‘I fed my family of four with a fiver a day’
Silvana Franco cooking a risotto with her daughter Cassia – Andrew Crowley
With inflation at its highest level since 2008 and the average family’s grocery bill now exceeding £5,200 a year, we’re all looking at ways to reduce household costs. Alongside efforts to cut energy consumption (Argos sold 96 air fryers an hour in September; sales of Lakeland’s own-brand version nearly doubled), news that sales of fresh vegetables and frozen foods are on the increase, with wonky vegetables up 38 per cent, indicates we’re rethinking both what we eat and how we cook.
The Waitrose Food and Drink Report 2022-23 reveals that customers are being savvier than ever when it comes to shopping on a budget, with 32 per cent looking out for special offers more than ever before. A quarter are economising by “making shopping lists and sticking to them”, 23 per cent are switching to supermarkets’ own brands, and 21 per cent are making thrifty swaps, such as buying their veg loose instead of packaged.
In my house I am the main cook, catering for a dairy-intolerant husband, a mildly fussy 13-year-old daughter and a hungry 18-year-old, just back from his first stint at university. I want to continue to cook the same type of meals we usually eat but as cheaply as possible. Can I do it on just £5 a day? As I write this it’s half term and my daughter’s not having lunch at school, so I will need to prepare three meals within the daily budget, including, ideally, a piece of fruit for after lunch and a thrifty treat.
I don’t usually plan our meals very far ahead and like to go with the flow, but a bulletproof menu plan is the only way to stay within budget and completely avoid waste. I do have some good habits already – I cook a lot and waste very little. However, I am easily swayed by a special offer that looks like a bargain but inevitably ends up in the freezer, which is now close to breaking point.
I spend some time on Saturday morning planning the week’s meals. I start the menu on Sunday as the roast lunch will give me at least two other meals during the week. I find a whole chicken or a small gammon to be the most useful – both can be eaten cold in sandwiches and will give me lovely stock for soups.
My goal is to plan an evening meal that will yield leftovers for lunch the next day. I don’t want any half-used items going to waste, so a packet of bacon, for example, needs to be factored into several of the week’s meals to ensure it gets used up.
Roast gammon is a useful cut in that it provides enough leftovers for sandwiches as well as stock for soups – Alamy
To make sure my kids get enough goodness, I vary the fruit and veg as much as possible, and include protein not only in the form of meat and fish but lentils, beans and eggs.
I also try to include either a daily pudding or a treat for nibbling in front of a film. For example, it’s many times cheaper to pop some corn in a brown paper bag in a microwave (under 5p per 10g portion), than buying it ready popped with the added bonus of no bickering over sweet or salty – everyone can season their own. Here’s what I went for:
Once I’ve got my shopping list together, I check all the supermarket prices online, which takes some time. It’s generally cheaper to buy larger sizes, especially store-cupboard items and longer-life perishable goods such as cheese and eggs, which won’t go off quickly.
With Tesco price-matching against Aldi for so many ingredients, including the whole chicken and beef mince on my list, it’s a close call between the two. However, Aldi doesn’t sell risotto rice, which is on my list, and is five miles away; Tesco does and is only two miles away. Incidentally, arborio risotto rice is 43 per cent cheaper than carnaroli (48 per cent if you buy it at Sainsbury’s) and surely, once cooked, no one can tell the difference.
Top 7 waste-nothing tips
After finding some items to be marginally cheaper in Tesco than Aldi, I finally decide to do my main shop with Tesco, and stop at my favourite local Turkish and Indian grocers on the way. I pick up some gorgeous chard for £1 and a perky 200g bunch of flat-leaf parsley for just 85p (55p/30g in Tesco and Aldi) and chop and freeze three-quarters of it as soon as I get in. I stock up on spices including a 79p pack of ground turmeric (31 per cent cheaper than a similar pack in Tesco) and pay £1.19 for a bag of dried black beans instead of £1.80 in Tesco. Despite my best efforts, I can’t find a can of chickpeas that will beat Lidl and Aldi’s price of 45p.
I always buy generic makes or own-labels rather than leading brands – the price difference is huge. A portion of two wheat biscuits from Tesco’s value sub-brand, Stockwell & Co, costs very slightly over 6p in comparison with Weetabix, which will set you back nearly four times that, at 24p per serving. My kids definitely can’t tell the difference. For a family of four, that soon tots up.
There are, however, a small number of exceptions to the own-label-only rule I’m willing to pay extra for: Marmite, Colman’s Original English and Curly Wurlys (17p and 97 calories well spent). Everything else is up for negotiation. And I’ll very happily take Henderson’s, which is 56 per cent cheaper in Waitrose, than Lea & Perrins, for dashing over cheese on toast.
I try to include either a daily pudding or a treat for nibbling in front of a film, says Silvana – Andrew Crowley
One surprising discovery is the cost of caster sugar which, bafflingly, appears to be priced at least twice, if not three times, as high as granulated, with an even heftier tag for the “golden” varieties. Despite what recipes say, unless you’re entering a baking competition, I’d suggest using plain white granulated for everything. Or make DIY caster, if you really want to, by pulsing granulated in a strong blender or coffee grinder.
Some tough decisions need to be made around butter, which at around £8 per kg (£10 for Lurpak!) is eye-wateringly expensive. I usually buy both butter and a dairy-free alternative, which mostly get spread on bread or used to bake an easy cake. I briefly consider the value spread, which is much cheaper at £1.90 per kg. Although it isn’t labelled as dairy-free, it turns out not to contain milk so is fine for my husband.
Unfortunately it’s marked as not suitable for baking. And with water listed as the first ingredient followed by rapeseed oil, palm oil and salt (1 per cent), I decide it’s not for us. After much scrutiny, I settle on a tub of Pure Sunflower, which is free from artificial flavours, colours and preservatives and 65 per cent less saturated fat than butter. It’s priced at a very reasonable £3.80 per kg and will do for us all. I swap my regular parmesan for grana padano, which is 38 per cent cheaper and just as good for my needs.
A jar of standard strawberry jam (£1.15) costs nearly three times that of the value (40p) equivalent. I compare the ingredients and nutritional info and there’s not much in it. Yes, the standard jar contains more fruit at 45 per cent compared with 35 per cent, but the final sugar content is actually a smidgeon higher and the calorie content identical. Is one worth three times more than the other, when it’s just going to be spread on toast or stirred into rice pudding? I don’t think so.
Silvana Franco with her £5 family shop – Andrew Crowley
Based on Tesco prices, 100g dried cannellini beans cost 27p, which once soaked and cooked equates to a drained 400g can costing 60p, so there is a saving to be made, but when time is against me I’ll go with the convenience of canned.
In the supermarket I always shop the freezer aisles where I often find good deals on fish, prepared vegetables and fruit. Frozen cod is 26 per cent cheaper than fresh, and berries and cherries aren’t just significantly cheaper, they can also be enjoyed out of season. But remember that frozen doesn’t automatically equal value.
Labour-intensive ingredients such as finely chopped chilli or ginger are super-convenient, less wasteful and often cheaper bought frozen. Other products such as frozen chopped onions (£1.20 for 500g) are not such a good buy. They’re much cheaper to buy fresh (50p per kg), last a long time and don’t take long to chop. Same goes for frozen mash, it’s about three times as expensive as buying potatoes and never as nice as home-made.
Time and energy
Like many others, I’m already very conscious of trying to minimise the energy I use to cook. I have a slow cooker and an air fryer and love them both.
An air fryer is effectively a small oven with a powerful fan that cooks food evenly and more quickly than a conventional oven. It’s very energy efficient, costing on average 5p to run for 10 minutes, which is long enough to cook some sausages.
Most are multi-functional and can grill and bake as well as air-fry. Mine reaches temperature in just a couple of minutes and is great for reheating meals that don’t do so well in a microwave, such as quiche or pizza, and for cooking smaller things, like home-made fishcakes, without having to put the oven on. I also use it to “fry” the potato skins left over from the fishcakes to make great-tasting crisps. Later in the week, I toss a can of chickpeas with some oil, salt and spices and air-fry them to make a delicious, crunchy snack for about 13p a serving.
Boiled egg with buttered toast; a low-cost breakfast favourite – Andrew Crowley
I’ve always found my slow cooker useful during the winter months but having learnt it costs, on average, just 5p an hour to run, I now use it more often, especially on days when I’m in the office. I get everything ready, sometimes browning onions and meat first but more often than not I just throw it all in. I put the lidded ceramic pot in the fridge and ask my husband or one of the kids to put it on at lunch time so that dinner’s ready when I get in – and at an energy cost of just 25p.
I use dried black beans once during the week to make a smoky, slow cooker chilli – luckily, a glimpse at my handy meal planner reminded me to put the beans on to soak before bed. I also use the slow cooker to effortlessly turn some leftover cooked rice into a creamy rice pudding and to make pork tacos for our Friday night fakeaway, which at 78p per head is a small fraction of our usual takeaway bill.
I cook from scratch as much as possible and everything I make is really easy. I get ahead on Sundays and save time by always cooking extra of the things I use often, such as potatoes and rice, putting them in the fridge or freezing them so they’re readily available and I don’t end up turning to more expensive convenience foods like pouches of rice too often (250g pouch of most supermarket’s own-label microwave basmati is priced at 35p vs £1 for Tilda equivalent).
Fresh dough takes a while to rise but is really cheap and easy to make. I enjoy the process too and always make double on pizza night and freeze half for next time (or for some air-fryer cinnamon buns).
Unless we’re having pizzas for a Friday “fakeway”, Sunday is the only day I put the oven on.
I make sure every shelf in the oven is used while the chicken roasts; it means the oven gets a bit steamy but not enough to stop the skin from crisping up. While it cooks, I roast extra veg and bake some Yorkshire puddings, make an easy fruit crumble for pudding and a batch of freezable chocolate chip muffins (13p each).
Breakfast is kept simple during the week – usually porridge with a handful of sultanas and a pinch of cinnamon, or wheat biscuits with milk and half a chopped banana or a boiled egg with buttered toast. All of these come in at around 20p a portion. At weekends we skip breakfast in favour of a filling brunch and make hash browns from leftover cooked potatoes to eat alongside bacon and eggs.
Lunch is mostly a mix of sandwiches, toasties and soups using leftovers from the night before that can be warmed up in the microwave. A pumpkin risotto turns into a creamy rice and butter bean soup the next day. A big frittata made from leftover pasta and veg is perfect for making the night before to leave in the fridge for the teenagers, while I go to work, taking a wedge with me.
a frittata made from leftover pasta and veg is perfect for making the night before to leave in the fridge – Andrew Crowley
Dinner is the main family meal and takes the majority of my budget, but produces useful leftovers. I try to cook cleverly, making extra breadcrumbs for coating fishcakes to add to the meatballs. I’m pleased with my idea of rolling the meatball mix into tons of cherry-sized balls, which feel like much more of a feast when tossed with spaghetti than five regular-sized ones. Leftover black-bean chilli is re-fried to make quesadillas for lunch.
Whatever still needs using up at the end of the week ends up as the filling for baked potatoes on Saturday, so nothing really goes to waste.
Did I manage to achieve my goal? Only just. We ate more pulses than ever and it’s lucky I’m doing sober October as I write this: there’s no room for even a small glass of wine.
Not everything went to plan: a visiting school friend ended up staying for tea, putting paid to the chance of leftovers; someone ate the last banana I was keeping for pancakes and I underestimated the amount of milk we get through.
I’ve always considered myself a savvy shopper, but looking more closely at the prices and labels has taught me a lot. I’m not sure I’ll be going back to parmesan or caster sugar any time soon, but I think I’d feel happier spending more on high-welfare meat and eggs and eating them less often.
Doing the groundwork takes a lot of time and I’d recommend going through your store cupboard first, then basing your menu around items that don’t have long left. But, if you can put the time into planning a menu and are prepared to shop around for the best prices, it’ll save you a packet.
Prices correct at time of writing