Friday, 5 April 2013

Everyday budgeting without pain Part 2. Good food without big bills

One of the areas where I’ve noticed we were able to make the most difference in our spending, without adversely affecting our pleasure, health or enjoyment, was in the area of grocery bills and spending on food overall.   We are definitely big foodies – before we had the Biscuit we would eat out in amazing restaurants at least once a week, and spending on food was an enormous outgoing each month (in the days when we could easily afford it).  On a Saturday morning we would regularly be found at Borough Market perusing the finest produce (and buying it). 
We are true omnivores – no food ‘rules’ here, although we do try to focus as much on veggies as possible in our cooking at home, making the most of our weekly veg box.  Our diets are varied – while there are some fall back recipes that we use relatively often, we try and minimise this, and mix it up as much as possible.  I’ll do a separate post sometime on the specifics of our cooking and menu planning, but wanted to give you a bit of background as to the sort of lifestyle we lead to give these ideas some context.
 These are the tips that work for me, and that have helped me reduce our monthly grocery bills from £600 per month to £400 (still working on getting them lower – but there are some things where I won’t compromise).    We also reduced food waste at the same time – and I’m sure our meals have become tastier too!
1.        Menu plan, menu plan, menu plan.  Keep a note of what is in your freezer and store cupboard, and in particular what needs using.  If you get a veg box, look at the weeks planned delivery on their website, and build your meals around this.
2.       Have at least 1 or 2 vegetarian meals a week. 
3.       Make a shopping list before going anywhere near a food shop or supermarket. 
4.       Don’t shop when hungry – bad for the waistline and the wallet when that chocolate cake just happens to fall into the trolleyJ
5.       Don’t use coupons.  Or buy anything on bogoff or 3 for 2.  Unless it was ALREADY ON THE LIST.  If you weren’t going to buy it at full price – then it isn’t saving you money at a discount.  Potential exceptions may be storecupboard ingredients  that you know you will use, such as pasta. 
6.       The freezer is your friend.  If you see a special offer on meat for example, freeze it for later use.  All sorts of things can be frozen to extend their lifespan – milk and cream for example.  And always freeze bread – slice before freezing if it isn’t already sliced, and then you can just pull out a slice or two when you need it.  Great if, like me, you don’t eat much bread.
7.       Build a list of creative recipes that you enjoy, that use cheaper ingredients.  For example we love Mejadra, a middle-eastern mix of lentils, rice and onions.  Recipe here:  And I’m determined to get the hang of making Masala Dosas – recipe here:  An amazing mix of lentils and rice, made into a pancake and stuffed with potatoes. Cheap, filling, tasty and different.
8.       Choose better, but use less.  A couple of squares of good quality dark chocolate rather than cheap and unsatisfying chocolate bars.  Or use good ingredients but stretch them further – such as using steak in a thai salad, rather than as an individual steak – can make it go more than twice as far.
9.       Choose cheaper cuts of meat such as stewing steak or chicken thighs, or veg in season, rather than fillet steak, chicken breasts and imported blueberries and asparagus.  It may take a little more effort in cooking (although see slow cooking, below), but the flavour will be worth it. 
10.   Slow cookers are great if you’re pressed for time.  A great way of tenderising cheaper cuts of meat, it is also a fantastic way of getting a home cooked meal on the table even if you’re out at work until 8pm.  Loads of recipes out there on the internet – have a look around for things that appeal to you.  The jury is out on whether it actually saves money on the cooking process itself, given that it is on for so long, but it’s definitely a time and effort saver, and also saves money on ingredients (and helps you avoid those pesky ready meals!), so overall it definitely works.
11.   Don’t buy ready meals, and avoid takeaways.  Only pay for a meal if you are in a restaurant.  If you’re at home, make it yourself.  For those nights when you really can’t face cooking, make sure there is always something tasty and homemade tucked away in the freezer.  I usually have a couple of portions of meatballs in tomato sauce, or some bolognaise sauce, or some chilli I can serve with a couple of tortillas.  No more effort than reheating a ready meal or going to the takeaway, and much tastier, cheaper and better for you.
12.   Don’t always go for brand names.  Try own brand products in the supermarket – often you can’t tell the difference.  Particularly for things that are going to be used in something else, such as tinned tomatoes.  Do check prices though, as sometimes special offers on brands will make them cheaper
13.   Store food in the right places.  Do not under any circumstances refrigerate bread – it will go stale far more quickly.  Freeze it if you won’t eat it straightaway, otherwise store in a plastic bag to avoid it drying out.  Store citrus fruit in the fridge, not on the kitchen surface.  Conversely, don’t refrigerate tomatoes or strawberries –they turn wooly.  See here for more:
14.   Learn what ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates mean.  Best before means just that – it isn’t going to hurt you if it’s gone out of date, but it may not be absolutely at its best.  Use by indicates  the latest  date when things should be consumed – but for things such as fruit and veg, it can usually be ignored – they are fine to eat until they really look as if they’ve gone off (see also below).  Milk is also fine to ignore the date on to a certain degree – as long as it doesn’t smell or taste ‘off’.  Same with butter.  Be a bit more careful with yogurt though – apparently it can breed hidden bugs among all those friendly bacteria, as can hummus.
15.   Don’t throw food away unnecessarily – slightly floppy broccoli or chard or leeks can still be made into a great soup or quiche, bendy carrots are fine for making stock or a base for stews.  Slightly wrinkly apples will cook down fine and can be used in a pie or crumble, or just as apple sauce.  Stale bread can be made into breadcrumbs which can then be frozen for use at a later date.
16.   Take your lunch with you to work rather than buying an expensive sandwich.  Tastier and healthier as well as cheaper.  I find the easiest way to do this is to take leftovers.  Make a bit more for dinner the night before, and take what is left with you.  No prep needed.
17.   Entertain at home rather than always going out for dinner with friends.  This is actually much easier anyway now we have a little one.  To really keep costs down, ask your friends to bring the wine.

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