Eating well on a budget? It’s a doddle, with Conor Pope's help
If you're a student, or working with a student budget, you don't have to live on beans. Honest
Do not be tempted to buy stuff you don’t want or won’t use just because it is on special. Photograph: Getty Images
One of the most important things you need to learn as a student is how to cook. Not only is it empowering and fun and much, much better for you and your pocket than takeaways, canteen food and ready meals, it’s also a great way to impress the opposite (or indeed the same) sex. And let’s be honest, for many students that is key.
But it is not all about scoring. Making sure you eat properly by cooking nutritious food will improve the quality of your life, your skin and your studies.
It can be very simple and very cheap – a tin of tomatoes, a clove of garlic and an onion will have you a basic pasta dish in less than 15 minutes and will cost a third of the price of a jar of processed tomato sauce which will be full of sugar and nowhere near as good for you.
But you can’t live on tomato sauce. Whole grains and beans are cheap as chips, easy to prepare and very good for you. Learn to cook Mexican and Indian food. These national cuisines tend to rely on inexpensive ingredients, such as beans and rice.
It is still possible to eat meat on a tight budget, but you might have to rely on cheaper cuts like chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts. Try shin of beef instead of round steak. Cooking with cheaper cuts is simple. It just takes a long, long time.
Invest in a good casserole dish, chuck the meat in to it with some onions, vegetables, carrot and stock. Whack it into the oven and leave it for at least four hours. Better still, get someone to buy you a crock pot or a slow cooker and put your dinner on before you leave for college in the morning.
When it comes to eating meat on the cheap, your local butcher is your friend. He knows what the best-value meat is and how to cook it. If he offers to cut or trim cheap meat for you, say yes – it can be grim otherwise.
Bacon off-cuts in Tesco are also very good value for money. The joints are misshapen but when chopped up they make very good lardons, perfect for soups and pasta sauces.
Power of planning
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 with you. Make a weekly menu plan outlining what you want to eat each day at home and at college. Cover all the meals and snacks.
Remember supermarkets are not always the cheapest place to buy food. If you live close to a street market such as those found on Moore Street or Camden Street in Dublin, 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.
And never ever shop hungry or hungover.
Turn your back on brand names and only buy own-brand foods – 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.
There are more sites devoted to student cooking than you could get through in a lifetime but we like studentrecipes.com, which is written by students for students. If you want to buy a book, Sam Stern’s Student Cookbook is very good and will turn you into mini-Gordon Ramsay before you can say, “Dammit, I’ve burned the poxy onions again.”
Do not be tempted to buy stuff you don’t want or won’t use just because it is on special and avoid bulk-buying perishables – seven heads of lettuce for the price of three may look like great value but it won’t look so clever when the soggy lettuce is in your bin.
And remember porridge is your 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, just go with Flahavan’s – excellent quality, and Irish too.