Food: in search of the right price

Veteran cost-cutting graduate Lucy Tobin seeks out the ultimate bargains to help you reduce your food bills

As a fresher, I arrived at university squashed in the car alongside three saucepans, one colander, two oven-proof dishes and most of the contents of my parents’ fridge. I had great food intentions. I would prepare fresh meals every evening, budget my meals every week and freeze food ahead of time. Looking back, I think I even intended to do the washing up as soon as I’d eaten.

But, as freshers’ week kicked off, the lofty aspirations fell by the wayside. I spent the first weeks of university eating in the communal canteen, where the stodgy food was improved by the buzzy atmosphere of people making friends. And then life gradually settled down into a routine, and food became an important topic again. When my first student bills started coming in, money concerns were growing at the same rate as my waistline.

So, with an empty rucksack on my back, I cycled down to Sainsbury’s for my first solo supermarket shop. Clueless about what to buy, I opted for the same things we had at home, and ended up staggering up the stairs to my room with bulging bags and an empty wallet.

Needless to say, most of the food went off before I could get through it. The next week, I took a list. And the week after that, I ventured beyond the supermarket, discovering both local, independent alternatives and big “cash and carries” that saved me money.

Budget supermarkets

At the start of every term, do a huge food shop to stock up on useful basics like tinned tomatoes, pasta, rice and sauces. Even if you plan on being the ultimate domestic god(dess), there will be days when you don’t have time to cook up a storm, and a nice pot of Ragu will do.

But instead of heading to your local supermarket, go to your nearest bargain store such as Lidl or Netto for big bulk. The last time I checked, you could buy 80 tea bags for 31p, cans of tomato soup for 18p, and one-litre cartons of orange juice for 58p.

It’s a good idea to do this big shop with your parents if you can get them on side they might pay the bill at the checkout, and it’ll probably be a lot easier to transport.

Lidl, with 280UKstores, including many near uni campuses (checkwww.lidl.co.uk to find your nearest) can also be good for everyday staples: cheese and tomato pizzas for 48p, korma currysauce costing 69p and a loaf of sliced wholemeal for 59p. Likewise Netto, which has 182 UK stores, had 20 packs of French Fries crisps for £1.66, and two packs of sausages and bacon for £2.29.

For these kinds of quantities, and to capitalise on buy-one get-one-free offers, it can be a good idea to shop with a friend and split the difference. Also, remember to take your own bags, as you have to pay for them in store.



Buying local

I always avoided the fresh produce at budget supermarkets. The choice is limited, and I found better bargains at the local market. Ask at a post office or tourist information point whether there’s a regular fruit and veg market in your town. It’s best to visit without a shopping list, so you can adapt your meals to whatever is in season for cheapest prices.

In Oxford, where I studied, there was a market every Wednesday, and every week they’d sell 10 of a particular fruit or vegetable for £1. So in summer it would be peaches, in winter, parsnips and carrots. I used to look up recipes online if I didn’t have any inspiration about what to do with, say, 10 courgettes, so I avoided eating the same meals over and over again. I’d also whiz up healthy smoothies with leftover fruit.

While you’re in the centre of town at the market, look around for local butchers, grocers and bakers. On some meat cuts, they can be cheaper – my local butcher sells 10 chicken fillets for £12(£5.29/kg), where Sainsbury’s Basics Chicken Fillets are £7.49/kg. Even if there are no instant savings, if you’re a regular customer (and wear your most ripped and holey jeans), you might be able to wangle a discount.

They’ll also be able to prepare cheaper cuts of meat that you might not see in the supermarket, and often provide useful recipe ideas.

Mainstream supermarkets

You’ll probably still use the supermarket as your main shop, but, if your uni is in a big town, that should still leave you with a choice of stores. To save money, don’t be faithful to one supermarket – shop around. Buy your average goods at, say, Tesco one week and Asda the next, and compare your till receipt. Avoid the small “local”, “central” or “metro” mini supermarkets, which can have higher prices.

It can be a good idea to schedule your visit near to closing time, as that’s when supermarkets discount food. A friend of mine used to visit Sainsbury’s five minutes before it closed to pick up cheap sandwiches for her next day’s lunch. If you’re in a student house, it may be worthwhile ordering from an online supermarket – but remember to share with friends to split the delivery charge, and visit a price-comparison site like www.mysupermarket.co.uk to find the cheapest retailer.



Delis

Another source of different foods can be found at speciality delis, where you can also discover more about your local community.

Friends studying in London recommend Polish delis – one even fed herself through uni on £4 Polish sausages.The owner was so friendly that she would give my friend free cake on her way to lectures. In Oxford, I visited a delicatessen that stocked a local farm’s produce – the free testers on the counter were a good enticement.



Campus shops

All of the above will usually offer better value than campus shops. These are good for convenience when you really, really want that fix of chocolate or ice cream at midnight (or a sneaky bit of alcohol), but usually make you pay for the privilege. So plan ahead – even for emergency cravings – and stash a secret supply of goodies for those late-night essay crises and the early mornings when you return from a club and, despite all the good intentions, nothing but a Mars bar will do.



Two budget recipes



Cheap and cheerful bolognese sauce

Can be added to pasta or rice. Fry one onion until it is soft. Add 1lb of beef mince meat and fry until it is brown. Add a pinch of salt, a twist of pepper, three grated carrots, three finely chopped mushrooms, a dash of Worcester sauce and a generous squirt of tomato ketchup and cook on a medium heat for 20 minutes.

Onion soup (vegetarian)

Make up a big pot of this and eat it over a few days, or freeze any leftovers. Thinly chop five onions and fry them in a large saucepan with a generous blob of butter. Fry until they turn dark brown (after about 15 minutes), stirring them throughout.Make up two pints of vegetable stock – I use Marigold Vegetable Bouillon, where you add four teaspoons and four pints of boiling water. Pour the stock into the saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer for another 10 minutes. To serve, pour the soup into a large bowl. Float a piece of French bread on top, then place cheese (gruyere or cheddar work well) on top. Melt the cheese by ladling another spoonful of soup on top.

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