by Rosa Mayland
Good food and good eating aren’t a class thing – anyone can eat good food on any budget as long as they know how to cook.— Jamie Oliver
Eating on a budget and improving your health at the same time
A tight budget but a broad mind: Eating humbly and responsibly without decreasing your pleasure and health
Unfortunately too many people have the preconceived idea that eating healthily and with indulgence is synonymous with expensive, and believe that spending less money on food implies that your dinners will be dreadfully bland and grimly boring. Well, today I am about to break with the big myth and set the records straight by showing you how being limited financially doesn’t mean you have to eat like an austere monk on a strict diet or a New Age prophet living on love and fresh air, nor restrain your kitchen activity and stop inventing dishes. Quite the contrary!
It is absolutely possible to count your pennies and enjoy wonderful meals that are not only good for your wallet, but also for your body and soul. And even if it is an achievable goal, it will not be like sailing a boat on a crystal clear sea. It is a way of life; you have to be committed, and it requires that you be smart, playful, organized, inspired, motivated, open-minded, that you show initiative. All those adjectives didn’t scare you off, I hope? The prospect of making efforts – true lifestyle changes — might panic you, and it will indeed be a great adventure that will cost you a little time and loads of goodwill and patience. There is zero tolerance for stuffing yourself with junk food and eating unhealthy food. Such “bad behaviour” is only for the weak spines amongst us!
Eating frugally isn’t only good for your bank account: it also has positive repercussions on the environment and your physical welfare. Being a conscious and modest consumer implies that you have sustainable behaviour and act in harmony with nature, with your body and its needs.
Life’s misfortunes have led me to seek a smoother ride over an often bumpy road. Great-value repasts have been a challenge as well as a goal, so I’m undoubtedly the right person to ask for ingenious ways of cooking lovely meals without going broke. I might not be a nutritionist or a food professional, but as a foodie, blogger and individual living more or less at subsistence level, I am definitely well placed to talk about a subject so dear to my heart.
My boyfriend and I have been subsisting on low revenue for more than 13 years now and are used to creating delectable, well-balanced and economic dishes that will not ruin us. Had I not taken things in hand food-wise we would never have been able to keep our heads above water.
I hold a tight food budget, yet we always eat a vast array of gourmet meals that have both nutritional value and a lot of gusto. Thanks to my gastronomic curiosity and eclectic personality, my need to be audacious, and my desire to expand my culinary knowledge as well as my undying and passionate interest for other cultures, I have the capacity of developing fusion recipes that enlighten our table and uplift us even in the darkest of times. I take much pleasure in putting together low-cost dinners; it is my creative outlet.
Tricks and Useful Tips for Eating on a Budget
To be successful there are a few simple rules to follow (I hope this information will help you and make your trip to the food stores less tiresome):
- Shop seasonally and locally. The produce and foodstuff bought from small producers (greengrocers, markets, butchers, fishmongers, dairies, etc.) are generally cheaper, greener and healthier than that from hypermarkets, which you can be fairly sure contain additives and pesticides and have been shipped half way across the world to get to get to your local supermarket. Shopping seasonally and locally ensures optimal taste as well as nutrition. Sometimes produce is minimally sprayed or even not at all, so technically it is quasi-organic despite not having any organic certification (the cost of organic certification is too high and many independent producers can’t afford it).
- Do not buy bagged, fancy packaged, ready-to-eat or processed food. This kind of food is devoid nutrients, is loaded with additives (such as MSG) to cover up its poor quality and taste, will usually not leave you feeling satiated (it is just filler “food” and has little or no nutritional value) and is sold at a ridiculously high price (most ready-made courses can be recreated at home for much cheaper). Instead, cook your own dinners, flavour plain/natural as well as bulk food, and make homemade meals from scratch.
- Never waste food and always recycle leftovers to compose new meals, or freeze them for later use (don’t reheat anything more than once, though). That is when your imagination comes into play and is solicited.
- Emphasize grains/cereals (rice, oats, buckwheat, barley, millet, quinoa, etc.), legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans, nuts, etc.) and vegetables. They are inexpensive and packed with nutritional benefits (protein, minerals, oils, calcium and vitamins) and energy.
- Eat less meat (at least 2 or 3 meatless dinners a week, choose less expensive cuts and use more offal), more fish (canned, common and local varieties that are generally cheaper and not in danger of extinction) and animal by-products (milk, eggs, fresh or mature cheese, honey, fat for frying, etc.).
- Drink lots of tap water. Limit your intake of alcohol and cut out most bought beverages such as juices or sodas which are not only expensive but also contain added sugar, are often made with nothing natural (chockful of colourings and additives) and are packed in polluting plastic bottles.
- Visit your supermarket as little as needed and make shopping lists that you pledge to abide by. The more you go out to shop, the more money you’ll spend, and if you buy more food than required your whole budget will be overhauled.
- Always stock your freezer with a selection of ice-friendly food (peas, spinach, meat, fish, seafood, bread, homemade stews/casseroles/soups, etc.), your kitchen pantry with imperishable goods (rice, pasta, pulses, cans, cereals, flours, sugar, etc.) and your spice cupboards with lots of condiments (herbs, spices, chicken or beef stock cubes, nutritional yeast, chilli sauces, vinegars, Asian sauces like soy sauce, fish sauce or sweet chilli sauce, miso, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, molasses, honey, etc.) which add flavour to your dishes.
- Make double batches when you cook, so that the second half can be frozen for future use and busy days. Stews, soups, casseroles, sauces, gratins are perfect as they are low in price (small quantities of meat, fish or cheese used) and freeze well.
- Take an interest in culinary traditions other than your own and get out of your comfort zone. You’ll discover that exotic and foreign cuisines (Asian, Middle Eastern, African, Eastern European, Mediterranean, etc.) offer a vast array of refined, wholesome, flavourful recipes that include many bargain ingredients and small quantities of costlier ingredients (no big slabs of meat, lots of legumes or veggies for example).
- Know your supermarket well and be wise to supermarket tricks! Check out everything, compare offers, find the ingredients that have the best quality price value, and learn to read labels.
- Understand the food pyramid in order to create balanced meals and buy the best food possible with the little money you have.
- Limit your dining out. Most food eaten out of the house contains more fat and salt and you don’t always know the origin of it. Not forgetting that restaurants charge for the service too.
From theory to practice
I must say that knowing my saving plan inside out is yielding its fruit. There is a real contentment when you feel you are in control of your “destiny” and are feeding your body properly. Of course, my favourite part in the process is cooking, but that comes only once you have learnt all the tricks and know how to juggle your monthly household bills. Then you can concentrate on the fun side of your exercise and not just on the financial aspect of it.
Being busy in the kitchen fills me with joy. I revel in preparing meals no matter whether I use luxurious or less extravagant ingredients. For me, all natural, good-quality ingredients are exceptional “raw material”, and deserve to be respected as such. That’s why I am absolutely mad about such a modest vegetable as the beetroot. It may be humble, be oh so full of potential.
I always keep a package of this pre-cooked goodie in my fridge as beetroot is priced right, available all year long, fat-free, low in calories, rich in minerals, a great source of fibre, and wonderfully versatile and tasty. With this humble root veggie, one can put together a refined or simple dinner in a jiffy.
Beetroot Gratin with béchamel sauce is a dish I never tire of eating. It is so comforting, toothsome and can be served in various manners (alone, with a salad, fish, fried/poached/hard-boiled eggs, omelette, etc.). Perfect!
Recipe: Beetroot Gratin
Serves 2-4 (depending on whether you serve it as main dish or accompaniment)
600g cooked beetroot, sliced
4 Tbs (60g) unsalted butter
1 shallot, finely chopped
4 Tbs (60g) flour
600ml milk (full-fat)
1 tsp red Tabasco (optional)
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce (optional)
1 pinch ground nutmeg
1/3 tsp garlic powder
1 pinch paprika
3/4 Tbs whole grain mustard
1/3 dried dill
Sea salt, to taste
Ground black pepper, to taste
- In a medium heavy saucepan, melt the butter and let it brown slightly.
- Add the shallots. Cook until translucent and golden.
- Add the flour and whisk until smooth.
- Cook over medium heat until the mixture becomes lightly golden.
- Add 1 cup of milk at a time and whisk continuously until smooth.
- Add the Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, nutmeg, garlic powder, paprika, dill, mustard, salt and pepper.
- Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat and bring to a simmer for about 5 minutes while constantly stirring.
- Set aside and preheat the oven to 180° C (350° F).
- Butter 4 individual 10cm (4in.) gratin dishes (or one 16x23cm/6×9 in. gratin dish).
- In each dish, arrange the slices of beetroot by alternating them with béchamel sauce.
- Bake the gratin for 30-40 minutes (depending on the size of the dish used) until bubbly and golden on the top.
Serve this casserole hot and accompany with eggs and/or a seasonal salad.