Food means a lot to me. At a basic level, it’s a key part of our every day life but it is also somewhere memories are made and locked in. From the soft comfort of my granny’s potato pie (literally mashed potato, onions and cheese baked in a pie dish with cheese on top aka best comfort food ever) to the smokey, social delights of nyama choma and the perfect mukimo accompanied by a cold beer, food is so evocative. A lot of the discussion on my Brilliant Ladies’ Insta are about frugal food and keeping costs low whilst keeping quality and enjoyment high.
Food is central to good times and bad in my culture – no difficult family conversation, lengthy future planning session, or celebration – of either life or death – would be possible without a central table of food to act as referee and peace keeper between the participants. In my own house, food is linked in my mind to love, to taking care of my children and creating a cosy, secure home with our own small traditions.
These days though there are also two less comforting sides to feeding the family. Firstly, and the focus of this post, is the soaring cost of groceries and how to manage your budget. The second is the ethical aspects of food – industrial farming methods and animal welfare issues, exploitative employment practices, and reliance on cheap imports which have a heavy environmental footprint, are all real concerns when making choices in the supermarket.
Food prices in the UK have traditionally been quite low compared to the rest of Europe, but this ‘golden era‘ came to an end during 2022. Rises in inflation and fuel prices, as well as global shortages and issues with supply chains means that food is getting more expensive. In January, poverty campaigner Jack Monroe highlighted how the way tracking rising prices are calculated glosses over the impact on lower income families. By last month, 92% of Britons claimed they were cutting back on grocery and food costs in order to reduce their outgoings: both in relation to the cost of food but also to save they money needed to respond to increases in fuel and household energy. Food price rises in the UK are shortly expected to have reached 15% within one year. Kenya has seen a similar rise, and is seeing the impact of rising fuel costs on transporting food into and around the country. So it looks like either granny’s potato pie, or that plate of nyama choma, is going to cost a lot more this year.
So – what can you do to keep an eye on your grocery budget?
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.
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:
- 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 2021 this became 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’. It helps me to remember that this contributes to reducing food waste: UK households throw out the equivalent to a whole month’s worth of grocery budget every year whilst the amount of food wasted across the country could feed half the 7m Britons who are struggling to afford to eat. That’s something worth making our own small changes for in my view.
- 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. The real trick though is a) remembering to take the damn list with you (which is why lots of people keep it on a phone app instead) and b) following it when confronted with other options.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
How is the rising cost of food impacting you? I’d love to hear your tips!