Guest post by Amelya Cliff
Sometimes being a foodie is tough. Who doesn’t want to spend thousands on the best restaurants, to bask in the light of a Michelin-star cuisine? The problem is, most of us just can’t afford that. The truth of the matter is that living in a place like London, as great as it is, gives us very little extra cash to spend on our passions. Then we’re stuck with yet another evening in with tomato pasta, ready-made sausage roll, or — shudder — the dreaded cup noodles.
But being broke doesn’t mean treating food as a necessity rather than a pleasure. Whether you’re a student, saving for a house, or just a little short on cash this month, there are so many ways to eat well while sticking to a budget. Here are a few tips, as well as our favourite recipes, to spice up your life and avoid the repetitive glum of a mundane, cheap dinner, and instead replace it with posh yet economical grub.
Tips for eating well for less
Before we get into the specifics, there are some things you can do to ensure you eat for less on a more regular basis. Here are our top-three tips for keeping your meals wholesome yet reasonably priced.
1. Shop smart
It’s not just about what you make, it’s also about when and how you go about it. When food shopping, try to avoid buying on a whim. Go into your local shop with a gameplan — are you shopping for the whole week, or just for dinner? What ingredients do you already have at home? And which aisles are you going to avoid because they pose too much of a risk for indulgent purchases?
If you’re buying for the whole week, make sure to be accompanied by a meticulously planned shopping list. This will stop you from dropping some unnecessary items into your basket, which is a recipe for overspending. Try to see if your shop has any offers in advance so you can plan your list based on that. If your shopping trip is a one-off, try to keep it to the hour before closing. Why? Because this is the time when your supermarket is more likely to have reduced items. A discounted pack of chicken breasts and the old bag of rice in your cupboard, combined with some fresh herbs, can be a scrumptious meal — you just have to eat it on the same day.
2. Use cheaper ingredients
It sounds obvious, but sometimes it’s worth reminding yourself that some ingredients are objectively more expensive than others. This is just a fact. Turmeric is a bargain compared to saffron. A prime cut of angus beef is more costly than a simple braising steak. And quinoa is more pricey than rice.
Vegetables are a budget-friendly option, so try to always pack your fridge full of them. Frozen food (including vegetables or meat) is also much cheaper than fresh, and normally just as good — or even better. Cooking with pulses, such as beans, lentils and peas, is also an economical route — not only are they a steal price-wise, but they’re also full of nutritional value that will fill you up quicker than empty carbs. A great side-note here is that investing in good seasoning can transform the taste of your food, so make sure you have some dried herbs at the very least.
3. Implement a no-waste policy
Sometimes it’s hard to avoid overbuying. We don’t always predict how much we’re going to eat. However, making it a rule not to waste any food — within reason, you don’t want to give yourself food poisoning — can save you a lot of money. Making a list of anything with a close use-by-date and sticking it on the fridge can save you precious meat going to waste, while making sure you cook what expires first will also keep you on track.
Freeze your bread to avoid it going stale. However, if you have any stale foods, try to find ways to ‘revive’ them. Your bread could become delicious croutons with a little bit of olive oil and seasoning, and blackened bananas can be a great binding agent for cakes, or taste wonderful in banana bread.
Posh recipes for any pocket
Eating on a budget doesn’t have to be depressing. We don’t want to see you sobbing into a stale slice of bread, nibbling on the rough edges. There are so many great, cheap recipes that can truly spark joy without burning a hole in your pocket — here are only a few of them.
Cacio e pepe
Boring tomato pasta, begone! There are many deliciously low-priced pasta recipes, like this collection of vegetarian recipes from the experts at Pasta Evangelists, who claim that “vegetarian pasta gives centre stage to Italian seasonal produce, allowing the fresh flavours to flourish on your plate.” Their collection includes scrumptious recipes like wild mushroom sauce, pasta alla norma (trust us — give it a go) or tagliatelle al limone, but if you ask us, this simple cacio e pepe recipe that consists of only four, cheap ingredients is the star of the show.
- 200g spaghetti or bucatini (or any long pasta you’ve got available)
- 25g butter
- 2 tsp freshly ground whole peppercorns
- 50g finely grated pecorino or parmesan (or any tangy cheese you have)
- Cook the pasta according to package instructions in salted boiling water, making sure it’s al dente.
- While it’s cooking, melt the butter in a medium frying pan over a low heat, add the pepper and toast for a couple of minutes.
- Keep 200ml of the pasta water, then drain the pasta and tip it into the pan along with half the water.
- Toss together and add the cheese. Wait for it to melt (around 30 seconds), then stir together.
- If the sauce is too thick, add a splash of pasta water.
- Serve immediately with black pepper.
Another Italian favourite, but this time it actually uses your leftovers. This delicious Tuscan bread salad takes your stale bread and turns it into an explosion of flavour in your mouth, in a filling yet fresh dish that is perfect for both a summertime lunch or a cosy night in with a glass of red. You can always pair this salad with a meat of your choice, or eat it as is.
For the salad
- ½ loaf (around 225g) of stale bread, torn into pieces
- 1kg large ripe tomatoes, diced
- 1 red onion, thinly sliced
- 2 medium cucumbers, diced
- 1 pack fresh basil leaves, torn into large pieces
- Salt and pepper to taste
For the dressing
- 2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
- Juice from 2 medium lemons
- 6 anchovies, finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- ¾ cup olive oil
- Make the vinaigrette dressing by combining all the ingredients minus the oil. Let it sit for 15 minutes. Then, whisk continuously while adding in the oil slowly until fully incorporated. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Place the bread in a large bowl with half of the vinaigrette. Toss until coated well and set aside for 10 minutes.
- Place the tomatoes, onions and cucumber in a separate bowl with the remaining dressing. Coat well and set aside for 10 minutes.
- Combine the vegetables, bread and basil, season if needed. If you have an extra 15 minutes, allowing the dish to sit will let the flavours to fully meld.
Chicken ramen stir-fry
We’re going to let you in on a little secret here — those infamous packs of instant noodles can be the basis of gourmet meals. We know, it sounds insane, but as long as you don’t use the packet of flavouring, you’re getting decent quality noodles for a fraction of the price. The internet is full of amazing recipes from those pesky packs and our go-to is this deliciously quick chicken ramen stir-fry.
For the sauce
- 60ml soy sauce
- 1 tbsp cornstarch
- 75ml chicken stock (or water)
- 1 tbsp rice vinegar (if you don’t have any, use white wine vinegar or some lemon juice)
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
For the stir-fry
- 170g of instant noodles (discard the flavouring)
- 2 tbsp cooking oil
- 500g chicken breast, chopped
- 250g broccoli (fresh or frozen)
- 2 green onions, if you have them
- 1 tbsp sesame seeds, if you have them
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Make the sauce by whisking together the soy sauce and cornstarch until smooth. Add the rest of the sauce ingredients and stir to combine.
- Cook the noodles according to packet instructions minus one minute (without the flavouring). Once tender, drain the noodles.
- Toss the chicken with salt and pepper. Heat wok (or non-stick pan) over medium-high heat. Add 1 tbsp of oil and the chicken, then sauté until cooked through, roughly 4-5 minutes. Set aside.
- Add the remaining oil into the wok together with the broccoli, cook until softened. If you’re using frozen broccoli, sauté until it’s heated through and the water cooks off.
- Coat the broccoli in the sauce and continue to cook until it reduces slightly, about 1-2 minutes.
- Return the chicken to the wok together with the noodles and toss until combined and well-coated.
- Garnish with green onions and sesame seeds.
Strawberry salad with poppy-seed dressing
This salad is a heavenly, fresh and posh-feeling base for any meat you want to add to it — be it your almost-expired steak, leftover chicken, cheeky prawns, or breakfast sausages. You could also eat it on its own or add cheese. The beauty of this salad is that you can truly mix and match the ingredients based on what you’ve got lying around, adding in or taking out. Switch the strawberries for peaches or nectarines, the lettuce for kale or spinach, the almonds for walnuts or pumpkin seeds. Whatever you do, it will work.
For the salad
- 50g sugar
- 35g slivered almonds
- 1 bunch romaine (or any lettuce or leafy veg), torn
- 1 small onion, preferably red, halved and thinly sliced
- 400g strawberries, halved
For the dressing
- 4 tbsp mayonnaise
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp sour cream
- 1 tbsp semi-skimmed milk
- 2¼ tsp cider vinegar (or lemon juice, if you don’t have it)
- 1½ tsp poppy-seeds
- In a small skillet, cook the sugar over medium-low heat until melted and caramel-coloured, about 10 minutes. Stir in the almonds and coat, then spread on aluminium foil to cool.
- Whisk together dressing ingredients.
- In a separate bowl, toss together the lettuce, onion and strawberries. Add the dressing and toss to coat.
- Break the candied almonds into pieces, sprinkle over the salad and serve immediately with meat, cheese or on its own.