Frugal challenge: the grocery budget

Ah food. Pancakes with sugar and lemon on a Sunday morning. The smell of roasting chicken with garlic and thyme. An apple so crisp it’s like cracking ice. Watching a movie with your arm sunk up to the elbow in a bag of Cheetos. Heaven.

Also known as The Giant Budget Sink Hole.

Food matters to me. It makes me think of family, taking care of my children, and warm hygge home making times. I always cooked with my granny and my mum, and as kids we had to be able to prepare one meal a week for the whole family by the time we were 9 years old. This is something I do with my own kids: it makes no sense to raise children who can’t feed themselves! Plus then I get a night off.

With my ethical hat on I also care about where food comes from and that that does to the planet, as well as to our health as a family. The debates during Brexit about food standards have been divisive (Brexit topic shocker!) but also showed me how little I had appreciated the standards in place for animal welfare and ethical consumerism. The desire for cheap food, without caring where it comes from and any longer term impacts, opens up some terrifying options for dystopian future, and I say that in a time which sometimes feels more like dystopian right-now than anything else. In Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, she introduces ChickieNobs: the delicious, easy pieces of chicken we love to eat so much grown in a lab without the need for actual animals. That novel was written eight years ago – last year, start ups were raising hundreds of millions of dollars to do exactly that through the growth of ‘cultured meats‘.

In spite of all that, I would be pretty happy to arrive at *this* party. Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

All this to say, when it comes to food, as with all aspects of FIRE, it really matters that it’s about value and not just price. This year, I want to commit to making more conscious decisions about food. I was raised a vegetarian from birth, and stayed that way until I was 26. So a lot of our meat consumption is about ease, and about having one fussy child who is vehemently anti-vegetable. And laziness on my part. But I’m increasingly aware of the need to do better in this area, and how the small choices I make contribute to my own FIRE journey and to my footprint on the planet.

But I also think of myself as someone who is frugal with food, and that just ain’t so. In 2020 I spent £6,160 on groceries plus £2,100 on eating out. I am so, so fierce about not eating out that I am frankly astonished at that last figure: I go for dinner with friends maybe once or twice per year, and whilst we do have a take out pizza once a month the bill is usually £30 a time, so the rest is a mystery. This year I budgeted £4,800 for groceries, so savings are going to have to be made. It took me a while to get to a realistic grocery budget, but it will take a while for it to stick. I love Mrs Smart Money’s guide to setting a grocery budget, and if you are looking for inspiration, do read about her no spend year and how she slashed her spending on food without losing out on quality.

We already shop at discount supermarkets: in Denmark that means LIDL (and my mum and I talk on the phone about whether they have the same things on offer in the UK as here. Rock and roll): and Rema 1000. These are so much cheaper than the fancy supermarket, and I am also not tempted by the delicious bouji foods which are on offer there.

Ideally following the shopping list rather than just staring in surprise at the receipt. Photo credit

The building blocks of cutting food spending seem pretty easy, but, like any diet habit, it’s about how much you stick to them and whether you have emotional splurges:

  1. Meal plan. This is the most important thing, because the shopping and preparation all stems from here. Who is eating at home and when (in 2020 and, seemingly, 2021 this is a trick question since the answer is ‘all of you’ and ‘all the time’). What are the things you like to eat? How are you going to get your five-a-day? From then, the questions are around how you can stretch out both the food and the preparation – things like roasting a chicken then using the cold leftover meat the next day or two; or cooking a basic batch tomato sauce which can then be turned into spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, or the base for a chilli. I have been meal planning for a while, but I am still terrible for thinking ‘ooh I don’t feel like that any more, let’s have something else’. Practice makes perfect.
  2. Stock-take and write a shopping list: When you have meal planned, break it down into the ingredients you need for the week. Then check your cupboards/fridge/freezer and check you have what you need. Are there things you’ve not included but need to check, like coffee? I have a page up on the pinboard in the kitchen where I write staples like this, or flour, oil and so on Write them all down in a list which is easy to use, organised by the shops if you’ll visit more than one, then by aisle if you can remember such things.
  3. Batch cook, or batch prepare: Batch cooking is now so well known that there are whole books about it but it’s basically making things in big enough quantities to freeze additional portions and basically create your own ready meals. It’s just as much hassle and time to prepare five portions of something as it is one, and it usually works out much cheaper. Every week I make a basic roasted aubergine and tomato sauce every weekend (don’t tell my daughter it has aubergine in, fur would fly) and use this as a tomato sauce base. My top tip on batch cooking is to label everything properly, otherwise Freezer Surprise will be a regular on the menu: and freeze it in portion sizes so you don’t have to defrost and potentially waste a whole load of goodness.
  4. Batch prepare: In an effort to increase my vegetable intake, I make a dry coleslaw mix (basically just the vegetables) using the food processor, every week. This week I grated up carrot, beetroot, celeriac and spring cabbage and have used it in a standard salad, in a salmon poke bowl, and with mayo as an accompaniment to a sandwich. I also do things like prepare roasted chicken for use in lunches.
  5. Enjoy yourself. Yes we’re budgeting (and trying to save the world) but food should also be a pleasure. Make things you like to eat. Find a time when the planning and shopping works, involve the kids in talking about meals they look forward to, and involve them in prep. My son and I make a cake every week as our treat for the week, usually one for home and one with the same mixture made into cake bars for school. Then I batch cook/prep in a two-hour window at the weekend when the kids are playing or with friends, and I listen to an audio book. It genuinely feels like a pleasant time, much more so than trying to slam a meal together at 17.30 on a work night. Some people prefer an evening’s cooking with a glass of wine – it’s all about what works for you.
This week’s cake (and a reminder to remove the Christmas table cloth): Victoria Sponge.

So – how do you keep your grocery budget down? I’d love to hear your tips!