Food can be expensive. You may well be looking for ways to save money on your food bill if you have a hungry family to feed. I am sure you want to give your family good, nutritious food, but if you are on a tight budget it can feel like an uphill struggle. However, if you give in to cheap ready meals or takeaways on a regular basis, you may save time but you won’t save money on your food bill.
Learning to cook will save money on your food bill
Take the packaged frozen curry. You will each have a tiny portion of rice and sauce for £2-3. So for a family of four you will spend £8-10 on just 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 (check out my post on the best frugal food blogs).
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. This post explains in more detail why everyone on a budget should learn to cook.
Teach your kids to cook too. This is a life skill that will enable them to be healthier and more frugal as adults. In my experience, children are much more likely to eat something they have helped to prepare, no matter how fussy they are.
Don’t waste food
Want to know how to save money on your food bill? Stop chucking good food in the bin!
According to WRAP in their report Household Food and Drink Waste in the United Kingdom (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.
If you find yourself with stale bread, treat yourself with some spiced bread pudding.
If you eat all your bread up, what about the ends? If you don’t like those as sandwiches, they can also go in the bread pudding, or whizz them up in a food processor for breadcrumbs.
Bagged salad is another food regularly wasted. If you buy it, build it into your week’s meal plans to use within a few days of purchase. There are lots of ways to use stale bread.
An interesting book on reducing food waste is My Zero-Waste Kitchen: Easy Ways to Eat Waste Free*.
Plan your meals for the week. Breakfast and lunch plans tend to be fairly loose at Shoestring Cottage – just cereal and toast, soup, salads 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.
What’s in your basket?
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 those types of foods as occasional treats and try to avoid too much snacking between meals.
Don’t go food shopping when you are hungry and always take a shopping list.
Work out your costs
If you really want to save money on your food bill, 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. and keep a price book so that you can record the cost of various ingredients. Obviously this will need 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.
A reusable water bottle* is a worthwhile investment for this purpose and to save money when you are out and about.
Eat veggie sometimes
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 or ready made meat substitutes here. They have their place but aren’t necessarily cheap).
Meat Free Mondays and the Vegetarian Society 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.
Just a Little Meat
As previously mentioned, meat is expensive. If you don’t fancy eating vegetarian, there are other ways to save on meat.
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).
Alternatively, 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.
Take a look at chicken….
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.
Finally, make if you roast a whole chicken on Sunday, plan any leftovers into Monday’s dinner.
The joy of the discount supermarket
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 so there isn’t so much temptation. Also, they don’t bamboozle you with buy one get one free type offers, and 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. Aldi is my favourite, but I shop at Lidl too, as discussed in this post.
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 at the weekend.
The power of frozen
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).
Keep an ice cream box in the freezer for collecting left-over 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 throw 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.
Freeze spare portions of meals in containers as well, for a home made ping meal.
Bits and pieces of meat and veg also be frozen and later 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 us almost free fruit and veg up to Christmas and beyond.
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, sweet corn and green beans particularly good.
Frozen products can be better for smaller households as you can just use what you need. You don’t, for example, need to buy a pack of mixed peppers if you only need half of one for your recipe. Here, frozen might be a better option.
Slow cooker stews
Use a slow cooker (I have been using my Russell Hobbs one* one for years, and I love it!). 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 flavour.
Do a store cupboard audit
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.
Hunt down the yellow stickers
Try visiting the supermarkets later in the evening, as the chances are the price of many food items will be reduced. I look out for meat in particular and put it in the freezer.
If you go often enough, you will discover the best times for yellow stickers. I know that my small Coop store is brilliant on a Saturday night or early Sunday morning, for example.
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. I find Aldi and Lidl own brands are often better quality than the larger supermarket’s own.
Consider buying some of your groceries from companies such as Approved Food*. 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.
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. I find these very helpful when I need a quick dinner but don’t want to give in to the takeaway or ready meal.
Beware the deals on snacks on Approved Food if you are watching your waistline.
Grow your own herbs
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. This was sown from seed, but I have also repotted some purchased from the supermarket.
Thyme is also incredibly easy to grow in the garden, and a pot of basil on the window sill is great with tomato and pasta recipes.
Go foraging! Blackberries, sloes, elder flowers, 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. We are very lucky that our neighbour’s blackberry bush runs rampant into our garden and we pick several pounds each year.
You could trade some home grown veg for some fruit, or ask if you can take some and give them some home-made jam in exchange. As well as the blackberries, our 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 water
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 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.
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.
Do multi-buy offers always save money?
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.
Multi-buy offers 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.’
Don’t assume that pre-packaged produce is more expensive than loose. Often this isn’t the case so price-check before you buy.
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 to save money on your food bill. Over eating is expensive and bad for your waistline. On top of that, if you dish up too much but don’t eat it, in all probability perfectly good food will end up in the bin.
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.
Try to avoid buying junk food when you are out. It may seem cheap but it is dearer than a home-made picnic.
You don’t always have to cook from scratch to save money on your food bill. Keep the ingredients for a few quick and easy meals in your store cupboard for the evenings you get in late and tired, so 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.
With a little planning, thought and creativity you can save money on your food bill and have a really healthy and varied diet!
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