Sunday, 22 February 2009

Cheap food

I was talking to a colleague on Friday, who mentioned her husband complaining about their weekly grocery bill and all the food that they wasted. A couple of weeks ago, when she came back from food shopping, he fetched the bin saying “Shall I chuck it out now or do you actually plan to cook with this?”! She spends about £150 a week at the supermarket for just the two of them. When I told her we spend £160 a month on food, she was stunned!

Not for the first time, it struck me that the tools I use to manage my grocery budget other people can’t do, won’t do or don’t know how to do. It's as if I know some arcane lore that nobody around me knows. So here it is.

(If any of what I'm about to say sounds familiar, it's because in 2003, I wrote a post on the Motley Fool explaining how I managed to feed 2 adults on a grocery budget of (what was then) £130 a month. Things haven't changed that much since then.)

Firstly, an explanation or two: England is a country with a very high cost of living and we live in one of the most Living Above Your Means cities in the world. Also, remember it is £160 not $160! According to, at today's exchange rate my £160 is $231 US. We split it up as follows:-

£ 40.00 / $57 - Meat fund (we visit a Kosher butcher every 3 to 4 months)
£ 10.00 / $14 - Bulk fund (accumulates for bulk buying special offers and visits to Wing Yip)
£ 10.00 / $14 - Christmas fund (we also use this for Easter eggs)
£100.00 /$144 - General groceries

My grocery bill includes cleaning products, toiletries bought at the supermarket (but not expensive hair stuff bought at the drug store), wine, DH's shaving products, etc - basically everything we buy at the supermarket and the vegetables we buy at a local farm shop.

I've been a careful shopper since the early 1990s, when a very tight February taught me the value of a well stocked pantry, dried goods and fresh produce (I had £25 to feed 2 adults for the entire month). So here are my tips and techniques:-

  1. Buy your vegetables loose from the market or from a local farm shop instead of from the supermarket. As well as being (probably) cheaper, they'll be fresher and last longer, because they haven't been stuck in the supermarket's cold storage system for months. And they won't have spent days deteriorating in sweaty plastic bags before you get them home.
  2. Pad out meat meals with vegetables and/or lentils. 8oz/250g of minced/ground beef (hamburger) can easily feed 4 people if you add the diced pulp of an eggplant/aubergine or several zucchini/courgettes (zap in the microwave first to soften), plus a grated carrot or two and some sliced mushrooms. To stretch it to feed 6, add half a cup of split red lentils to your sauce (i.e. to a bolognese sauce for pasta). Always enhance the "meatiness" by crumbling in a stock cube, before you add the sauce ingredients. I routinely use only 4oz of mince or 8oz of stewing steak per person per meal and use veggies/dried beans to make up the rest of the meal.
  3. Cook enough for tonight and for lunch tomorrow for both of you, then dish up both at the same time. Most recipes feed 4 or 6 anyway. The trick is to only eat one portion each instead of doubling up because it's there (and tempting!). The only way I've found to stop myself nibbling is to create "set asides" for lunch tomorrow.
  4. Use grains creatively. We don't just have rice or pasta with a sauce. We have cous-cous (technically a pasta), polenta (cornmeal) and cracked wheat (tabouli anyone?), too. These vary the taste of one of my main sources of "meal padding".
  5. Think Indian or Chinese or Mexican! Cure dietary boredom by varying the flavours of the foods that you eat. Mince-with-a-sauce may become bolognese, keema curry, chilli con carne, moussaka, corn pone, or piccadillo (sorry about the spelling). Use leftovers to fill samosas or pasties or cottage pie.
  6. Consider vegetable based dishes. During my very tight February, I lugged home a 15lb bag of potatoes and onions. They became onion quiche, potato-cheese-garlic-&-onion flan, home made gnocchi, and baked potato with sauce or cheese on top. I also turned the half-dead contents of the vegie draw into a curry. Another idea: Mexican Pilchard Pudding (add a can of pilchards in tomato sauce to 1lb of mashed potato; stir in a well beaten egg and 2 teaspoons of baking powder; tip into a greased dish and bake for 3/4 hour).
  7. Canned fish is your friend. Tuna is cheap and versatile. Tins of pilchards or mackeral in tomato sauce can be curried or, with a bit of imagination, turned into fish pie or fish stews. Salmon can be mixed with cheese sauce and left over rice to become a salmon casserole. Or dress it up as salmon mouse.
  8. Use pulses and nuts. Try a lentil loaf or a carrot & hazelnut loaf, instead of meatloaf for dinner. Curry mung beans. Make your own refried beans and serve them in homemade, soft, wheat tortillas. Blend a can of tomatoes with 2 cans of butter beans then heat for a filling, "instant" soup. Add kidney beans to stews. [To cook from dried: Soak beans overnight, rinse and drain. Turn into a clean bread bag and freeze for 6-8 hours minimum (breaks down the cell walls). Defrost, cover with fresh water and bring to the boil. Boil for 10 minutes to kill of toxins then simmer until soft (or pressure cook for 20 minutes at 15lb pressure). The freezing cuts the cooking time. I do 1lb of dried beans at a time and freeze the excess.]
  9. The cheapest way to buy chicken from a kosher butcher is to get boiling chicken breasts (unfilleted and with the skin on). I skin the breasts myself and save the skins/fatty layer to rend down into cooking schmaltz (when I have a big bag full, I rend it slowly in the oven, strain and store in the fridge). Then I slice the meat off the bones and save the bones for stock. The meat is usually cubed for cooking.
  10. Post-stock-stew. After I've made chicken/poultry stock and drained it, I go through the bones and strip off any remaining meat. This will be cooked up later in something that doesn't need a big chicken flavour (a vindaloo, perhaps).
  11. Don't just cook for today. Double up quantities so that you have a readily available second meal for those nights when you'll be too busy to cook. Make up batches of base and store them in the freezer.
  12. Plan your leftovers. I'll roast the largest chicken or turkey I can fit in the oven precisely because they'll result in leftovers. Then I'll use the leftovers in stir-fries, soups, stews, or whatever. Check out this series of posts on uses for leftover turkey.
  13. Your freezer is your friend. Use it to store bulk bought bread, cheese and meat, as well as freezing the items mentioned above.
  14. When you're shopping consider whether a convenience food is really that convenient. Can you make it more cheaply from scratch (soups for example)? Will it save you that much time? Most expensive jars of "cook in" sauce can be replaced with a cheap tin of tomatoes and some herbs or spices.
  15. Shop carefully. Make a shopping list. Know what you already have. Plan your meals in advance to make the best use of what is available. If a recipe calls for half a cauliflower, can you do something else with the rest or will it end up in the bin?
  16. Know your prices. Tama has written the best post about price books and bulk buying.
  17. Do a little bit of maths. Is brand A in the big box really cheaper than buying two of the same thing in brand B? Just because something is on special, doesn't necessarily make it cheaper. Cans of tuna are a good example: I often see cans of John West on sale as "four cans for £x" then walk down the aisle to find the own brand is still half the price.
  18. Utilise the "pantry principle". Keep a well stocked pantry and that way you'll always have something you can make a meal from. Shop to replenish your pantry and not just for dinner next week.

- Pam (have I left anything out?)

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