The cost of basic essentials like food tends to escalate faster than that of luxury items like electronic goods. Those big purchases often come down in price as technologies improve, and that distorts the official inflation figures. The reality for the less well-off, who spend most or all their income on bare necessities, and who have little or no ‘fat’ in their budget to cut, is that they are living on a knife edge as never before. Every penny counts.
It’s important if your food budget is fixed and restricted not to resort too often to cheap processed foods. That will not be easy if you are trying to feed fussy kids on a shoe-string: economy fish fingers, baked beans and oven chips at least guarantee that there will be little waste.
Oven chips can be seen as a lazy and pointless alternative to proper fresh potatoes, but there is a plus side. There is no waste, children love them and you are not using oil in addition to the minimal coating already on the potatoes. Potatoes and oven chips cost about the same. So there is no harm in using the chips sometimes, though potatoes baked in their jackets are better nutritionally and can form the basis for a great meal.
Most of the time, it is better to use real fresh food, and that doesn’t have to be expensive. Children become accustomed to the food they get at home, and if most of your food is home cooked, you are creating good habits that will help the kids infuture.
Here are five suggestions to help with budgeting:
1. Use pulses in your cooking. They are extremely good value and healthy, and their shelf life is long,so that you can buy them in economical quantities without worries about expiry dates.
You can buy dried beans, soak them overnight, and cook them up with tomatoes for a healthier version of baked beans that is cheaper than the canned sort as well as being lighter on salt and sugar content. Get a basic set of herbs and spices to add flavour.
2. Learn to cook the less popular fish and cuts of meat. Don’t be afraid to ask the butcher or fish-monger for advice on cooking methods. The toughest cuts will become delicious after long slow cooking, but you cannot skimp on time. If you don’t have time after work to cook and eat a slow dish, then make a quick meal to eat that evening while also starting a stew which can be left to simmer all evening, and then be kept in the fridge for the next day.
3. Plan your week’s menu at the start of the week, to make full use of leftovers, and shop from a strict list. Try to leave a little leeway so that you can take advantage of special offers without going over budget, but get your weekly essentials first. Then you can check out the offers: things with a short ‘use by date’ are often high-value items you wouldn’t normally buy, and they can be great bargains.
4. A surprisingly large proportion of food, estimated at 30-40%, is discarded in the UK. You can minimize this waste by using visual inspection and your nose rather than abiding rigidly by use-by dates. When preparing vegetables, use as much as you can of the trimmings in a soup or boil them up for a stock to use in pasta sauce the next day.
5. Stock up on food in economy sizes. Rice bought in a 10 kilo bag is about half the price per kilo of the rice which comes in kilo bags. There are often special offers cutting the price even further, some by as much as 75%. If you are on a low income which is paid weekly, your stock of different staple items will have to be built up over time, but it is definitely worth gradually building up a store of staple foods.
None of that makes it easy to feed a family well on a tight budget: it will always be a challenging task but it can bring satisfaction as well as stress.