• Gary Clarke

Shopping On Lockdown

We’ve all experienced it now - long lines to get into the supermarket, and then empty shelves when we get in. It can be tricky enough to shop for a family at the best of times, but now it’s harder than ever. With more social distancing and uncertain financial futures ahead for some, how on earth do you effectively do a week's shop that is cheap and healthy?

I have been a chef for over ten years, and like so many I'm finding it hard to make ends meet in these unprecedented times. So, I've tried to apply some of my food buying knowledge to my weekly food shop and thought I’d share some of the tips with you that I've found have worked for me in this last fortnight. By employing the tips below I’ve managed to limit my food spend to £14.50 a week which works out to just under £2 a day. Here are some tips on how to do it too.

Have your budget and menu planned beforehand

This one is self-explanatory. You always hear the advice: make a list and stick to it, well this method takes that advice a bit further. Before you make your list, figure out how much you can spend. I did this by making a budget (a good guide can be found here) and then choosing cheap meals I’d like to make that week. I then sit down with my local supermarket website open and work out how much the ingredients are going to cost. Write out your shopping list with the prices, and it’ll keep you on track or even under budget as you go.

Divide that budget by estimated portions for the actual cost

 Priced up shopping list
My Priced Up Shopping List

It can be difficult to judge how much you’re actually spending when you just have a receipt in front of you. Yes, you may be £20 under budget, but did those meals last you the whole week? Are you getting the most out of your money? Once you have your costed shopping list in front of you it’s time to do some guesstimating. Make a rough estimate of how many portions you will get from the amount you plan to buy (this is a lot easier if using a recipe) and divide the total cost by those portions. You will quickly find the areas where your money isn’t going as far as it could. It'll even help you spot better deals when you are actually in the shop.

Pad out your meals

Key to stretching your budget further is to padding out your food with healthy, cheap ingredients. This will increase the number of portions and bring down your overall cost. Some good examples of this would be to adding peas and mushrooms to a curry or filling a stew with lots of cheap root vegetables like swede and parsnip.

Base your meals around filling foods

To pad out effectively and keep your budget accurate you need to be able to stick to your portions. One way to do this is through willpower, but a more effective way is to cook with filling ingredients. This could be anything from adding extra rice or pasta to a dish to putting an extra potato in a stew. Pulses and grains are another cheap way of doing this, and for those who really want to get the most out of cheap ingredients then sops are the way to go. Also, plan your whole day around this, a bowl of porridge is cheaper than cereal but will fill you up for longer.

Always have a few alternatives planned

Even the best-laid plans fall apart. You’ve seen the shelves, it’s not impossible that the things you want to buy won’t be available. For any ingredients that you think you won’t be able to get hold of, always try to have a few alternatives in mind. Is there an own brand or generic alternative, or could you get a tinned version of what you’re looking for?

Cut corners where you can & don’t ignore condiments

Cooking from scratch always seems the way to allow you more control over cost, but this isn’t always true. It’s quite likely that you will end up spending money on things you don’t really need – why spend £4 on spices for a chilli con Carne when you can buy a great packet mix for 80p? One of the overlooked shortcuts to great flavour can be found in the condiment aisle. You can easily cut £3 off the price of a stew by using gravy granules in your sauce, and using mango chutney in a curry will let you cut out most of the ingredients. This is a great way to keep your food tasting great whilst not costing much.

Buy beef that’s gone a bit brown

This one might sound a bit weird, but it can be a great money saver. Go to your supermarket's reduced section and you will often find lots of beef that’s only there because it’s started to go brown. There’s nothing wrong with this – in fact, this is when the meat is at its best. You can easily spend upwards of £40 at a restaurant for an aged steak - and this is all that’s happening here. It’s not going off, it’s just maturing. This is a great way of saving money on good ingredients, and I’ve been successful in asking staff to reduce the price of meat when there’s nothing wrong with it just because it was going brown.

Shop local

The supermarkets may be empty, but what about your local butcher, greengrocer, Asian supermarket, or other independent stores. It’s really important now more than ever to support local businesses, so why not give them a go first?

Buy at least one treat

Cutting back and watching the pennies doesn’t mean you have to live a life without luxuries. In times like this, it’s just as important to look after your mental health as it is your bank account: it just requires moderation. Treat yourself to the odd chocolate bar or tub of ice cream – even better if you can work it into your budget.

These steps are some simple things you can take to get more of a handle on your food shop. It’s one of the only non-fixed costs we have a decent amount of control over, and at the moment a lot of people out there need to get as much out of it as they can. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be putting out as many tips as I can to help us all eat well and cheaply whilst navigating the strange world we find ourselves in. Keep watching and stay safe!

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