Healthy eating on a shoestring

budget thrifty healthy

Healthy eating is often considered expensive and a privilege of those that are well off. In addition, food prices are rising, so that for those who are on a tight budget there does not seem to be any other option than to go for the cheaper, but unhealthy fatty and sugary products provided by the food industry: processed foods, ready meals, and junk foods. However, there are a few strategies that can help you lead a healthier life for less.


1. Cook your own meals!

There is no better way to save money on food. Ready meals and fast food are made from cheap ingredients and contain additives, yet they are not that cheap for you to buy. That’s just what we are lead to believe. For instance, a few years ago a popular fried chicken fast food chain advertised the fact that they could feed a family of four for just £10. That didn’t seem all that cheap to me, so I worked out the cost of some popular dishes such as shepherd’s pie, spaghetti Bolognese, and pizza for four, if made at home. Everything came in at £5 or less, even a shepherd’s pie using only organic ingredients would have cost just £7. So £10 may be a steal in comparison to other restaurants, but it would never hold up against home-cooking.  

2. Plan your meals and only buy what you need

Oft quoted advice and still good: Don’t go shopping when you’re hungry so you are not tempted to buy foods and snacks that you don’t need. Consider online shopping. Even though you'll have to pay a delivery fee, you won't be distracted by items that weren't on your shopping list. For the same reason, it is wise to stick to one weekly shop, because every time you enter a supermarket, you're in danger of picking up more than you wanted to.

Do you often end up throwing food away because it’s gone off before you’ve had a chance to use it? If so, resolve to sit down this weekend and plan exactly what you’ll need – before doing your weekly shop. It’s usually cheaper to buy larger quantities, so try to organise your main meals so you’ll be using some of the same fresh ingredients two or three times during the week. By buying only what you need and using what you have you will reduce waste and save time.

3. Buy local foods that are in season

Local, seasonal food is usually cheaper than produce that has been flown halfway around the world. It tends to taste nicer, too, as it was allowed to ripen properly, whereas non-seasonal foods are usually picked too early so they survive the journey and don’t go off before they even reach supermarket shelves. If you don’t know what is in season, check out a seasonal calendar.

4. Stick to basic fruit and veg

Keeping it simple can save a lot of money. Simply buy carrots, onions, cabbage, potatoes, leeks, apples and other typical local food rather than spending a few pounds on tiny portions of exotic foods. You are paying for their journey. Keep these as special treats. Steer clear of pre-washed and pre-chopped lettuce, broccoli, carrots and potatoes in bags. They are more expensive than the whole, lose versions. The more work it saves you, the more you pay for it. 

5. Never buy “diet products”

“Diet products” are those hugely expensive shakes, “meal replacement bars”, energy gels and other weird mixtures and potions that bear no resemblance to actual food. They are overpriced and of questionable nutritional value. You are not on a diet, you are changing the way you eat for good and using these products would prevent you from learning about how to live well on real foods. Avoid products marked “light” and “low-fat”, too. They are often more expensive than regular versions, and there is no health benefit. Fat is replaced by sugar to keep fat-reduced products palatable. Yet, it is sugar, not fat that promotes weight gain.

5. Buy bulk – but the right things

Buying twice our usual amount of snack foods because they’re on offer unfortunately doesn’t always mean that they’ll last twice as long in the cupboard. The more we buy, the faster we tend to get through it. Better to stock up on store cupboard staples such as brown rice, tinned or dried beans, tinned tuna and salmond, crispbreads, oatcakes and anything else that keeps well or which you can freeze.

Dried pulses are much cheaper than tinned: One 500-g-packet of cannellini beans, for example, costs approx. 15p more than one tin, but yields about the equivalent of 6 tins when cooked. Cook the entire or half a packet once and freeze in 230 g (= one tin) portions.

6. Shop when products are reduced

Most shops will cut prices on their perishable foods near the end of the day – if the “best before” date is the current day they will have to be binned if they’re not sold. Go shopping an hour or two before the shops close – you can often pick up some great bargains. The best products to look out for are bread, fruit, vegetables and chilled foods.

7. Look up and down

Supermarkets tend to stack cheaper brands and own brands above or below eye level.

8. Try cheaper supermarkets

Don’t dismiss the idea of switching to a cheaper shop such as Lidl or Aldi for part of your weekly shop.

9. Do the Store Cupboard Challenge

Go through your cupboards and see what’s there. Resolve to not shop for food items for a week, but to get by with what you’ve got. I did this once just to see how long I would last. I bought only fresh foods such as fruit, vegetables, fish and butter, but no store cupboard items: no rice, no pasta, nothing tinned, no pulses, no oil and vinegar … I didn’t have to shop for any of that for six week’s! Once there’s room in your cupboards:

10. Consider vegetarian meals

Vegetarian protein tends to be cheaper than good quality meat or fish. Plan at least half your meals around beans and lentils and consider tofu and tempeh. Dried pulses are the cheapest (see above). You do not have to go vegetarian, but you can use lentils to make your meat dishes go further: stir them into soups, stews, Bolognese or lasagne, and cook for 30 – 40 minutes. They will break up and be hardly noticeable, yet adding a certain creaminess to your dish. You will need less meat and at the same time the lentils make your food more nutritious.

11. Use your leftovers

It's cheaper to buy a whole chicken (free-range, if you can) than chicken breasts, drumsticks, wings etc. You can even use the bones to make bone broth. Cook a whole chicken and use the meat and bones over the course of a few days. Leftover potatoes and veg can be mixed with eggs to make a frittata, bits and pieces of vegetables can be used for a soup or stew, enriched with some beans or a couple of leftover sausages. Check out Love Food, Hate Waste for inspiration. 

12. Make your own ready meals

When cooking sauces, stews, risottos, soups, Bolognese, chilli, pizza etc make extra portions, leave them to cool then store them in lidded pots in the freezer.

For more tips on meal planning, inexpensive meal ideas, storage and shopping tips that help reduce waste and save you money, visit Love Food, Hate Waste