Healthy food and the cost of living crisis: are the two incompatible? At present, many people are having to look at every aspect of their household budget to try to find cost savings. With the price of commonly purchased foods and drinks having risen by 5.9% in the year to March 20221, you might be looking at your weekly grocery bill and wondering how you can make some savings.
How Much is Reasonable to Spend on Food?
Before I move on to talk about how you might do this, it is worth noting that we live in an era in which we have come to expect cheap food. In 1957, approximately 33% of household spending was on food2, whereas by 2019-20, it was only 10.8%3. Of course, in that time income has risen and certain other costs, such as housing, have soared. With many people in poverty, I’m very aware that not everyone has the luxury of being able to reorder their financial priorities. However, if you do have a little wriggle room, I would urge you to consider food as a valuable resource for your health, and that it’s worth buying the best quality that you can. My own health is such that good food is a non-negotiable, and any luxuries or treats just have to come out of whatever money is left after we buy good quality food. For me, buying nourishing food comes before thinking about entertainment, new clothes, accessories or gadgets, for example.
Impacts of Nutrient-Poor Foods on Health
Let’s have a look at why switching some of your meals to cheap, ultra-processed foods in an attempt to save money is not such a great idea. Every 10% increase in ultra-processed foods in a person’s diet is associated with a 12% increase in cancer incidence, a 21% increase in depressive symptoms and a 12% increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease. That’s quite a price to risk paying. Aside from the costs to your health, being ill is not cheap either. Ultra-processed foods, such as ready meals, are often low in essential nutrients and contain chemicals which seem to adversely affect health4. In addition, ultra-processed foods are not satiating; they tend to intensify food cravings, leading to eating more food, which of course incurs further cost….
So what to do? There are a lot of things you can try to reduce your weekly shopping bill whilst still eating nutritious, wholefood meals. Here are my recommendations for how to go about this.
Plan Your Meals and Use Your Plan to Make a Shopping List
If you know me well, you’ll know I’m a huge advocate of meal planning. There are several reasons for that, but when it comes to budgeting, having a meal plan means that you’re less likely to end up with food that you end up throwing away. By thinking about what you are going to eat for the following week (or even start by planning for just the next few days) before you get to the supermarket, you give yourself a chance to think about more economical options rather than being tempted by the shiniest packaging in the shop.
I meal plan by deciding on the protein source in the meal first. Will it be plant protein such as pulses, eggs or some good quality meat or fish? The last two are often the most expensive choices, although I’ll share ways to save on them below. Then I make sure to buy enough vegetables for each meal, reckoning on half a plateful of veggies for each person per meal. Only then do I consider the carbohydrate source (whole grains or starchy vegetables). Finally, I think about store cupboard essentials that might be running low. I write my shopping list based on all this, and then – the important part! – I stick to my list when I shop.
Get Creative with Leftovers
Hopefully, planning your meals will reduce the amount of unexpected leftover food you have. However, life doesn’t always go according to plan, and there will be times when you don’t use up as much food as you thought. It can also save cooking time as well as money to plan to have leftovers which you can then use to make another meal. Here are some ideas:
- Make an omelette, a Bolognese sauce (add lentils for protein) or a soup with leftover vegetables
- Puree fruit that is becoming overripe and eat as a dessert or with breakfast
- If you have meat leftover after a roast, use the cooked meat in a stir fry
Always follow food safety guidelines on storing and reheating leftovers.
Be Savvy About Dates
Speaking of food safety, it’s estimated that 10% of the food waste in Europe is caused by confusion over food labelling5.
“Use By” means that food is unsafe to consume after this date and should not be eaten. On the other hand, “Best Before” is a term referring to quality, not safety. After the best before date, food may have a slightly different flavour or texture, but it does not mean that it is unsafe to eat. “Sell By” is a term for food vendors, to help with stock control, and is of no relevance to us when we are eating the food.
So there’s no need to automatically throw out foods that have passed their best before date. The campaign site Too Good To Go https://toogoodtogo.co.uk/en-gb/campaign/commitment has information on how to judge if a food that’s past it’s best before date is safe to eat by looking at it, smelling it and having a taste of it.
Swap Some Animal Protein for Plant Protein
You probably know that it’s good for the environment, but eating more vegan or vegetarian meals can be a good way of saving money too. Good plant based protein sources include beans, lentils, chickpeas, unprocessed soy, nuts and seeds. Lentils used to be known as “poor man’s meat” because of how cheap they were in comparison to meat. That hasn’t changed.
You can buy beans, lentils and chickpeas either dried or ready to eat in cans, cartons or pouches. Dried pulses all need to be boiled; beans and chickpeas also need to be soaked beforehand as well. Comprehensive details for how to prepare all pulses, as well as recipe ideas, can be found here: https://pulses.org/recipes/cooking-with-pulses . Whilst it’s handy to have some canned pulses in your cupboard to use when you are in a rush, you can save a lot of money by buying dried pulses in bulk. Asian grocery stores are often good places for bulk purchases of dried pulses, or you can buy online.
Consider Cheaper Cuts of Meat
There are big cost savings to be had from buying cheaper cuts of meat. When it comes to red meat, cheaper cuts such as chuck, shoulder or leg do require longer, slower cooking, but when given this time they can be just as tasty. Slow cookers are inexpensive and a great way to cook meat slowly.
Cooking a whole chicken and then using the meat for several meals is almost always cheaper than buying individual chicken portions for each meal. Drumsticks or thighs are cheaper than breast.
Organ meat (such as liver or kidneys) is remarkably cheap, and exceptionally nutritious when compared with muscle meats. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it could be worth another try if it’s years since you last ate it.
Canned fish can provide a very cheap and easy protein source for lunches. Just make sure that your fish isn’t canned in sunflower oil or a sugary sauce.
It’s worth noting here that animal products contain much higher levels of environmental toxins than plants do. This means that I recommend only eating meat or poultry that is organic (or reared in a way that is compatible with organic standards) and only wild-caught fish. Of course this raises the cost of meat, poultry and fish considerably, but choosing the cheaper cuts suggested here can definitely help, combined with opting for more plant based meals.
Eat Locally and Seasonally
Unsurprisingly, fruit and vegetables that are locally grown and can simply be transported from the fields to shops are much cheaper than produce which either has to be shipped from the other side of the world, or put in storage in a controlled environment for months. We all know that strawberries are cheaper in June than in the winter, and taste completely different too, yet we have got used to being able to buy any plant we want at any time of year.
Eating what has been grown near you and is in season is not only a good way of saving money. It can also be a lovely way to reconnect with nature and a love of food. A trip to your local farmers market will probably show you what’s in season now, or you can get a current list from http://www.eattheseasons.co.uk/, which is updated every week. I also like the seasonal eating chart at https://eatseasonably.co.uk/
Prioritise the “Dirty Dozen” when Buying Organic
I’ve mentioned buying organic meat and poultry, but what about vegetables? In an ideal world, all our produce would be organic, but the politics of agriculture and food pricing is probably best left for another post! As it stands, there is no doubt that organic fruit and vegetables cost more than those farmed with chemicals. If you are concerned about your toxic load but are limited by budget, then have a look at the Dirty Dozen list compiled by Pesticide Action Network UK, which you can request from this site: https://www.pan-uk.org/dirty-dozen/. PAN-UK analysed the UK Government’s Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF) annual reports from 2018 to 2020, and used the data to come up with a list of the 12 plants which are most likely to contain the highest levels of pesticide residues. In other words, if you have to choose, only buy organic versions of the plants on the Dirty Dozen list. Other fruit and veg is likely to contain lower levels of pesticide residues.
Use your Storage Wisely
Buying in bulk is often more economical, so if you have space, you can save money by making best use of it.
Use your freezer for frozen vegetables (just as nutritious as fresh), berries and meat. Bread is one of the most wasted foods; you can freeze sliced bread and then remove individual slices as you need them. Leave some space in your freezer for leftovers from batch cooking! Check the star ratings on your freezer for how long it is safe to freeze different foods.
Store cupboard items that you can often save on by buying in bulk include pulses (as discussed above), tinned and canned goods including fish, dried herbs and spices, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Many of these can be bought in bulk online.
And Finally…. Grow Your Own!
This is one that I need to work on, but growing your own vegetables can be relaxing and rewarding as well as money saving. And you don’t necessarily need a large garden, or even a garden at all. Herbs and some salad vegetables can be grown in containers or window boxes.
I hope that this has given you some ideas in addition to what you’re already doing to manage your food budget. A diet based on whole foods is a pillar of health, so it’s definitely worth making an effort to try to maintain, even when times get tough.
- Office for National Statistics (2022) Consumer price inflation, UK: March 2022 [Online]. Available at https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/inflationandpriceindices/bulletins/consumerpriceinflation/march2022 (Accessed 13 May 2022).
- Office for National Statistics (2017) Celebrating 60 Years of Family Spending [Online]. Available at https://blog.ons.gov.uk/2018/01/18/celebrating-60-years-of-family-spending/ (Accessed 13 May 2022).
- Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2022) National Statistics: Family Food 2019/20 [Online]. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/family-food-201920/family-food-201920 (Accessed 13 May 2022).
- Great Britain. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2021). National Food Strategy Independent Review: The Plan. [Online]. Available at https://www.nationalfoodstrategy.org/the-report/ (Accessed 13 May 2022).
- Too Good to Go International Best Before Labels are Causing Food Waste and We’re Trying to Change That [Online]. Available at https://toogoodtogo.co.uk/en-gb/campaign/commitment (Accessed 13 May 2022).