How to save ££££s on your food bill

“Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale”- Elsa Schiaparelli

If you want to give your family good, nutritious food but you are on a budget it can feel like an uphill struggle. But if you give in to cheap ready meals or takeaways on a regular basis you are unlikely to save money. Take the packaged frozen curry. You will each have a tiny portion of rice and sauce for £2-3. So for a family of 4 you will spend £8-10 on one meal! Do this as a takeaway and you are likely to be looking at £25 plus. You could make an excellent quality delicious chicken and vegetable curry for a fraction of the cost very easily, which won’t be full of salt, fat and preservatives. So my first tip has to be…

Learn to cook! Scratch cooking will always be cheaper and healthier than eating convenience foods. There are so many books, websites, You Tube videos, etc. to help you. Just start and you will be amazed at what you can make even if you have always considered yourself a ‘can’t cook/won’t cook’ type of person.

According to WRAP in their report Household Food and Drink Waste in the United Kingdom published in 2012, the average family wastes £700 a year on unused food and drink. Adopt a zero tolerance approach to food waste. Only buy what you need and cook what will be eaten. Freeze what you don’t use immediately or take it to work for lunch. Encourage your family to understand the value of food and not to waste it. A good example of a food that is regularly binned is bread. If you don’t use it very quickly freeze a sliced loaf and just defrost what you need as you go along. It only takes 10 minutes to defrost at room temperature. Bagged salad is another – if you buy it build it into your week’s meal plans to use within a few days of purchase.

Have an honest look at what you habitually put in your shopping basket that is not essential. If it is full of fizzy drinks, sweets, cakes, crisps and biscuits, try cutting down on some of these. This will benefit your family’s health as well as your wallet. Keep them as treats and try to avoid too much snacking between meals.

Don’t go food shopping when you are hungry!

Work out the cost of the recipes you make regularly. This enables you to calculate what actually constitutes a cheap meal. Work out how much 100g of cheddar or flour is, or 500ml of milk, etc. I keep a price book so that I can record the cost of various ingredients. Obviously this needs updating from time to time.

Take a packed lunch to work. If you have access to a kettle, take your own mug and tea or coffee. If you don’t, take a flask.

Unless your kids are entitled to free school meals, pack a lunch for them too. Don’t be swayed by expensive individually-packaged mini cheeses, cheesy dippers, etc. Read the ingredients label – you don’t want your kids to eat that rubbish, do you? A sandwich or wrap, some fruit, a yogurt, and for a treat a piece of home-made cake or a supermarket own brand chocolate biscuit should fill them up. Fill a bottle with squash or water too. I actually buy a sport drink and re-use the bottle lots of times as they seem to leak less than plastic bottles specially designed for the job.

Try eating vegetarian food at least a couple of times a week. You don’t need meat at every meal. Veggie stuff is healthier and cheaper and is as likely to taste good as anything with meat in it. (I don’t mean just substitute meat for Quorn here. It has its place but isn’t necessarily cheap!). www.meatfreemondays.co.uk and the Vegetarian Society (www.vegsoc.org) both have lots of recipe ideas for vegetarian dishes. Pulses such as chick peas, kidney beans and lentils count towards one of your 5-a-day and are low in fat, full of fibre and packed with protein.

Chick Pea Curry

Incredibly cheap, easy and vegetarian. Serves 4

2 x 400g cans chick peas 3 tablespoons oil 2 onions 1 teaspoon chilli powder 2 teaspoons ground cumin 1 teaspoon ground coriander 2 teaspoons chopped root ginger (I usually buy a piece and freeze the rest, but I’m sure dried will do) 2 cloves garlic, crushed 1 400g tin of passata or chopped tomatoes 2 tablespoons tomato puree Half a pint of vegetable stock Seasoning

Chopped parsley and a tablespoon of yogurt or sour cream for garnish (optional)

Chop the onions and fry until soft but not brown, then add the spices and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato puree and chick peas, then the stock. Cook for 10-15 minutes on a low heat, seasoning to taste. Sprinkle on the chopped parsley and yogurt or sour cream if you have any. Serve with rice.

If you roast a chicken, save the carcass and freeze it. When you have two or three make chicken stock. Just boil them up with an onion, celery and carrots for a few hours. Add a couple of bay leaves and whole pepper corns. Then strain if off and you are ready to go.

Use your stock to make soup! Use cheap vegetables in season or visit the market at the end of the day for some reduced produce. Even better, if you have a bit of garden you can grow your own veg.

Buy a whole chicken rather than chicken pieces – it is much cheaper to buy this way and it’s not that hard to cut it up if you have a sharp knife. You can freeze the parts you don’t plan to use immediately.

Don’t assume that pre-packaged produce is more expensive than loose – sometimes this isn’t the case so price-check before you buy.

Keep an ice cream box in the freezer for collecting leftover cooked vegetables, rice and mashed potatoes. These are good for adding to soups and stews. You never know quite what you are going to get, but it usually tastes really good! For soup, make a base of fried onions and garlic, add any veg in your fridge that is going soft, then thrown the frozen leftovers on top with some stock to cover. You could make it a more substantial soup by adding lentils, pearl barley etc. Season to taste and you have a delicious, comforting meal for next to nothing.

Brown Rice with Mediterranean Vegetables

Serves 6

1tbsp olive oil 1 onion, chopped 2 cloves garlic, crushed I green pepper, chopped 1 large or 2 small courgette, diced 100g mushrooms, sliced 325g brown rice, cooked with a veg stock cube 600g (1.5 cans) chopped tomatoes 2tbsp chopped parsley (or 2tsp dried mixed herbs) 1 tbsp soy sauce Salt and pepper to taste Grated cheddar to top (optional)

Heat the oil and gently fry the onion and garlic until softened. Add the courgettes, mushrooms and pepper and continue to cook for 5 minutes, then add the tomatoes and the cooked rice. Simmer for 10 minutes then add the parsley and soy sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with a good sprinkling of grated cheese.

Try one of the budget supermarkets, like Aldi or Lidl. They save you money because they don’t have such a huge choice of items and so there isn’t so much temptation, they don’t bamboozle you with buy one get one free type offers, plus some items are so much cheaper you wonder how they make any money. I estimate that I save £25 to £30 a week when I shop there and the quality of the food I eat hasn’t suffered. Don’t forget to take your own shopping bags. Iceland is also really good value, especially if you don’t mind buying frozen meat.

If you don’t fancy a budget supermarket, try shopping on-line. For some people this is a good way to stick to a shopping list and avoid the impulse buy. However, you will have to pay a delivery charge so consider getting your shop delivered at the start of the week when it is cheaper rather than the weekend.

Comparison sites such as mysupermarket.com can help you find the cheapest place to buy your goods. The idea is that you select a trolley load of products and it calculates which shop will save you the most money.

Use the ends of bread for bread pudding, or whizz them up in a food processor for breadcrumbs.

Start your children on proper food early. Encourage them to try different tastes and textures as young as you can. Don’t create fussy eaters or you make an expensive rod for your own back.

If you have space for a freezer, they are a sound investment. It doesn’t need to be new and you might even find one on Freecycle as I did (although if you are buying new, buy an energy saving one). Don’t throw leftovers away, freeze them. Bits and pieces of meat and veg can be turned into soups, added to casseroles or made into pie filling. If you see meat or fish on offer, stock up and freeze. For me, freezing the glut I grow in the garden is essential, giving me free fruit and veg up to Christmas and beyond.

Plan your meals for the week. Breakfast and lunch plans tend to be fairly loose at Shoestring Cottage – just cereal and toast, soup and sandwiches – but I always know what we are having for dinner. This means we don’t waste food, we aren’t tempted to buy takeaways because we haven’t got anything in and I can prepare in advance so I save time too.

 Sample Food Plan

I work full time so I need quick, nutritious and fuss free food. I plan for evenings when I will be late with an easy dinner.

Sunday: Roast chicken, roast potatoes, vegetables (don’t forget to freeze the chicken carcass)

Monday: Stir fry vegetables and chicken (left over from the roast) with noodles

Tuesday: Chick pea curry and rice (see recipe)

Wednesday: Fish pie (home made with cheap white fish) and vegetables

Thursday: Sausages and mash with vegetables

Friday – easy tea for the end of the week. Jacket potatoes, with tuna mayonnaise or beans and grated cheese, with salad.

Saturday – Brown rice with Mediterranean vegetables and crusty bread*

Vegetables will be either frozen or in season, and hopefully from my veggie plot. If I have any leftovers I freeze them in single portions to make ‘ready meals’ or take them to work for my lunch the following day. Puddings for those who are still hungry will be fruit or yogurt. I usually bake a cake at the weekend and make a dessert for Sunday lunch such as fruit crumble or bread pudding with custard.

Use a slow cooker. If you haven’t got one, look out for a second-hand one. Cheap cuts of meat taste just as good as expensive cuts if you slow cook them, you can make delicious veggie soups and stews, and can even have a steaming hot bowl of porridge ready for breakfast if you are organised the previous night. They cost pennies to run too.

One pot dinners save energy. Throwing meat and veggies in together often creates a delicious blend of flavours as well.

Do regular store cupboard stock checks. Include the contents of your fridge and freezer too. Plan your meals around what you have and what needs using up.

If you have a good market in your town, you are lucky. Use it to buy your fruit and veg – it will be cheaper than the supermarket.

Don’t chuck out those brown bananas! Make muffins or banana bread and freeze for lunch boxes.

Banana Muffins

This makes a large batch so that you can freeze some for lunchboxes, etc. If you don’t want to do that, halve the ingredients.

500g self-raising flour
250g sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
3 medium bananas, mashed
240ml milk
160ml oil
2 eggs
Cake cases

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade (gas mark 4). Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, salt and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl. Then start to slowly whisk in the milk, oil and egg until well combined. Finally, fold in the mashed banana and combine well. Spoon the mix into your cake cases and bake for around 15 minutes, until golden and springy to the touch.

These are lovely warm, but equally nice cold. However, you can reheat them for about 15 seconds in the microwave.

Try visiting the supermarkets later in the evening as the chances are lots of food items will be reduced. I look out for meat in particular and put it in the freezer. If you have the time, late Christmas or New Year’s Eve are likely to yield some bargains as the stores will be closed the following day.

Try the basic ranges in your local supermarket. Can you really afford to pay for all the expensive marketing and advertising that is behind the big name brands? If you don’t like the value brands, try trading down to at least the supermarket own brand.

Consider buying some of your groceries from companies such as Approved Foods. They sell goods that are on or past their best before dates but are still perfectly safe to eat. You can save up to 70% on the original price (www.approvedfood.co.uk). I have bought catering sized packs of couscous, vegetable stock and pasta for just a few pounds, which formed the basis of many a cheap dinner at Shoestring Cottage. They are good for casserole sauces too, and I find these very helpful when I need a quick dinner but don’t want to give in to the takeaway or ready meal.

Grow a few herbs. A small rosemary plant will soon become quite a big permanent bush and is useful in so many recipes. I have a large pot of parsley outside my kitchen door all the time, and just pop it in the greenhouse when it gets really cold. Thyme is also incredibly easy to grow in the garden, and a pot of basil on the windowsill is great with tomato and pasta recipes.

Go foraging! Blackberries, sloes, elderflowers, and chestnuts are all easily available. We have found a good source of cherries too and made delicious cherry jam. The absolute classic source of information on foraging is Food for Free by Richard Mabey, originally published in the 1970’s. This has since been reprinted, revised and updated many times and lists over 200 plants that can be found for free if you know where to look.

Keep an eye out for windfall fruit in season. If your neighbours have established fruit trees, they may well have more than they can use. You could trade some home grown veg for some of their fruit, or ask if you can take some and give them some home-made jam in exchange. My neighbour gives us some of his tart and tasty greengages when he has a glut, which freeze well and make lovely pies, crumbles and jams. In return we have given him pumpkin plants and leeks.

Drink more tap water – it is the cheapest beverage you are likely to find and better for you and your family than fizzy drinks and endless cups of tea and coffee.

Keep a jug of water in the fridge rather than buying the bottled stuff. Not only is bottled water expensive when you can get it for free from your tap, it creates huge amounts of plastic waste. Where I live, in East Anglia, the water can have quite a strong smell of chlorine, but I find this disappears once it has been in the fridge for a couple of hours. You could buy a water filter, but these can be expensive as the filters need replacing so frequently.

Batch Cooking

Batch cooking involves getting organised and planning ahead, and maybe spending a day a month just cooking. It saves you money because you fill up the oven and get several dishes cooked in one hit, you can buy your ingredients in bulk and need fewer trips to the supermarket, and if you have a freezer full of meals you save time and never have to give into the unhealthy and expensive ready meal. You could start with a basic Bolognese sauce, which could be divided into portions and stashed in the freezer, and then adapted as you come to use it for chilli con carne, cottage pie, curry, etc. If you have some ready prepared dishes in the freezer you are less likely to give into the temptation of the takeaway when you get back late from work as well. I tend to do this in a more modest way, and frequently cook double something, such as a shepherd’s pie or casserole, and freeze half for the following week.

Save a few margarine and ice cream containers. These are good for freezing leftovers, home-made soups or food you have batch-cooked and make perfectly good lunchboxes too.

Look at your portion sizes. Over eating is expensive and bad for your waistline. If you don’t eat it, it may end up in the bin.

Make your own yogurt. You don’t need a special yogurt maker. www.makeyourownyogurt.com has loads of advice and recipes. I make plain with UHT milk and stir in some jam or honey.

Just a Little Meat

Meat is expensive. Try bulking out a casserole , curry or bolognese by adding cooked green or red lentils, or TVP (textured vegetable protein, available in supermarkets and health shops). Or you could try the ‘just a little meat’ strategy I use. Although I would happily eat vegetarian food most of the time, my family don’t feel the same way. To stop them feeling deprived, I use small amounts of bacon, leftover chicken or chorizo sausage in stir-fries and pasta dishes. Here is one they particularly enjoy.

Quick and Easy Pasta with Bacon and Vegetables

500g pasta, cooked 250g bacon, grilled 1 tbsp olive oil 1 large courgette, cut into cubes 1 red onion, sliced 2 cloves garlic, crushed 100g mushrooms, wiped and sliced 2 tins chopped tomatoes 2 tsp Marigold vegetable stock 2 tsp dried mixed herbs Salt and pepper to taste Grated cheese to top

Heat the oil and gently fry the onion and garlic for 3 or 4 minutes, then add the courgette and mushrooms and cook gently for about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and stir, then add the stock powder and dried herbs and mix together well. Finally, chop up the cooked bacon and add to the sauce. Season to taste. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, then add the cooked pasta. Serve with a little grated cheese and a green salad.

Try to avoid buying junk food when you are out. It may seem cheap but it is dearer than a home-made picnic.

Keep the ingredients for a few quick and easy meals in your store cupboard for the evenings you get in late and tired so that you aren’t tempted to grab a takeaway. My favourite quick and easy tea is pasta with pesto or a stir in sauce, paired with a basic tomato salad.

Frozen vegetables are cheaper than fresh; you can use just what you need and they come ready chopped! It is also claimed that they are frozen very quickly after cropping so therefore contain more nutrients than fresh vegetables. I find peas, sweetcorn and green beans particularly good.

Beware the multi-buy offer. The consumer organisation Which has frequently highlighted issues with some of these so-called bargains, finding examples where multi-buys didn’t save any money at all, or where the price of an item had gone up for a few weeks before the offer came in, then dropped to its original price as part of a multi-buy offer. They can also be wasteful. If you can’t use three lots of butter before the use by date and end up throwing one away it is not saving you any money. On its website following a complaint to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in April 2015 Which said: ‘Many retailers are creating the illusion of savings that don’t exist, which in turn mislead people into buying products they may not have chosen if they knew the full facts.’

Stuck for inspiration? The Internet is awash with sites offering budget recipes. Netmums.com has a lovely selection of family friendly ideas. Also look out for old cookery books in charity shops – if you can find good basic books by old style cooks such as Delia Smith and Marguerite Patten you are likely to discover great family dishes that don’t use expensive fad foods.

With a little planning, thought and creativity you can save a lot of money on your weekly groceries and have a really healthy and varied diet!