The Cost of Living

Well as most of you are aware by now it’s getting harder and harder to just live as costs are rising all over the place. As someone who is in a privileged position I am lucky that I can still afford my mortgage and bills (just about) and that I am not on the breadline.

However, like many people I am doing my best to cut costs as best I can and try to reduce expenditure where I can, so I thought I would share a few tips and tricks with you all.

Obviusly the first step is a bank statement inventory: what are the subscriptions and payments you have forgotten about? Do you really need that Which? subscription? How often do you really watch Amazon Prime? And so on – you can trim a surprising amount each month by going through your bank statement and asking yourself “Do I use this often enough to justify it?” if not, cancel!

(Oh if only my gym would let me cancel! Still locked in a battle with them on that one).

In this post I’m mostly going to be focusing on food and how to reduce costs on meals. There are many people who have done this on a far tighter budget than me (such as Jack Monroe the Bootstrap Cook), I’m going to preface this post by saying that I am not on quite such a tight budget as many people out there, so this is not going to be the absolute cheapest option but it has saved me quite a bit recently. Also I find it so insulting that our government assumes people are accessing food banks because they can’t cook! Almost everyone on a lower income knows exactly how to stretch their meals and make savings, and even though my meals are not the lowest budget option I would struggle very hard to get them down to 30p a portion, which the Gov claims is “easy when you know how to cook”.

The first step is to look at WHERE you shop.

Lidl and Aldi really are significantly cheaper than most mainstream supermarkets (at least in the UK). Switching supermarkets has made a really significant difference to my pocket and my budget when food shopping. The downside is you often need to buy non-name-brand options (which generally taste the same anyway) and sometimes they won’t have everything that you need. My trick is to do a monthly meal plan (I’ll get to that next) and do a big monthly shop at the start of the month (or after pay day) at Lidl. Then once I’ve bought 80% of what I needed on the list I’ll stop off at Tesco’s on the way home for anything I couldn’t find at Lidl.

As an example of the cost-saving – I filled a large trolley 3/4 full at Lidl, including buying some wine and beer, and spent £118 on a big monthly food shop. I stopped off at Tescos for some of the remaining items I couldn’t find at Lidl and filled 2 small baskets which cost me £58

Obviously this approach is slightly more laborious (going to 2 shops) but I am lucky there is a Tescos on my way home so I’m not wasting any extra petrol to stop off there. Also if you are planning to do a big shop once a month and do some batch cooking you only have to do it once. I also recommend downloading the Lidl app if you have a local Lidl – there are savings to be had and cashback if you spend a certain amount in a month so that’s worth getting if you are likely to spend more than £200 a month on groceries etc.

Another thing to look out for are community kitchens – these are similar to food banks but while a food bank requires a referral / certain benefits to access, community pantries and community fridges are generally free to anyone. Have a look in your local area and find out where your nearest ones are – you may be able to find some key staples like pasta, rice or potatoes going free and sometimes vegetables are free or pay as you feel. This often helps reduce food surplus and food waste as well as saving you some money. However with the rising cost of petrol you’ll need to factor in getting there – if your nearest one is 3 miles away and only open once a week where you will need to make a special trip, will the cost of the petrol outweigh the cost of some free pasta or potatoes?

One thing to try and do if you can is plan a day for things like shopping and errands so you can do everything on one trip and plan a route to save on petrol. Obviously this is hard for most people when you factor in the school run and work and general life getting in the way but might work for some people.

So once you’ve found a good budget supermarket, the next thing is the Meal Plan. There are people out there on the internet who can do amazing things with batch cooking. I’ve seen vidoes of (mostly women) planning a whole month’s worth of meals, buying it all once a month and cooking and freezing the whole month’s dinners and lunches. It can save a LOT of money and also make cooking dinners a tad easier.

However, I don’t really want to eat reheated frozen food every single night, and some meals freeze better than others so it’s worth thinking about what freezes well and what doesn’t.

You also need to have a decent sized freezer for batch cooking to work for you as a money-saving option, and that’s a big upfront cost many people can’t afford. However if you are lucky enough to have plenty of freezer space then you can really cut down on meal costs.

Here is an example of our month’s meals:

Now I usually try to make sure there is a good balance of healthy meals, that we’re not eating the same thing too many times, and that I have marked off days when we are going to be away or have visitors. We often find by the last week we veer off the plan and end up using up leftovers if there are any or foraging in the freezer. We don’t really eat much takeaway although occasionally if we have friends coming we might get a pizza or fish and chips etc. The beady-eyed among you will notice we have Duck Pancakes listed in the middle of the month. This is because I try to plan a “treat” meal once in a while in lieu of takeaway. These are £5.99 from Lidl so doesn’t cost the earth but makes us feel like we are having a real treat for dinner. But obviously I’m aware it doesn’t exactly look like a budget meal!

I can also plan our family activities around this – e.g. on Monday’s S has football so we need to eat earlier than normal, so I try and make sure that Monday meals are easy and quick or fairly low-maintenance. I also usually have enough leftovers from our dinners for my lunches (and sometimes S’s lunches to take to school) so I generally use up all the leftovers and don’t need to plan to buy separate food for lunches which helps keep costs down.

We don’t stick to the plan rigidly as often I will find I have planned something like beef stew or jacket potatoes on a day when it’s really hot, or we have a dentist appointment so I need a quicker dinner than what is on the plan, so we often swap meals around but it helps a lot with meal planning and food shopping overall.

I have done an inventory of my freezer (now that I have a chest freezer it’s easy to forget what’s in there!). This helps me to plan and think about what needs using up and what I need to cook more of each month.

It’s worth mentioning that when I batch-cook I make deliberately large quantities that would normally last us more than a month, so for example looking at the plan I know I have enough paella in the freezer for 2 dinners and it needs using up so those are planned as frozen rather than fresh meals. I also needed to batch cook chilli, bolognaise and tikka masala, but the quantities I made should be enough for at least 2 months.

So, you’ve picked a cheap supermarket, and you’ve done a meal plan and your “big shop” – Step 3 is the batch cooking. In addition to a large freezer you’ll need lots of tubs and containers, but you can often re-use packaging from other things (tubs of pasta sauce, takeaway containers etc) so no need to buy in bulk. Sticky labels are a must!

I recently made a chilli, bolognaise and tikka masala so I will try to price them out for you. Firstly, let’s look at making chilli.

My ingredients were as follows:

  • 1kg beef mince – £4
  • 2 onions – 55p
  • 2 large carrots (or 3-4 smaller ones) – 20p
  • 2 peppers (red or yellow) – 86p
  • 2 cloves of garlic – 10p
  • 2 tins of tomatoes – 74p
  • 1 tin of kidney beans – 49p
  • 2 tins of adzuki beans – £1.20 (these are not usually available at Aldi or Lidl so this is the Tesco price)
  • 1/2 pack of mushrooms – 45p
  • 1.5 packs of chilli seasoning – £1.50 (I bought the Old El paso one so this is the Tesco price but again could be cheaper if found at Lidl or Aldi).

Note that all prices are based on Aldi/Lidl prices but I have roughly adjusted assuming you are bulk-buying – for example I would buy a pack of 3 onions and use the extra one in another dish etc, or a large bag of carrots so I’ve estimated roughly what 2-3 carrots out of a bag would cost. Or buy a pack of 4 garlic bulbs so I have estimated the price of 2 cloves based on the assumption that I would do that however the prices are not very exact more like rough estimates.

A note on the ingredients – Kidney beans are cheaper and 2 cans of those would be fine too – beans and veg are a great way to bulk out meals as well as get extra veg into your kids. I have swapped out kidney beans for adzuki beans because they taste the same but are physically smaller so I can sneak more of them past my fussy eaters! If you have kids that don’t like kidney beans I suggest trying adzuki beans as they can be more easily hidden in the mince!

Also I’m sure it would be even cheaper if you bought dried beans and soaked and boiled them yourself but I usually just buy them tinned as it’s a lot easier.

Total cost for the chilli: £10.09

Servings – Approx 15

67p per portion

Most of these tubs are around 600ml size give or take a bit. One of these tubs would normally feed me and my two daughters (we tend to eat chilli with rice) and of course my younger daughter doesn’t eat as much. Usually there is enough left in a tub after dinner for me to have leftovers for lunch but it depends on how hungry we all are!

I got 7 tubs out of this batch so that’s roughly 14-15 portions and at least 7 dinners for my family. We are unlikely to have chilli 7 times in one month so this will do us for June and July.

In the past I didn’t bother putting dates onto my food but now that I’m doing it on a larger scale I think it’s helpful to know when it was made etc.

Now for the Tikka Masala:

There are several iterations of Jamie’s Tikka Masala recipe, including one on my blog somewhere, but the one I used this time and the ingredients are here. I have roughly priced it up as follows:

£12.85 for the whole batch

Approx 8 Servings

£1.60 a portion

Recipe notes – I have not priced up the dried spices and stock cubes as assume most people have these already at home however obviously if you don’t have any this would be quite a bit more money so bear that in mind. Similarly I haven’t included the cost of olive oil as assumed most people have this already.

Also this recipe usually makes way more sauce than chicken so in addition to the 8 servings of curry I usually get an additional 4 servings of just sauce which I will freeze so later you can just add in some chicken and have more – so it makes more than 8 servings (about 12 portions altogether) and costs slightly less per portion when you factor the extra sauce into the equation but I have left it simple for now as I just can’t work out the maths of adding in more chicken etc!

I don’t have a specific recipe for my bolognaise, but again have roughly worked out my usual ingredients and costed it out (it’s essentially the same as the chilli but without the beans):

1kg beef mince – £4
2 onions – 55p
2 large carrots (or 3-4 smaller ones) – 20p
2 peppers (red or yellow) – 86p
6 cloves of garlic – 20p
2 tins of tomatoes – 74p
3 beef stock cubes – 10p
Splash of Lea and Perrins / Worcestershire Sauce
1/2 pack of mushrooms – 45p
Large glug of red wine if you have some

Cost for the batch: £7.10

10 Portions

71p per portion

So there we are – that’s 2 month’s worth of chilli, tikka masala and bolognaise. As you can see from the meal plan there are plenty of other meals in there. But getting them down to 30p a meal would be pretty tough to achieve unless you start eating significantly smaller portions or get REALLY good at budget shopping.

Some other tips and tricks – I usually buy at the beginning of the month a couple of packets of super noodles or ramen – these are cheap and you can use up leftover veg like carrots, broccolli and sweetcorn for a quick and cheap dinner. and are delicious with a fried egg on top! These are handy to have in the cupboard for the end of the month if you are running out of ideas or short on cash before payday.

We also buy some frozen veg like peas and sweetcorn as you can more easily measure out exact amounts instead of ending up with 1/4 of a tin of something leftover. However some veg just isn’t that nice frozen.

I also recommend looking at vegetables like cabbage and cauliflower – they are cheap and last for a long time in the fridge and you can get several meals out of them, as opposed to some other veggies which go bad very quickly. Cabbage tends to have a bad reputation but is absolutely delicious if cooked and seasoned well.

We always buy fruit fresh and obviously don’t buy that in bulk as it would go off very quickly and be wasted. However I often freeze bread – we buy sliced bread for toast so we can just take out a slice at a time when we need it and it helpsnus reduce waste. I also bulk-buy bagels, wraps, naan bread, brioches for the kids, hot dog buns and bake at home rolls to have with soup etc. If you have space in the freezer this is easy to buy in your big shop and just defrost when you need it throughout the month to save extra trips in the car to the shops for things like bread that don’t last long.

I also like to batch-cook nice soups like this one and this one, and freeze portions for lunches in the winter time, though I’m less keen on soup in summertime!

That’s it for now – hope it’s helpful to some of you out there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.