I abhor waste, always have, always will. I think it’s because I have an unhealthy obsession with wartime diaries—Anne Frank, Nella Last, I’ve read them all.
So here’s how I roll in The Frugal Kitchen—whether you’re saving money, or doing your bit to reduce the developed world’s shocking food waste (lecture over), it might come in handy.
Have any handy hints of your own? Let me know in the comments space below…
1) Plan meals
Simple enough, but easier said than done. I try to spend a quiet half an hour with my recipe books and a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning and work out what I’m going to cook for the week (I actually enjoy doing this—I know, tragic). After a quick audit of what’s in the fridge/freezer/cupboard, I write a list. Sometimes it can be tricky to pin the husband down on when he’ll be in and who else may be popping round for their tea, but I try to cater for all eventualities by cooking up a big vat of food once a week, and freezing leftovers.
2) Buy smart
Now, I’m sure the supermarket powers that be will hate me for this but, in my opinion, supermarkets are for store cupboard ingredients. In fact, I normally bypass going to the supermarket altogether and shop online; most of them deliver for free at non-peak times (Tuesday at 9pm, anyone?) and that means you won’t be tempted to buy stuff that you don’t need.
Obviously, if you’ve sworn to use cash only, you’ll have to actually go there. Strap on your blinkers, and stick to the list is my motto.
The one exception to this is supermarkets in foreign countries. I can’t get enough of those babies. Oh and Waitrose—but that’s a mere pipe dream of aspiration for LoveRichCashPoor.
All the same, I try not to get sucked into the marketing. Supermarket basics ranges are exactly the same as the supermarket own-brand ranges, without the pretty pictures. I buy either basics or specialist/organic, depending on the item.
That works a bit like this:
Chicken: free-range, super happy, fed on grains of gold or whatever. Super expensive too, but I don’t eat it often.
Tinned tomatoes: basics everytime.
That’s my personal choice, not a guideline; buy whatever you feel comfortable with.
For high-ticket items (when exactly did washing powder get so expensive?), I use price comparison sites to find out the best deals — most stores have smartphone apps that list the offers each week (yes, I actually have these on my iPhone—this is turning into a confessional). I tend to stockpile if I can afford to.
I admit that I’m terrible at mental maths. I freeze and panic when faced with the most simple sum, but I have a calculator on my mobile (cell)—and I’m not afraid to use it. If it’s cheaper to buy four chicken breasts in one go, than two one week and two the next, I buy four and freeze two. I freeze meat and fish individually in freezer bags—it means I don’t have to defrost a whole pack if the husband’s out and I’m cooking for one.
I try to shop daily for fresh ingredients. First, because I don’t want to waste my weekend in the supermarket. Second, because I live about 200 yards from several shops and cycle past many more on the way home from work (therein lies the advantage of London). That way, I don’t get unspeakable bags of pre-prepared salads mouldering at the bottom of the fridge and ergo sum, don’t waste money on things I won’t/can’t use.
2.1) Find a market (a normal market, not an organic farmer’s market) and shop there
The husband will confirm that I love a market. I would say it’s almost an obsession. Mostly, because I prefer to interact with people than machines (I would like to eliminate self-service tills from this earth—especially any that say ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ on repeat). But also because markets are fantastic for bargain fruit and veg. The later in the day it gets, the more likely it is that the stallholders will be prepared to do a deal—and will often chuck in a freebie or two. A perfect example: strawberries: £2.99 a punnet in my local supermarket, £1 for two punnets in the market. You do the math (as previously discussed, I can’t).
By the way, I haven’t got anything against farmer’s markets—I love a farmer’s market too (I’m middle class, after all), it’s just that I don’t want to re-mortgage my house to buy some rocket.
2.2) Grow herbs, don’t buy them
I grow fresh herbs on the balcony and the kitchen windowsill to avoid having to buy a whole bunch when I only want a sprig. The cheapest option is supposedly to grow them from seed—great if you have a house, garden, potting shed and greenhouse. I’m not a fan of messing about with soil in my flat (cream carpets)—but I greatly admire people who do and would love, love, love to grow veg one day like Project Palermo or my idol, Cherry Menlove. Sigh, roll on the dream house.
So for now, I buy healthy, mature plants from the garden centre. I have thyme, sage, basil, rosemary, chives, mint and parsley. Because I use so much coriander, I buy it in bunches—a plant wouldn’t stand a chance but on the rare occasion that a couple of springs go unused, I freeze it to use in soups or stews in the future.
3) Cook in bulk
I am pathologically incapable of cooking for small numbers. I think it’s because I come from a huge family (and yes, I’m greedy). But it pays to cook more than you need, especially if you are making one-pot dinners such as ragu, chilli con carne, stews and soups that freeze very well. I save takeaway containers and freeze any leftovers in individual portions. Then I can just defrost a tub or two whenever I can’t be bothered to cook or there’s nothing in the fridge.
It also saves on energy—cooking ragu for six uses the same amount of energy as cooking ragu for two. Fact.
4) The freezer is your friend
You’d be amazed how much you can freeze. I freeze lemon wedges (they make great ice cubes for G&Ts), leftover gravy (perfect for bangers and mash), leftover meals (see above), odds and ends of herbs on the turn and chopped celery to use in soups and stews (who uses a whole bunch of celery in one go? Who I ask you?), bechemel sauce, grated cheese, butter, stock and leftover wine (ice-cube trays are great for this), pastry, crumble mix, leftover fruit for use in smoothies or crumbles, curry paste… I could go on.
5) Treat use-by dates with scepticism (in other words, use your common sense)
In my kitchen, the use-by date is sacred for fish and meat. For eggs, I pop them into a bowl of water to check: if they float, they’re done for, if they sink, they’re fine.
For dairy, the date is marginally more flexible: mould on cheese? Cut it off and carry on. Sour milk? Chuck it. (PS don’t tell the husband about the cheese thing, he’ll freak out)
For fruit and veg, I treat the use-by with contempt. I normally buy fruit and veg from the market or my local grocer so there isn’t a use-by date at all, but on the rare occasion I buy from the supermarket, I’m fascinated by what I deem to be totally arbitrary use-by dates. Carrots that only last three days? You’re having a laugh. In my book, carrots are fine until they can walk to the bin by themselves.
For dried goods: well, it’s probably fine. I keep my dry goods in air-tight mason jars to extend the shelf-life. Oh, okay, you got me, I only do this because it looks pretty. One exception: spices—they loose their potency after a while. They won’t kill you, but they won’t spice up your life either.
I’ve been lusting over one of these kitchen storage solutions from Ella’s Kitchen Company ever since we moved in. Yep, you guessed it: no money.
Of course, ideally you would avoid any of the above scenarios, by referring to points two four. Only buy what you need and if you aren’t going to use it immediately, freeze it.
It’s worth pointing out at this juncture that I have never given myself or my husband food poisoning, although he lives in constant fear (It’s been six years, I think he’s safe).