Frugal five: saving on the food shop

'Frugality' and 'austerity' are two words which have  catapulted into our lives recently. Losing my job when pregnant was hard enough  but now it is compounded by increases in bills, the mortgage and  fuel costs as well as changes to working tax credits. We have never been forced to cut back as much as now.

I know we're not alone in having to drastically cut back our expenses and honestly some days it can be down right depressing but on the whole I view this recent self imposed austerity as a challenge.  (I like to view most things in life as an exciting challenge, a bit like a computer game with achievements to be unlocked…even the crap achievements).

What I absolutely refuse though is for it to impact on the quality or imagination of our meals. I don't think we have to eat pasta 5 days a week (and anyway, pasta and a tomato sauce no longer seems a cheap meal option any more ) and I don't think we have to entirely forgo the occasional treat. What we do have to do is think more about what we eat and be as savvy as possible with the money.

We've been cutting back on our expenses gradually over the last few months and weeks and so far here are my top 5 tips for saving money on your food shop.

1) Menu plan. I love it when a plan comes together.

I am a very recent convert to the menu plan after discovering that it not only saves me money but I no longer have to think every day about what I will make  the following day (and I can see at a glance how balanced the weeks food is nutritionally). It takes a bit of time initially but keep previous weeks plans and after 6 to 8 weeks they can just be rotated. To get me started I had 'themed' evenings so I knew that one night was pasta night another curry or Mexican…that sort of thing.  My plans also contain things I need to remember to do such as put beans on to soak the night before or take something out the freezer to defrost.  Thats not an essential part of the plan but it invariably saves me from going to make dinner only to find the pastry is frozen solid. (As  a slight aside most menu plans seem to just focus on evening meals but  I like to include lunches, snacks and baking)

Note: Once you have started menu planning make sure everyone in the house knows the score. If you have all been in the habit of dipping into the cupboards and fridge to snack on leftovers or crackers and dips it may take some adjustment especially if those leftovers now represent tomorrows lunch. If necessary make it explicitly clear they are not to be picked at. This may mean designating a shelf in the fridge or in the cupboard to foods which can be snacked on or colour coding containers so that people keep their hands off!

2) Write a shopping list…and stick to it!

Go through your menu plan and make the list as detailed as possible. Try and remember all the things not included. Do you need oil, margarine or …it's easy to miss something important. Sometimes at this point you can already see that your weeks shop is going to be too expensive so you might need to rejig your menu plan. That's ok though as remember once you have a few weeks worth of plans and lists you can just rotate them. Keep a copy of the shopping list for this reason.

Note: send the strongest willed person into the shop. You've made a list so if it isn't followed it becomes null and void. Supermarkets are run by devious people who have analysed human behaviour and therefore target our weaknesses. Be vigilant! If you know that one member of the household can't be trusted not to fall for the BOGOF or the seemingly reduced products then DON'T let them do the shopping. If that's not doable then try getting it delivered. Even if there is a delivery charge you may still save money that would have been spent on unnecessary items.

3) use key basic ingredients which can be used for multiple meals.

 I would not be without onions, garlic, carrots, celery, potatoes, a couple of fresh herbs and something green (spinach or broccoli for example).  Here's how I would consider using them:

The first 4 ingredients can be used as a flavour base for meals such as soups, stews, chilli…carrots and celery will also find their way into sandwich fillings and salads. Potatoes are still a cheap and filling carbohydrate and are versatile enough for it not to get too repetitive through the week.  Boiled, mashed, baked, roasted or made into wedges they can go into salads, be smothered in gravy, topped with beans or served with chilli or a burger. I like to eat my greens as they are a such an important source of magnesium, iron and calcium so there are always one or two green things on my shopping list. Coriander and parsley are the two fresh herbs we always have. Coriander will go with curries and chillies and parsley with almost everything else. Not only do they add flavour but can be considered as a green vegetable providing the same nutrients. Parsley is also very good for kidneys and urinary tract and coriander is a blood  cleanser. It's like eating superfoods at every meal.

4) Why buy it when you can make it? Or, don't buy it bake it!

In previous years I was the opposite of this but now, if I think something could be made cheaper and/or better, I'll do it. I make every meal from scratch with the only exception being the occasional  bean burger (but i make the chips!). I also make my own breads, rolls, chappatis, flatbreads, worcestershire sauce, biscuits, cakes…you get the idea. Yes, i could buy value range biscuits, beans and bread and it might work out cheaper but by making my own I can have luxury high end  items at a fraction of the cost. I may be trying to save money but I still want good quality foods for my family.

Note: making your own doesn't mean spending all day every day cooking and baking. Many things freeze or store well and I'll make double/triple/quadruple batches of things. It will take minimal extra time to do this rather than making the same item from scratch every few days or week.  I don't get much time myself to cook but I do have a 2 hour window in the mornings when the baby  will entertain herself quite happily so I get as much of my days cooking and tidying done between 7 and 9. The upside of this is the majority of my days household jobs are done first thing freeing up the rest of my day. This won't work for everyone but other suggestions are to spend one morning/evening a week batch baking for the month or to see if any friends are interested in sharing the tasks (so one person makes a load of cookies and someone else does bread and then share them out).

5) Don't get sucked in by the supermarket

As mentioned above deviousness abounds in supermarkets. 'Half price' items are not always a great deal, BOGOF's are only good value if its something on your list and value baked beans only end up being cheap if your family likes them and will eat them. Sometimes pre packed vegetables work out cheaper per kilo and sometimes not. Sometimes buying a larger size works out cheaper in the long run and sometimes not. It now takes me much longer to shop than it used to because I am checking the price of everything and I always, always look at the cost per gram/kilo to see what is cheapest.

If you are lucky enough to not have to shop at the supermarket consider where you are shopping. When I lived in Glasgow the fruit and veg in the grocers on one street was considerably higher than the fruit and veg in a grocers two streets away. The only difference? The expensive one marketed itself as a deli. There was no difference in the quality of their produce.

(For other money saving tips visit Lucy's  Frugal Living in the UK (UK specific but information applicable for all) . There are also many, many other ways to reduce the cost of your food bill listed and there are cheap recipes too.)

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