The frugal cook: the true price of food

Categories: Expert guidance

Food writer and editor Malou Herkes on why cheap food and affordable food are not necessarily the same thing

It’s easy, perhaps, to associate the word frugal with cheap. When we think about cooking frugally, we might think about scouring the supermarkets for the best deals and lowest prices. Or eating plain rice for a week. Indeed, frugal cooking is about being economical in the way we buy, cook and use up our food, but to think it’s limited to the basic price of the food we buy is a mistake. Frugal cooking also means spending in a way that is affordable not just for our own pocket, but for everyone in the supply chain. Whether that’s the dairy farmer, vegetable supplier, cheesemaker, stallholder or us, the consumer.

Aggressive supermarket price wars have led us to expect food at ever cheaper prices. Nowhere is this truer than in the UK, where on average only 10 per cent of the average household spend goes on food. Yes, we have one of the cheapest food systems in the world, but our expectation that food should be inexpensive has come at a large price. A price that we fail to see at the checkout. One that sees dairy farmers going out of business as they sell their products to big chains at cut-cost prices, or vegetable farmers suffering a similar fate when supermarkets’ arbitrary cosmetic standards reject a field-full of misshapen carrots. These vast companies can pick and choose. It’s the farmers—not the supermarket and certainly not the consumer—that must soak up the price, and deal with the consequences if they’re not able to.

Our food has become so artificially cheap that we no longer worry about wasting it. Or worse, we no longer know how to save it. Food has lost its once precious value: something only too obvious in the fact that one-third of food produced in the west ends up in landfill. At the other end of the spectrum, the marketing of so-called ‘superfoods’ has led to an inflated idea of what some foods should cost, alienating those who can’t afford them and creating a very limited idea of how we must eat to be healthy.

So how do we rethink our approach to food and its cost? And is it possible to pay the true price for our food and eat well, while also spending within our means? My new series, The frugal cook, will explore just that, with thoughts, ideas and tips on how to shop, cook, eat and enjoy food in a way that won’t cost the earth. Here are a few ideas to begin with.

Use ingredients in their entirety
Buying foods in their whole form is often the most economical way to shop. A whole chicken may cost more than a pair of chicken breasts, but it’ll provide you with meals for a week. The same theory applies to whole fish (the head and bones make a mean stock!) and whole vegetables, if you buy roots with their leaves attached.

Shift the focus from meat to plants
Putting more plant-based foods at the centre of your plate will help stretch your money further, which means you can afford the few extra pennies for well-reared, humanely treated meat and dairy once in a while.  

Be creative with ‘waste’
Our ancestors, out of pure necessity, were ingenious in their uses of stale bread and sour milk, offal and herb stalks, as they sought creative ways to use every last bit of nutrition and flavour from their ingredients. Peasant cooking, or indeed any cooking born of necessity, has informed how we’ve eaten for centuries, and has led to some of the most delicious, iconic dishes the world over. Think bread and butter pudding, or any number of pies, stews and soups, invented for the sole purpose of using up odds and ends from an empty pantry. Before you throw out that lemon rind or last night’s leftover rice, think again!

Start at the empty fridge
Switch up how you approach your weekly shop. Rather than planning your meals based on habit or a hungry stomach, base them on what’s already in your fridge and cupboards. Even if all you have are a few overripe tomatoes and a half-finished jar of curry paste, that’s already a good start for a tasty meal.

Ignore best-before dates
The use-by date on food packaging is the only number you need to pay attention to, and refers to highly perishable ingredients, like meat and fish, which tell you at what point the food is dangerous to eat. All other dates, from best before to sell by to display by, are used by food stores to rotate their stock and are not an indicator that your food is off. Rather than stick to the dates, use your intuition and research what to do if your food is past its best.

Cook from scratch!
The easiest way to save money and still afford to eat good, nutritious food is to make it yourself. The ready availability of pre-made products and meals means many of us have come to think of cooking as a complicated science far removed from our own abilities, particularly when it comes to basic staples, like yoghurt or cheese. But did you know it takes just two ingredients and 10 minutes of your time to create yoghurt? Or that cheese is a simple process of heating and straining milk? Once we learn the basics, suddenly it’s easy to magic meals from just a few basic fridge staples.