Food, glorious food! (hot sausage and mustard…)
We might be able to do without many things, but there’s no getting around it: we all gotta eat. Luckily, for most of us, that’s no hardship. Food can be expensive, but the weekly grocery bill is usually also one of the easiest ones to cut down. Not everyone wants to live on lentils and rice, but with a bit of planning, the cost of eating well can be much lower than many seem to think.
Cutting my food budget without compromising my bellicose foodie demands has been one of the most fun and satisfying aspects of my frugal adventure. We are food-lovers in this house and we try to eat organic food as much as possible. Even so, we keep our grocery bill below $100 a week, most weeks. This is for a family of three or four, depending on the day, and also regular visitors. We tend to cook for another family once a week as well.
We have gone lower – we once went about three weeks where we spent about $12 and we could probably do that again, but it involved eating a lot of lentils and rice and the limited range of veggies we had growing in the garden so for us it got boring. Nice to have those skills, though, when times get really lean. It’s a balance each of us must decide for ourselves. We could get our bill down further by eating non-organic food and cutting out meat, for example, but for us, those were not things we wanted to compromise.
The key is to find a sustainable way of eating cheaply – we couldn’t sustain the cheapest style indefinitely, so we found a level that was good for us. We can always return to lowering our bill further, if need be.
Here are a few of my tips:
Think you don’t have a green thumb? Don’t kid yourself. I am telling you, I was once someone who convinced myself that I was ‘hopeless at gardening’ because I neglected a few houseplants until they died when I was partying and twentysomething. Despite my parents’ avid love of gardening, I was completely uninterested as a teenager. I took for granted the amazing fresh produce that I grew up on until I left home and started eating the bland supermarket imitations. To me, my parents were weird and gardens were dirty, hot and full of bugs. I convinced myself that a green thumb was some magical quality that some people possessed and I was not one of them.
I now know that this is a load of codswallop; categorically and utterly untrue. The green thumb myth is a cop-out. Anyone can grow plants. Three things ensure success: proper preparation of the soil, daily tending and observation, and contact with experienced elders. Take care of these three, and I promise that you will be able to grow a garden that will make your heart and tastebuds sing. It is not a huge investment of time. One week soon, I will write a more detailed blog about how we started out as ignorant brown-thumbs and ended up with an abundant garden that gives us a free organic dinner, more often than not.
Make friends with spices
This is one of the most excellent ways to turn an empty-looking cupboard into a beautiful window of opportunity. A few years back, I decided on a whim to learn about spices and balancing flavours and while I am not an expert, I have not looked back. It is quite amazing how much diversity of flavour you can get from a few spices and herbs and a good recipe book.
Since then, I have built up my larder with lots of spices and staples and it saves me a fortune. A good Thai curry paste really is as easy as following a decent recipe, as is a Japanese broth, good minestrone and Moroccan tagine. Learning about spices and buying them in bulk where possible has saved us a tonne of money. Buying a jar of curry paste or stir fry sauce every time you fancy a certain kind of meal costs a bomb, doesn’t taste as good and (if you’re anything like me) it will only add to the shelf of forgotten jars gathering mould in the fridge.
Trust me, instant food-lovers: that jar of Kantong or Chicken Tonight can be made over and over again from a few jars of decent spices and condiments. It is just a matter of finding and following some simple instructions, often just measuring and shaking stuff together in a jar. It tastes FAR better. A decent recipe is all you need to cook restaurant-quality food. I burn rice and stuff. I PROMISE you – if I can do it, anyone can! I taught myself about spices using two amazing books: Spice Market by Jane Lawson and Spice Notes and Recipes, by Ian Hemphill.
In a future blog, I will write further details about how to build a really kick-ass spice cupboard that will enable you to cook cuisine from all over the world. In the meantime, this very website is full of great ideas to make use of spices.
We also have a kitchen garden with herbs and chillis in it, which we are slowly building. We started with the basic parsley, basil, oregano, mint, chili and thyme and slowly built up other things as we could afford them – a kaffir lime tree, cammomile, a bay tree and a curry tree. A good kitchen garden is worth its weight in gold and can be grown from cuttings swiped from other people’s gardens and chucked in a styrofoam box. We pretty much don’t buy herbs anymore (other than coriander because it bolts in summer) and our backyard supply is ever so much nicer than supermarket herbs.
Invest in your larder
A decent larder should be well stocked with staples; dried legumes, rice, pasta, flour, milk powder and things like canned tomatoes. If you have those and spices in large quantities, you will have plenty to eat, even if you are absolutely skint. The best place to get these staples is from an Asian grocery if you have one nearby. About five months ago we spent about twenty bucks on some big sacks of lentils, chick peas and rice and a few big bags of spices.
We are STILL going through them, and we eat a lot of vegetarian food! Best twenty bucks I’ve spent all year, I think. A note about rice – it is one of the most genetically modified crops in the world. This may or may not alarm you, but it freaked me out, so now I buy expensive organic rice, which costs about five bucks for a tiny packet. You win some, you lose some.
Big batch on weekends
Let’s face it, mamas. We get home from work and we’re tired… so… very… tired. Junior has homework and cricket practice, the washing machine is playing up and we’ve run out of milk. Or perhaps we’ve endured a day with teething velcro-boy clinging to our leg and the older one getting jealous and bopping him on the head. Not only that, but we have a headache and PMT. Something like that. I’m sure many of you can relate, at least a little. Who wants to dig out Jamie Oliver and cook a gourmet three-course meal, especially knowing certain young fusspots are probably going to turn their noses up in disgust? So you reach for the fish fingers, the Chicken Tonight, the frozen pizza, or (if you’re me) the Weet Bix. Bam! Dinner is served. And who can blame you? You’re only human, right? No judgement here. I’ve been there. Thing is though, we pay a huge premium for that convenience. Cooking from scratch is so much cheaper. Enter, big batch cooking.
It needn’t be a huge outlay of time and effort. It really is about making a larger quantity and popping some in the freezer. Why not make it a social event and join your local MamaBake group?
Another great thing about shopping and big batching on weekends is that you can take stock of what you have and use up things in your fridge before they go off.
Plan your meals
I already mentioned this last week, but it’s worth another mention because I can’t believe how much money it has saved us – first, by enabling us to be more conscious about the perishables in our fridge, and also, because it allows us to make the most of what we already have. Other frugal folks I know have raved about menu planning, and I always pooh-poohed it because I thought it wasn’t for me. I didn’t feel like blocking out precious weekend time to sit there planning meals. I am not a naturally organised person and I just thought it was a bit of a wank, quite frankly. I gave it a go, though, and I am a total convert.
Planning out meals is not as time-consuming as I thought it would be, and it is actually quite fun. We tend to base our meals around what’s in the garden and it is exciting, thinking up exotic meals from what we have. Planning means we can minimise our spending on groceries through our choice of recipes. Lots of good recipe websites have a database you can use to search for recipes that use what you’ve got in the cupboard. We get an organic fruit and vegetable box delivered and we tend to base our plans around what’s in that and the garden. Thanks to our well-stocked spice and staple larder, we often only need to buy meat, bread and milk.
Meal planning has made a massive difference to our weekly food bill. I know it sounds like a waste of your precious time, but it is worth it. Actually, I think it actually saves time, not to mention curtailing that horrible after-work brain fuzz that tends to have us ringing Dominos and putting on that bloody Pixar movie for the zillionth time.
Go vego, even part time
Man, meat is expensive! As it should be. We pay a premium for our meat here in Australia so that our animals are treated far more humanely. We could get the prices right down by factory farming, but who wants that? Some animals are factory farmed even here. Anyway, my point is, a far more humane and economical option is to go vego. Find a family with chickens and give them a bunch of herbs in exchange for some eggs, or get some chickens yourself. Grab a big sack of lentils from the Indian grocery and eat a truckload of curry. It’s healthier for your pocket, it’s better for the planet, it is good for your heart and easy on your conscience.
Waste not, want not
Yeah, chucking out food. It’s a problem. I already quoted some pretty yucky statistics about the waste that goes on in this department. A few suggestions: make a soup to clear the fridge. Try not to add vegies to the fridge without clearing out the wilted old stuff first. Soup is mega, mega, mega cheap and tends to be a pretty forgiving, flexible thing – pretty much any combination of rooty veg, tomatoes, herbs and stock will do the trick I find. It’s pretty hard to mess it up.
Do NOT throw out those shrivelled carrots!
While we are on the topic of soup, STOCK is a great way to minimise wastage even more. The only scraps that tend to make it straight into the compost bin in this house are banana peels and stuff like that. Onion peels, meat bones, shrivelled carrots, wilting herbs, puckered looking tomatoes, pumpkin peelings and so on are all great in stocks. I used to follow recipes but now we just gather whatever we have in a plastic bag in the freezer and pop it in the slow cooker with some water once a week. We use this stock for soups, often to clear out the rest of the veggie stash in the fridge. Chuck a few herbs in and bam! A meal from stuff that might have once ended up thrown in the (preferably compost) bin. Don’t fancy soup? The stock keeps indefinitely in the freezer.
It’s amazing how much stuff can be salvaged. I could cry when I think about all the pumpkin seeds I have thrown out in my life. I love pumpkin so I am picturing a pile of seeds about the size of a chest of drawers or something. I could have roasted them in the oven for a delicious little snacky. You can get all fancy and put cumin and salt on them or whatever, but we just roast them plain, maybe add a sprinkle of salt and YUMMMMM! They are SO GOOD. Just take care to only lightly roast as I found out the hard way that charred ones aren’t nearly as nice – oops!
Another tip for non-gardeners: make sure you eat the most perishable vegetables first. For example, salads are best eaten within a couple of days of buying fresh produce, whereas potatoes and starchy veggies will keep. It sounds pretty straightforward, but I know I have definitely thrown away far too much food as a result of forgetting about those salad leaves until they are all slimy and icky. Which brings me to one last little tip:
Store stuff well
Proper storage minimises waste. Storage of fresh produce is worth looking into. Find out how to freeze things effectively. We use and reuse lunchboxes and zip-loc baggies because they prevent freezer burn. If you don’t fancy growing your own herbs or they are not in season, either wrap them in paper and put in the fridge or chop, steep in oil and freeze in ice cubes. I got that one from Pinterest – a great place to get storage ideas. Storage also allows you to buy in-season food when it is cheapest and at premium quality. Buying food in season is cheaper and it tastes better too. For example, if you see cheap corn, you can buy a glut of it, blanch and freeze it and it will not go starchy. This is far better than buying a tonne of it and having it go starchy in the fridge, or buying corn from the other side of the world, where time in storage has not been kind, flavourwise.
We just bought a massive box of bananas on the verge of becoming overripe – bunches and bunches for $3. We couldn’t possibly eat them all fresh, so we chopped them up, dried half in the dehydrator and popped the other half in the freezer. We now have enough banana to make months’ worth of cakes, smoothies and that excellent banana ice cream. Yay for storage, I say! In fact, this is such a big topic in itself that I intend to write a blog focused on it.
How about a game of pantry Tetris?
Something I am working on myself is storing stuff so that it can be easily seen. I tend to be the sort of person who will have multiple boxes of cornflour and food dye because I rarely use it and forget I’ve already got it. My style of thrifty living means I am pretty much set up for armageddon, and I can easily have staples sitting there for months on end, lurking in the cobwebby shadows behind the massive bags of flour, beans and rice. Most of the stuff we chuck out from the fridge is whatever has been hidden from view. It’s a bit like a game of Tetris in my fridge, I must say.
Well, that’s quite enough for one week. Next week, I’m off on a frugal camping trip in a national park for my birthday, so it’ll be a short one. I’m planning to review Save With Jamie, Jamie Oliver’s new budget cookbook. Watch this space!
In the mean time, tell me your tips. Are you a whizz at home economics? Get in touch! I’d love to hear from you.