I have a magnet on my fridge which declares “If you are what you eat, I’m cheap, fast and easy!” – someone once challenged me on this (in a nice way) because they said it wasn’t true. But it is! Pretty much the only times I invest a lot of time and effort in a recipe are Christmas or a big buffet. The rest of the time my recipes are deliberately easy – and because I learned to cook when I was a penny-pinching trainee teacher and freelance drama coach, they are all budget friendly too. The food I prepare is nourishing, healthy and varied, but it most definitely isn’t complicated – I wouldn’t have time for complicated, and factor in washing-up as part of that.
I’ve got so many recipe books I’m considering blogging them all, but before we go on to recipes, I thought I’d share some ideas for ingredients which keep budgets down without losing out on flavour or health. As Jack Monroe explains in their latest book “Cooking On A Bootstrap”, experimenting with new ingredients is really daunting when you have a tight budget: you don’t want to be stuck munching through something vile because you’ve bought it and dare not waste it. I used to be like that about meat (I’m by no means vegetarian but many things I cook are meat-free because I was iffy about cheap meat when learning to cook, whereas I was confident with pulses, egg and dairy). So hopefully this list is useful if you are cutting back your grocery bill, about to fly the family nest or just want to tighten your belt a bit.
Buy these canned or dried (in which case batch-cook and freeze them, if like me you could never soak them overnight, try my microwave tip for faux soaking them). They are often on multi-buy and last for ages, or can be found cheaply in the Asian food section of the supermarket.
Chickpeas are full of protein and can be used in place of meat in virtually anything, because they are firm and even sized, making them easy to cook. They also work instead of ‘bulk’ such as potatoes or pasta. You can also crush them to use as hummus or fry them. Rich in minerals like magnesium they are a fantastically healthy food – but what I like about them is their versatility.
Frozen Peas & Frozen Sweetcorn:
I lump these two together because I always buy a bag of each. They are the most child-friendly of veggies, nevertheless they hold their own nutritionally and in terms of versatility. Packed with vitamins, healthy carbohydrates and protein, these two veggies go with almost any main, and can be cooked in minutes in the microwave. In addition, if any soup or stew I have on it looking too stodgy or plain, I throw some in for a hit of sweetness and zing.
Since I bought my slow cooker, I’ve realised that if you slow cook these with herbs and – dare I say – a squirt of ketchup, you get a really versatile and tasty sauce. In a tin or carton these never get mouldy at the back of the fridge, and can be chopped or whole. Cooked tomatoes are equal to fresh in terms of nutrition, and often nicer unless it’s a room temperature, fresh, highly ripe in-season tomato you are using for comparison.
Onions are truly versatile, and a great addition to anything from a salad to deep fried onion rings. Unfortunately supermarket onions seem to soften and sprout quickly – so buy them loose if you fear you won’t use a big 1kg bag!
Onions are very high in vitamin C and also hold flavonoids, which are said to be great for blood health. Because they are so highly flavoured, they help reduce the need for salts, sugars and oils in cooking (although I don’t recommend cutting back on these in a silly way, I find that cutting back at home means I am not too worried about salt and so forth eating ‘on the go’).
Potatoes are an unfashionable vegetable, in the main down to bad Pinterest science and carb phobia (like, anyone with a free Canva account and an unhealthy relationship with thigh gaps can make an infographic). Some people swear by cutting carbs, but I do wonder if in 20 years time we will look back on that in the same way as we look back aghast at ultra-low-cal cabbage soup fads in the 70s and 80s.
Anyway, they’re not trendy so they’re extra cheap. Like onions, I try to buy loose as and when I need them (I once had to CSI black spud debris from the back of a cupboard, gag – never again). I also have canned potatoes on standby – they lack taste and texture alone but crushed into a hash or stew they are great.
When I use fresh potatoes for wedges, jackets, boiling, grated rosti etc’ I always leave the skin on. The skins contain plenty of vitamins, fibre taste and texture.
Oats can be used for everything! Porridge, granola and muesli in the morning, snacking mixes and baking cakes, biscuits and breads for the day and to coat fish or meat before baking or frying. I also use a few to thicken strews, too.
There are loads of trendy whole grains out there, but oats can challenge them all in terms of health, how easy they are to cook (like seriously, I was fiddling round with some quinoa and bulgar mix yesterday for ages, precise timings and fluffing- oats just go in the microwave) and of course cost. As a whole grain, they are of course crammed with (soluble) fibre. They are especially high in minerals such as manganese, magnesium, zinc and iron, so are rightly lauded as a ‘brain food’ – they also lower cholesterol and some research suggests they are great for skin and even lung health.
Also they are really filling and hardly anyone is fussy against them. They cost around £1 for a bag which lasts ages: perfect.
Whichever kind of rice you buy, it’s a good trick to learn to cook it quickly in the microwave. I love rice – my family less so, sadly. If you cook it and cool it really quickly, it is perfectly safe to freeze or refrigerate overnight. Here is a good video about how to do it.
I use rice alongside most soups and stews, or add it into them. I also like to create stir fries, pilafs and biryanis – these are family recipes so can seem long and complicated: but a good stir fry of veg, cooked meat, rice, soy and honey is simply delicious!
Cornflakes or Branflakes:
Not just for breakfast! A healthy cereal can be paired with raisins or chopped nuts as a snack, used to make cornflake cakes, home-made ‘fruit/crunch corner’ with some low fat yoghurt, crushed and added to bakes or even crushed to coat meat or fish (a non-sugared one there, obviously).
Bananas don’t need cooking, just eating. They don’t feel like fruit (I am not keen on many raw fruits, as I find them too watery in texture regardless of taste) and are also great additions to cereal, porridge etc. You can make banana on toast, or banana sandwiches. Very soft bananas are great frozen and crushed like ice cream or put into a cake mix.
They are very high in potassium and are known as a mood booster, too.
My top tip with kids is buy the paw patrol boxes the first time … then buy a big poundland bag an decant them! They’re sticky and sweet enough for snacking, baking or adding to recipes (including savouries) but rich in fibre. Just make sure you brush your teeth when you’re done!
Seasonal fruit (in bags):
I always explore the fruit and veg section of my local Tesco, or the greengrocer. When fruit is in season and ripe, the price falls and it’s easy to pick up large bags of produce for under £1. Even if the bag is too big for that week’s fruit bowl, most fruit can be stewed and/or frozen for later.
Over the last few months we have enjoyed kiwi, apple, pear, mandarins and grapes this way: in summer the ‘value’ ranges suddenly appear for misshapen strawberries and uneven shaped blueberries.
Wholemeal Pasta/Regular Pasta:
I don’t need to explain this, do I? Everyone loves it and it doesn’t go off. Mix wholemeal and fresh of the same shape together to up the fibre.
Humble red lentils are simply the best. One of the first recipes I learned was a very simple, mild dal prepared with red split lentils, onion, tomato and some ginger, garlic, turmeric, cumin and coriander seed. Red lentils are also easy to make into a soup, add to stews, combine with bacon or anchovy, add to a stuffing (if cooked to a dry consistency), make a pasta sauce out of etc. Cooked lentils pair excellently with egg, too.
One of the main reasons I love them is, unlike many dried pulses, they don’t need soaking or rapid boiling to soften. They can be added (after picking over and rinsing) ad-hoc to a wet recipe provided there is enough liquid and time for them to cook in.
They are so good for you it’s ridiculous. From fibre to protein, they have it all – and their flavour and colour are mild and appealing, but can easily be spiced up. My husband did not actually know lentils were good for you until he saw them in Holland and Barrett … he assumed their creaminess meant they were a treat!
Good quality canned fish:
There are several types I keep in my cupboard most of the time:
Anchovies: these melt into sauces if finely chopped. A good alternative to bacon for any recipe for non pork eaters – the fish last a few days if covered by their oil in a tub. Some people love them with olives as a snack too. Because of the healthy oils and big flavour, they add richness, smokiness and umami at a fraction of the price of many seasonings.
Tuna/Salmon: great for any recipe were minced protein is required: cheese melts, pasta sauces, potato hashes. Such a time saver!
Sardines, Mackerel, Pilchards: these little guys definitely look like fish! But, for fish lovers they are super additions to pastas, or on toast. I’ve even stuffed some in tomato sauce inside peppers with cous-cous.
Buy the best you can afford: it’s usually 30p more or so but the difference in flavour is huge in my experience. Eggs work well both alone and as an ingredient – there are so many ways to cook them.
If you have never made an omelette before, Delia’s method is super reliable (I am told, because I learned this when I was, like, 8 at Brownies. Fun times.) and simple. Once you have the basics done, it’s an any-meal-dish you can produce in under 5 minutes with one pan – add a salad and toast, or oven chips and beans, and it’s a filling main.
Eggs also help me to save on food waste – because they bind and bulk out, there are recipes for eggs with everything from ramen noodles, to bacon, to veggies. Each technique is easily adapted to suit leftovers.
Carrots are one of the cheapest veggies out there. Their main downside is that people always seem to prefer them a certain way (e.g. for me, raw and grated with cheese or meat in a salad – for His Lordship, soft cooked in a stew or sauce) but if you have a family or flatmates who can actually agree, then carrots are such a bargain.
They also help you eat a ‘rainbow’ of veggies, and I think they are good for your eyes.
Oh and you can put them into cake. You can also put beetroot and courgette in cake! You can put LOADS of stuff into cakes (but not tinned fish. Never tinned fish).
Everyone’s like KALE KALE KALE KALE. And I’m like look at those stalks and how hard it is to cook! Seriously I know of few people who handle kale well, it’s really annoying. The supermarket won’t sort every stringy stalk and it’s hard to time just right and it’s expensive.
Spring greens, winter greens, cavolo nero, savoy cabbage, baby spinach, old spinach turnip tops…
Yeah, any dark green leaf vegetable is really good for you, has a strong savoury-mineral flavour and is quite often (or all the time) less annoyingly stringy to deal with when cooking. Just use them instead.
My Other Tips:
There are a few other bits I often look out for when shopping. I don’t rely on them as daily essentials, but if I see them I snap them up. Bags of misshapen smoked salmon or bacon trimmings (often called ‘cooking bacon’) are great for any recipe where you need the ingredients chopped. Why pay for neat shapes only to cut them up?
Also, cheese. I’m not one of those bores who says buy a tiny block of very expensive hard cheese every time: I appreciate cheese, and I know that different flavours and volumes are needed for different things. Sometimes an oil-rich, mild cheddar is just right for the recipe (and if you are using more because you need cheese texture, stronger/more expensive is a false economy). Other times you need the taste so looking out for deli offers on the best cheese is a great idea. For general cooking, His Lordship converted me over to Red Leicester – it has a certain nuttiness and supermarket versions have more taste than similar incarnations of cheddar. It melts well and has a nice colour – it goes really nut brown on top of cheese on toast or pasta bake.
In terms of meat, I am a fan of buying cheaper cuts of more expensive meat. The most extreme version of this is me using organic stock/broth beef bones, for under £2, to cook a lentil and bone soup. The meat came off every bone perfectly and it was superbly well flavoured. Other regular buys of mine are chicken thigh, chicken wings (incredibly cheap if you want them for stock), turkey ‘brown meat’ (or breast after Christmas, which can be frozen 6 months), pork belly, thin cut frying steak and offal (liver, heart, kidney). A lot of people don’t like offal and are nervous of cooking it, which makes me cautious to recommend it, but if you do enjoy it just follow a reliable recipe and you should be OK.
Wine. Two words: Lidl Offers.
Anyway, these are my reliable ingredients, the ones I use to cook with and save money every day. Between my slow cooker and my hob I don’t tend to slave away over meals and I’ll try to share some recipes as I make them.
Is cost a factor when you shop for groceries? And do you find it easy to balance that with health, taste and nutrition? Let me know below!