When you’re a six-hour round trip from your nearest supermarket, a staggering degree of planning is required.
That’s what Sally Millar and her husband Ed learnt the hard way after moving to an extremely remote community in Western Australia – with a population of fewer than 30 people.
The tiny, isolated place the couple calls home is so secluded the closest town is Kununurra, 300km away near the Northern Territory border.
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And it means that grocery shopping – once taken for granted when they lived in bustling Sydney – is now a once-a-month precision mission, involving meticulous list making, inventory taking and buckets of patience.
Outback life has also taught Sally a thing or two about the benefits of meal prepping, making food go further and also the best ways to preserve fresh food.
Instead of popping down the road for food and snacks whenever the urge takes them, the couple now make a monthly run to their nearest Coles – an organisational odyssey that culminates in six hours in the car.
Ahead of their trek, the 31-year-old goes through everything in her kitchen so she can write up a shopping list.
“As someone who grew up in a city within a five-minute radius of any supermarket, the biggest challenge for me was getting used to not living in close proximity to a grocery store,” Sally tells 7Life.
“Living in the outback and not being able to shop frequently was a big adjustment.”
Sally says that, after moving to the remote community, she used to plan out a month’s worth of meals in advance.
But by the time she reached the supermarket for her huge grocery shop, she could never find everything on her list.
“When we first moved here, I would write an in-depth list where I’d come up with elaborate meal plans,” she says.
“And very quickly, after a couple of shops, I realised it was not really a sustainable way to do things.
“I used to get really frustrated because I was spending all this time coming up with these lists and then I get to the store and realise, we literally cannot make any of the things on the list because they don’t have this or that.
“There’s nothing more annoying than spending time and effort to come up with a monthly meal plan only to get to the grocery store and find nothing on the shelves.”
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She now makes short lists with “general categories of what we need”.
“My list now just says: ‘Pasta, rice, any oat milk, fruit, vegetables’,” she says.
“It’s not super comprehensive but it’s mostly just so I don’t forget anything that’s really important, like toilet paper.”
Before hitting the road, Sally goes through her kitchen to note any leftover ingredients.
“I always check what we have in the pantry, fridge and freezer so I have a rough idea of what we already have so I’m not buying things unnecessarily,” she says.
“Once I know what we’ve got in our pantry, I grab a piece of paper and a pen and literally just write a list.”
Next, she cleans out the fridge.
“I grab any of the vegetables we haven’t used yet and put them in a separate container – that way, I know that this is the old veg and we should cook with this first,” she says.
“I like to clean out the fridge so that when we come home with all our groceries, I just put the new groceries in.”
Despite being super organised, Sally admits they still forget things from their shopping list.
“We always forget,” she says, laughing. “(But) you quickly realise you can live without it.
“Ed and I work at a school and if anybody needs something small from the supermarket, there’s always someone going to the shops so we just get them to grab it for us.
“But most of the time, we just wait it out.”
The couple decided to do their grocery shop only once every four weeks because it takes them “pretty much a whole day getting there and back”.
“It’s a six-hour round trip to Coles so grocery shopping is an all day event for us. Honestly I just don’t feel like doing grocery shopping every week so we only do it once a month,” she says.
Sally and Ed spend about $600 to $800 on their monthly grocery haul, which works out to be between $150 and $200 a week.
“I don’t think it’s that expensive,” Sally says.
“As for budgeting, we don’t necessarily save up to go grocery shopping but we do have money that goes into a bills account every time we get paid, and that’s the account we use.
“When we’re at the supermarket, I always try to keep track of what’s going into the trolley so when we get to the checkout, it’s not $2000.
“We buy the cheapest sauce rather than the fancy sauce. We try not to go too crazy and buy random things, we always buy what’s on special and what’s in season.”
When they get to Coles, the couple splits up to do the massive grocery shop – which usually takes about one hour.
“We have a list divided – and we conquer. We end up with two trolleys every time so I do get nervous about the cost but we always stick to the budget,” Sally says.
Being vegetarian means they have been able to keep costs down.
“I think if we had to budget for meat we would be spending way more,” she explains.
High food prices
The closest convenience store to their home is about a 90-minute round trip – but Sally says they avoid shopping there due to the “outrageous” high prices.
“One of the most frustrating things about living in the Australian outback is that food is so expensive,” she says.
“The price of cheese seems to have gone up an outrageous amount, which is sad because I love cheese.”
Whenever the couple pop into Coles, they always stock up on snacks when they’re on sale.
“One of the things that’s really expensive out here is sweet treats,” she says, explaining the roadhouse near their property comprises a tiny convenience store attached to a petrol station.
“If we really need to, we can get snacks like chocolates – but it’s 10 times the price of buying it from the supermarket,” she says.
“Last year, we got into the habit of wanting a mid-week treat and going to the little store and buying a $12 chocolate bar and an $18 tub of ice cream.
“So this year, we’ve been way better at buying more snacks at Coles and then hiding it from ourselves so we don’t eat it all in one go.”
Things I bulk in buy
Because Sally shops only once a month, there are five essentials she always buys in bulk.
Her cart includes a 1kg tub of butter, 3.8L olive oil, 2L sunflower oil, 5kg rice and 4kg lentils.
“There’s probably three to four months worth of oil and it’s just so much cheaper to buy in bulk,” she says.
“When we first bought the 5kg rice, I didn’t think we were going to go through it that quickly but half the bag is gone already.”
One of the best things she purchased for her kitchen was a rice cooker.
“I love eating rice but I am not very good at cooking it,” she says.
“Every single time I make rice in the cooker, it’s perfection. Stop what you’re doing and go buy a rice cooker, it will change your life.”
Other things she buys in bulk include hotpot seasoning, hand pulled noodles, stain removing cleaning products, and a 150 metre aluminium foil.
Food storage secrets
Since moving to the middle of nowhere, Sally says she has “learnt some pretty creative ways” to keep fruit and vegetables fresh for as long as possible.
“Groceries are expensive and wasting food is wasting money,” she says.
To keep celery and carrots up to a month, she cuts them into sticks and stores them in mason jars filled with water.
“Did you know you can store vegetables like carrots and celery in water? They will not go soggy and will stay crunchy for the entire month,” she says.
“Pop your celery up so it fits inside your jars without overstuffing them. Don’t fill the jars up too much because … when it comes to actually eating your celery, you can’t get it out, it’s stuck.”
Once she fills the jars with carrot and celery sticks, she fills them with water.
“I’m telling you this is going to keep your vegetables fresh for the entire month,” she said.
She stores fresh vegetables – including capsicum, squash, lettuce and cucumbers – in the crisper after removing its packaging.
“Ditch the plastic. All it’s going to do to your fruits and vegetables is make it decompose faster,” Sally says.
Interestingly, Sally always freezes avocados, saying they will last for months.
“Take a couple of avocados and put them in the freezer,” she suggests.
“Whilst they might defrost just a little bit squishy, they are perfect for guacamole.”
Other items she freezes include fresh herbs such as coriander and spinach.
And she makes smoothie packs filled with all her favourite fruits and veggies – including cucumber, spinach, mangoes, bananas, carrot, oranges, avocado and pineapples.
“I like to make a variety of smoothie packs, portion out fresh spinach and freeze any fresh herbs,” she says.
“Freezing fruits and vegetables is a great way to keep them fresh for the month.
“My favourite way to do this is to pre-portion out little smoothie packs that I like to have in the afternoon after I’m done with work, and I just need a little frozen treat.”
The day after the huge shop, Sally dedicates four hours to prepare a month’s worth of meals.
“I go into the kitchen with a plan and get it done as fast as possible,” she says.
“So there will be something in the stove and oven while I’m chopping. I have everything going at once, otherwise you spend all day cooking and no one wants to do that – it’s boring.
“I enjoy cooking but I don’t want to spend my entire day cooking.”
Their meals typically include lasagna, pasta, soups, curries and basically “anything that freezes well”.
“We use lentils in any recipe that requires beef mince or any kind of mince. It has a very similar texture to mince and you can’t taste the difference,” she says.
“Once you add sauce and all your other ingredients to lentils, it’s great. Lentils is such a great way to stretch our meals too. Plus it’s so much cheaper than meat.”
Working in the outback
Long before their major move, Sally was working as a children’s entertainer at theatre shows across Sydney when she unexpectedly lost her job amid the coronavirus pandemic.
She was prompted to go travelling around Australia with Ed – with plans to only enjoy a lap around the country for the first half of 2021.
But just months into their road trip, the duo had their hearts set on living and working in an extremely remote community in WA.
The couple are teachers at the school, a five-minute walk from their home.
“There’s maybe 15 houses and, like, 30 people who live here,” she says, laughing.
“It’s a tiny community plopped in the bush. The school is really the only thing in the community. There’s a school, a creek with beautiful walks, and that’s it.
“We just thought it would be fun to live somewhere completely out of our comfort zone just for a couple of years.”
The pair has been living in the community for a year-and-a-half now.
“It’s a completely different lifestyle to what we had – it’s a laidback kind of life here,” Sally says.
“There’s no traffic and we’re not constantly having to stop and start at roundabouts.
“It takes me two minutes to walk to work, it’s very chilled.
“We go camping on weekends, we walk down to the river… WA has a much nicer lifestyle and we love it here.
“We’re not coming back to Sydney any time soon.”
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