WITHOUT a doubt, my professional love of food followed my personal fascination with it.
I was fortunate to grow up in a family of green-fingered gardeners, in a house on a council estate that happened to have a decent sized garden. Half of it was turned over to growing food, and it provided us well.
It’s far from artisan foods I was raised, and food poverty was a very real spectre for us. My mum was a single parent for five years before she met my dad; I came along a punctual year later. During those years, when she was on her own, often she would go without food so my sister could eat.
Learning how to stretch a tiny budget were traits that never left my mum and never left me, and I still consider myself a savvy shopper, scrutinising the value or worth of things, and I shudder, too, at the bill for my weekly groceries climbing ever higher for the same weekly staples.
Talking about food budgeting is never easy. Saying we should all shop around while at the same time driving less in a bid to shave off cents here and there is overly simplistic. There is merit in the advice, but it is not the only solution.
Quick wins to free up some extra cash in the budget are great – reviewing where our money goes is arguably something we should all do more often. But long-term meaningful change is where the greater benefits come from; looking holistically at everything and everywhere we can make savings.
For some, running spreadsheets and comparing prices across various big-name supermarkets are key, but can you ensure everything purchased in your budget-busting weekly shop is going to be used and not end up in the bin? Food wasted is money in the bin. And aside from the cost of buying food, there is the cost inherent in cooking food. Are you making the most of when the oven is on?
There’s a classic anecdote in business that something can be fast, cheap, or good, but never all three together! If it’s fast and cheap, it won’t be good. If it’s good and fast, it’ll be expensive. If it’s cheap and good, it probably won’t be fast. Apply that logic to our homelife, and I think the triangle is we either have the time, the money, or the know-how, but we’ll rarely have all three in perfect balance.
In this series, I’ll offer tips and tricks from my own experience of different ways a food budget can be stretched. Not everything will apply to everyone, and all come with caveats, too. I can give you a recipe for a slow-cooker dinner, but maybe you don’t have a slow-cooker so don’t spend a valuable €20 to go out and get one, unless you want and can afford to.
What equipment is in a kitchen will vary wildly from house to house. And while I’m all for batch cooking and freezing, both require energy and maybe you really need to save that for something else.
So, think of this as a menu – a toolkit of ways to help your shopping budget go further while making sure you and your family eat well. Treats are essential, whatever the budget, so I have tricks for that, too.
Food should be joyful – even when money is skin-tight. We need to eat to be able to live our lives, go to work, go to school; do more than just get through another day. Eating is the most important thing we must do every day, so let’s get started.
Basic food budgeting
2019 data shows the average consumer spend on food and non-alcoholic beverages in Ireland was just 8.6% of income, the lowest of all EU countries, well below the EU average of 13%.
In an ideal world, we should be spending much more of our income on food, but decades of price wars have altered our behaviour to expect to spend very little of what we earn on feeding ourselves.
Starting from such a low baseline of spend per head on food, no wonder we find it hard to trim even more from the food budget.
But every time there is a price crunch, food is often the one area of household spend seen as most pliable.
Back when Home Economics was regularly taught in schools, we knew how to assign a food budget and get the most from it. With affluence, good domestic economy became unfashionable. The good news is there are a few simple actions to get control of your budget before even leaving the house to go shopping, and plenty of ways to keep to it, too.
Do an audit
Do you know what you have in your presses, fridge, and freezer? Even if you think you do, a look through what you have already is essential.
I often have lots of small bits of things, not enough in their own right, but combined with other store cupboard ingredients it will yield a dinner and maybe lunch the next day.
Do you have three jars of mayonnaise for some inexplicable reason, but no beans? And what’s in that unmarked freezer bag?
Even before you do anything, you might already realise you have enough bits and pieces to make a few meals next week. You’ve already started saving money!
Know your budget
What is your weekly food budget? If it is finite with little wiggle room, be brutally honest with yourself. What do you spend on groceries? Take-out? How many fancy coffees do you have each week? Those sneaky bars of chocolate? How many times did you forget your lunch, or that impromptu drink after work?
If you really have no idea, keep a diary for two weeks (because we’re well able to make ourselves look great for one week) of everything spent and how often. See where the food budget is going and get realistic with setting yourself a new one and stick to it.
Write a menu
Now that you know what you have in- house, start writing your menu. Include all meals needed for everyone for the week. Any working lunches that the company is paying for? Are you going to an event where nibbles are provided? Work that into the plan. Are leftovers likely from one meal that can be fashioned into lunch or upcycled into another dish? Write all this into the menu.
Make a list
You know what you have and what you’d like to cook for the week. Now write out your list. Head up sections for meat/fish, fruit/veg, dairy and dry goods, and list out every ingredient you need for each dish that you don’t already in stock under each section. This will help you stay focused, buying only what is on your list. I remember my mum shopping with a list in one hand and a calculator in another to help her keep within budget, maybe try that, too.
We do the bulk of our shopping in supermarkets. As a rule, fresh produce is around the outer ring here. Everything else, including dry goods, treats and ultra-processed foods, tends to be in middle aisles. Bear that in mind.
Keep receipts from every shop and see what the same top ten products are purchased every time. If it helps, compare prices. If it really helps, are there discounts on bulk buys?
If you’re signed up to a loyalty card scheme, look out for coupons and special deals tailored to your spending habits.
You might not like the idea of your shopping habits being monitored, but it might be a bargain worth striking if it helps with your bills. But remember, not all offers are genuine and a quick price comparison with another store can quickly tell you the score.
Refill stores are great for stocking up on dry goods and because these shops buy in bulk, savings potential is greater. Plus, refill stores allow for buying in small quantities, so if all you need this week is 100g of rice, that’s all you need to buy, saving you more again.
Butcher, Baker, Fishmonger
If you come into town to do your groceries, chances are there will be a butcher’s shop, fishmonger, maybe a bakery. If you make one change to how you shop, start buying meat from your local butcher instead.
I guarantee your meat bill will go down, you’ll get exactly what you need (50g of beef mince instead of 250g), expert advice on cooking, plus access to much cheaper, and tastier, cuts of meat that give you heaps more value for money.
Buying direct from a fishmonger ensures access to incredible quality fish for a fraction of the price from other outlets and can be prepared to your needs.
Think the bread from that fancy bakery is out of your price range? Think again! If there are loaves left at the end of the day, many bakers sell it off at a knock down price so they don’t have to dispose of it.
Tins of goodness
Peas, beans, lentils, and fish – amazingly tasty things come in tins! Dried beans are cheaper than tinned, but do you really have the time, and can you spend the money, soaking overnight then cooking for two hours the next day? Tinned beans of all kinds are quick, easy, cheap, and pack a hefty protein hit.
So, if this week the budget only stretches to a little minced beef, punch it up with tinned kidney beans for a meal that is filling and provides extra protein at little cost.
Tinned fish is versatile. I adore a lunch of sardines on toast, and tinned tuna is great in salads, too.
I always look for discount bins in supermarkets. Perfectly good carrots, fresh herbs, bread rolls good enough for a same-day sandwich, yogurts, and cakes. Meat and fish are good too but must be cooked on the same day, and if there is little money in the budget for treats, this is where you can pick up a bargain.
Exercise caution, though; it is easy to get carried away and end up blowing the budget on stuff you might end up throwing out anyway – a waste of money altogether.
The term, Bin Ends, comes from the wine industry referring to a few bottles not enough to make up a case. If there is a high-street wine merchant near you, and you’re on the hunt for a bottle for a special occasion, pop in and ask about their bin ends. Often, you can pick up a stunner of a bottle at a huge discount.
Three recipe suggestions to make that have huge flavour for little dosh.
Tray Roasted Veggies
There are always fresh veggies in supermarket bargain bins. Save on electricity costs by roasting them all up in a single large batch. This will give you ready-to-eat veggies that can be added to pasta bakes, curry, stir fry, or blitzed into a soup or veggie sauce for pasta throughout the week.
Bell peppers, courgettes, potatoes, squash, leeks, onions, broccoli, lemons, fresh herbs; think what goes well or group veggies together for dishes with Mediterranean flavours and Asian flavours. Cook in the same oven on different trays to maximise oven use.
Chop veggies into same sized pieces. Root veggies will take longer to cook than peppers and courgettes, so cut them smaller.
Drizzle with sunflower oil, salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon - put the lemon halves in with the veg too for extra flavour.
Add dried herbs such as basil, oregano and thyme, or fresh herbs after cooking so they don’t burn.
Heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius, line baking trays, fill with veggies and flavours, and roast for 20-30 minutes until cooked through and soft. Wait until completely cool, store in plastic containers and pop in the fridge ready for when you need them.
Three Bean Chilli
Substituting meat for a variety of tinned beans in chilli is an excellent way to make a budget go further without compromising on taste or essential protein.
Start by slow frying a finely chopped onion in some oil until softened. Add a crushed clove of garlic, and the same amount of grated ginger (optional).
Add a teaspoon each of some spices: ground cumin, coriander and smoky paprika are perfect, along with a tablespoon of tomato paste. Stir to combine and add in two tins of chopped tomatoes. Cook for 5 minutes, then add a tin each of drained and rinsed red kidney beans and black beans, and a small can of drained sweetcorn (or half a tin measure of frozen sweetcorn). Stir and cook for another 10 minutes, add a spritz of lime if you have it.
Season with salt and pepper and finish with some fresh herbs such as coriander.
This is great with some brown rice. If you’ve picked up an avocado from the bargain bin, a couple of slices will add some healthy fats to the dish.
8-Minute Jacket Potato
The quickest and cheapest way to cook a jacket potato is in the microwave. Forget about the branded ready-to-cook ones that cost a fortune and only shave 3 minutes off the cooking time. Buy a bag of fluffy spuds, like Maris Piper or Golden Wonder, prick all over with a sharp knife and pop in the microwave for 8 minutes (750kw). If it’s a very large potato, it may need 2 minutes more.
Carefully slice the potato open when cooked (the escaping steam will be very hot) and top as you like. Tuna mayo or baked beans and cheese are classics, or if you have some three-bean chilli left over, that would be delicious, too!
NEXT WEEK: In part two of Kate Ryan’s series, Food Smarts, she looks at food waste, how to make your budget go further, leftover ideas, as well as cheap and easy preservation.