10-point guide to eating well, ethically and healthily
It isn't as difficult – or as expensive – as you might think and you can even save money, says Joanna Blythman.
As your till receipts will testify, the cost of food has climbed alarmingly of late. And it looks as if higher food bills are here to stay, not just for years, but for decades.
A series of global factors – climate change, a growing population, shortage of oil, market speculation and a weak pound – are combining to drive up the price of food. The underlying trend is that food prices will continue to rise in real terms for the next 30 years. So we have moved into a period when food will become a much more significant item in household budgets.
It's wearying having to worry constantly about the bottom line, but when money is tight there's no need to abandon your ethical, progressive instincts and buy the cheapest (and potentially nastiest) food on offer, or fill up on stodge.
Instead, look at rising prices as an opportunity to hone "domestic economy" skills – yet still eat well – by employing these strategies.
1. Waste nothing - use up every last bit of food you buy
Cut out waste by shopping as frequently as possible and try to buy only what you need for the next couple of days. Never bin food that could have a further use.
For instance: sour milk makes great pancakes and scones; old bread gets a new lease of life when made into breadcrumbs, salads and puddings. Eggs that are past their "use by" date can be safely eaten in recipes where they will be well cooked, such as cake or frittata. Don't throw away fat from meat or poultry roasts – instead use it for frying. Make old fruit into crumbles and compotes and tired vegetables into soups and purées. Save the leathery ends of parmesan wedges to flavour soups and sauces.
2. Be super-suspicious of supermarket promotional offers
Three-for-two or buy-one-get-one-free deals need to be treated with scepticism. Their purpose is to get you to buy more food than you might otherwise. With non-perishable foods, they might possibly represent a chance to stock up on products that you'll get through in the fullness of time. But if you're controlling your weekly budget carefully, it might be better to buy only what you need, when you need it, rather than stockpiling potentially useful foods.
Good deals on fresh food rarely save you money. They coax more money out of your pocket and encourage you to overbuy. Chances are that some of what you pick up will be wasted because it was more than you needed. A promotional deal isn't a bargain if it ends up in the bin.
3. Check out cheaper sources for foods you buy regularly
If you tend to shop for food on auto-pilot in the same place, compare prices in other outlets once in a while. For example, fruit and vegetables generally cost much less in greengrocers and markets than in supermarkets; certain products, like parmesan, are often significantly cheaper in foreign-discount chains; spices are much better value in Asian shops; and nuts often cost less when bought in large quantities in Chinese supermarkets.
4. Stick with meat from free-range animals rather than switching to factory-farmed but consider reducing the quantities you eat
In a typical stew or curry recipe, for instance, cut the quantity of meat specified by about half and make up the difference with vegetables or pulses. Bone up on how to cook cheaper, but delicious, cuts of meat such as beef shin, pork cheeks, neck of lamb and duck legs and make a little go a long way.
5. Go for cheaper, lesser-known types of fish
Forget the pricey premier league species such as cod, tuna and halibut and concentrate on second-division species like megrim, rockfish, coley, herring and mackerel. They taste good but sell for less largely because people are less familiar with them.
6. Cook more from scratch and keep processed convenience foods to the bare minimum
Unless you're prepared to live on bargain-basement, poor-value and low-grade processed food, then buying convenience foods – such as ready meals, for example – is an extremely expensive, not to mention unsatisfactory, way to eat.
By doing most of your own cooking, you will not only improve the flavour and freshness of what you eat, but also save a mint. Ready-prepared foods constitute rotten value for money. Most of what you're paying for is packaging and marketing.
7. Take lunch to work
Buying your lunch from takeaways eats into your finances in an insidious way. A drink, a sandwich and a sweet bite easily clocks up £5 a day, usually for something that's deeply inferior to what you'd make at home. For the price of a floppy sarnie filled with rubbery cheese, you could make an infinitely superior home-made one, using decent bread and your pick of the country's finest artisan cheese. If it's the planning that defeats you, just scale up what you cook the night before to make sure that there's enough left for lunch the next day. Last night's leftovers, however random and variable, often taste even better at lunchtime.
8. Drink tap water
Bottled water costs anything from 500 to 900 per cent more than tap. Quench your thirst with this and it's as much of a drain on your financial resources as paying up a car loan or signing up for a private club. Give up that pricey habit and you'll feel flush in no time. If you don't like the taste of tap water, drink it with ice and lemon, leave it to sit in the fridge so the chlorine evaporates, use a jug filter, or make a one-off investment in a plumbed-in water filter.
9. Grow any food you can and make the most of cheap, seasonal, UK-grown produce
Even if it's just a snipping of herbs from a pot on the window-sill, or some cut-and-come-again salads growing in a container on the balcony, a bit of home-grown food can not only transform your meals, it can also save you a surprising amount of money. Buy fresh, UK-grown fruits and vegetables at the height of their season when they are cheapest – and at their nutritional peak.
10. Forage enthusiastically whenever you get the chance
Both in rural and urban settings, there is a free larder of interesting foods at your disposal. Sniff out wild garlic leaves in city parks in spring, pick blackberries from roadside thickets in late summer and scour the woods for wild mushrooms in autumn. Get your revenge on the ground elder in your garden by eating it.
This is an extract from 'What to Eat: Food That's Good for Your Health, Pocket and Plate' by Joanna Blythman (4th Estate, £16.99). To order this book for the special price of £13.99, with free P&P, go to independentbooksdirect.co.uk or call 0843 0600030
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