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How can I eat good food on a budget?

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Diana Henry Diana Henry | 17:30 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010

We tend to think that 'eating cheaply' means only eating cheap ingredients - pulses, pasta, grains, eggs - rarely eating meat and never having treats. It's not appetite-whetting stuff. With this mindset cooking and eating becomes a chore rather than a pleasure. But it doesn't have to be like this. With a bit of thought you can eat delicious food that doesn't cost a fortune, is kind to the planet and is a pleasure to prepare - a delight for seasoned cooks and first-time student cooks alike.

Sausage, pumpkin and sage casserole by Matt Tebbutt

Here are the key things you have to do:

  • Eat seasonally - whatever is in season will always be cheaper and will taste better too. Strawberries in January taste of nothing, are expensive and don't make the best use of the world's resources. Make the best of ingredients when they are abundant - use summer apricots you've bought at a street market at the end of the day (when they are cheaper) to make jam which will bring the sun into your house in November; pickle cherries you've bought at a pick-your-own farm and eat them all year round with pâté and cheeses; turn a neighbour's surplus of cooking apples into chutney or apple jelly.
  • Eat wild food - it's free. This doesn't mean becoming a funghi expert or buying a rifle. Anyone can pick blackberries, sloes, crabapples, damsons and wild garlic. Pheasant, even if someone else has shot it, is cheap at the height of the season and rabbit is cheap year round.
  • Change your attitude to cooking - broaden the range of ingredients you use and plunder the home food of different cultures to find dishes that are exotic and delicious, but inexpensive. Be open-minded about pulses and grains. Grains in particular are positively chic and you don't have to stick to rice - there's also quinoa, bulgar wheat and faro.
  • Conversely, there are staples we should spend more on. You can think about bread in this way. Good sourdough may cost more but it tastes better and lasts longer than a sorry pre-sliced loaf.
  • Eat vegetable dishes as a main course - you don't have to have meat every day.

When I was growing up people took pleasure and pride in resourcefulness - it was enjoyable to look in the fridge, see a couple of things that needed to be used up and ponder what to do with them. Leftover roast beef went into a curry or a cottage pie. If we had roast chicken the carcass would be boiled to make stock for a comforting soup and the meat could be used, along with chopped leeks and some ham, to make a pie.

These days we tend to think in terms of 'one dish at one meal'. There isn't a 'flow' between meals. This isn't the case in other countries. The French call leftovers 'les restes' and pride themselves on using them. The Italians are simply brilliant with stale bread. They make little gnocchi with breadcrumbs, fried bacon and onion and serve them with melted butter. They sauté breadcrumbs with garlic, chopped anchovies, currants and pine nuts and scatter them over cooked cauliflower to make a main course which can be eaten on its own or tossed with pasta.

Shop carefully and open your mind to what it's possible to cook with the food you have bought. You will eat well and never feel you are 'going without'.

Do you have any tips about how to eat well without breaking the bank? Tell us any money-saving recipes from other cultures or give some suggestions that may be pertinent to your family.

Diana Henry is appearing on Woman's Hour on Monday 13 September to discuss how to cook well without breaking the bank.


  • Comment number 1.

    Hum seems to be quite good. Will try to cook something like that this we.

  • Comment number 2.

    Regarding cheaper cuts of meat, does the cost of the extra cooking time outweigh the difference in price of the meat in the first place? Is this factor taken into account when recommending the cheaper cuts of meat?

  • Comment number 3.

    Unfortunately a lot of the cheaper cuts of meat, such as shoulder of lamb and belly pork, have become trendy due to cheffy tv programmes, and are no longer cheap.

  • Comment number 4.

    Absolutely, Sue! Anyone remember lamb shanks and Anthony W-Thompson?!
    Even things like lamb breast and pork belly are going up in price as they become more "nose-to-tail" popular. I was astonished to find in a major supermarket recently that chicken breasts with the skin on (the best bit!) cost more than ones which had them taken off!
    Looks like it's pigs' ears for tea... ;-)

  • Comment number 5.

    A pressure cooker is a cheap way to cook meat that needs long cooking times or it is possible to cook other things while the oven is on I suppose.

  • Comment number 6.

    Don't forget that left overs can also go in the freezer to provide a quick and easy lunch or snack later!

  • Comment number 7.

    Where are you buying your quinoa and farro that they become good value for money? They are more expensive than some meat!

  • Comment number 8.

    @marilina: I didn't do any calculations for the cost of cooking old-fashioned/slow cooking cuts, but the heat is so low that I really don't think you will be using much fuel. I also find that if I’m cooking beans or cuts of meat slowly the heat it creates in the kitchen (especially if you are using gas and cooking on the stovetop) is great. I sometimes have to turn the radiators in the kitchen off! Slow cooking does produce a nice cosy kitchen. I also tend, if I am using the oven for slow cooking, to cook more than one thing at a time (meat AND pulses, for example) so that I am using the fuel well.

    @sueturnersmith: I agree it's a pity that certain cuts go up in price once they become 'trendy' (lamb shanks aren't the bargain they used to be), but these cuts are still cheaper than prime cuts. I find lamb shoulder is very good value, given that you often stuff it (a good way to stretch meat) and pork belly isn't too bad either. But the best are probably things like beef shin and pig cheeks (though you may find pig cheeks difficult to get from your butcher). Skirt steak is amazing value too. Your butcher is a good person to ask about unusual and cheaper cuts and should be able to advise you on just how slowly they need to be cooked.

    @EFCliz: You have a good point. Farro, I think, will come down in price when it becomes more popular. At the minute it is still a 'foodie' ingredient but I don't expect that to last. Quinoa has fallen in price since I've been buying it, but I have also found a good place near to where I live (a Greek shop) which has good grains at a very good price, so I am lucky. I would definitely advise you to find a health food shop or a good ethnic shop rather than buying these from the supermarket. Also, they may seem expensive when you buy them but they bulk up hugely on cooking, so are not quite as expensive as they seem.

    Finally, if you still feel these two are expensive, use barley instead of farro in recipes (barley is unbelievably cheap) and I find couscous works well (though you do have to treat it differently) for recipes using quinoa. Just prepare couscous as you usually do and then embellish it in whatever way the quinoa recipe suggests.

  • Comment number 9.

    Such a good observation about the economy of making several meals from a main roast dish - and don't forget the final dish made with the bones and titbits - SOUP!


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