BBC Food blog

« Previous | Main | Next »

Cheap eats without austerity

Post categories:

Emily Angle Emily Angle | 14:32 UK time, Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Now that the splurge is over and the last Christmas chocolates have been scoffed, it’s time to redress the balance with dinners that minimise our debts and waistlines – just for a little while, mind – maybe until Pancake Day.

Setting a snug food budget shouldn’t mean we feel hard done by - I'm just not up for any toast sandwiches. There are a few favourite meals that use inexpensive ingredients and taste so good that no one thinks of them as austerity dinners. Some of the recipes below I avidly look forward to!

Of course, talking about how much food costs always brings us back to your supplier – from organic deli to cash-and-carry, there’s of course a wide margin. There’s also a slight stigma among foodies about buying cheap food – with producers often bearing the consequences of our more-for-less demands. But I suspect even the most earnest food campaigner’s got a few dishes that they resort to in the week before payday. There are classic ways to do this that everyone knows – I’m hoping you’ll share some of your favourites below.

Vegetarian chilli

Beans rather than beef in a chilli cuts costs down tremendously.

Let’s get it out of the way first- pulses. They really do fill a hole in your stomach without eating a hole in your wallet. Black beans, great for the slow cooker, fill flat breads or top rice and feel a teeny bit exotic – like you’ve brought them back from holiday. Dress them simply with plain yoghurt, shredded lettuce and tomatoes. Pinto beans have an equally creamy texture and make the classic refried beans for burritos. And no self-respecting chilli is complete without kidney beans. We have a motto in our house – though not yet stitched on a sampler - you can never cook too many beans. Leftovers go on jacket potatoes or in quesadillas, stuck together with a little grated cheese.

But there’s no point cooking cheap dishes if you’re going to throw half the remaining ingredients away - waste as little as possible. Leftover meals are worth planning for if you have the opportunity to cook big at the weekend, stretching your meat purchases further. Roast chicken risotto is far from an austerity dish – it’s the culinary equivalent of a duvet. Whereas shredded leftover roast lamb with a little Ras-el-hanout or harissa fried in forms the basis of fantastic wraps with shredded carrot, cucumber and lettuce.

Ingredients on the turn spawn a whole new style of cooking – I call it rescue cuisine. Banana muffins save blackened bananas from the bin and are perfect for an on-the-bus breakfast. A minestrone or curry often gets made just before the veg box arrives – hoovering up those halves of cabbage and bendy carrots.  Soft apples make comforting crumbles. I must admit to eating yoghurt after the date, but if you were at all worried – it could always be baked into a luscious cake.

As much as we’d like to say we could always remember to soak the beans the night before, or cook a big batch of soup for the week, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. There are tons of quick-and-easy recipes that use lots of ready-made food products (sauces and the like) but they quickly use up the budget. Whereas simple things like eggs are often overlooked as the ideal quick and low-cost meal. Substitute poached eggs for chicken on this warm salad of lentils and greens. Break out the Tabasco to liven up a frittata, or just scramble the little beauties on toast with mushrooms – they’re utterly lovely.


Rick Stein's artichoke pasta



Which brings us to pasta – our ten minute fall-back. Supermarkets have really raised our expectations of pasta with their fresh raviolis and the like, but it's not a treat for me. (I like to eat a lot more pasta than they assume I do.) A little olive oil, good parmesan and cracked black pepper and a jar of grilled artichokes is a treat. There are so many ways to eat a bowl of pasta – with a few tinned olives and dried chilli flakes, maybe some fried breadcrumbs, garlic and greens, or just a healthy grating of good old cheddar - simple is never boring.

I would cheerfully eat these dishes as my staple diet (and do!) without hardship.

What are your favourite (shhh!) budget meals?


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Buy a decent large free range chicken, eat the breasts with something, eat the legs and thighs with else something, pick the bones and use in a sarnie for lunch,or use in a rissotto, then finally boil the carcuss up in the pressure cooker for stock!!!!

  • Comment number 3.

    Brown rice, cheese and onion. Gently sweat onions (cut in rings is best-don't know why, it just is) in olive oil/butter for ages. Don't let the onions brown they need to be melty, red ones look pretty. A bit of naughty sugar makes them extra good. Add cooked brown rice and mix in cheese, any bits of cheese will do but for preference I love Emmental! Too expensive for me these days sadly! Season with salt, black pepper. When the cheese has melted its ready. Eat with green salad or steamed spring greens - anything green! Yummy.x

  • Comment number 4.

    Andy, after the carcuss has been boiled up, if there are any tiddly little bits of chicken left over.......chicken, noodles and sweetcorn soup!

    Whizz up a can of ordinary sweetcorn so it is smoothish. Crush up some dried noodles and hydrate in water or some of your lovely stock. Add the chicken and sweetcorn using as much stock or water to turn it into soup. Season to taste. Proper cup-a-soup! Homemade soup in a mug is a useful, warming, cheap snack any time - forget the spoon and bowl!

  • Comment number 5.

    Titzi von Claptrapp....What an excellent idea!!!

  • Comment number 6.

    Also do as a duo of creamy & devilled chicken and rice - another real duvet food

  • Comment number 7.

    Make your own polenta with some cornmeal. Some indian / ethnic stores sell a huge bag of it for less than a pound that will make several batches.

    Make a tomato sauce by sweating an onion (as low as 5p) , throwing in a cheap tin of tomatoes (30p), a few cloves of garlic (5p) and some salt and pepper.

    Slice the hard set polenta, fry it up, pour the hot sauce on, and if you've got any money left, melt some cheese over the lot. Beautiful.

  • Comment number 8.

    All great ideas. Titzi - that is a great cup-a-soup idea, especially to save on buying lunches if you've got a microwave in the workplace. I also like to have frozen sweetcorn on hand for my storecupboard suppers. Ottolenghi dry-fries it till blackened in spots -adds a smoky flavour that would also be great in your soup.

    Dorfl - love devilled meats. Leftover meat (esp. low-fat things like chicken) can get that particular re-heated flavour that the devilling more than overcomes. Such a treat.

    Gorbstein -forgot about polenta! Also makes great cornbread for chilli, and lasts the week.


  • Comment number 9.

    Whenever I boil a ham (even a small piece of ham) I always add an onion and carrot (and celery if I have some), peppercorns and a bay leaf or two. The resulting stock is used with dried split peas (soaked overnight and boiled for 30 minutes) to make soup. Easily 6 servings - and it freezes well.

  • Comment number 10.

    My neighbour has just dropped of 6 pheasant and 2 geese as he has been out shooting. Got them hanging at the moment. When they are ready I will buy a chicken and make myself a 3 bird roast, plus casseroles, soup etc. With some seasonal veg from the local farm ( I fix his computer and he gives me veg) it is a good way to keep the budget down.

  • Comment number 11.

    It's not always necessary to soak beans/pulses overnight. If you forget to do this the night before, you can get away with bringing them to the boil, remove from the heat, and then leave to sit for about an hour. The only things this doesn't work so well with are the larger chickpeas, which need longer. Using a pressure cooker also cuts time for cooking (soaked) pulses. And always add salt/pepper AFTER the pulses are cooked, since it seems to harden them if you add it at the beginning. I hope that this helps...

  • Comment number 12.

    I find the good old Slow Cooker is perfect for preparing cheap meals. The cheapest cuts of meat plus a bag of stew veg (£1.50 in most supermarkets) and some seasoning happily and healthily feeds 6-8 people for £8 or less.
    Other favourite money savers- take any almost stale bread and lay it on bottom of roasting dish when doing a joint of meat so it soaks up all juices, then turn it into croutons and freeze, perfect to add flavour and texture to soups/salads. The most important tip is to ALWAYS plan your weekly menu BEFORE you go shopping!!!!

  • Comment number 13.

    Cheap Eats - not posh but very tasty: Ham Sandwich Perdue. Make one tasty ham sandwich (I use the wafer thin sort for this and thinly sliced soft bread), add mustard and/or mayo if you like, cut in half. Beat up one egg and dip sandwich in it until coated all over then shallow fry, turning until golden. This works well with your uneaten lunch sandwich if it's now late afternoon and you still haven't sat down to eat.

  • Comment number 14.

    Vegetarian Lasagne is a good option I find and I can make enough for two or even three nights dinner. Just fry off some vegetables in a big pot with a little olive oil (I tend to just use left over root veg like diced carrots, parsnip, squash, celery, garlic, etc). Add dry store cupboard herbs (oregano, sage and thyme being the stable for italian cooking) a tin of chopped tomatoes, water and lentils (the substitute for mince). Leave to bubble away for a 10-15 mins or so, and in the mean time make a bechamel with butter, flour and milk. When both sauces are ready, layer it up and grate cheese over the top. Back in the oven for 30-40 mins.

    It sounds like quite a bit of effort but most of it is just chucking things in the pot. Then when it's done you have dinner sorted for 2-3 days and it is very cheap (a tin of chopped tomatoes is probably the most expensive part, the rest is just whatever you have in the store cupboard)


  • Comment number 15.

    @Verdetwist That sounds lush. Like a Eggy Croque Monsieur. Almost looking forward to forgetting my work sandwich one of these days.

    @david I thought I was doing well of the neighbour's eggs, but game to your door? Awesome. (Though a three bird roast does not say 'austerity' to me...!)

    @ashisamazin Nom!

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


More from this blog...

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.