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food frugality

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My eating habits are pretty much indefensible. At the moment, my weekly grocery shop as posted on the GRS forums looks like this:

  • 600g speciality cheese ~ £4.50
  • 1/2 french stick ~ £0.40
  • bag apples or bananas (about 7) ~ £1.25
  • 12 flapjacks / cereal bars ~ £4
  • 5 500 ml bottles diet pepsi ~ £5
  • 1 bottle concentrated fruit drink ~ £1
  • special offers for dinner <£2 per meal (around 6 meals)

The dinners are things like couscous, pizza, soup, ready meals, etc. Not exactly the healthiest diet one has ever seen.

Unsurprisingly I was called out. You can eat much better for a similar amount of money, apparently. I probably shouldn’t have been quite so detailed, now I feel the need to attempt to defend my food purchases.

frugal lunches?

DoingHomework said

When I look at your food budget I see that about half of it is spent on cheese, cereal bars and soda. There is nothing wrong with that if that is what you like. But replacing the ceral bars with bulk whole grain mix, the pepsi with water, and stretching the cheese out would save an enormous amount per year.

Yeah, it looks bad because it’s unhealthy. In reality, cheese, fruit, soda and cereal bars are my breakfast/lunch every day at work. They cost me £2.65 a day (which is about US$4). That’s boring, but I don’t think I can do it cheaper whilst also eating food that I like and having to do no preparation whatsoever.

I’m lazy. I’m too lazy to make sandwiches every day (or even one day a week). I’m too lazy to chop vegetables and make carrot or cucumber sticks. I’m a little bit fussy. I don’t like milk, so don’t eat cereal. I could stretch out the cheese, but what with? If I used half the amount, I’d save 32p on the cheese, which I’d need to replace with something. I can’t think of anything that would be any better from a laziness/money point of view (but I’m not particularly imaginative).

The cereal bars are expensive and I’m paying for the convenience. The only cheaper item I can think of that is equally as convenient is maybe biscuits/cookies? They come in larger packets, I guess. The pepsi is definitely unnecessary. It’s my latte factor. If I could cut it out, I would save around £220 a year. I’m not motivated to do so consistently, but from time to time I stop buying it.

Aside from the soda, I don’t think my lunches are too expensive, although I’ll admit that I should aim for more fruit/veg. I can’t think of ideas that are as cheap and convenient which are actually better for me, and ensure that I cant get through the day without being ridiculously hungry.

I think lunch at work is the hardest to make frugal, healthy and easy. What do you guys do?

frugal dinners

I was less specific about the dinners that I eat. I put convenience and price ahead of healthiness. Whenever I see frugal tips on food, they always involve cooking from scratch. I enjoy cooking from scratch, but only for other people - it feels like a waste of time to spend 30 minutes cooking something just for me, when it’ll take me 10 minutes to eat it.

Otherwise, if you want something quick, usually stirfry is suggested. Although I happily eat stirfry other people make, it’s never something that I choose to have for dinner. But I accept it could be a good way of eating quickly, cheaply and healthily - I’ve never bothered to price it up myself.

Actual ways of eating frugally for dinner when you’re a family of one or two (and willing to cook) include:

  • having a small range of staple foods that you use all the time to make a larger number of meals. Normally includes:
    • rice
    • pasta
    • tinned tomatoes
  • cooking in batches and freezing the extras for lazy days
  • planning meals in advance so that you can use up leftovers
  • keeping a reasonably stocked store cupboard so you can wait for sales
  • taking advantage of coupons and special offers
  • buying produce when it’s in season
  • eating primarily vegetarian-ly
  • downgrading brands (generic rather than branded, value rather than generic, etc)
  • shopping at discount supermarkets
  • keep a price book, so that you know when an offer is worthwhile

Many of these ideas are attempts to create economies of scale so that you can take advantage of usually cheaper unit prices on larger quantities. It’s also about gaming supermarkets - they have plenty of loss leaders, so if you can exploit your opportunities you can save money that way.

What they tend to have in common is time. For pretty much anything, you can generally have 2 out of 3 from the following list:

  • budget - cheaper food
  • quality - healthier / better quality food
  • timescale - more convenient food

but the most important is time. It takes time to make decent food, and it takes time to shop cleverly for frugal food. The more time you’re willing to devote, the better luck you’re likely to have in finding good frugal food.

What are your favourite tips for frugal dinners? Bonus points for suggestions that are quick or convenient.

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14 comments for “food frugality”

  1. When I first started cooking, everything took forever. Now I have a few dozen staple meals that don’t take long and are very easy…. and a lot healthier than ready meals.

    1. Stir-Fry (just buy a stir-fry mix … no more expensive than a ready meal and ultimate convenience)

    2. Pasta and sauce. Boil pasta, add sauce. Easy. Tomato based sauces already have veg and herbs in them. For added benefit, add frozen veg. Already chopped, healthier than tinned. Less than £1 a serving for the whole lot.

    3. Fish fingers, chips, and veg. Buy the value fish fingers (99p for ten) and some frozen chips and bang them all in the oven. Microwave the frozen veg. Done. No more difficult than a pizza! And less than £2 a meal. Variations with different frozen products, e.g. chicken breasts etc.

    4. Do some kind of largish meal at the weekend, and eat it cold for lunch. My fave for this is quinoa, black-beans and (frozen) sweetcorn with some cumin. I eat it hot for dinner on Sunday, and then have it cold for the next week.

    5. Salad. Buy the washed salad mixes and add tinned tuna, or coleslaw or whatever on top.

    6. Switch out the cereal bars for packets of dried fruit and nuts! You can get big packs, keep it at work, and just snack on it. About the same price (or less) and without all the crud that they put in the cheap ones.

    7. Switch out some of the cheese for yoghurt. Again, get a big pot of strawberry or whatever, and keep it in the fridge at work. Just have a few spoonfuls every day. Yoghurt probably works out cheaper, even if you buy the organic stuff.

    8. Rotate having dinner with a group of friends. Get seven or eight friends who all cook dinner for each other in rota. You have to spend some time/money cooking on your night (but that’s okay, as it is for others, right?) and then you basically eat for free on the other nights. Plus social fun!

    9. Couscous! I have no idea why you would buy this as a ready meal. To cook it, you just add a kettle of boiling water. Easier than pot noodles. Then just add some baby tomatoes (no prep work cutting!) and a handful of spinach or other leafy stuff (again, no chopping) and there’s your couscous salad for dinner or lunch or whatever. Easy :)

    Posted by Suzie | September 24, 2009, 3:09 am
  2. Lunch: three coworkers and I are in a lunch group. We each are responsible for feeding the group one day per week. I cook once and get three other lunches for my trouble! I have no problem with leftovers so eat anything left on the fifth workday.

    One easy dinner:
    microwave a baked potato and add salsa and cheese (I use cottage cheese; I’m not sure if it’s called the same thing in the UK).

    Posted by bethh | September 24, 2009, 3:23 pm
  3. I use my slow cooker a lot. One super quick recipe is turkey and veggies. You put a turkey leg or two (super cheap as far as meat goes) in a the slow cooker on top of carrots, potatos etc. I pour on some bbq sauce and let it cook all day. It takes about 5 minutes to chop the carrots and potatos (although if you buy baby carrots, you could probably thrown them in whole) and I can eat it as soon as I get home (which saves me from snacking while I wait for dinner to be ready!)

    I’ll second the idea of stir-fry mix. I stock up on frozen mixes when they’re on sale. Then I just have to heat them up, throw in a few shrimp (or leftover meat) and pour on some soy sauce/oyster sauce/hoisin sauce (whatever you like). It takes maybe 10 minutes for the veg and shrimp to heat up. I don’t know if you have the Bistro Express Uncle Ben’s Rice in the UK. It’s little packets of pre-cooked rice that take 2 minutes in the micro. If you buy the plain brown rice there are no other ingredients (you have to watch the sodium etc. in the other types). It’s way pricier than a big bag of brown rice, but I watch for coupons/sales and only use it when I’m in a super hurry.

    Posted by psychsarah | September 24, 2009, 4:55 pm
  4. Doing one really big dinner over the weekend means leftovers all week. But I space them out over 2-4 weeks by freezing them. I don’t do it very often right now, but it does help.

    So if there is a roast or something similarly too big for one or two people at one time, then I cut up the rest into 2-3 containers, dish some starch and frozen vegetables and put 1 in the fridge for the next day and all the rest into the freezer.

    Posted by mapgirl | September 24, 2009, 5:33 pm
  5. Wow, it looks like you’ve all got plenty of suggestions.

    Group cooking would be ok, as it’s fine to cook for other people ;) I’ll have to try and scare up some friends to do that with.

    Slow cookers aren’t something I’ve ever considered, but maybe they would work. Presumably they’re kind of larger capacity - leftovers maybe? And batching up leftovers into complete meals sounds like it would make meal preparation quicker.

    And I’d forgotten all about baked potatoes and fish fingers so I’ll probably add them to my shopping list.

    Posted by plonkee | September 24, 2009, 6:45 pm
  6. I know what you mean … the idea of being ‘frugal’ with food can seem a little dull but love your ideas and thanks to Suzie’s comments as well - amazing how you can eat like a Kind for very little money indeed!

    Posted by oneadvice | September 25, 2009, 11:59 am
  7. I adore my slow cooker-a little prep and you get 4-6 servings. (althoug they sell smaller ones for 2-3 people-I have a medium to large one myself, as I love leftovers). I often make a pot of soup or stew in the slow cooker on the weekends and freeze those for lunches. These dishes stretch ingredients quite a bit-a little bit of meat for 6 servings. I don’t know what’s available in the UK, but here there are packages of pre-cut veggies for soup/stew. They are obviously more money than the raw ingredients, but I would bet buying those and making up a big pot of soup would still be cheaper than buying canned soups (and healthier too!) Good luck with your frugal eating efforts.

    Posted by psychsarah | September 25, 2009, 1:23 pm
  8. Cook more than you need and use it to take for lunch and to freeze some in dinner portions for later use.

    Stock up on staple products like pasta, canned tomatoes, rice, and cous cous etc. That way you have ingredients on hand to cook a variety of dishes.

    Posted by Save Money Hound | September 27, 2009, 7:47 am
  9. Probably the least healthy suggestion I could make, but why don’t you buy larger bottles of diet pepsi, which you often find on offer anyway, and get a bottle you can reuse everyday and fill that up?

    Think of it in the same way as all the tips about buying a thermos cup and making your coffee at home instead of buying it on the way to work, it’s a small saving on a guilty pleasure.

    Posted by Janet | September 29, 2009, 8:48 pm
  10. Well, I love food and cooking, and it’s very important to me to eat delicious, healthy food… so even though there’s only two of us I cook from scratch almost every weeknight, plus I make special stuff to take in my lunch.

    But my one tip is, when you do cook a proper meal, cook enough for 4+ people, and put the leftovers into individual serving containers, and freeze for later use. That way you can have homemade, healthy food later on (and not the next day and the next day until you’re sick of that dish).

    Actually, I do have a second tip. I have a list of quick meals on the fridge that I refer to when I need inspiration for things I can make that don’t have to roast in the oven for an hour and a half. My list includes things like stir fry, chicken fajitas, omelette, but yours might be quite different.

    I also found this AskMetafilter thread you might get ideas from:

    Posted by Canadian | September 29, 2009, 9:45 pm
  11. @Canadian:
    I love that AskMetafilter thread, thanks. And the list of meals idea is a good one - saves on the thinking time.

    Non-healthy suggestions are just as good as healthy ones. I’m not sure why that’s never occurred to me before :)

    Posted by plonkee | September 30, 2009, 8:02 pm
  12. @suzie.. thanks a lot.. your comments motivated me to take up cooking again.

    Posted by Instant Payday | June 14, 2010, 6:01 pm
  13. Just to make a long story short. My friend is married to a wonderful guy, but he’s not so wonderful when it comes to money. He’s an extreme tight wad when it comes to money.

    Posted by Beaches Resorts | June 29, 2010, 9:35 am

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