Saving money on food doesn’t have to mean sacrificing flavour if you follow these tips for smart shopping and easy swaps
Food prices have been hiked yet again, the latest ONS figures show, with food and non-alcoholic drink inflation jumping to an all-time high of 18.2 per cent in the year to February 2023, a rise of 1.4 per cent on January’s figure. This inflation, the steepest rise in 45 years, has been recorded in eight of 11 food categories, with the sharpest increases in the price of vegetables.
Our experts have all the shopping and cooking hacks you need to eat brilliantly on a budget.
Do your research
“Before you head to the supermarket on autopilot, spend some time online checking out which ingredients are on price lock,” advises Sarah Akhurst, the food director of Sainsbury’s Magazine. A number of retailers committed to holding prices of these products for a set period. “Try and make a meal plan around the cheapest ingredients on offer. It might encourage you to add a few new dishes into your weekly repertoire.”
Make simple substitutes
Budget and batch-cooking expert Suzanne Mulholland recommends ingredient swaps that compromise little on taste. “Choose easy swaps you won’t notice,” says Mulholland, author of The Batch Lady: Cooking on a Budget (Harper Collins, £22). “Coley instead of cod, hake instead of haddock, pork over beef mince, turkey in place of chicken, Grana Padano not Parmesan and Greek salad cheese instead of feta.”
Store cupboard secrets
“So many store cupboard ingredients have a secret secondary use, and when you discover what they are, you’ll quickly extend the reach of your weekly shop,” explains Akhurst. She has a clutch of great ideas, from using mayonnaise to marinade meat to putting it in chocolate cake or muffins for a fudgy texture. Save olive brine and splash into the pan when seasoning veg or scrambling eggs. Use honey and a dash of vinegar to pep up cheap tinned tomatoes.
A dahl a day…
Chef Sabrina Gidda goes to her local South Asian shops to stock up on “little jars with big flavour” such as chilli oil, as well as miso-based stocks and frozen dumplings. But her biggest budget tip is to fall in love with lentils. “Dhal is sensational even after freezing,” says Gidda, author of Modern South Asian Kitchen (out 30 March, Quadrille, £27).
“I often do a once-a-month ‘big cook’ of my Indian food, batch cooking dhal, a masala based sauce – to which I might add vegetables or meat at a later date – and usually aubergine and potato sabji, which if not eaten with roti, makes for a mean toastie.”
Choose value over price
“Quality food produced to the highest British standards should take precedence over luxury items and frivolous purchases,” says Annabel Makin Jones, a fifth-generation Yorkshire farmer and founder of Annabel’s Deliciously British and Tame & Wild strawberry farm. “Shop local. While the price point may appear higher at first glance, buying quality British produce will give you better value.”
Turn tins into treats
“When it comes to keeping budgets on track, tins are where it’s at,” says Akhurst. “Tinned veggies, fruit, pulses and fish are so much cheaper than their fresh counterparts and every bit as tasty and nutritious.” She suggests bulking out a bolognese with tinned lentils (bonus points for adding fibre), and using tinned fruit in baking, such as apricots and peaches. Tinned fish is also great value. “Sauté onions, garlic, tomatoes and tinned sardines with sultanas, then toss through cooked pasta and finish with toasted breadcrumbs.”
Harneet Baweja, founder of the Gunpowder restaurant group, is a fan of canned pulses and beans. “They’re a great source of protein as well as affordable, and can be made into lots of dishes that will go a long way.”
Buy a whole bird
“A whole bird is three meals,” says Scott Smith, head chef at The Oarsman Marlow in Buckinghamshire. “Break it down and you have your breasts for one meal, the legs for another, and the bones make a stock for a base for a soup.” Akhurst agrees, pointing out that the cost of one chicken is considerably less than separate packets of breasts, thighs and drumsticks.
Drop a brand
“Don’t drop from luxury to supersaver with things like cereal or coffee as you’re unlikely to like it,” says Mulholland. Instead, she says, drop down one price bracket only, but go supersaver on the cheapest items like flour and oats that you’ll be mixing with other ingredients.
Chef Judy Joo of Korean restaurant Seoul Bird in West London says that supermarket own brands are always improving. “Peanut butter is a great example. There are lots on the market made from 100 per cent peanuts that don’t use palm oil. Most cost less than half the well-known brands.”
Be a little bit vegan
“Being vegan can be cheap,” says Meriel Armitage of vegan Mexican restaurants Club Mexicana in London. “Ditch the processed fake meat products and use beans, nuts and pulses instead for vegan bean and nut burgers.” Find nuts expensive? “Nuts, seeds and dried fruit are so expensive in supermarkets because they sell them in such small packets,” says Armitage. Find wholefood bulk suppliers online, such as Buy Wholefoods Online or Wholefood Earth.
Grow your own lettuce and herbs
“Easier than you think,” says Armitage, “and can be done on a sunny windowsill or a small garden. Seeds from your local garden centre are cheap and lettuce grows really well here. Pick hardy herbs like parsley, dill, mint and rosemary.”
“A quick audit of your fridge, freezer and cupboards before you head out will help you avoid topping up on ingredients you already have,” says Akhurst. “Try reserving a drawer or shelf in your fridge for ingredients that are getting a bit limp and get into the habit of clearing this before you stock up again. Chuck any sad looking veggies in a roasting tray, toss with a few spices and drizzle with oil and then roast until golden. Great tossed through grains, tucked inside a crepe, thrown into a pasta or added to soup.”
“UHT-style plant-based milks taste exactly the same as the refrigerated ones, but last longer and are cheaper,” says Armitage. “The ones in the fridge are just a marketing ploy to make people think they are fresher or better. Nearly all the supermarkets do an own-brand long-life soy and oat milk, often for less than £1 a litre, which is way cheaper than the refrigerated brands.”