacks and drinks.  It is, however, nearly impossible to get through a whole weekend away without at least one trip to some restaurant, fast food outlet or beer store (it is a hockey weekend after all).  We helped the budget by packing a picnic lunch and lots of water, and I was further relieved to discover that the hotel included a complimentary continental breakfast.  We knew we would be sharing a family meal with my cousin’s family close by on Saturday evening but I was conscious of the fact that depriving my daughter of all team events would result in her social shame that would take years from which to recover.  So one dinner and two lunches later, I managed to meander back onto the 401 on Sunday with $34 less in my wallet.  This sum served us up 3 microscopic pieces of pizza at Chuckie Cheese with soft drinks, 2 combo meals at McDonald’s and a coffee from Timmies (can you believe I threw that cup away without Rolling up the Rim????).  I was further vexed by Saturday afternoon as our apples, bananas and carrots were gone, having been shared with a few team mates.  What could I say?  Hands off my apples??!! 


Fruits, vegetables and dairy now account for 40% of the weekly budget having eliminated chips, store-bought cookies and ice cream.  Dinners for the second week of Lent were still fairly generous thanks in part to the recent freezer inventory we conducted.    I’m finding the budget challenging enough, but to actually try to put some money aside for a future restaurant meal out or an unexpected food expense appears almost impossible.  I figure any other trimming has to come from meats or breads & cereals so I guess it’s time to stock up on lentils and haul out the bread machine.  I pictured us swaggering into March Break with a surplus but we are $12.44 in the hole following the indulgent weekend in Oshawa.

I’m restlessly waiting for this week’s onslaught of food flyers which the former Me would have dutifully dumped in the recycle bin.  I really am becoming obsessed with food.  One of the things I’ve realized about myself already during this project is that I expect the refrigerator to be fully stocked and loaded all the time.  I seem to have a phobia about actually running out of some staple food item.  The fact that we’ve run out of orange juice on Monday when the new budget week starts Wednesday is really causing me a great deal of anxiety.  We’ve run out of green peppers as well and I’m somewhat maniacal.  I Must Google “visible signs of vitamin deficiency in children” today.  The fact that there is sufficient celery, cucumber and carrots to safely see us to our next shopping day does nothing to alleviate my worry.  There probably is a name for this disorder.   Something lurking in my subconscious causes me to immediately want to replenish that which has been replete (whether we need it right away or not).

So last night, to make myself feel better, I decided to take stock of the inventory in my freezer.  Remember, we have a small apartment size deep-freeze which really has only been used to house the over-flow from our kitchen appliance (you know, the extra bread, rolls, ground beef I need to medicate my disorder).

Here’s what I found:

Spaghetti sauce x4
Chili x1
Boston Baked Beans x1
Taco beef leftovers x2
Pork tenderloins (2.5)
Beef Barley Soup x1
Chicken breasts x6
Seasoned chicken breasts x4
Whole chickens x2
Beef burgers x8
Bread dough (2 loaves)
French fries (Yes! God have Mercy!)
Leftover turkey meat (I am hoping from this past Thanksgiving but can’t be sure)
Haddock (2 filets)
Turkey sausage
Plain chicken wings
Salmon (2 filets)

Sadly, no chicken fingers to placate the poor hungry urchins I call my own.  Wow, I had no idea (did I tell you I defrosted the sucker last summer?)!  Evidently my meat purchases can take a break over the next couple of weeks as I work my menu around a plentiful supply of meats and alternatives!  I didn’t even mention the bags of odds and sods leftover frozen vegetables that are now clearly destined for the turkey soup pot!  Next stop:  the Pantry.

I think I’ve figured out this new food budget:  all I have to do is make sure a part of my family is stricken with a gastrointestinal virus once a week until Easter.   Seriously,  our normal indulgences were far from our minds this week as we all took turns suffering.  Ah well, as each one of us slowly returns to normal, we’re all poking our noses in the frig and finding a few things missing.

I know what you’re thinking, and, NO, I did not run to Cosco on Shrove Tuesday and stock my freezer and pantry with food.  I also did not, however, empty the freezer prior to this project so whatever’s in there (’tis a mystery even to me) is up for grabs until Easter.   Since we only own an apartment size deep-freeze, fowl can’t be foul quite yet.

In the few weeks leading up to Lent, I started to track my food shopping expenses.  I pride myself in serving primarily home cooked meals and lots of fruits and veggies, so I was pretty shocked to realize that while 20% of my shopping expenses were for fruits and vegetables, an equal 20% had gone to snacks (chips, cereals bars), sweets (ice cream, cookies) and beverages (pop, coffee, bottled water).  So, pretty clear where part of the budget cutting started.

Week one started Ash Wednesday.  I know, I know, it’s only Friday but my menu is planned and purchased through next Wednesday and the frig is (as of right now) pretty well stocked.  While Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee would have been easier, the planned dinner menu calls for marinated chicken legs, grilled cheese sandwiches, beef-noodle soup, spaghetti, shepherd’s pie, vegetable pork stirfy, and Greek-style roast chicken…all homemade.   With $34 left of my weekly budget, I am feeling pretty smug.

Which brings me to another point:  those of you who know me are wondering what I am drinking right now.  Ah yes, my Friday night glass(es) of wine.  Thankfully the 10 cent/bottle return on empty wine bottles helped fund this week’s purchases (and the garage is way tidier!).  I know there are people out there whose daily addictions far exceed this one, but I do have to acknowledge it will be tough to kick my own habit which I’m guessing is about $2/day.  I think I saw red grapes on sale at Loblaws….

When was the last time you picked up a newspaper or magazine that did not refer some how to the global economic crisis and how it was affecting the average Canadian family? Between staggering job losses, rising food costs and the pressures of raising a family, it’s rare to read a story about being grateful for what we do have.
I recently heard a radio broadcast about a woman in Alberta who attempted to feed her family of 4 on the Basic Needs Allowance provided by the province to families on social assistance.   She wanted to do something meaningful with her family during Lent.
Today I read Deidre McMurdy’s shovelful of advice to survive the annual Family Day Holiday in the Ottawa Citizen and her quick dismissal of parents who do educational projects.  It got me thinking:  How far can $14.66/day be stretched for a family of five?   I an not sure, but I’ve decided to re-create this project with my family of 5 here in Manotick.  So, since January 13, I’ve spent $930.40 or $37.22 per day on food.  Wow.  There’s a pretty substantial discrepancy in my food spending habits and a standard monthly social assistance allowance.

Please enjoy reading about our family project,  the sacrifices we make and how we cope on this new food budget over the 40 days to Easter here at the dust bunny chronicles

Fat Tuesday will be FAT indeed!

About Astra
Ottawa mom of 3 poking fun at myself, motherhood, and minor hockey! I am steering through life dodging stinky hockey gear and empty wine bottles.
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