Cheap eats: How to cut back on your food bill

Shopping smarter and avoiding waste can help reduce your food costs. By Jennifer Bowden.

Question: Many of us are feeling the pinch. How can I reduce food costs while still providing healthy family meals?

Annual food prices rose by 7.6 per cent last month, with fruit and vegetable prices up by a whopping 18 per cent compared with March last year. Added to climbing fuel costs and rising interest rates, there is plenty for New Zealanders to be concerned about budget-wise.

Indeed, in a recent Consumer NZ survey, 98 per cent of respondents reported being worried about the cost of groceries, with 84 per cent acknowledging they had had to remove items from their trolley because of the cost.

Although there’s little we can do to influence the duopoly that is our supermarket system, we can certainly reduce food costs by choosing wisely, preparing our meals carefully and avoiding wastage. Here are some simple tips to get you started:

Convenience costs money.

Conveniently packaged, processed or prepared food costs more. By forgoing a little convenience, your food bill can be substantially reduced.

• Buy standard fresh vegetables rather than prepared ones. For example, one iceberg lettuce is half the price of a packet of mixed lettuce leaves.

• Prepared sauces, flavoured rice and so forth are costly. Using recipes from the old faithful Edmonds Cookery Book, you can easily make your own.

• Ask parents and grandparents for cooking advice (yes, even if you’re in your forties or fifties). They have valuable experience in preparing meals from scratch, baking, preserving, and other dollar-savers.

• Plan ahead. Teach your children how to cook, because this will give them important life skills.

Protein-rich foods are one of the most expensive food groups. It’s easy to reduce your protein costs.

Try boiled and drained red lentils in a spaghetti bolognaise sauce or cottage pie to increase the servings. Try cannellini, navy or haricot beans in a tomato-based pasta sauce or minestrone soup. Or add cannellini beans or chilli beans to a sausage casserole to substantially reduce the fat content per serve.

If you’re new to legumes, start with tinned beans (no pre-cooking required). Raw beans are cheaper, but do require soaking and precooking. Buy them in bulk from such bulk traders as Bin Inn to further reduce costs. Check out Sophie Gray’s website ( for raw-bean preparation instructions.

• Double the vegetables in your mince dish or meat casserole, as this will increase the servings and add valuable vitamins and minerals. Using frozen and canned produce can be cost effective.

• Reduce your meat serving size. It should be the size of the palm of your hand (smaller hands equals smaller portions for children).

• Have at least one meatless main meal a week – substitute eggs or beans as a cost-effective, healthy protein source. Use eggs with last night’s leftover veges (potatoes, broccoli, carrots) to make a quiche, frittata or omelette.

Try Mexican or Indian-style food based on legumes, as these cuisines are tasty and nutritious.

Fruit and vegetables are nutritionally important. Follow these suggestions to reduce costs:

• Buy seasonal fresh produce, as it’s usually the cheapest.

• Buy long-lasting vegetables, such as cabbage – a seriously under-rated vegetable. Steam cabbage, add olive oil and cracked pepper; or stir-fry it in a little oil, crushed garlic and ginger (teenagers love this); or toss thinly sliced purple cabbage with grated carrots, cheese, finely chopped celery and a light vinaigrette for a colourful coleslaw.

• Frozen veges are often a cheap (and long-lasting) option and, contrary to popular opinion, they are very nutritious.

“Waste not, want not” was our grandparents’ catchcry, and it still remains true. Food thrown away is wasted money.

• Plan your weekly purchases, shop with a list, and don’t buy more perishable foods than you will eat.

• Store food appropriately, as damaged or spoilt food is a waste.

• Eat more perishable fruit first.

• Stew tired-looking fruit for breakfasts.

• Use all leftovers. Salads and tiny bits of leftover meat are fantastic in tomorrow’s sandwiches/wraps. Leftover veges can be added to a quiche for dinner the next day.

Unbranded food products are often cheaper. Double-check prices and quality, though, and choose wisely.

Good food doesn’t have to cost a fortune. And by introducing just a few of the above suggestions, you will likely reduce your weekly food costs, giving you the freedom to spend on other things, such as petrol.

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