Budget Guide to Cooking & Eating
…using cheap, healthy food
Teaching kids how to cook isn’t a top priority for a lot of schools these days. If you haven’t been taught these basic nutritional life skills and you hit hard times, you’re going to struggle to take care of yourself until you learn. It’s not always easy to learn to cook, especially if you don’t know which ingredients you’re likely to need to start with. That gets even more difficult if you have a tight budget for food and want to maximise your spend with the most meals possible.
Supermarkets market plenty of low price food to you and it’s almost all convenience stuff that makes them a great margin. Iceland is one of the worst culprits in my book and I strongly believe that economy shoppers who shop there spend more feeding their families than those who cook from scratch – plus their diet is worse off for it.
It is easier and cheaper to make your own food with base ingredients. That value meal you paid £1 for to feed a single person would probably only cost you £1.50 to cook for a family of 4. Being able to sustain yourself effectively is a top priority when times are hard and this post is the first dedicated to healthy eating on a budget, what to buy and how to cook a bunch of really tasty stuff with minimal effort.
Grow Your Own
It is far too easy to grow your own food, so why not try? For a start, bagged salad is one of the biggest jokes of consumerism. Rocket grows like weeds (it is a weed!) and you can pick up seeds for pocket money. Salad and veg seeds are available in most Poundland-style discount stores plus you can plant seeds you get from your own food. It works really well with blueberries, tomatoes, sunflower seeds, spring onions (cut right down to the bulb, eat the delicious greeny-white bits and then plant the stump with the roots on – it will grow back as a full spring onion), radishes… anything that is by definition a root or a seed. Google the thing if you don’t know if it will grow. Even peanut plants are within your reach – just make sure you grow with monkey nuts and not honey roasted. 😉
Pots of compost on the window sill allow you to have everything from tomatoes and salad onions to fresh leaf salad or a herb garden. Maximise the space based on what you like to eat. Just put dirt in the pot and add the seeds or bulb and keep it watered, it gets warm in a sunny window which is great for fruiting plants but not so great for watery foods like salad leaves, so keep them topped up. Compost is currently on offer at £3 for 2 10l bags in Tesco and Asda have some really cheap planting options, but I use yogurt pots with pinholes stabbed in the bottom for things going in the garden later.
You can grow pretty much anything if you have a garden, stacking grow bags by opening the top and bottom up gives
you instant raised beds so you don’t even have to dig anything. You can find bargain own-brand growing bags at every major DIY & Garden chain for around £4 each. 1 is good for tomato plants and salad veg, stacking 2 gives you a raised bed tall enough for carrots and potatoes, 3 for snips, rhubarb and bigger root veg. Fresh veg can last up to a month once pulled up and you can pick as you go from the beginning of the season. Baby potatoes, carrots and tomatoes are every bit as useful as big ones.
Just make sure you grow your non-root vegetables inside until it looks like they’re big enough to handle a slug. If you plant the seeds outside they’ll get eaten alive by bugs. You can deter pests by placing straw around the plants and also planting something they like to eat more, like nasturtiums. Added bonus – the bold orange and yellow flowers are really pretty.
When your budget is tight, you want to make two shopping lists. One for the household stuff you need (bin bags, loo rolls, nappies, bleach etc) and one for your food. Yeah, it’s a pain in the ass but you don’t want to confuse your food and essential bills. Knowing how much you have for food will better allow you to plan your meals.
When you do your weekly shop, try to leave some spare cash aside for a new long-term ingredient. Things like herbs and spices transform food and they’re dead cheap. Build up your stock with an item a week and your cooking will get more exciting and varied as you go forward.
I keep the following in stock to make most of my meals:
3 Packs of chopped tomatoes or passata
2 tins kidney beans
*3 Garlic bulbs
3 blocks of butter (or vegan substitute)
1 x bag frozen mince (or vegan substitute)
*1 x bag frozen peas
*30 x Eggs (or vegan substitute)
*3l Vegetable oil
2 Value meat joints / chicken
A quick check on Asda groceries tots that lot up to £34.14 for the cheapest options and all of the items with a * will need replacing less than once a week for most households. They are bought in larger quantities where there are far-reaching best before dates, it saves you money in the following weeks. This is my basic pantry to work with, it contains enough varied ingredients to make a surprising array of dishes. You can improve upon them by buying extra ingredients as you can afford them. I recommend building up the following:
Frozen peppers (or chop and freeze your own)
Bicarbonate of soda
Frozen blueberries (or chop and freeze your own)
I’ve collated most of my basic recipes using Google. I don’t remember most of the ratios and I should probably make a Pinterest board for quick reference, but I’m generally a live searcher – I cook what I fancy when I fancy it and this pantry lets me do that. The below are the fundamentals for everything I cook. I keep an eye on my food and check the consistency and how it looks during the cooking process. With the below basic recipe guides, you can make so many different dishes.
Read the packet before you open it, it will tell you exactly how long to cook it for and at what temperature on your oven. Turn on the oven at the correct temperature for around 15 minutes before you put the meat in the oven. Put meat in a roasting tray, drizzle it in oil and sprinkle with salt. Cook for the correct length of time (set an alarm or timer!) and pop in every 15 mins or so to baste and turn if necessary.
I usually cook meat separately and then divvy it up between the dishes I cook. Cooked meat is good for around 2 days in the fridge, so by keeping the meat plain, you can use it in everything from sandwiches to pies to pasta to stews. If you have bones or a carcass left, you can boil them/it in a big saucepan with the vegetables in your pantry to make soup or gravy that is delicious and practically free.
You don’t have to eat meat every day and it will cut your bill massively if you don’t. Try opting for omelettes, veggie pizzas, egg salads and tomato pastas for a few meals a week to cut your bill back. You should be able to make up to 3 meals from a joint of meat if you’re savvy and use every bit you buy.
Pies – Pies are stupidly easy to make. You do the pastry, chop and boil the veg and make the sauce while the meat
cooks. For filling, I make enough gravy to fill the pie halfway and use carrots, peas, herbs and seasoning and then add the meat. This also works for gammon with a garlic or parsley sauce (see white sauce base below + herb), as a vegetable pie, and beef mincemeat pie.
If you don’t have a pie tin, you may have something like a casserole pot that will work. Rub some butter on the sides to help stop pastry sticking. You can also create topper pies in casserole dishes which have a crust on the top but not the sides if you’re low on flour.
Sauces – I make 3 types – white sauce base (creamy, base of cheese sauce), tomato base (just passata or tomatoes) and meat based (gravy granules, hot water and seasoning). Use white sauce for pasta, rice, chicken, gammon/bacon, fish and ham dishes. Use tomato sauces with pasta, rice, bread, chicken and red meat. Use gravy with pastry, potatoes & root vegetables, chicken and red meat.
For more flavoursome meat dishes, add tomatoes or passata to the gravy and onions to create a rich cottage pie, stew or hotpot. A splash of red wine is amazing with that combo if you’re feeling flush.
Bread – Pizza (add tomato sauce plus meat and onions, serve with rocket sprinkled on top), bread rolls, loaves of bread and super-easy soda bread. Get into baking, second hand bread makers are available locally for around £10 if you don’t want to do the kneading by hand and you can also use them to make cakes and pastry.
Omlettes – 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons of milk and a small nob of butter per omlette. 3 eggs for a large. Whisk everything together (helps if you melt the butter) and season after cooking with salt and pepper.
Stews – SO easy. Pick your sauce, chop up vegetables (add onions if your sauce doesn’t have any) and throw them in. Add 1 pint of water and allow the lot to simmer until the vegetables feel right on your fork (not too firm, basically). Chicken and red meats taste good with these. There’s no need to add the meat in until you serve, stir it through the portions as you serve them and they’ll warm up really quickly. If your meat’s coming from the fridge, let it sit on the kitchen side for half an hour before you add it in. Dumplings are child’s play too. Just suet, flour and water. Drop ’em in and cook for 20 minutes.
Mashed Potato – Boil potatoes (with or without skin) until very soft. Drain and put back into saucepan, add a slice of butter and a little milk and start mashing. Add more milk and a little more butter to improve the texture as you beat it up. You’ve been eating this stuff for your whole life, you know what it should look and feel like – just takes elbow grease and careful measure. Mash is a great complex carb that works with meat-based and white sauces.
Rice – Follow the bag instructions and buy it in bulk from a local oriental supermarket if you eat it a lot. This stuff costs around £15 and you probably only need one a year. Works well with meat-based and tomato sauces.
Pasta – Boil until aldente and add sauce, or throw cooked pasta and sauce in the oven with cheese for a pasta bake.
Mince Dishes – Chop a clove of garlic and 2 small onions and fry until browning. Add the mince. Add your choice of sauce and vegetables and simmer until the sauce reduces.
Muffins, Scones, biscuits and Cakes – SO easy, great with butter. Buy economy chocolate, frozen blueberries, cinnamon and cocoa powder to upgrade the recipes. Muffins, scones, cupcakes and shortbread biscuits.
These guides will make a sauce in their own right but you can remove ingredients to suit your tastes or the contents of your cupboard. The recipes listing has seasoning suggestions, it’s just a case of remembering which thing goes with which food type.
Tomato Sauces: Basil/ mixed herbs, garlic, cumin, paprika (hot), chilli flakes (hot), teaspoon of gravy granules, red wine and a teaspoon of sugar.
White Sauces: Cheese, parsley, white wine,
You can also season meat before you cook it using any number of things. Try lemon and garlic for chicken, mint and rosemary for lamb, chilli and cumin for beef and honey or maple syrup for ham.
Don’t Have a Freezer?
Freezers can be really helpful if you don’t want to eat the same thing for a few meals in a row. Some of the ingredients I use are frozen and I also freeze cooked food to make my own ready meals. You can substitute frozen ingredients for fresh but they do cost a little more. Don’t go for canned.
If you have room for a freezer, try looking for one secondhand on Facebook groups, ebay, Gumtree and on local newspaper sites. They are often cheap or even free. In fact if you’re in Bath and in desperate need, I can give you an old fridge freezer! If you have a counter in the way in the kitchen, take a look underneath as most kitchen worktops have a panel the right width for a fridge freezer that can be unscrewed and removed.
You could also try picking up a fridge with a freezer compartment or a desktop freezer. They generally sell online in my local area for between £30 and £50 if you can’t find one for free. Sign up to website alerts and save an ebay search, and the internet will kindly do the searching for you.
– Hella Rude