With so many demands on our time, cooking can be another thing on a long list of to dos, and it’s particularly difficult when you have the added pressure of feeding a family on a budget. And when money is tight, eating well poses yet another challenge.
There is the perception that eating nutritious food is expensive. Sure it can be, but it doesn’t have to be. With a few clever tricks, a bit of planning and making plant-based ingredients the staples, you can still enjoy delicious healthy food even when money is tight.
But how? Here are few tips that will help you to create home-cooked, health focused food cost-effectively without sucking up all your free time (as if you have any of that at the moment!).
1. Plan your meals, and use up what you have in before buying more. Often we frequent the shops when we’re hungry or without having done a proper fridge/pantry audit. Before you shop, check your cupboards and fridge and aim to use what’s here before buying more. You can get the kids involved in helping you do to this (e.g. checking and making lists of what is in the cupboard and contributing ideas of what to make based on what you have). You may not need that extra bag of rice because you already have one in the cupboard or maybe you don’t have rice, but have another grain that you could substitute. Use it up, because over buying and wasting is a way to blow the budget.
2. Cook once and eat twice. You may be into batch cooking. It doesn’t work well in my house because my food snobs refuse anything that looks like the same meal more than twice and we don’t have a massive freezer (and my freezer is full of other bits–more on that later). But when you are making one meal, think about making extra to make another meal. It doesn’t have to be multiple batches of the same dish. Whether you’re roasting up a big batch of veg or making sauce, think about making extra and how you might use the leftovers to make other meals. These little extras can help to make quick meals, but also can come in handy when money is tight and the cupboards are bare.
3. Buy versatile ingredients. I’ll always remember one of my very first budget-conscious cookery classes where I showed students that a jar of passata could be the base for a soup, stew, chilli, bolognese, marinara and spread it on a pizza base. AND that if you didn’t have passata you could just blend up tinned tomatoes. It was a game changer for them and really highlighted the benefits of stocking your cupboard with versatile staples. But why is this economical? Well instead buying four different jars of sauce you buy two (more cheaply) and make your own. Other versatile ingredients include things like nuts, as they can be used as snacks, a salad topping, added to breadcrumbs, or made into milk or nut butter. All it takes to turn that single ingredient into lots of different meals is a bit of time (not much) and a bit of know how.
4. Buy your staples (like pulses, grains, nuts & seeds) in bulk. Dry and tinned goods are almost always cheaper when you buy in bulk, whether it’s grains or flour. You will need a bit of room and containers for storage and if you have or can make the space, it is important to consider buying larger quantities. Whether you’re buying online, from bulk or zero waste shops think about stocking up on basics to see you through at least a few weeks. And if you’re worried about storage, don’t. Recycled jars make great inexpensive storage containers. If you need ideas about where to start with stocking a healthy pantry with staples have a read of this.
5. Rely on your freezer (because it can save you when the cupboards are bare). The freezer is a great way to keep fresh food last longer. A massive bag of spinach and you won’t get through it all before it goes squishy? No problem! Blanche it, drain it and store in the freezer in little bundles perfect for greening up a soup or sauce. Cooked more chilli that you can eat or are you planning to get ahead by cooking up a big batch of chickpeas–all of these can be portioned and stored for when you need them. Other freezer saviours, all economical include, herb stalks (great for pesto), scraggy stale ends of bread (perfect for breadcrumbs), vegetable scraps (peels, skins–the lot) can be stored in a bag for making stock. And no freezer should be without a bag of frozen peas, frozen berries or some other frozen veg–these are great for when your fresh veg have run out. Remember to always freeze in airtight containers, label and date what you’re freezing to maximise the shelf-life.
6. Use perishable items first and avoid letting food go off. Food waste is a big issue world over. An average family of four wastes about £50-60 per month of food. If you’re on a budget (or even if you’re not), that’s a lot of money that could be put to good use elsewhere. While it’s OK to buy your dry goods in bulk quantities, this isn’t the case with your fresh stuff. Buy as and when you need, weekly or bi-weekly if you can manage it. But if you find yourself in a situation with an overload of fresh stuff, don’t let it go to waste. Prep it for your freezer or ferment it. These are great ways to make help the food keep for longer and in the case of fermented food, will make it more nutritious. If fermenting is something you’ve thought about learning, get in touch because I can help. Think about roasting or blanching freezer fresh veg to avoid letting it go off. Or even consider sharing it out or swapping for other ingredients with your friends or neighbours, but whatever you do, don’t waste it–that’s money in the bin!
7. Make eating leftovers a part of your weekly routine. In my family Saturday lunchtimes are when we roll out the leftovers. It becomes one of those meals where you have little bites of everything left from the week and I’ll often add some extra veg or stretch or revamp one of the dishes to make it go further and feel less repetitive. The act of clearing out the leftovers not only makes a meal, but also frees up space so it’s easier to see what’s left in the fridge to use up.
8. Buy your fruit/veg/meat/fish when it’s in season as it will be cheaper (and taste better). Unless it’s something uber-fancy, most veg are at their cheapest when they are in season. Buying seasonally is also important nutritionally, but in the context of shopping on a budget it is key.
9. Eat more plant-based sources of protein. Pulses, legumes, nuts and seeds are infinitely cheaper than meat, particularly high quality meat. Making these ingredients more of a feature in your meals will save you money. They are also versatile, store well, easy to cook and freeze well
10. Come up with a food budget and stick to it! This may sound like a no-brainer. But it’s hard to stick to a budget if you’ve not set one. Having a clear figure in mind, on paper or in a specific account will mean you are more conscious of what you are spending and what is left. To get the best deals, you may have to shop multiple places and don’t assume places like Waitrose are more expensive than Sainsbury’s. Many of the own brands or basics at places like Waitrose are the same price if not cheaper. Shops like Lidl and Aldi are also great for affordable staples (as well as for buying random camping equipment or hot tubs, which you should definitely swerve).
We all have different financial circumstances and for some putting any food on the table is difficult, but whatever your circumstances buy the best fresh food you can afford and make the most of what you buy. I hope these tips will help everyone think differently about shopping, cooking and eating healthily.