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

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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.

Combined, MNers' thrifty tips and culinary know-how are a recipe for money-saving success. So, first things first, The Plan.

Meal planning

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.

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.

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.

Stock up on storecupboard basics such as pasta, rice and flour, so that you have the basis for a meal or for baking. Bulk-buy bread to freeze, too.

Keep up your stocks of sesame oil, soy sauce, fish sauce, garlic, chilli, value noodles and vegetable stock, so you can use any leftover vegetables to stir fry.

Generally, bigger is better for your purse: buying individual small pots of jelly, custard, rice pudding and so on is a waste of money. It's much cheaper to buy big tins and portion them out yourself.

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)
  • Markets and farm shops
  • The great British corner shop (try Indian grocers for enormous and fabulous quality sacks of spices, rice and pulses)
  • Supermarket 'World Food' aisles or sale shelves, or free-from shelves, where you can get the same stuff for about a quarter of what they charge for it three aisles down. 
  • Local specialist shops (aka butchers or fishmongers)

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 - try chicken thighs and legs instead of boneless, skinless breasts.

When to shop

You can save money by being canny about the time of day you hit your local supermarket. Reduced meat is put out on the shelves at different times of day depending on the shop, but if you can hit it right and beat the other bargain hunters to it, you're quids in.

There's disagreement over whether to do a big shop just once a week, or two or three smaller shops - it will depend on what works for you, how large your family is, meal sizes, and so on, but do make sure that you have a plan and, ideally, a list.

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. Check out the online special offers and use Mumsnet to find out about any promotional codes that will bring the overall price down further.

You should also 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?

Cooking and baking

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.

Pasta sauce

So where to start? One easy thing to make yourself, instead of buying Mr Grossman's or Mr Newman's, is pasta sauce. Just blend some canned tomatoes, garlic and herbs, and add some vegetables if you fancy them - cheap, tasty and freezable.


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. You can use organic UHT milk (99p) and strain the result to get fantastic organic Greek yoghurt, too.

Cakes and biscuits

With an average batch of homemade scones needing just 8 oz of flour, 1/2 tsp of baking powder, 2 oz of butter/margarine, 1 oz of sugar, a drop of milk and a handful of currants, you'd be hard put to buy them cheaper ready-made. The same goes for fairy cakes, jam tarts, brownies, flapjacks and so on.

Baby food on the cheap

A slow cooker for baby food saves loads, avoids processed baby jars and is the perfect texture.

Making baby stock is also 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."

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.

For more inspiration on what to make for your baby or toddler, browse Talk recipes and have a look at Mumsnetters' baby recipes and toddler recipes.

Fruits such as apples and pears can also easily be stewed, then blended to get rid of any lumps and frozen in small quantities, using ice-cube trays or small pots.

Cooking in bulk and freezing

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.

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 margarine can be frozen for three months, as can 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 also freeze cheese - grate and pop in freezer bags.

Foods that don't freeze well are veg with a high water content, eggs in most forms (raw, hard-boiled, in sauces) and dairy products such as plain yoghurt, cottage cheese, etc. (they go watery/curdle when defrosted.)

Cooking methods

As well as the cost of your ingredients, there's also the actual cost of your cooking, i.e. 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.

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.

Meals from leftovers

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.

Leftover vegetables never need to be thrown away, when they can be made into soup instead. Use any fruit that is on the way out for crumbles, baking or smoothies.

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. And a super-simple and scrumptious bread and butter pudding is a good way of using up stale bread.

Veg out

Lots of Mumsnetters' top tip for slashing family food bills is to increase the number of vegetarian meals you have.

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.

Lentils, pulses and grains

Lentils, pulses and beans are good sources of protein but significantly cheaper than meat or fish. Use these, and nutritionally rich grains such as pearl barley and spelt, to bulk out meals.

Portion sizes

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. Pasta and potatoes are especially bad for this. Try to measure pasta and serve potatoes in a bowl so that the leftovers can be used again.

Grow your own

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.

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 £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.

'Free' food

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.

And it wouldn't be Mumsnet if we didn't extol the virtues of keeping your own chickens: they eat scraps up, produce eggs, make surprisingly good pets which the dc's can cuddle, you can train them... and they are cheap to keep. You'll have the collective chicken-keeping wisdom of MN to draw on.

And there's also good old nature's harvest to plunder, entirely free. There's nothing wrong with foraging - lots of publicly accessible hedgerows and woods have raspberries, blackberries, walnuts, wild garlic, watercress, bilberries, and dandelions. 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.

Buy direct

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. One mum recommends: "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."

Cheap meal ideas

  • "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."
  • "Just added a recipe called credit-crunch sausage casserole. Also, get stock from a leftover roast chicken carcass. 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 and noodles in the stock. Hey presto, instant meal."
  • "Chickens can go a long way - roast, curry, pasta, wraps, risotto, soup. You can save the stock in small pop bottles and freeze."
  • "Have an on toast night once a week.. so beans on toast, spaghetti on toast, egg and soldiers, scrambled egg on toast etc."
  • "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."
  • "One night of egg, beans and chips won't hurt anyone."
  • "Smaller amounts of leftover of any sauce based dish (bolognese, chilli, sausage casserole...) are good as a jacket potato topping too."
  • "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 and 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."
  • "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!"
  • "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."
  • "Nursery puddings like rice pudding and steamed treacle pudding are a hit with my husband and children. They are filling and don't cost much, especially the rice pud."
  • "Ask your mum or grandma how they made food eke out in their day!"

15 ultimate cost-crunching tips

  • Bulk cook and freeze
  • Use lentils and 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
  • Salad bags are too expensive - mix and match your own leaves
  • Make your own sarnies for work
  • Shop online - set a budget and don't go over it
  • Look out for BOGOF offers
  • Look for free delivery codes
  • Don't go shopping hungry

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Last updated: 6 days ago