Bulk-buy, go own-brand: How to eat well on a budget
The secrets of buying healthy food cheaply? Smart shopping, porridge, cheap cuts of meat
The key to good cooking is good shopping. And the key to good shopping is lists. Photograph: iStock
It is easy to say it is easy to eat well on a budget. And it can be – a tin of tomatoes, a clove of garlic and an onion, a sprinkle of salt and a €1 bag of pasta will give you a basic, but lovely, meal that will feed four people handily enough in less than 15 minutes for not much more than €2. Potatoes are cheap as chips and hugely versatile while the super-six deals in Aldi and Lidl could probably feed a family for a week for less than a tenner if you were really creative.
But it is not possible to live on tomato sauce and pasta, or even potatoes, and the reality is that eating healthily can be daunting, hugely expensive, challenging and beyond the means of too many people.
Last year, a study from food safety and nutrition agency Safefood found that a family struggling to make ends meet will have to spend more than a third of their entire weekly budget – between €121 and €160 a week – on food if they want to eat a healthy and balanced diet.
That is, possibly, doable for some people but another report – admittedly one which dates back to 2009 – from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland makes for even grimmer reading. It looked in forensic detail at how affordable it was to eat healthily and focused on the most common household types.
It established what each household needed and priced that food, in supermarkets, budget supermarkets and corner shops. A healthy diet was just out of reach of families who were on social welfare, largely as a result of poor availability of good supermarkets in disadvantaged areas, the difficulty of shopping effectively if travelling by bus and how much cheaper it is to load up on food rich in fat, salt and sugar.
But cutting the grocery cost can be done.
It is possible to eat meat on a tight budget, but you have to rely on cheaper cuts, like chicken thighs instead of breasts. Shin of beef is much cheaper than steak for casseroles. Cooking with such cuts is simple but takes a long, long time – a slow cooker can make all the difference and dramatically cut down on electricity bills.
A way to save even more is to find out when your local supermarket discounts food that is about to go off
When it comes to eating meat on the cheap, your local butcher is your friend. He knows what the best value is and how to cook it. If he offers to cut or trim cheap meat for you, say yes – hacking raw flesh off bones is never fun. Bacon off-cuts in your local big supermarket are always good value for money. The joints might be misshapen but who cares when it is chopped up.
Whole grains and beans are dirt cheap, easy to prepare and good for you. Mexican and Indian food tend to rely on inexpensive ingredients, such as beans and rice.
The key to good cooking is good shopping. And the key to good shopping is lists . . . lists you stick to, not ones you scribble down and then forget to bring to the supermarket. Make a weekly menu plan outlining what you want to eat each day covering all meals and snacks. And stick to it.
Supermarkets are not necessarily the cheapest place to buy food. If you live close to a street market, you will be able to source fresh fruit and vegetables for a lot less. (The reason much of it is selling so cheap is that it is on the turn, so don’t leave produce sourced on stalls in your fridge for too long unless you like handling mushy, rotten vegetables of a morning). Buy everyday items, such as tinned tuna and beans on promotion and, when you see a good deal, buy it in bulk.
Experiment with own-brand – you will save yourself a packet. A way to save even more is to find out when your local supermarket discounts food that is about to go off (if you don’t want to ask in-store, ask online). The big retailers sell a lot of food that is about to pass its use-by date every evening after 5pm, so if you time your shopping right, you will do well.
And remember, porridge is always friend. It’s cheap, good for you and the best-value superfood you will find anywhere. And if you’re dithering about what brand to buy, take our word for it and go for Flahavan’s – it is top-notch quality and Irish too.