On Sunday, after the Government announced new measures to attempt to tackle the correlation between poverty and obesity, I found myself suddenly on the end of literally dozens of enquiries from journalists and reporters, asking me for a response to the news. I couldn’t get around to all of them; but wrote this for BBC News on the hidden complexities of attempting a one-size-fits-all strategy, and my top five tips for eating well on a low budget.
There are many complex reasons why cooking and eating healthily on a low budget can present a challenge for people, and unless you have lived that life, some of them can be unimaginable. Some people have complex dietary needs, such as coeliac disease, IBS, lupus, or other illnesses that lead to digestive complications. Autoimmune diseases do not discriminate by salary; people who live in poverty do have to contend with them too.
In other circumstances, people may lack cooking facilities, in houses of multiple occupancy, student halls, domestic abuse and homelessness shelters. They may have shoddy landlords renting them inappropriate and ill-equipped homes, or their cooker may have broken and they simply don’t have the ready money available to fix it. I have readers who are literally cooking in a bedsitter, or on a camping stove. Some people have no saucepans or cooking equipment. Some people lack the confidence to try new recipes and ingredients; if you have no money or a bare storecupboard, trying new ideas is a risk – if it goes wrong, you end up with no dinner at all.
Some people live in ‘food deserts’, usually rural areas, that lack the convenience of large supermarkets on the doorstep. Access to fresh fruit and vegetables is limited to what is at the local corner shop. Buying in bulk is not an option if you have to carry it home for miles because you can’t afford the bus fare. A lot of the work I do is aimed at people in poverty, simple, accessible recipes and ideas teaching them to cook and eat well on a budget, but I am painfully aware that it barely scratches the surface of the scale of complex need that is required as a national emergency. And it is an emergency. 1 million people using food banks in Britain, a third of them being children, is a shame and a crisis.
Some of the tips I give to people are as follows – but they all come with their own limitations!
1. First do an audit of everything you have in your fridge, freezer, and storecupboard. Every last scrap of anything counts towards knocking a few pennies or pounds of next week’s food shop, it won’t nourish your body sitting in the back of the cupboard! I grab a piece of paper and fold it into four, and mark each quarter as ‘proteins’ (beans, pulses, lentils, meat, fish, nuts all count), carbs (potatoes, rice, flour, pasta, spaghetti, crackers, biscuits, cake), fruit and veg (tinned, frozen and fresh all count) and flavours (salt, pepper, mustard, ketchup, any odd spices or herbs, vinegar, all enliven the simplest dishes). Now you have a clear picture of what you already have, search online or in cookery books for simple recipes or ideas to use the ingredients that you already have. A bag of flour can be turned into a loaf of bread or simple biscuits. A squirt of ketchup sasses up a bolognese or mix it with the beans and some spice and you have a basic chilli, and so on. Once you have a rough idea of what you have, and what you might do with it, you can draw up the list of what you *need*.
2. Don’t be afraid to substitute ingredients in recipes. Use tinned potatoes instead of fresh ones as they’re a fifth of the price. Bung a load of £1 mixed frozen veg into a pasta dish or stew or curry or lasagne or bolognese to bulk it out and make it go further – and get some more goodness inside. Swap any green veg in a recipe for whatever green veg you have or can afford. Swap chicken for white beans, beef for kidney beans, or even just half of it if the thought makes you nervous! Recipes are not biblical nor prescriptive, they are rough ideas. I’m not precious about mine – I want to teach people to cook so confidently that they reinvent them again and again and again.
3. Go meat-free two or three days a week to cut your food bills down. Lots of great dishes are vegetarian or vegan, and meat is expensive, so find good recipes for chilli, curries, mushroom bolognese, mixed bean goulash, meat-free cassoulet – all great comfort food that you won’t even notice is missing a little something. If you have a household of grumbly hardened meat eaters, add chicken stock to keep them happy. At 35p for 10 stock cubes, it’s a sight cheaper than buying a chicken!
4. Buying in bulk doesn’t always mean foods are cheaper. You’ll have to get a bit savvy and look at the small print on the labels on the edge of the shelves – look at the price per 100g, rather than the overall large price printed on the packet, to see which is better value for money.
5. Finally, know which bit of the supermarket is best for each item. For example, with fruit, value range tinned mandarins, peaches and grapefruit are far cheaper than their fresh counterparts. Frozen berries are around a third of the price of fresh ones, and just as fine. A bag of raisins for 90p is a tenth of the price of the equivalent in the handy little snack boxes; just portion them out yourself and save a fortune! Tinned baked beans are just white beans with a sauce on – rinse it off and toss them into soups, stews and casseroles to bulk it out for a third of the price of a can of ‘clean’ cannelini beans. If you have a freezer, a kilo of frozen spinach is around £1, whereas you’d only get 100g of the fresh stuff for that. For fresh veg, buy the unfashionable old root veg, parsnips, swede and carrots, and make them into soups and hearty sausage casseroles.
I’m not suggesting for one moment that it’s easy, because for many people it isn’t, but I’m on hand to help as much as possible, and try to, so give me a shout if you need a hand or have a cooking query and I will try to get back to you. In the meantime there are around 700 free budget recipes over here on www.cookingonabootstrap.com – I hope they can be of some use!
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All text copyright Jack Monroe.