Eat well, consume less: top tips for economizing in the kitchen

I’ve admitted it before: I’m cheap, and I’m ok with that. I happily spend hours scouring comparison websites for the best prices on my staple groceries. When there’s ‘nothing to eat in the house’ I challenge myself to make it through one or two more days without buying any new ingredients. It fills me with pain to throw away uneaten food, even dry crusts of bread or the last wilted spring onion from a bunch that I used when they were fresh the week before. This could be for a variety of reasons- a sign of our troubled economic times, a legacy from my depression-era grandmother, a practical necessity when living in a city as expensive as London, a political statement about reducing waste. These are all reasonable explanations for my stinginess and each of them are in part true. But there is another side to it…I actually enjoy economizing. I find it strangely satisfying to maneuver the resources in my life to cover my needs without exceeding them. It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something important, even when all I’ve done is feed myself and my friends a humble bowl of stew.

Here are my top tips for making the most of the food that you buy:

-Always keep certain staples in the house which allow you to turn scraps and half-ingredients into nice meals. My staples are: canned beans, cubed pancetta, chorizo, anchovies, sardines, lemons, cans of chopped tomatoes, eggs, olives, capers, stock cubes, and a wide variety of carbohydrates like potatoes, rice, risotto rice, pasta, cous cous, barley, and bread flour. When I’ve run out of all of the above, I know it’s really time to go shopping.

-Use or a local comparison website for your staples, which prompts you to make the most of in-store promotions, and to move your virtual shopping cart to the store that charges the least.

-Buy ingredients that you can make several different meals from. You can afford to spend £7 on a single free range chicken if you consider that this will provide four separate meals for a household of two (or two separate meals for a household of four- you get what I’m saying.) Meat is an area of your kitchen where this works really well- you plan the primary meal, for example roast chicken, and then there are several offshoots, like chicken and herb risotto, or chicken and caper pasta, which you can make with the leftovers. Then you use the bones to make stock, which you can freeze in ziplock bags until you need it.

- Use your freezer liberally. I do a massive shop online once a month and have it delivered to my house (we don’t have a car,) then all of the meat (with the exception of what I plan to use in the next two days) goes straight into the freezer. That way unplanned nights out don’t lead to ‘erm, do you think this shrimp is still ok?’ type conversations.

- Understand what single portion size is, and only use that much per person, unless you want leftovers for an offshoot meal—especially when it comes to expensive ingredients like fish and meat. Feeding a lumberjack? Ramp up the cheap ingredients like rice or pasta, but stick to the normal portion of meat. A serving of meat or fish should be about the size of your fist if it's being incorporated into a stew or something else with plenty of other ingredients. If the meat is the main feature on the plate, you'll probably want about 50% more than that. I generally find that 50g of rice per person works in my house, and I do actually weigh it out so that I don’t overdo it. We eat more pasta though, so I usually measure out 75g per person. Look on the package labels, weigh it out, and then adjust according to your needs. Once you get a few numbers in your head that work for you, you won’t have to think about it so much.

-When you see luxuries available for a big discount, pounce! There is a beautiful bordeaux that my local supermarket carries, which is usually out of my price range. But occasionally they run a half-price sale, and when they do, I buy a case. It stings the wallet a little, but then I’ve got my lovely wine sorted for weeks and I don’t fritter away £5 here and there for inferior bottles on impulse.

-Make it yourself. Like beer? Learn to brew. Like bread? Make your own. Mayo? No problem. The more versatile you are on the basics, the less you have to shop for factory-made versions. Learn to joint a chicken. Better yet, learn to do your own butchery, or make cheese. The possibilities are endless.

There are so many ways to eat well while consuming less- do you have any additional tips to share?


Unknown said...

Hi Steph,
I really like your post on economising - we think alike! I am a big fan of the 'chicken 3 ways' type deal, although I am terrible at portion sizes so this is a really useful tip. I guess what I'd like to know more about is your staples. Lots of chefs - including Nigella & Jamie - talk about what we should all have in our cupboards and I'd be intrigued to hear more about how you use yours.
Thanks! And keep 'em coming...

Stephfret said...

Hi, thanks for your comment! I tend to use my staples as a starting point for using up other odds and ends I have lying around. For example pancetta, chorizo, or beans all work really well as the protein-y component of a chunky soup, then I use whatever veggies I’ve got plus stock and maybe chopped tomatoes, and even throw in a stale bread end to thicken it up. A handful of barley, rice, or potatoes (even a single portion left over from a previous dinner) turns it into a one-pot meal and stretches it to feed a few people. I have a few 'clean out the refrigerator' dishes based on my staples that keep me from throwing anything away.

innBrooklyn said...

Since I started canning I've been able to buy lots of fruit and veg in season and preserve them... its definitely cost effective, and I like to know exactly whats in my food! Its also great for me because we have such a tiny freezer that I can't take advantage of mine the way you do of yours.

Stephfret said...

Ah yes! Canning is a great plan. I haven't done much of that but I have pickled a few things, including pears and plums, which are great with salads or meat. Or both.

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