Writing this post has taken me forever. The sad fact is that good food costs good money. I’m ok with that in principle. However, we have a finite amount of money and although I deeply care about what my family eat, we do need to be able to afford it. Feeding a family of five (soon to be seven!!) is always going to be fairly expensive. However, I have pondered long and hard about how best to maximise the nutrition and minimise the spend. I hope this blesses you. If you have any good tips please do let me and other readers know in the comments.
Meat… good meat does (and should!) cost good money. However, there are lots of creative ways to maximise the nutrition rather than the cost.
-If you have or could have the freezer space, seriously consider buying half a cow/ sheep etc. It can work out much cheaper than buying individual high end package cuts. If you have some but not loads of freezer space, look into buying meat boxes from grass fed suppliers.
-Offal is an amazing option as it is higher in nutrients than muscle meat yet also much cheaper. It is not something most of us are used to eating so if you are feeding a family, learning to sneak liver into the family’s meals can become quite an art. After a couple of years of trying I finally quite enjoy cooked chicken liver if I’m in the right mood. My family love a Jamie Oliver liver bolognese meal I cook for them. I am still searching for a really good pate recipe that I enjoy.
-Good quality bones are becoming increasingly sought after (for good reason) but if you can find a good local supplier these are still a good low cost option. Cooked into stock they provide a great range of benefits and the basis of a wide range of meals.
-Look for offers! Even in the elite world of grass fed meat, there are still companies which have seasonal offers. When you see them, snap them up! Equally, look for reductions in farm shops or indeed anywhere you shop.
-know your priorities. Personally I am concerned about consuming animals raised on GM soya (particularly if I’m going to be using the bones for making stock). However in England many cows and sheep are also pastured outside. They are not so dependent on the feed, so I may compromise for the sake of my wallet occasionally. Pork is a different matter. Unless the producer makes a massive song and dance about it, pigs are nearly always raised indoors on GM feed. Not good! However, surprisingly Waitrose have resolved not to use GM feed for any of their pork products. So if you can’t afford £5 for a small back of bacon, Waitrose may be the answer!
-Get to know your local butchers. The chances are their meat will be a notch up from supermarket quality and if you get to know them you can get to know what they struggle to sell. I get lovely lamb breast from mine at a super bargainous price!
-Buy the cheapest cuts and slow or pressure cook.
-Eat less meat! I’m being serious. Add lentils to mince, find some veggie meals you family will eat.
-Grains are not super nutrient rich, but they are very useful for padding out the budget and kids always seem to love starchy foods like bread, rice and potatoes. I am relatively careful about the grains I buy and how I prepare them as there are problems associated with modern wheat, white flour, and herbicides. Therefore I am particular to buy organic flour, and I usually buy spelt or einkorn flour. I try to spend money on quality flour rather than on readymade bread or pastry products as these score negative points on the nourishing quota!
-Make your own bread. Buying bread is cheap until you start buying organic, sourdough or long fermented loaves. As soon as you get into artisan territory, buying quality bread to feed a family is prohibitively expensive. I’ve rather haphazardly been able to keep making bread through pregnancy, having a newborn and toddlerhood. I’m not super organised so it really is possible for a normal mum to do this!
-Buy in bulk, if you eat it fast enough. Don’t get caught out by buying too much only to throw it away due to age or insect or mouse problems!
Learn to love beans! This has surely got to be in every frugal eating list ever created. They are that rare and beautiful thing- cheap and nutritious (especially if sprouted and or cooked with stock). You need to think creatively with beans and pulses. Use lentils to bulk out anything with mince meat in it (my family don’t usually notice). Sprouted lentils are a fun addition to salad. You can even blend white beans into white sauce. Give your family as many beans in as many forms as they will tolerate!
-Salmon is a family classic but if it is farmed, the chances are you’re not getting all the benefits you think you are. If it is wild, you need to take out a mortgage to feed a family! I rarely buy fresh salmon but look for cheap tinned wild salmon (bizarrely I’ve found it cheapest in home bargains!) or Aldi frozen wild salmon. Both are great to use in fish pies, salmon and pea risotto or fish cakes.
-Expand your horizons. Seriously, the omega three in salmon is actually from all the small oily fish they eat so go direct to the source and eat small oily fish! I’ve taken to chopping up and hiding anchovies in all sorts of dishes, even in bolognese. Fresh sardines are great on BBQs. Tinned sardines are a great and quick lunch. Smoked mackerel is lovely in kedgeree or on its own. Little whitebait are fun for little kids to eat. Experiment to find oily fish that your family will eat. If they are young, get them used to eating oily fish from a young age.
-Packets of white fish (usually pollock) can be bought really cheaply in most supermarkets. I have no idea how sustainable these are, but I use them to bulk out fish pie or for fish curry or fish with breadcrumbs.
-If you live near a good fishmonger experiment with fish stock. I don’t so never have but would if I had the chance.
-You can buy conventionally raised milk and cheese very (too?) cheaply in supermarkets. However, costs can rise steeply as soon as you try to look for grassfed and or unpasteurised.
–Milk – unless you have a local farm selling unpasteurised milk, the chances are that milk (if you buy it) will be a major cost. I buy a box of unpasteurised milk for an extortionate amount of money but I keep it in the freezer and i carefully spread it over six weeks or so. Milk is a treat!
–Cheese – unpasteurised cheese is generally pricey. I haven’t found a way round this! Sometimes there may be special offers on around Christmas. Aldi and Lidl often have a good selection. Booths supermarkets seem to sell a very wide range of unpasteurised cheeses and often have them reduced in the reduced section. If not buying unpasteurised cheeses, I look for cheeses which seem to have been made by traditional processes.
–Cultured dairy – ie yoghurt, kefir and sour cream – score very high on the nutrition scale (consider it part probiotic supplement!). Learning to make these items yourself can early help your budget as you can use cheaper pasteurised milk.
-Prioritise which organic and which conventionally grown vegetables you buy. Knowing the dirty dozen and clean fifteen can be helpful for this. As a rule of thumb, it can be cheaper to buy a non organic melon or other fruit which has skin you discard rather than buying extortionate organic berries.
-If using all organic vegetables is a priority for you, consider growing some yourself. Lettuce, garlic, beans and courgette are super easy to grow, productive and can fit into most back gardens.
Shopping tips and tricks
-Know what to buy in bulk. I have found that Costco is great for coconut oil, maple syrup and organic dried apricots. If you have a freezer, quality meat can be much cheaper if bought by the half animals rather than in 500g packets. I personally avoid buying flour and many other cupboard items in bulk as I don’t want to risk pests getting into them or wholemeal flour and nuts turning rancid.
-Know what to buy locally. My local grocers sell local honey, free range eggs and jersey cream for a good price. I can get bones or cheap, ‘undesirable’ cuts of meat very cheaply from a local butcher. Are there any farmers near you you could approach?
-Know the price per kilo of items you use a lot (ie meat, vegetables, nuts). You will be much better prepared to know if you are picking up a bargain!
-Have a plan for how often you shop and try to stick to it. I have found that alternating ocado and Aldi shops works well for me. Ocado may seem expensive, but it is great for slightly more niche items like unpasteurised apple cider vinegar, sheep yoghurt, unearthed chorizo etc etc.
-one last word on Ocado: it may seem expensive (and it really can be!) but this is where you are mostly likely to find quality goods on discount. If the clever robots suspect you have select tastes, you will probably start to see quality meat, dairy and grains show up on flash sales (just before you pay).
-Find a meal planning system that works for you. I tend to plan a month at a time, but will frequently shift meals around between different days. If I’ve bought a bargain piece of meat I try to freeze it and add it to the next months’ plan.
Cheap and easy meals
-Have a rotation of cheap and easy meals that you serve your family at least 2 times per week. Think daal and rice, jacket potatoes, soup and bread, risotto. If you have young kids, get them used to these healthy fillers early!
Finally, have a ‘big’ view of food. It doesn’t only fill us up, it nourishes us, heals us, it brings us joy. If after trying everything you are struggling to bring your spend down, try to be at peace with it by mentally thinking of the food budget as straddling the food and health budgets. Cut out the probiotics and enjoy your yoghurt!