Eating on the cheap
Whether you're a naturally thrifty soul or a big spender, the amount we spend on feeding our families and ways to reduce that sum are giving us all food for thought.
Breakfast, lunch and an evening meal every day for a year - without including snacks - add up more than a 1,000 meals. And if your little darlings can't be parted from your home cooking until they're 18, that's a lot of grub.
It's no wonder we get fed up thinking what to cook next and that it consumes a big portion of our family finances.
Meal planning | Cooking and baking | Cakes and biscuits | Baby food | Cook in bulk/freeze | Cooking methods | Meals from leftovers | Portion sizes | Grow your own | Free food | Cheap meal ideas | Homemade chicken stock |
Put 'eating on a budget' into Mumsnet search and there are umpteen Talk threads discussing inventive ways to make food (and your money) go further.
- Bulk cook and freeze
- Use lentils, pulses to bulk out meals
- Menu plan so that any leftovers can be a casserole
- Make your own baby food and children's meals
- Stick to a budget
- Substitute canned tomatoes for meat
- Buy loose veg rather than packaged
- Avoid pricy veg boxes, choose your own
- Try own brands
- Don't buy salad bags - tooo pricey
- Make your own sarnies for work
- Shop online - set budget, don't go over it
- Look out for BOGOF
- Look for free delivery code
- Don't go shopping hungry
Combined, MNers' thrifty tips and culinary know-how are a recipe for money-saving success. So, first things first, The Plan.
It's a truth universally acknowledged on Mumsnet that if you shop without knowing what you're going to cook you spend more. Planning, planning, planning is paramount.
"I've found that planning is key. I try to avoid 'popping to the shops for a couple of things' as I always end up spending £20-£30 each time." Onlyaphase
If you go food shopping with some idea of what you're going to eat that week, you're less likely to impulse buy or over-buy. It also speeds up the entire process, particularly if you've got children in tow.
Aisle be having you
There's a cunning science to the way supermarkets are laid out and lit, designed to make us buy more and dearer produce. You can subvert this by varying the order in which you normally go round and by looking up and down - the most expensive items are generally at eye level.
Look out for BOGOF (buy one get one free) and similar offers, and don't shun supermarket own-brands. Carbs such as pasta and rice, and tins such as tomatoes and fruit are often significantly cheaper.
"Try the Value ranges before you dismiss them. Some stuff is exactly the same as that with more expensive branding, others are far poorer though." Laugs
You can also save money by thinking about the what, where, when and how of food shopping.
One Mumsnetter's meal plan
Monday - chicken, potato, veg
Tuesday - chicken and lentil curry from leftovers
Wednesday - beans on toast
Thursday - 1/2lb of mince, lentils, mushrooms and any other veg. Halve it and add tin of value tomatoes to one half, put other half in fridge. Make bolognaise out of this half
Friday - take mince and lentil mix out of fridge and make it into shepherd's pie with a layer of mashed swede between the mash and meat for extra bulk/roughage/interest
What to buy when eating on a budget
Food that's in season is cheapest and best. It's that simple. Plus, it will be fresher and tastier than anything else around.
"Eat seasonally! I try never to buy things out of season because they're so much more expensive." steamedtreaclesponge
Stock up on storecupboard basics such as pasta, rice and flour, so that you have the basis for a meal or for baking.
"Buy in sesame oil, soy sauce, fish sauce, garlic, chilli, value noodles and vegetable stock, so you can use any leftover vegetables to stir fry." supersalstrawberry
Generally, bigger is better for your purse.
"I used to buy small pots of jelly/custard/rice pudding for lunchboxes. What a waste of money! It is so much cheaper to buy big tins/make your own and portion it out." gemmieporklegs
"Bulk-buy things like bread to freeze, as even little trips to get another loaf of bread can result in more shopping bought when it's not really needed." FrankMustard
Food blogger and activist Jack Monroe gave us a run-down of ingredient swaps that will save you pennies without losing flavour. Watch here:
Where to buy when eating on a budget
If you never vary where you shop you may be missing out on food bargains elsewhere. So try:
- Budget food stores (Aldi, Lidl, Netto etc)
"Shop at Lidl twice a week for cheap things like beans and tomatoes and lots of veg." GossipMonger
- Markets and farm shops
These can be much cheaper for fruit and vegetables and, because you're buying them loose, there's far less packaging so it's greener too.
- The great British corner shop
"My top tip is Indian grocers for enormous and fabulous quality sacks of spices, rice and pulses. Also, proper markets for veg etc (the ones where you can get a scoop of anything for a quid are particularly good for bargains as long as you're going to cook it pretty soon)." Horton
- Previously shunned supermarket shelves
"In my local Tesco in their 'World Foods' aisle, or whatever they call it, you can get the same stuff for about a quarter of what they charge for it in mimsy little jars three aisles down." wasabipeanut
- Local specialist shops (aka nice ham shops)
If by some miracle you still have a local butcher or fishmonger, then use their expertise to save you money.
"My meat comes from our local butcher who I have struck up a friendly, customer/trader relationship with and he always steers me in the direction of cheaper cuts, and if he has anything special in he will let me have first pick! TitsalinaBumsquash
Meat and poultry are generally the most expensive foods we buy, so any savings here will have a big impact on your overall spend. One simple way of cutting costs is simply to eat meat less frequently, but if you're a household of committed carnivores, then try new cuts of meat or change the ones you usually buy.
"The biggest money saver for us has been switching to lower-priced cuts of chicken. Instead of boneless, skinless breasts, we now use thighs and legs. And I have discovered that they taste MUCH better." NoNickname
When to shop
You can save money by being canny about the time of day you hit your local supermarket...
"Find out the best time of day for reduced meat to be put out on the shelves, our local Co-op and Sainsbo's do this at different times, but if you can hit it right and beat the other bargain hunters to it, you're quids in." Frizbe
...and how often:
"ONLY visit the supermarket/shop/market once a week. Bread and milk can be frozen, meal plan so that your meals at the start of the shopping week use the fruit/veg that will go off soonest." notamumyetbutoneday
How to shop when eating on a budget
The alternative to trudging up and down the aisles, possibly with an increasingly fractious and demanding child or two in tow, is to shop online. You're more likely to stick to your shopping list, and if you spend over a certain amount most chains deliver for free.
"I menu plan. Have done an online order for Waitrose food and it came in at under £85. That is food for a family of five, cat food, and is to make five to seven different meals." FabulousBakerGirl
Check out the online special offers and use Mumsnet to find out about any promotional codes that will bring the overall price down further.
Make a note of what you're spending for a month, so you can see if there's any variation and any things that you keep buying that you're not using/throwing away. And did we mention The Plan?
All this planning and cooking from scratch can feel a shade austere, particularly if your usual culinary exploits involve popping something readymade into the microwave. But there's no way round it, cooking your own meals from scratch is the cheapest way to feed your family - and once you've got into your stride it'll be meals you've made that you're popping into the microwave from the freezer.
So where to start? One easy thing to make yourself, instead of buying Mr Grossman's or Mr Newman's, is pasta sauce.
"Whizz some canned tomatoes, garlic and herbs, veg if you want - cheap, tasty and freezable." scottishmummy
One staple make-your-own that will save you serious amounts of dough is bread. Bread makers cost less than £50 for a basic model and you can make a loaf for under 20p. Check out Mumsnetters' most highly rated breadmakers.
They can be set to bake overnight, so that you can wake up to the aroma of freshly baked bread, with the benefit that you know exactly what has gone into it.
Another make-your-own that needs initial outlay (kit starts at under £30) but then is incredibly cheap to make is yoghurt.
"I have a bulk (ie 1 litre) yoghurt maker, use organic UHT milk (99p) and strain the yoghurt to get fantastic organic Greek yoghurt. madlentileater
With an average batch of homemade scones needing just 8oz of flour, 1/2 tsp of baking powder, 2oz of butter/marg, 1oz of sugar, a drop of milk and a handful of currants, you'd be hard put to buy them readymade cheaper. Ditto fairy cakes, jam tarts, brownies, flapjacks and so on.
"Don't buy cakes and biscuits. I bake them myself and they're so much nicer." GossipMonger
Another expensive ready-made food you can replace some or all of the time, depending how much time you've got, is baby food.
"A slow cooker for baby food saves loads, avoids processed baby jars and is the perfect texture - I make the following for my eight-month-old, makes tons of freezable portions and also only needs mashing once the baby can take a bit of (soft) texture:
Beef/lamb/chicken (bones removed if using thighs)
Lentils or pearl barley
Bay leaves/bouquet garni/any herbs
Water or baby stock"
Making baby stock is very easy, as one mum describes: "It really is no hassle, just slightly more effort than boiling a kettle. Big pan, two carrots, two celery sticks, a leek, a bay leaf if you're feeling adventurous and boil away. I don't even bother peeling stuff. I bet you could blend down the veg for baby food, too."
And this chicken casserole recipe from DiamondsAreForever can be pureed and frozen in small quantities. Remember not to add salt if you're making your own baby food.
Fruits such as apples and pears can also easily be stewed, blended to get rid of any lumps and frozen in small quantities, using ice-cube trays or small pots.
There's an economy of scale when it comes to family cooking - making enough for two meals and freezing half saves money and time.
Meals such as curries and stews are easy to make in large quantities and will be even cheaper if you're using veg that's in season, on special offer or reduced.
"I always keep several meals worth of a basic mince mixture (mince, tomatoes, onions, garlic, celery) in the freezer that can then be turned into lasagne/spag bol/pie." TitsalinaBumsquash
Plenty of foods that you might not usually associate with freezing are, in fact, fine to freeze and mean you're not throwing uneaten food - and money - away. So butter and marg can be frozen for three months, ditto bread, raw pastry will freeze for up to six months and milk will freeze for a month (defrost in fridge and shake well before you use it).
"You can freeze cheese - grate and pop in freezer bags." TheMadHouse
Foods that don't freeze well are veg with a high water content, eggs in most forms (raw, hard-boiled, in sauces etc) and dairy products such as plain yoghurt, cottage cheese etc because they go watery/curdle when defrosted.
"Freeze everything you can and defrost when required in order to avoid things going bad, eg milk, herbs, bread etc." GreatGooglyMoogly
As well as the cost of your ingredients, there's also the actual cost of your cooking ie fuel. Pressure cookers are an economical way to cook as you can quickly cook all your veg in one pan, as opposed to lots of individual pans, and because the temperature is far higher than in a conventional pan, the cooking time is far shorter.
"We use the pressure cooker more to save time and gas." Shitemum
Slow cookers are another money-saver - some brands claim to use the same amount of energy as a light bulb - and they're ideal for cheaper cuts of meat because it ends up more tender than if it's cooked on the hob or in the oven.
And slow cookers aren't just useful for main meals, you can also cook porridge, soups and puddings in them.
"After you have ripped all the good stuff from your chicken, put the carcass in a large saucepan and cover with water.
Add one bayleaf, a few black peppercorns, a chopped carrot or two, one or two chopped celery sticks, a chopped onion, and any herbs you fancy (thyme is very nice).
Bring to boil, cover and simmer for as long as you want - a couple of hours is good.
Strain (you may need to skim the scum off the top as you go along).
If not using straight away, leave to cool and then refrigerate. You can also freeze it.
Makes great soups, casseroles, stews, etc."
"Never ever throw veg away, make it into soup instead." JulesJules
Turning the remains of one meal into the basis for the next means less expensive waste and less reliance on ready meals if you're short of time. This is a good recipe for using up leftover potatoes, for example.
"I make a big pan of lentil chilli and have it one night with rice and then the second either baked inside wraps, or served with baked potatoes; or pour into a pyrex dish and top with lightly cooked potato slices and cheese then cook until crispy." janeite
While blithedance suggests: "Leftover lamb? Curry, surely."
Leftovers can also be lunch. A wide food flask can be ideal for older children's and teenagers' packed lunches, so that last night's pasta or risotto can bring a bit of welcome variety to the sandwich rota. Ditto your own lunch.
"Freeze leftovers - I have two preschoolers so they have a cooked meal for lunch, therefore, even lone sausage and a small portion of mash can be turned in to a lunch for both with a small tin of beans. Use any fruit that is on the way out for crumbles, baking or smoothies." TheMadHouse
And TheBreastMilksOnMe suggests a super-simple and scrumptious bread and butter pudding as a good way of using up stale bread.
Lots of Mumsnetters' top tip for slashing family food bills is to increase the number of vegetarian meals you have.
"We have meat twice and fish once (or vice versa) a week, all other meals are veggie." Laugs
If you need some inspiration for new vegetarian dishes, have a look at Mumsnet veggie recipes. And if you've got a veggie dish that's a firm favourite with your children, please share it by uploading the recipe.
"We only eat meat every other day to save money and I use cheap cuts like shin or chuck steak for stews and casseroles. I also taught myself how to completely de-bone a chicken to get the most meat out of it and use all the other bits for stock." TitsalinaBumsquash
Lentils, pulses and grains
Lentils, pulses and beans are good sources of protein but significantly cheaper than meat or fish. So canny Mumsnetters use these, and nutritionally rich grains such as pearl barley and spelt, to bulk out meals.
"Use half the amount of mince it says in the recipe, use more tomatoes and add a grated carrot to help thicken. Works on all mince/tomato-based recipes." ButtercupWafflehead
"We've never changed the amount of mince we use in a recipe, but as the DCs have got older I've added more of the other stuff (sneaky but healthier I think!) so the volume's greater without a massive price hike." serenity
Keep an eye on how much you dish up - if it's a case of eyes bigger than belly, you could end up wasting food.
As one mum explains: "We realised we were throwing away food because of putting too much on to the plate - pasta and potatoes are the worst for this. I now measure pasta and serve potatoes in a bowl so that the leftovers can be used again." smallchange
Even before the recession began to bite, growing your own fruit and veg, whether in allotments, back gardens or window sills, was having a surge in popularity. And now sales of vegetable seeds are booming.
"We are growing our own herbs and salad leaves (expensive to buy and don't last long so more at risk of being chucked out). Also growing a few other veggies - tomatoes, courgettes, various beans and potatoes." JulesJules
There's lots of advice on Mumsnet for budding horticulturalists - whether tackling black fly on your beans or bird raids on your brassicas.
Given that packets of seeds can start at under a £1, developing green fingers can mean spending fewer green notes (and can encourage your children to try new foods). Even if you've only got a window sill or window box, growing your own herbs is significantly cheaper than buying them.
Allotment owners and kitchen gardeners tend to produce more than they can consume so befriend the allotment holders in your area - there are always gluts that need to be given away.
"Grow salad stuff and other veggies/swap stuff you have a glut with neighbours/friends." raspberrytart
And it wouldn't be Mumsnet if we didn't extol the virtues of keeping your own chickens.
"No meals out. No takeaways. Well maybe."
"Get a couple of chickens.. they eat scraps up and produce eggs. They make great pets which the dc's can cuddle, you can train them... and they are cheap to keep." BCNS
You'll have the collective chicken-keeping wisdom of MN to draw on.
And there's also good ol' nature's harvest to plunder, entirely free and gratis.
"Forage in hedgerows and woods - loads of places have raspberries, blackberries, walnuts, wild garlic, watercress, bilberries, dandylions." Anifrangapani
If your 'helpers' haven't scoffed them all by the time you get home, wild blackberries are delicious in crumbles or pies with apples or other fruit.
If you live in the country, you may be able to buy meat and game more cheaply direct from your local farmers.
And then there's hunting, shooting fishing:
"Rather than becoming a golf widow, get your DP to take up fishing. We had the most fabulous oven baked trout on Sunday and a trout omelette on Monday." shootfromthehip
- "Soup and crumble one night a week - cheap and filling. I tend to do lentil soup then plum crumble but there are lots of variations obviously." janeite
- "Just added a recipe called credit-crunch sausage casserole. Also do the thing with the roast chicken and stock. I tend to get about four risottos' worth from each chicken. When DD was younger I also used to freeze the stock in ice-cube bags and then could use little bits in her food and also cook couscous & noodles in the stock. Hey presto, instant meal." CowWatcher
- "Chickens can go a long way - roast, curry, pasta, wraps, risotto, soup. You can save the stock in small pop bottles and freeze." TheMadHouse
- "Have an on toast night once a week.. so beans on toast, spaghetti on toast, egg and soldiers, scrambled egg on toast etc." JHKE
- "Have beans on toast one night, omelettes/egg fried rice one night/ vegetable soup one night (add pasta and/or beans, lentils to bulk it out) or risotto." JulesJules
- "One night of egg, beans and chips won't hurt anyone." supersalstrawberry
- "Smaller amounts of leftover of any sauce based dish (bolognese, chilli, sausage casserole...) are good as a jacket potato topping too." DoNotAnnoy
- "Pancakes - just eggs, milk, flour and a bit butter, so a good storecupboard meal. Add some grated grated carrot to the mixture if you have it. Serve with the normal lemon & sugar, jam, chocolate spread OR whatever savoury things you have around.. ham and grated cheese, sliced tomato or mushroom, warmed through meat and cream mixture, improvise! Some kids like the savoury pancakes to be presented as a pizza rather than rolled or folded." sachertorte
- "We have eggy bread and baked beans probably once a week, also soup and chunks of baguette is pretty cheap and filling if you get enough bread!" schneebly
- "For a cheap dessert I make a bread and butter pudding using the slightly stale, leftover bread that doesn't always get used up at the end of the week." TheBreastmilksOnMe
- "Nursery puddings like rice pudding and steamed treacle pudding are a hit with my husband and children and they are filling and don't cost much: esp. the rice pud." 2Eliza2
- "Ask your mum or grandma how they made food eke out in their day." Shitemum
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Last updated: 18 days ago