If we asked to take a look through your phone, we’re betting that you’ve got least one photo (if not an entire album) of a particularly tasty, or exceptionally well plated, dish. For some people in our city, though, having lots of people on Instagram like their artisanally smashed avocado on sourdough toast post isn’t all that important.
A study published late last year by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service revealed that around 71,000 Hong Kong households under the poverty line don’t have enough money to meet their basic food needs. They survive on less than HK$15 per meal, per person. That’s HK$315 each week to cover seven breakfasts, seven lunches, and seven dinners. Obviously, that’s possible, but probably not great. We asked Sub-editor Ginny to try to live on this budget for one week to see what it’s actually like. How hard could it be? (Spoilers: pretty hard.)
I begin with a trip to the wet market after work. Most of the stalls have already closed by the time I arrive, so I pick up whatever I can from what’s open, and I make a quick stop to the supermarket on my way home. I whip up a meal of rice, tomato and egg, and a side of gai lan (Chinese broccoli), and save some of everything for lunch the next day.
I’ve bought bananas for all my mornings for the week, so I eat one on the way to work. It’s not bad, but I’m starving by the time lunch rolls around because I didn’t eat enough the night before. My rice, already a little mushy yesterday, is worse today. Dinner is the rest of the gai lan, and some other veggies that I throw into my rice cooker with a bunch of baby potatoes. I save some for lunch the next day.
Another day, another banana. The leftovers are pretty good and filling – which I need, because I’m feeling tired today. Am I getting enough protein? I’m not quite sure – I’m no dietitian – but after work I pick up some protein-packed ingredients from the wet market, and make a tomato, okra, and pork side dish to go with my rice, saving some for lunch.
My bananas bore me. I wish I’d bought something else. However, I’m already about halfway through my week’s budget, and I don’t want to throw away perfectly good food. My lunch, which was pretty tasty the night before, is unappetising – especially when compared to my colleague’s creamy pasta. I pick up a can of carbonara sauce on my way home, and throw in the rest of my okra (which is a terrible decision) and pork in with my own pasta.
I consider skipping breakfast. I just can’t face another banana – but a bit of scrabbling through my cupboards yields a jar of peanut butter, so I’m a little happier. My leftover lunch is terrible, but I force it down anyway. I’m still really tired, and I’m feeling pretty grouchy. I swing by the supermarket in the evening to pick up some sweetcorn, and make a pot of tomato and sweetcorn congee, with some choi sum thrown in for good measure.
It’s the weekend, and I wake up around lunch time, so I forgo the banana and go straight for the congee. A friend drops me a message to ask if I’d like to go for brunch, but I won’t be able to afford anything at the restaurant she’s suggesting, and I don’t feel like watching her eat while I sip the cheapest juice on the menu. I’m getting sick of cooking. In the evening I have some instant noodles, but I throw a lot of veggies in with it. That makes it healthier, right?
I have more money left than I thought I would, so I treat myself to a pastry from a coffee shop for breakfast. "Aw yiss," I think. "No bananas!" I bring my own coffee. Lunch is a badly made Spam fried rice. That evening, I go to a friend’s house for dinner. I eat five different types of home-made pizza. This is actual food heaven.
The bananas are well past their best, so I whip up some banana pancakes with the two I have left. Oh my god. They’re so much more appetising this way. Why didn’t I think of this sooner? Lunch is a breakfast wrap from a deli – it’s not the one I want, but it’s the cheapest thing they have, and at least it’s not leftovers from the night before.
I end my week with HK$5.90 – and a vow not to look at my hotplate for at least a week. Counting my dollars and cents every time I bought something was mentally draining. The first time I pull out my purse to pay for a meal after my experiment, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of gratefulness that I’m in a position where I don’t have to worry about how much I’m spending, and I vow to be more appreciative of my lot in life going forward.
I’m not entirely sure how well I’ve done nutrition-wise, though I know that I was probably hugely under in terms of calories. After taking a look at what I’ve eaten throughout the week, nutritionist Wynnie Chan tells me I’m right. I was averaging less than 1,000 calories a day, which is not ideal at all. My diet lacked fibre – which is good for a healthy gut – and dairy, says Chan, and contained too many trans fats, processed carbs, and sodium.
“Eating processed [refined] carbs means that you will be hungry more often and likely to snack on sugary and fatty foods, this will have implications for weight and glucose control in the long term,” she says. Instead of processed carbs, she says I would have been better off if I had included wholegrain carbs instead. “Wholegrain carbs helps keep you fuller for longer. They are also a great source of vitamin B, [which is] needed for energy.”
A lack of dairy, she adds, means my diet was devoid of calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, all of which helps to build and strengthen bone. A deficiency of these will, in the long term, lead to poor bone mass, poor growth, and eventual osteoporosis.
Although I had done well in eating a lot of fruit and veg, Chan says that my diet was not varied enough. “[This means] you would not be having enough antioxidants or other phytonutrients, which are important for fighting off diseases.” I was right about feeling like I didn’t have enough protein, too, which she said is needed for growth and cell repair. “A deficiency in lean proteins, such as red meats, will lead to a deficiency in iron.”
How to shop smart and maintain a balanced healthy diet
Chan says there are plenty of ways that meals on a budget – even when it means spending no more than HK$15 on a meal – can be done in a healthy and nutritionally balanced way.
“You can club together with friends and bulk buy,” she suggests, which is especially useful for buying ingredients like cereals, wholegrains, rice and UHT milk. Opt for “value” products, which are often the same nutrient-wise as the more expensive versions of the same product. Head to wet markets near the end of the day, when the stalls start packing up. That will be when the sellers lower the prices of their goods. Try your hand at bargaining, too. If you’re picking up your ingredients from the supermarket, head there just before they shut, to pick up frozen fruits and vegetables.
“They also count towards your five a day, and they are often cheaper than fresh [goods],” Chan says. If cuts of meat are too expensive, then pulses, beans, and lentils are good alternatives, as they are a cheap source of protein and fibre.
Finally, Chan says you can also form a cooking club with your friends. Instead of trying to make an entire meal full of all the vitamins and nutrients that you need on your own, you can make one dish with whatever you happen to have – and share with others.
“This will hopefully provide an ‘insurance’ of a variety of nutrients, since different people will stock up on different types of foods,” she says.