Frugal Food Challenge: The Utopian Meal Plan

The plan

The main goal of the Frugal Food Challenge was to recreate an authentic Utopian Meal Plan (UMP) experience, with a group of people unfamiliar with the project’s principles and constraints (as presented in the synopsis), and to make them become aware of its possibilities.

Being conscious of the need for flexibility regarding participation rates, the team pre-empted various possible scenarios to adjust arrangements accordingly, in order to preserve the main intentions of the project, and to not compromise on the fun element of the exercise.

A scenario from the original plan, for example, was to have participants from the first day share their experience, and support the new participants from the second day, in their endeavours, thereby creating more opportunities for conviviality.

We also expected participants to bring their own tableware, as mentioned in our pitch, due to the limited resources at our disposal, and the overall frugal nature of the challenge. In doing so, we could avoid using disposable plastic, and alongside not exceed our budget by buying new. However, we also made contingency plans for worst case scenarios, and brought kitchenware from our homes as cover, which ultimately proved to be useful.

Setting 1 euro per person for a complete meal was taken as a team decision to create a reasonable balance between the challenge and the feasibility factors of the task. The final budget for each session was adjusted upon the number of participants enrolled in each session.

The UMP team was responsible for presenting a brief, providing general guidance, and clarifying doubts that would emerge during the process. Direct help could be offered if and when required, but the team focused more on close observation and documentation of the process.

A second gas stove and extra pans were provided, in order to assure participants that the experience would not become overwhelming, and it would be possible to prepare a meal for a maximum of 20 people with the resources available.

To optimize the time available for each session, besides the initial presentation of the Citizen Labs in the morning of the 16th, which gave key insights on the brief, the team also prepared a written brief (in English and Portuguese) that participants could consult on the go.

Finally, due to the tight schedule, UMP team chose to set the table in paper sheets, and distributed markers and colour pencils to collect instant feedback on the same surface, thereby leaving its own distinct story.

The experience

SESSION 1 (October 16th, The World Day of Food)

Participants: Sophie, Teresa, Sara, Eduardo, Madalena, Ioli, Maritz, Marie and Kika.

Guests: Rui Baptista, Pedro Carvalho de Almeida and Guida Casella.

Total diners: 17

Briefing & planning (11h15-12h00) > Shopping (12h00-12h30) > Preparing & cooking (12h30-13h45) > Eating (14h00-14h45) > Cleaning (14h45-15h00)

The group of participants gathered almost immediately in the garden pavilion upon completion of the Citizen Labs presentation session. Participation rate was near optimum (9 of 10).

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The first session began with self introductions. The workshop guidelines were then explained and the printed brief was distributed. Additionally, coordinating team could also be approached for any queries that might arise during the course of the workshop.

In the planning phase, to avoid initial pressure on participants, the coordinating team distanced itself slightly from the discussions. The icebreaking moment was quick and easy. “Vegetarian or non-vegetarian?” At that point, we were unaware of our guests (we had asked Joana Lima, one of the festival organisers, to help us on this issue) and their preferences, thus in order to play it safe, we decided to advise a vegetarian menu. “What about local shops and organic produce?” We reiterated that albeit seemingly endless creative possibilities, it was crucial to understand time and budget constraints at hand, and build towards incremental improvement instead of radical change, to maintain the experience feasibility.

The participants duly chalked up a plan and went for shopping with a 15 euro budget. Many of them weren’t familiar with the surroundings so we had to suggest different possibilities.

Overall, 9 participants, 2 photographers and 2 coordinators formed the shopping delegation. On the way, curiosities pertaining to details and achievements of the project became a topic of conversation. “Can I go get rocket salad from my home garden? It’s very close from here…” We advised that it would be better to arrange within the possibilities that their budget allow.

Based on our experience we discouraged the group from the first vegetables shop they encountered, as the fresh produce was usually pricier than average, and so we headed off to the next one, where we imagined we would get a better deal on local and organic products. A tiny grocery was then invaded by a group of nine people (participants, photographer, cameramen and UMP member). The lady in charge was initially nervous with such unusual avalanche, but eventually warmed up to the situation and even shared her email with Luis the photographer for a copy of the pictures taken.


A group of four (three participants and one UMP member) went a bit further down the road, to a supermarket with a list of items to complete the shopping plan. The group was deemed to respect two major conditions, firstly a € 5 budget, and secondly, a preference for products of Portuguese origin, which they carried out by carefully examining the labels. After a quick search they decided to call one of their team members from the grocery shop to discuss alternative dessert options or any other means to gain a bit more budget, as the current limit was proving to be too rigid. However, the other group had already spent all of their allocated part of the budget and thus could not offer any assistance on that front. Coincidently, the UMP team was informed that an extra guest had just been added and thus, the supermarket group gained € 1 on their budget with which they were able to accomplish their task. During this shopping expedition, mobile phones were used as counters and calculators to track purchases. Upon completion, both teams headed to the space for preparation (PINC garden pavilion) and commenced on the next stage. They quickly organized themselves into smaller groups and divided tasks, space and resources. Some were responsible for the actual cooking, while others handled preparatory and supportive tasks.


What about drinks? Do we have something to drink?” It was implied that regular tap water was always available, but since the supermarket crew made savings worth 60 cents, one of the participants brought limes to prepare limeade.

During the entire exercise, the UMP team engaged in observation, taking notes and pictures, because participants were not only experienced in cooking techniques but also exhibited a well-articulated group dynamic.

The menu was written and presented on the wall.

Starter: Apple, tomato salad and red cabbage salad with a Finnish twist

Main course: Chickpea stew, pan fried vegetables and steamed rice

Desert: Orange salad with mint and choco-chips

Drink: Limeade

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As a final task, the participants were asked to provide their feedback about this experience on the paper cloth laid on the table. There was much conviviality to be observed as 17 diners shared experiences, backgrounds and suggestions.

It was asked of the participants if they would like to participate in the second session. Most of them said they couldn’t as they were willing to experience other labs as well.

SESSION 2 (October 17th)

Participants: Cristiana, Ana and João.

Guests: Karen Gustafson, Vanessa Rodrigues, António João Gomes and Musa Abubakar Kana.

Total diners: 11

Briefing & planning (10h50-11h20) > Shopping (11h20-12h00) > Preparing & cooking (12h00-13h00) > Eating (13h15-14h15) > Cleaning (14h15-14h35)

The UMP team decided that Day 2 had to be different from the first day, and thus the challenge itself was escalated with a bigger budget constraint: 1 euro per person, however excluding a price for guests. On the second day the participation was far lesser since some had already experienced it, and due to the absence of morning presentations on day 2, there was no scope for gaining more participants. Yet all three applicants had cooking experience and two of them had previously cooked for large groups.

The flow of the experience was similar for the two days and thus only distinctive details of Day 2 will be mentioned.


A non-vegetarian meal was prepared for a total of 11 diners by the three participants. Lemonade was included in the menu as an accompanying drink during the planning stage itself. As the group was small, shopping happened together, and they visited the butcher, greengrocers and the supermarket in a different part of the city.

With an even tighter budget, the Day 2 team was forced to be more price conscious and judicious about quantities and diversity of flavours, instead of the origin of ingredients.

The participants declined our help as they were keen to manage their own time. When all the guests arrived, lunch was already set to be served and even Luís Barbosa (photographer) got a taste of our meal, as a courtesy from one of the participants.

Starter: Red cabbage and apple salad with vinaigrette and herbs

Main course: Creamy chicken rice with carrots and red beans

Desert: Tangerines with passion fruit yogurt, cinnamon and lavender

Drink: Spiced lemonade

In conclusion

An essential part of our creative challenge is adaptability. An expected participant, a doctor of public health, could not arrive in time for the challenge due to work commitments, and was thus accommodated as a guest. His presence proved to be genuinely valuable, none the less, as apart from sharing his wisdom with everyone at the table; he made a pertinent observation on the stance UMP is taking with regard to health, not just as a biological issue but also as a social imperative.

Participation rates in first and second days were different but worked in an inversely positive way. This reaffirmed a conclusion that the UMP team already has realized, that the fundamental principles of UMP could be held constant and different results could be achieved from just changing the variable inputs.

In conclusion, Team UMP hopes that this account of the Frugal Food experience at FuturePlaces finds resonance among those who wish to seek challenge and newness in the most mundane and ubiquitous of tasks. For us, the experience reinforced our belief in the faculties of critical thought and swift action as forces of self and collective empowerment. Together, we did!

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1 Euro
1 Stove
2 Lunches
2 Pans
3 Hours
3 Course Meals
5 Guests
5 Coordinators
10 Participants
1 Hell of a Frugal Food Experience!

The Utopian Meal Plan is an experimental community cooking project which started as a knee-jerk reaction to an actual need to rethink food due to budget constraints, felt by the UMP group of PhD Design. The main aim of the project is to eat a well balanced meal within a strict budget, through pooling in of resources and efforts. The initial budget per person per meal was Euro 1.5, which we have managed to reduce to Euro 1, applicable only to the community members, and on principle we invite at least one guest a day for whom the meal is complimentary. The meal plan has been designed to include all basic nutritional elements and only fresh raw materials are used, sourced mainly from local stores. Apart from being a crash course in diverse gastronomy, the project intention is to promote values of community collaboration, sharing and interaction, and the fundamental idea that healthy food is not necessarily expensive.

At the end of the lab, participants will have
a taste of utopia.

Target participants
People who eat.

Participants should bring
Non-disposable plates (preferably orphan plates) and cutlery.

Coordination Cecília Carvalho Abhishek Chatterjee Rita Maldonado Branco Olga Glumac Celeste Pedro
Schedule16-17 Oct 2014
Location UPTEC PINC (garden pavilion)
Instructors Cecília Carvalho has a background in Sculpture and a master in Industrial Design. She is currently a PhD student in design at Universidade do Porto, where she is continuing her research focusing on user participation in design process and its social impact. She has been participating in projects addressing social inclusion, since 2006. Abhishek Chatterjee is a PhD Design student at Universidade do Porto with a background in product and accessory design. He previously served as a consultant editor for Annual Report at the Ministry of Culture, and undertook design related projects for the National Human Rights Commission, and the Ministry of Textiles, Government of India. His childhood dream was to become a croc wrangler, but alas. Rita Maldonado Branco has a 4-year degree in Design from Universidade de Aveiro (2008) and graduated in 2012 from MA Communication Design, Central Saint Martins, London. Rita is currently doing a PhD in Design, at University of Porto, Portugal, researching how communication design can contribute to facilitate the interaction between people with dementia and their relatives. Olga Glumac is a designer, youth worker and a researcher. She finished her MA in Graphic Engineering and Design at the Faculty of Technical Sciences in Serbia. Currently she is doing her PhD on Design at the University of Porto and she perceives her research proposal as an outcome and follow-up of her engagement in Portuguese more susceptible communities. Celeste Pedro is a communication designer with ten years experience working in small design studios as project manager. At the present moment she is developing research on History of Typography as a second year student of the PhD Program in Design at Universidade do Porto. She is a languages and scripts enthusiast.