A Struggling Mum Blogs About Food

Jul 092013
 

Melbourne-based Sandra Reynolds spends $120 per week on food for a family of four, and teaches others how to budget and eat well.

Last year at Eat.Drink.Blog, the Australian food blogger conference, I met Melbourne-based Sandra Reynolds of The $120 Dollar Food Challenge, who held the audience spellbound as she recounted how a dire situation led to food blogging and a cookbook deal. Recently, we spoke further about her career and her struggle to support herself:

Q. In February 2010, you left your job as a public servant and had to figure out how to feed yourself and your two teenage children.

A. I went to the Salvation Army and they gave me two $60 food vouchers designed to last two weeks. And it started from there.

I went on Facebook to complain to my friends that I only had $60 to feed my family. My friends started asking what I could cook. I sent them recipes, and then someone said, ’91You could start a blog.’

Q. How did you know what to do?

A. I’d read a couple. A friend of mine had me write a few posts for a food blog she was running, but it was just a hobby.

Q. You were posting quite a lot at the beginning.

A. For the first six months I posted two meals a day. It was nuts. Now my budget is $120 a week, in line with rising food costs. On average, families of four spend about $200 to $250 a week on food in Australia, so it’s still a substantial reduction.

At the beginning I didn’t write an introduction to my recipes, but now there’s two to three paragraphs and I’m down to posting once every two days, three to four times per week. That’s a reasonable schedule for me.

Q. Sounds like a lot. And you test the recipes every time?

A. Oh yes. I tend to work two weeks in advance. That gives me plenty of opportunity to retest them if they don’t work.

All my recipes have to pass the Dubbo test. It’s the name of a town in Central New South Wales. You live in a one-supermarket town in rural Australia. Can you buy the ingredients you need to complete one of my recipes? There’s no freshly-caught anchovies and white truffles.

Q. How do you afford all the ingredients for testing recipes?

A. It may seem counter intuitive, but a well-stocked pantry is my best friend. Things like herbs and spices can flavor ground beef, for example, and it will take me from one recipe to another for very little money.

I still shop at markets and low-cost supermarkets, and I still plan my menus according to seasonal produce. I cook for one now because my children are 19 and 21 and have moved out. I try to photograph small plates of food even if the recipe says it serves four.

Q. How did the word get out about your blog?

A. I was a reader of a local website called Mammamia, and mentioned to Mia Freedman that I had started my blog. I posted the address in the comments, and it immediately gathered blog traffic. Mia encouraged me, mentored me and helped me get an agent for my book.

Sandra’s first book, for which she got a “stonkingly good deal.” (Book cover courtesy of Viking, an imprint of Penguin.)

But other than that, it was word of mouth for four months. Then I got interviewed on a Current Affairs program and got 75,000 hits the following day. Then Penguin Books called, offering me a book deal. Just like that. My agent said it was a very strong offer, a ‘stonkingly good deal.’ She’s very English.

It’s three years later. It’s still so other worldly and I’m very keen to tell people it’s not normally how it happens.

Q. You had quite an impact on people who don’t have much money but want to eat well.

A. I didn’t realize it when I started the blog, but I clearly filled a gap. If you want to go to farmer’s market, and eat local, sustainable, ethically raised products, it’s going to cost. There are thousands of people in Australia who want to be engaged but they don’t know how and they don’t have the budget to do so.

I said, ’91Yeah, you can.’ Maybe it was my writing style or my utilization of social media, but I have a following now that encourages people to do more with less. People tell me how I’ve taught them not just how to budget but how to cook.

Q. That’s a big deal.

A. Yes it is, when people are struggling.

Q. Are you still struggling?

A. Yes. I don’t like to say that too much. I take ownership of the decisions I’ve made, but I’ve come so far I don’t want to go back.

Q. How do you make a living?

A. I do freelance work, I assist companies with their social media, I do part-time work as an admin and I clean houses. It’s patchy and it’s iffy but I do it.

Q. Now you’re working on another book?

A. Yes. I’m writing the manuscript and the book proposal together. I don’t expect to get the same offer as I got the first time around. I’m having second book syndrome: lots of procrastination and self-doubt. But I don’t want to be known as the person who wrote only one book.

Q. Do other food bloggers understand your challenges?

A. I’m not sure. They don’t get what a struggle it is to do on your own, without a partner or support. In the last two years I’ve moved eight times. The book was written and tested in five kitchens. No cookbook author generally does a cookbook like that.

A lot of people would have given up by now, and understandably so. It takes a little bit of madness to do it. I love being creative and I had no idea how much of it I had in reserve. It’s quite surprising to go through life kind of asleep and then wake up. There was this parallel life waiting for me. It’s scary. People in mainstream media have heavily criticized me because they thought I was an irresponsible mother for quitting my job.

Perhaps they didn’t have the wherewithal to leave their jobs and do this life. It’s a transitory lifestyle and I’ve had to give up a lot. I don’t recommend it. But the creative life is so fulfilling I can’t imagine doing anything else.

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  31 Responses to “A Struggling Mum Blogs About Food”

  1. Great interview thanks Dianne. Sandra’s session at Eat Drink Blog was quite an eye-opener for many and also laid the real facts about having a book published right on the line. She’s hard worker and a great lady – and her recipes are always very practical.

    • Thank you for saying so, Amanda. I was so impressed with Sandra when I met her at the conference. And thanks for making it possible for me to do so.

  2. As a personal friend of Sandra’s, thank you for doing this interview. I think it’s important for people to get an idea of what she’s been through and all because she WANTS to help others. Previous interviews/articles haven’t been so kind and the reaction was just feral from some armchair critics. Thank you Dianne.

    Namaste,
    Raven

    • Wow. I’m sorry to read this, Raven. Sandra didn’t mention that. I don’t think it’s my job as an interviewer to impose a point of view. It’s better to just let the story come out so people can make up their own minds.

  3. I think one thing that I have learned from your blog is that cookbook deal is not the end all be all, but more of the icing on the cake when we are speaking about sustainable income.Maybe this is a grass is always greener kind of thing when people first hear her story.

    • Yes, that must have been when she really made it. Now it is a few years later and the money is probably gone and it probably wasn’t enough to live on for very long anyway. Pretty tough. There was definitely a glam, high-profile period. That must be why she’s working on book No. 2. Can’t say I blame her.

  4. Very inspiring and realistic at the same time, thank you so much! I am also single and trying to break away from the daily grind/time clock to follow my passion. This interview helps to put things into perspective.

  5. Thank you everyone for your kind comments. I hope I brought some perspective without cruelling any blogging or publishing ambitions you might have. I have never regretted my original decision to start writing – it’s brought me so much more than I could have dreamed of – and the joy and assistance it’s given my readers has benefitted far more lives than anything I’ve done as a public service drone. I’m rich beyond measure, she says with tongue in cheek.

  6. interesting interview. I hadn’t heard about Sandra. I guess she became so well known because she was experiencing the hardships that many were/are. She’s very honest. That is quite refreshing.

    • Yes. Who knows what goes on behind all that “perfect food and perfect life” kind of writing that is so prevalent in food blogs, eh?

      • That “perfect food and perfect life” kind of writing is something I struggle with quite a lot in writing my blog, Dianne. No one really wants to read about the really ugly parts, since they’re, well, ugly (unless you can make them funny, which is usually welcome), but the prettiest parts can be so misleading. My solution has been, essentially, not to talk about my life really much at all as I loathe blogs that make readers feel somehow inadequate. And I stick mostly to comfort food and nostalgic recipes since they’re accessible’97and I think mostly what readers need/want from a gluten free blog. Cheers to Sandra for telling it like it is, and making it work.

        Nicole

        • I think people do want to read about the ugly parts, Nicole, if you can write them well. Humor helps. Certainly there is no point in making readers feel inadequate, if you want them to come back. But there is also no law that you have to be as honest as Sandra is. She doesn’t do it all the time. Most of her posts are straightforward recipes about cooking on a budget.

  7. Kudos to you for taking a new path and doing well. I’m doing a blog that is out of the ordinary too. I appreciate the step of faith you took.

  8. Great interview, as food blogs become more and more overly polished and professional it’s inspiring to have authentic voices like Sandra’s keeping it real.

  9. Hi, Dianne, the link for the $120 food challenge up top is broken.

  10. It’s like reading about someone who lives on the different side of the planet. Thanks Dianne for sharing the story of someone who has a different take altogether:)

    • Well I suppose, Ishsita, that she does live on the other side of the planet, since you’re in Dubai and she’s in Australia! But yes, she has a different take from the rest of us. She is willing to sacrifice a lot to keep writing.

  11. I think the best blogs are those that serve a purpose and Sandra’s does in so many ways. Respect to her and her fortitude and the way she is working herself out of what she thought was an impossible situation. We learn from each other and as she and so many say – there are more people trying to get by in Sandra’s situation than we would like to admit and that need help, advice, support and encouragement. Thank you, Dianne, for letting us know about her and her blog and for sharing her struggles and her strength.

    • You’re most welcome, Jamie. It is a difficult situation and some people have not been kind to her about it. Yes, she needs advice, support and encouragement — and cash!

  12. This hit really close to home and I am grateful to you, Dianne, for introducing me to Sandra’s blog:)

    • Hello Lana, lovely to hear from you. You have had the courage to blog about this topic as well, and I respect you for it. You two should get to know each other.

  13. Great interview, Dianne. Sandra’s story is so inspiring but it’s also grounded in reality, too. It’s why she was such an obvious choice to speak at Eat Drink Blog and I was so glad when she agreed to share her story with us. Sandra is so down to earth and humble, too, and she really believes in giving back.

  14. This is very Inspiring and realistic.Cookbook is very helpful from the Sandra’s blog to the singles

  15. This interview hit so close to home with me that I cried. I have empathy for Ms Sandra as I have walked in her shoes for the last five and a half years so I know exactly what it feels like. I started my little blog as a way to keep my sanity or not.. I bake to keep my mind occupied when my body cannot. It is truly inspirational. I cook every recipe that I post on my blog. I didn’t find out until lately that some people don’t do that. I was shocked to say the least. I don’t have a lot of fancy ingredients but I bake from my heart and I season everything with a lot of love. Since June of 2008 I have been on disability and when you live on less than eleven hundred dollars a month you learn to be very cautious with what money you do have. I always have flour and sugar with spices and can make almost anything out of them. I was a cardiac nurse making very good money most of my life and to lose everything was a hard lesson to swallow. In the course of the worse days of my life I went through a divorce too. Now I live alone with my dog Gordo and have started my little blog. I know that good days are ahead of me no matter what. I truly believe that. My saving grace is that I don’t have children to feed. Thank you so much for this inspiring and thoughtful interview. It has mean’t the world to me.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Bea. I suspect a lot of my readers couldn’t relate to Sandra’s story, but she strikes me as courageous.

      Best of luck to you. I hope your blog gives you joy — and maybe some distraction.

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