How can we eat plant-based on a budget? I’ve learned that eating more veg can actually save money. What could you achieve if your financial and health goals lined up?
This isn’t my first time writing about food, but up to now all those posts have been recaps of TV shows. This post isn’t about what I’ve learned from those shows, although I will link to various recaps that will be useful too. This is more a comprehensive guide to what I’ve learned over the years through trial and error transitioning to mostly vegetarian, all the while trying to spend less while I saved for a house.
My sources outside of television during that time were nutritionists and dietitians online and at events like The Allergy & Free From Show. This is an annual food exhibition in London that focuses on vegetarian/vegan, organic and free from foods. These topics tend to be found together, but just because you like to buy from one of these categories doesn’t mean you have to buy from all them.
Just the same, buying one of these categories doesn’t automatically make a person healthier. There’s potential to get more nutrition from a plant-based lifestyle, but it depends on our habits overall.
By eating plant-based, I mean eating plants the majority of the time rather than eating “clean” or “healthy” because the latter are subjective. Often what’s promoted as healthy online is anything but. I want this post to still be useful even if you don’t identify as veggie or vegan full-time.
Who this post is for…
This post is for you if any or a combination of these apply:
- You don’t like to spend long in the kitchen You’d like to spend less on food and drink…
- …while eating more nutritiously
- You find all the information around conflicting and confusing
- You’re in a food rut
- You don’t know why your dinners don’t look Instagram-ready
- You’re interested in free from foods
Another caveat for the information below is that I’m feeding a short person. A 6’5″ rugby playing dude will cost more to feed, and have different dietary needs.
While I’m usually cooking for just myself, I don’t let that limit the information I consume. I’ve recapped series like Eat Shop Save which target families. However, batchcooking and knowing how to use leftovers is useful whether there is one or two of you, or a whole party of people coming over.
Why you don’t need recipes every day
My approach to food and drink generally is:
- I want dinners to cost less than £1
- Snacks cost less than 50p each
- The more often I eat and drink at home, the cheaper it is therefore
- I don’t like to spend more than 30 mins cooking
- Frozen ingredients are my friend
- I like recipes with as few steps and skills as possible
- The majority of the time I don’t want to follow a recipe at all
For that reason, you won’t find any detailed recipes in this post. I have a master page here of recipes. Most of these have come from TV shows that I’ve recapped. I would like to add more plant-based versions of those recipes. I’ve also covered my favourite recipe book and why in this post instead: How To Save Like A Bear In July
I think a recipe is only a starting point though. It’s the sort of thing you follow a few times so that you know what goes together, or how a vegetable tastes when it’s roasted versus sauteed versus covered in sauce. After that, improvise with what’s in the cupboard.
I’m not a “good cook”. I don’t have the attention span; I walk away and let things congeal. Food sits in the microwave going cold for 10 minutes while I continue typing (that reminds me: I should get my dinner out the microwave).
I spill and drop things daily. I’ve only melted plastic to the hob once (another good reason to stop buying plastic). I make food that’s nutritious and that I’m happy to eat, but the process is usually farcical.
I don’t care about timing things slightly wrong. Or having to adjust my flavours at the end. Or simply being more interested in something else when I’m supposed to be making dinner. (Perhaps I’m actually a good cook because I’m capable of problem solving in the moment).
If you think you can’t cook, then you haven’t spent time in the kitchen with me(!) Yet I still manage to make 99% of my food at home while balancing portions and getting at least my 5 A Day. There is hope for you yet.
Need more ideas to rocket your savings?
If it’s your first time on the blog, check out this page for the posts that started it all for first-time buyers:
This post in particular covers how to save when the going is tough:
I’m Bear by the way, if this your first time around my neck of the woods. I started the blog after climbing a financial mountain to buy my first house. I hope my experience can help other savers.
While it wasn’t always easy to save my deposit, it seems I’ve still always found saving easier than most people I know. It looked like I might never own a house because I needed such a big deposit on my low salary however. Food was one of the spending categories I overhauled so that I could get the best value for money. I would still be renting if I hadn’t changed my mindset over time and tackled all my budget areas.
Is eating plant-based more “healthy”?
I’m not a nutritionist, dietician etc and with this post I am not trying to teach any food science or pose as your doctor. My aim is to never make any health claims on the blog without pointing to evidence. I always try and make it clear what are anecdotes and what’s come from experts.
Don’t change your habits based purely on an anecdote. Do your own research before making significant health changes. If the science isn’t there, or your doctor wouldn’t recommend it, you’re probably wasting your time and money, and you might harm your health.
I also don’t think we should all have to get a PHD just to feed ourselves! I’ve referenced nutrition in this post from a layman’s perspective to challenge the idea that this is the first thing we should sacrifice to eat cheaply. I also try not to use the word “healthy” as this is subjective. Whether something has nutritional value is more objective.
Here’s what I’ve covered below:
What We Get Wrong About Buying Food
Why It’s Not More Expensive To Eat Nutritiously
Common Mistakes When Cooking Plant-based
How To Stop Eating Out
Experimenting With Flavour
How To Conquer Excuses
Are Free From Foods Healthy?
Making Our Own Snacks
If you feel like you’re living beyond your means because it seems like your lifestyle goals conflict with your savings goals, then you just need to recalibrate.
What if food and fitness is a spending priority for you? But so is saving for a house? These goals can feed off each other in a good way, rather than you feeling like their sucking the life from you in an either/or scenario. I hope everything below helps you find some areas where you could get better value for money.
Disclaimer: If you sign up for a free trial or purchase via an affiliate link in this post, I earn a commission from the seller at no extra cost to you. This might go some way towards covering the cost of hosting the blog etc.
If you are in debt, please mind when free trials end and please do not try and support the blog generally by purchasing through my affiliate links. Speak to National Debtline, StepChange, your local Citizens Advice, or all of these about your debts. If you want to support the blog, share it and the free mailing list with someone you know instead, or share my notebooks available on Amazon with them. I add new notebooks regularly, so the collection is growing.
What We Get Wrong About Buying Food
Let’s get some counterproductive thinking out the way. Not all of the below hitches will apply to you. Some of these booboos will definitely sound familiar because I’ve made these mistakes in the past and I know I’m not alone .
Here are the reasons why many of us are not already eating a lot of fruit and vegetables, or we rely on expensive convenience food:
- We think it’s more expensive to eat nutritiously
- We like shiny branded snacks marketed as superfoods that look good on social media
- We think it takes more time to prepare food and drink from scratch
- We fluff up in the kitchen
- We don’t know to make ingredients taste as good as restaurants and ready made food
- We believe the hype about cutting out certain ingredients, or entire food groups
There’s a bit of a cluster**** going on in the above.
We think it’s expensive to buy fresh fruit and vegetables…but we’re happy to spend £1 on a single processed snack that has 5% fruit in it and a load of other random unpronounceable ingredients.
Or we let one unqualified person convince us gluten is evil and that we should spend £3 on an overly processed loaf of free-from bread instead. And it will be “healthier”.
Not at those prices, my love. Leave it to the millionaires to go gluten free if you’ve not been diagnosed with an allergy or intolerance.
We don’t have time to cook for ourselves…but we have time to sit and wait for a takeaway. Or sit and wait in a restaurant, and then spend another several hours working every month to pay off our dining habits.
We don’t know how to make vegetables and home cooking tasty…because we’re too busy eating out. Or we’ve opted for a microwave meal instead of taking the same five minutes to discover what to do with broccoli and cauliflower. (Of the million things we can do with broccoli and cauliflower, try roasting them with sweet potato fries. Or put spices with the cauliflower, or almonds with broccoli. Cauliflower goes in curry, and broccoli goes with soy. The possibilities are almost endless. Nom nom nom!)
Add to this shopping without any planning or a list when we’re hungry, upset, and need to be somewhere else in twenty minutes, and it’s all a bit sad for our bank account.
Why It’s Not More Expensive To Eat Nutritiously
- If we have a consumer choice about where to shop
- We shop too often for too little in return
- Buying for one person doesn’t have to be expensive
- Buying for a family doesn’t have to be expensive
- We don’t need a lot of kitchen equipment
- No one needs to buy processed “superfoods”
- We don’t have to buy meat-free versions of anything
- Eating is as expensive as we make it
We have a consumer choice about where to shop
…to an extent. I’ve seen someone say they do all their shopping in one supermarket to save time… and then visit said supermarket on consecutive days to do top up shops instead of using what’s sat in the cupboard.
I’ve made a page here of where to get 100+ Best Value Food Ingredients from the various retailers. Not everyone will live near this choice of supermarkets. That’s when going online, or travelling to a discounter might be beneficial, but only if it balances out the delivery or travel costs.
Amazon Fresh are now offering free delivery to Prime members in selected postcodes. If you usually pay for food deliveries elsewhere, see if it nets you a saving with a 30 day free trial of Amazon Fresh first.
If you’re not a member, you can get a 30 day free trial of Amazon Prime beforehand. That should give you time to do some price comparisons on your food shopping (while you access everything else included like access to the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, free streaming of TV and music, and one-day delivery on your orders).
Students will want a free trial of Prime Student instead as the free trial lasts six months, and you pay 50% less if you decide to stay.
I shop at five or so different retailers throughout the year to get the cheapest products in each. Most of these items are either staples with a long life, or I make very efficient use of a few ingredients and freeze anything else before it goes to waste.
This means I can go a long time between shops. I might only go to Tesco a few times per year for example, but when I do I stock up on the things they are the most competitive for and preserve those items. Don’t think for a second that I’m visiting five retailers in one week. I’d rather stab myself in the eye with a celery stick.
We shop too often and get too little in return
If we don’t have time to shop in different supermarkets every week, can we stop assuming that we have to shop every week? Or that we need to buy enough in one visit that it warrants going to different supermarkets on the same day?
If the cheapest way to use what’s in our cupboards is to do a tour of the nation’s food outlets, then we need to go back to the cupboard and come up with something else instead of making life complicated.
In one of my Save Money Good Food recaps they talked about why discounters are so cheap. There’s no reason why we can’t buy fresh or frozen from them from a quality standpoint.
You will also need to shop less often and be able to take advantage of the best prices in different locations if you focus on raw ingredients whether they’re frozen, tinned or in a big ol’ bag. (And if they’re fresh, then you can still buy in bulk and get a long life from these by cooking it all up when you get it and freezing it yourself).
I guarantee we can buy enough raw food to last several weeks for the same price as seven ready meals or processed dinner contributions.
Buying for one person doesn’t have to be expensive
Buy the best value ingredients in bulk, cook in bulk, use your freezer. Besides my recaps of Save Money Good Food mentioned above, if you need ideas on how to use up every last bit of what you buy, try Love Food Hate Waste.
Buying for a family doesn’t have to be expensive
Exactly the same applies as to cooking for one or two people. Buy the best value ingredients in bulk, cook in bulk, use your freezer. If it’s a special occasion, just make more of the usual. Are they coming to see you, or are they just coming for the food? If it’s the latter, then maybe you should open your own restaurant.
We don’t need a lot of kitchen equipment
Most of the time we only need:
If you’ve got a set of saucepans, you might not really want mixing bowls depending on your habits. Or aspiring bakers can get nesting mixing bowl sets that double up as colanders and come with measuring cups and spoons if that’s where you’re lacking.
Tupperware or similar to store leftovers and batches of food cooked in advance is important. Again, if it’s not leaving the house in a handbag, you can get multipurpose mixing bowls with lids to store food instead. Otherwise improvise.
While I do feature and link to recipes involving food processors and blenders etc, this is mainly for anyone who already owns them, or who has decided they will get the use from them in the long term. Many recipes can still be made without these. If you’re going to use them weekly to make an economical shortcut in the kitchen then they are an investment that will pay for themselves.
There’s also no way around this, but we need to wash up daily. I hate washing up, so I do it all in one hit after dinner. We can’t make the best choices the next day if we’ve got to clean before we can make anything.
I’d rather wash up at the end of the day when I’m tired and not fit for much else anyway than squander valuable energy the next day searching around for something clean to use.
I don’t have a magic trick to make washing up more enjoyable, although I tend to use this time to put on my favourite music/podcasts or YouTube, so maybe try that.
How To Save Like A Bear In August has listening recommendations until this blog’s podcast is ready.
Or pick an audiobook as part of a free trial of Audible and get lost in that instead.
I will of course go to the grave clutching my copy of Fine Line. Time flies when we’re having fun and all that… Tell yourself that washing up is really me time to enjoy some entertainment instead.
Try cleaning as you go if a smaller pile after dinner gives you more incentive. It’s one of those things where you just have to fracking do it even if there’s things you’d rather be doing.
Harry Styles: making the kitchens of our nation cleaner.
No one needs to buy processed “superfoods”
I go to the The Allergy & Free From/Just V show every year where brands launch new vegan/vegetarian, organic and free from products. I go because I like eating the free samples, and it’s sometimes interesting to talk to the brands about why they’ve created something. Generally I find it bemusing to see what’s trendy.
I LOVE trying processed “superfood snacks”. The packaging is always so attractive. Sometimes it tastes good. I’m fascinated how they make five ingredients into something so processed and complicated.
I’m very selective about what I buy from these brands though because
a) anything marketed as superfood instantly lights up my BS radar and b)most of it isn’t the best value.
It’s very much made to look good on Instagram and to burn a hole in your pocket. When you look at the ingredients, sometimes the majority of it is still just sugar by another name.
There’s nothing wrong with that if you’re looking for a whack of energy. But if you’re paying £1.50 for a miniscule energy ball in the belief that it’s “healthier” than buying a bunch of bananas for half the price, then you’re up the wrong path, my fellow bear.
If something comes in a packet, look at the ingredients. Recognisable ingredients mean we can probably make it ourselves cheaper. If you’re making a batch it will probably be quicker too.
Snacks and ready meals aren’t so quick when you count the time we spend buying food on the go, or popping back to the supermarket again and again in search of an instant dinner. And if you don’t recognise the ingredients and can’t replicate it at home…do you still want to eat it?
We don’t have to buy meat-free versions of anything
I’ve seen the complaint that going vegan or vegetarian is expensive because of the premium prices on processed meat-free products. This assumes that going vegan or veggie means we buy the same things, but with the meat extracted.
How about eating another way altogether? If we’re making food from scratch, no one can charge us a premium for a new dietary requirement. Meat is one of the most expensive ingredients we can buy.
Eating less meat only nets a saving though if we replace it with the best value sources of protein and more vegetables. If we swap it for a vegan burger that takes 16 steps to manufacture and is priced accordingly, then there’s no cost benefit to eating more plants.
Eating is as expensive as we make it
Buying food is as expensive as we make it. We can all find excuses for why we spend more than we’d like and we can all come up with tenuous justifications about why we’re special and there’s no alternative. Apparently there’s no such thing as a rational decision anyway. Except that there is always an alternative.
If you love to cook, you can still eat nutritious on a budget because we can only consume and store so much food at once. Got ingredients in the cupboard? Love cooking? We can do something innovative with what we already own instead of shopping for more new and shiny things.
If we hate to cook, we can still eat nutritious on a budget for exactly the same reason. We just need a bit help sorting through the mish mash that’s been neglected in our cupboards because we can’t think what to do. (You don’t have to regret buying fish sauce 18 months ago and only using it once. It keeps for a few years anyway).
We’re not all going to spend exactly the same on food, even if we have a similar profile to someone else. You decide what your priorities are within food as a spending category. Something might represent value to you that your neighbour never buys. Overall though, we can all get better value from our grocery spend.
Common Mistakes When Cooking Plant-based
- Not preparing enough vegetables
- Not buying enough vegetables
- Buying too many (fresh) ingredients
- Not buying enough ingredients overall
- Having no bases
- Squandering the most expensive ingredients
- Missing out on essential nutrients
Not enough vegetables
You need a lot more plants on the plate to feel satisfied compared to eating meat (and starch). Double the amount of veg you’d normally cook. Then double it again. This doesn’t mean you have to cook 22 veg 22 different ways for it to qualify as dinner. But upsize the volume of the veg that you do use.
One of the reasons that it’s hard to adapt to these new portions is because our concept of portion sizes is often crooked anyway. In Get A Holiday Body, nutritionist Linia Patel explains that our plates should be half vegetables, a quarter protein and a quarter starch (terrible title, perfectly qualified advice).
If we’re a meat eater we might have grown up though with the idea that the meat should dominate the plate, or that spaghetti bolognese equals a mountain of spaghetti. Use the Brabantia Spaghetti Spoon to cook with and measure your pasta. Then get used to filling a plate with veg and some more veg.
Not buying enough vegetables
If this is what we need on the plate, then it makes sense that a kitchen audit would show that we’ve got mainly fruit and veg at our disposal, and then less protein and grains.
If we come unstuck creating balanced meals even though we shop with a list, then there is probably an imbalance in what we plan to eat. To eat a plant-based diet on a budget, ask if your shopping list or your basket is at least 50% fruit and veg. And the rest roughly equal protein and other carbs?
If our basket is mainly herbs and spices, or mostly protein and carbs then we’re going to be eating a lot of very seasoned pasta/rice etc and wondering what happened to our 5 A Day.
I’m experimenting with self-publishing notebooks on Amazon if making the list in the first place is the part that’s absent from your otherwise failproof plan… I heard a rumour that notebooks are good for making lists in, but you know what I’d normally say: test out every theory for yourself.
Buying too many (fresh) ingredients
In our mission to eat more vegetables, we think we have to eat ALL OF THE VEGETABLES. I would eat more fruit we think, if I just filled the fruit bowl. Two weeks later the fruit bowl is a rotten mess because it’s tucked away in a corner we rarely see, and we already had a work bag full of snacks that seemed more rewarding at 4pm when our brain was dribbling out our ears.
I buy the majority of my vegetables frozen, and then buy a few vegetables fresh at a time to avoid waste. We have to plan how we’re going to eat what we buy fresh. If I buy a kilo of carrots, I’m going to be either eating a lot of carrot for the following week, or I’m going to be cooking and freezing something involving carrot.
If I buy 10 different types of vegetable on top of that, the same applies. I don’t do that because a)I don’t want or need to make several weeks of food in one day, and b) I’d probably run out of freezer space.
The alternative would be that I attempt to make a different recipe each night using the majority of these vegetables. But I already know I don’t want to experiment every night in the kitchen. I already know that on day five, the majority of the ingredients will still be leftover and will need preserving to avoid being thrown away.
So try not to overbuy. Invest in frozen food, and plan what to do with a handful of fresh ingredients. Roast and freeze leftover root veg.
If you have a load of tomato, garlic and basil leftover, cook it all up and freeze it as tomato sauce. Risotto rice wants a risotto of any other fridge stragglers. If in doubt, check online and 9/10 you can freeze whatever you’re holding in your hands.
I have an innate ability to want to make things more complicated then they need to be (perhaps you have the same tendency). Luckily I usually stop myself and think about how to do the opposite just before sinking critical time. You only need three parts olive oil and one part vinegar to make a salad dressing whether it’s for lettuce leaves, pasta salad, or a winter salad of warm green beans, mushroom and red onion… Get fancy by adding mustards or citrus later.
Not buying enough ingredients overall
I fell out of the habit of buying meat due to cost when I was a student, and after a few years, it wouldn’t even occur to me that a meal might need meat. However, many a time I would come to throw dinner together and realise I hadn’t planned what I was going to eat as my portion of protein.
This is where cupboard and frozen staples come in handy. I try to always have a few of the following to hand, and they’re on a one-in-one-out policy where if I use up one of these, I’ll grab a tin or bag of something protein-heavy or a grain on my next shop even if it’s not a direct replacement.
- Bag of red lentils or a tin of green lentils
- Tins of any kind of beans
- Tins of chickpeas
- Frozen peas
- Frozen mushrooms
On the carbs front, if I run out of brown rice I’ll probably still have pasta, wholewheat pasta, or couscous knocking about. There’s always bread in the freezer (also handy for breakfast if I’m running low on porridge oats).
I don’t shop often enough to be a true hoarder, but I also like to have a choice like most people. Precisely because I don’t shop very often, every now and again I stock up so well that it looks like there’s too much food. I’ll pull everything out, find the oldest ingredients, and commit to not buying anything again until they’re all used up. Then I only replace the things that I eat at least once a month.
Having no bases
By this I mean having a few cupboard ingredients that can be used multiple ways and will transform almost anything else you want to eat.
Here are the other kitchen lifesavers that are always good to have for maximum flexibility:
Cooking oil. Olive oil can be used for cold dressings as well as for cooking.
Curry powder. Or look at the ingredients on a shaker of curry powder and buy those. On their own they are useful spices to have without making your meal taste curry-like if that’s not what you want to eat regularly.
Some kind of vinegar. Red wine vinegar is good for dressings, or making sweet and sour sauce.
Onions. Chop ’em, freeze ’em.
Nut butter. Goes on breakfast, goes on bread, goes in salad dressing, goes in satay sauce…
Stock cubes. If in doubt, cook it in stock.
Invest in these staples and maintain them, then you’ll never be stuck.
Squandering the most expensive ingredients
Squander is a more judgemental word than I like, but seeing as I’m banging on about what our time and money is worth, I’m gonna go with it for now rather than sit and agonise.
I said previously that we all have different budgets, and have to define for ourselves what better value means. One person will never buy an ingredient because it’s expensive per kg. The next person buys it, but uses a smidgen at a time to enhance other ingredients. The third person buys it and eats the entire cheese block/cheesecake etc in one sitting.
I favour an approach somewhere between the first two. If something isn’t great value, maybe we don’t make it a centrepiece of our daily diet. But that doesn’t mean never buying it ever again. We can find ways to incorporate our favourite things that cost the most a little at a time, rather than wiping them out in one meal.
Missing out on essential nutrients
There’s an assumption that eating vegan or vegetarian is automatically healthier if we’re suddenly getting 5 A Day or 10 A Day. Not all plants are made equal though. There’s a definite risk of losing out on certain vitamins and nutrients if we abandon meat and dairy overnight.
Nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert speaks to vegan cookbook author and YouTuber Niomi Smart in this video about what to mind, and where to find these nutrients.
Most of us are concerned about protein first and foremost, but don’t realise there are other nitty gritty bits we need to think about:
- Vitamin B12 – look for fortified foods
- Vitamin D – most of us in the UK will need to supplement this in winter no matter what, but mushrooms are a good source
- Calcium – eat your greens!
- Iron – found in kale, spinach, brown bread, beans, lentils, dried apricots and more
- Iodine – found in seaweed or fortified plant milks with iodine added
- Protein – lentils, peas, chickpeas, and beans are the cheaper route
Mushrooms are also quite high in protein for a vegetable. Quinoa, soy, tofu, and tempeh tend to be more expensive sources. Nuts sit somewhere in the middle depending on where you get them from (try Lidl and Aldi if possible…)
One thing Rhiannon and Niomi highlighted is that just because a processed meat-free alternative is made from soy or tofu etc doesn’t mean that it has enough protein.
Because these foods have been fiddled with the protein content might not be as high as you’d expect. The bottom line is that it’s always more expensive to try and buy a substitute burger than to make something from veggies and protein yourself.
If you’re not sure if you’re getting enough of these, don’t automatically buy a supplement. See a doctor first and find out if you have any deficiencies. It’s not only a waste of money to take supplements unnecessarily, but it can also have the opposite intention and cause health problems if you overdose on calcium etc.
Rhiannon’s recipe book Re-Nourish: A Simple Way to Eat Well is not 100% plant-based, but makes portions and combining food groups at meals 100% easy to understand. The Black Bean and Mushroom Chilli will make you want to lick the bowl.
Niomi’s book Eat Smart: What to Eat in a Day – Every Day has a mighty number of vegan recipes if you want maximum inspiration. (A nutritionist checked Niomi’s concoctions and any claims made in the book if you’re wondering why a law degree makes a home cook qualified to write a meal plan).
I’ve had a lot of success testing Joe Wicks’ Veggie Lean in 15. True to what I said at the start of this post, I usually make his recipes a few times, and then spin off from there with what’s leftover and my imagination. I’ve had the book a few months and 25 recipes in, I’ve still got three quarters of the book left to try. In the past, I’d get 25 recipes in if I was lucky, and realise the rest of the book was a dud, so his hit rate is strong.
Or there’s always a 30 day free trial of Kindle Unlimited if you want to read more about nutrition and find your first recipes that way.
Now you know what mistakes to avoid
You will find your repertoire of go-to meals. If you get bored of those, then great news! You can do almost anything with vegetables. On Save Money Good Food they put them in risotto, pasta tubes, tarts, pastry rolls, pie…You get the idea.
Regardless of what’s cooking, I still make mistakes all the time.
I let things stick to the pan (add more liquid, and don’t forget the pot).
When I underseason, I add some seasoning after.
I burn my nuts (start on a lower heat and watch them toast).
If I haven’t developed an attention span for cooking by now, it’s never going to happen. I don’t it let me stop making food from scratch because it’s just dinner. It can be tweaked. Life doesn’t have to be perfect.
How To Stop Eating Out
This requires two things.
1. Recognising the tricks restaurants use to make us spend more
2. Getting confident about cooking so that we can make food at home that tastes just as good if not better than the restaurant or a takeaway
The latter will never happen if we don’t spend more time at home trying anyway.
Here are some things to remember when ordering in restaurants:
- Some restaurant meals are just microwaved anyway
- Atmosphere makes us spend more
- We can’t control the nutrition 100%
- Menu anchors make us spend more
- We behave differently because of the context
Some restaurant meals are just microwaved anyway
If you do get your meal quick when you eat out it’s because the majority of your food is precooked. Sometimes it’s even precooked off-site in a factory and then the venue just microwave it. So you’re not really paying for a chef. You can microwave leftovers at home!
Atmosphere makes us spend more
We’re biased by atmosphere. If the place smells good, we like the interior design, and there’s slow music and soft lighting, then we’re going to chill out and want to stick around.
Because we associate the environment with being relaxed, it’s easy to want to extend the experience and keep ordering food and drinks long past being full. Or past a point where our budget expired.
We can’t control the nutrition 100%
Restaurants are free as a bird when it comes to nutrition. This means one dish might have more than our entire daily allowance of salt (on top of everything else we’ve eaten that day), and we wouldn’t have a clue.
When we try to make a healthier choice and swap out part of the meal for a salad, it either costs more, or we get a grand total of 50p knocked off to have less on our plate.
We can ask for things to be prepared differently. I’ll refer you to point number one though. If our meal was cooked elsewhere first, there’s not going to be much room for adaptation.
Menu anchors make us spend more
This isn’t jiggerypokery, just simple marketing. If you notice the most expensive dish at the top of the menu, this is intentional. It makes everything else underneath look cheaper, even if it’s more than you’d normally spend. Cover up that pricey dish at the top, and choose based on your budget or what you really want to have instead.
We behave differently because of the context
The experience distorts our behaviour. Even if we’re not normally a drinker or a dessert lover, for some reason in a restaurant it’s easy to think that a meal has to automatically come with alcohol and a dessert. This obviously pushes up the spend.
If you don’t allow drinks or desserts at home because you consider them a restaurant treat instead, then it would actually be cheaper to lift a ban at home and not give these special status out and about.
If it’s the social element you like, then bring the socialising home. And if it’s the cooking at home that makes you feel lost, cook with friends to make the trial and error more fun.
How To Stop Ordering Takeaways
I had to think hard about this one because it’s so not in my instincts to order a takeaway that there must be a reason why. It turns out that I have many incentives to not order a takeaway and it’s not just a frugal habit to avoid them. Does any of the following make you reconsider your takeaway spend?
No one can deliver quick enough. I don’t like to linger long over dinner, and I don’t like to faff in the kitchen. I don’t know exactly when hunger will strike in the evening, but I like to be eating within 30 minutes if I decide it’s dinnertime.
It invariably takes longer to choose a restaurant, decide on a meal, order and wait for delivery. Even better, if I bulk cook something during that time, I might have a whole week of meals. Whereas if I ordered a takeaway, that’s only one dinner sorted. How long did you wait for your last takeaway?
I never have a completely empty kitchen. Because I buy plenty of frozen foods or ingredients with a long life (but without preservatives) and because I don’t want to be shopping all the time either, I’ve always got a few bags or boxes to improvise with no matter how low my stocks are overall. If you lean more towards buying staples then you’ll always have an emergency dinner.
I don’t care about finding a recipe. This adds time. At the moment, if I don’t have the ingredients for something in Joe’s Veggie Lean in 15, then I just experiment with what I’ve got. I know roughly what flavours go together. Instead of trying to replicate something you’d order in, I aim to have something tasty in the bowl at the end rather than something with a name from a menu.
I can control the nutrition. My activity levels are pretty low most days, so I don’t need to eat a lot. This means I have to take a bit of care to ensure I still get all the nutrients I need. Cooking myself means I can get the right portions of the stuff that will do me the most good, or add in something high in iron if I’m feeling zapped. Or add in more protein if I realise I haven’t had enough so far that day.
You can put something on your takeaway pizza if you want, but it’s already going to be probably your entire daily calorie allowance in one meal before tweaking. Plus if you’ve got to amend a takeaway, I don’t want to wait for it in the first place.
I don’t crave a dinner high in fat/salt/sugar because I’ve adapted to eating a lot of veg instead. I don’t enjoy digesting those meals and I’ve learned that I’d rather eat something that doesn’t leave you feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck most of the time afterwards.
No one can make anything that tastes so good that I’d rather pay more. I know I can make my own dinner for pennies and be perfectly satisfied. I can’t think of a single Chinese/Indian/Piri Piri etc takeaway dish that I’d love to pay £9 for that I can’t make a cheaper version of myself that won’t be greasy.
Perhaps it’s because my brain is wired in such a way that it’s easy for me to remember the prices of ingredients, but when I get a takeaway menu through the door, I usually take one look at the prices, think “I could make 20 chickpea dishes for that and it won’t be cold when it’s ready”, and put it straight in the recycling.
All the above might be an unpopular opinion. Takeaways were promoted heavily during lockdown to keep small businesses afloat. I just haven’t found the small business yet that cooks the way I like to eat (and I live in a small-ish town). This may change in future as more and more people go plant-based. My spending priorities might also change. Then I’ll happily wait for their recipes to come to my door.
Do you order takeaways? What’s the number one reason you like them? Let me know in the comments.
Experimenting With Flavour
To enjoy our own cooking there are a number of things we can do to elevate the flavour experience:
- Develop our tastebuds
- Vary our methods
- Use recipes only as a foundation
- Use the ratios we like rather than a recipe
- Taste test alternatives
Develop your tastebuds
It’s possible to develop a taste for something, and we also really need to try foods in different ways to discern what we definitely don’t like. If you try something and don’t like it, try it in another format.
Olives are intensely flavoured, and a little go a long way. If you find them too strong straight out the jar, try cooking them. I know I don’t like raw spinach, so there’s no point in me making a cold spinach salad. Cooked spinach tastes far better to me, so I would just take the other ingredients from a recipe that can be cooked and smush those together instead.
Vary your methods
Buy a vegetable and roast it one night, grill it the next, put it the pan the night after… see what you like. There is no rulebook. Have a look at recipes to give yourself an idea of what might go together, and if you’re missing most the ingredients, you don’t have to make that recipe.
Take the elements you do have. Think of other things they’d normally mix with, and put it all together. If it’s not quite right, add or subtract. If something doesn’t have enough flavour, rummage through your spices and herbs.
Toast nuts before adding them in, or toast couscous or grains before adding boiling water. Brown off rice after the liquid has gone. Have fun.
Use recipes only as a foundation
Recipes are useful initially to learn what flavours you like together and how to create certain textures. Then you can fly free and do whatever you like. Bit of this, bit of that.
Add spice if you want it spicier, and add more dairy (alternatives) if you want it creamier. Add cornflour or more solids if you want it less soupy, and add more water if it’s drying out before it’s cooked. If a cake wants milk, and you only have yoghurt, use yoghurt. How do we know we won’t like something if we never try it?
Use the ratios YOU like
When it comes to quantities and ratios generally, I’ve written under the Save Money Good Food recaps about how I disrespect following recipes and exact measurements. They strike me as a reason not to make something with what you’ve already got, or to convince yourself that you must go out and buy more of something.
Taste test cheaper alternatives
If you still like to have sauces to hand, then there are obviously big savings to be made by switching to own brand. Many of us are convinced they won’t taste as good though.
My approach to flavours and textures when buying anything ready made is to buy the cheapest and work up from there if it’s not ideal, but if you care for a majority opinion, see the Taste Tests.
You’ll notice very few of the taste tests so far are for an isolated ingredient (cheddar and merlot)…When we make as much of our own food as possible, we control the quality.
Get ideas for free
There are ways to try new food without paying for the privilege. You don’t have to eat out to get inspiration from a restaurant. If you see something you might like on a menu, give it a go at home.
Here are some other ways:
- Pick up free unwanted food on the Olio app
- Take leftovers off the hands of friends and family if you know they’ll throw them
- Don’t be shy to let roommates/colleagues know that you hate waste too
- Suggest to bosses that they fuel staff with food
- If there’s too much of the kind of food you don’t want in the staffroom, then again trade it through Olio or with someone you know for something you haven’t tried before
How To Conquer Excuses
I want to do a thing. So why can’t I do the thing? Why do I come up with an excuse that stops me from doing the very thing I say I wanna do?
Do any of the following sound familiar?
- I like to socialise too much to cook at home
- I’m too tired to cook every evening
- I’m a foodie
- I don’t like my leftovers
- I don’t have time to make anything in the mornings
Here are some quick and dirty tips to stop you overspending on the following excuses.
I like to socialise too much to cook at home
Great! I guess we’re coming to yours for dinner! Tell everyone else to bring a dish too. Haven’t got a big enough dining table? I guess we’ll be making tapas instead of a sit down meal then.
No one else likes cooking either? Well, it’s a good thing we like each other then because anything can be more enjoyable in the right company. You might just find the things that bug you about eating at home – you procrastinate over the prep, you’re a catastrophe – are quicker and easier with someone else’s input.
I’m too tired to cook every evening
Dear Lord, if I had to cook every evening, I’d put myself down.
The oven or the microwave use precious energy, so we can cook more than a single portion, store the rest, and let our hob gather dust for the next three days at least.
If evenings are definitely out, schedule some time on the weekend to batch cook for the week ahead. If you’ve already got plans to go out, bring those plans in (see above, cooking with people we know).
Don’t tell yourself you’re going to try a recipe for the first time next Monday at 9pm. Your desire for novelty will be gone by then.
Give yourself time to cook anything new that involves steps, and in the meantime keep things as simple as possible. Keep in mind too that recipe timings often just refer to the cooking time. This is where frozen food or chopping things up before putting them away makes prep quicker.
You can always go the antipasti route and pile individual ingredients on a plate: (vegan) cheese with olives, bread, tomatoes etc or hummus with a rainbow of veggie crudites and bread. (Hummus is cheapest at the discounters or make your own).
Or there’s breakfast for dinner: mushrooms, avocado, and tomato on toast with beans.
I’m a foodie
You can make gourmet at home. You can make gourmet at home which is even more gourmet then what you can buy in a restaurant or in the ready meal section because you can do whatever you like when you’re in control.
Try this episode of Save Money Good Food and skip the meat.
If your favourite ingredients are the priciest by weight, make a little go a long way. Put pomegranate seeds on salads instead of eating a pomegranate in one sitting. Cut your risotto rice or quinoa with another grain.
I don’t like my leftovers
This comes from either making the wrong meals, or storing them inadequately. Something sauce-based should really absorb more flavour.
Drain the water off anything you’ve defrosted before microwaving otherwise it will turn into a soggy mess.
Dip the corner of a piece of kitchen towel into any water in your pot or on your plate and it will soak away excess moisture.
Add more seasoning. Aim for herbs and spices rather than more salt.
Cook food you like the first time around rather than what you think you should be eating.
I’ve just discovered reusable and washable kitchen towel made from bamboo, and my mind is blown.
I don’t have time to make anything in the mornings
Make overnight oats the night before. Or cut a convenient cereal with oats if the most time you’ll make for yourself is to pour milk over cereal in a bowl. Cook burritos for dinner and have the leftovers in the morning.
I don’t bother making packed lunches because I forget them.
Put your keys in the fridge.
Boom. No more excuses.
Are Free From Foods Healthy?
Let’s look at:
- Dairy/lactose free
- Gluten free
- Sugar free
Ah, “healthy”. What a word. It’s definition changes from person to person. Is it more nutritious to eat free from foods? If we’re eating less meat, why not go the whole hog and cut out a bunch of other stuff, right? Amirite?
Now, obviously if we are eating plant-based because we’ve gone full vegan then we might want dairy substitutes. A lot of these double as lactose free options for people who are genuinely lactose-intolerant.
Registered Dietitians don’t diagnose allergies and intolerances by eliminating/substituting foods. If we think we have a problem, we should go and see a medical professional.
Linia Patel has a detailed post on plant-based and alternatives to dairy milk that highlights which nutrients lack if we switch to these. It is one thing to buy these because of a diagnosed allergy or because we’re vegan, and another thing to buy them assuming they are somehow healthier just because they are plant-based.
Dr Giles Yeo regularly contributes to BBC programmes like Trust Me I’m A Doctor and he loves to bust a good “healthy” food myth. In his Horizon documentary Clean Eating: The Dirty Truth, he investigated coeliac disease as it was becoming trendy to self-diagnose and exclude gluten.
He found only 1% of the global population are actually coeliac. They have an autoimmune reaction where their body thinks gluten is a threat.
Dr Fasano at the Research Centre for Coeliacs at Massachusetts General Hospital told Giles you need to have a genetic disposition, leaky gut, faulty immune system AND imbalanced gut microbes to be coeliac. This is quite a combination.
If you think you need to break up with gluten, see your doctor. The chances of you actually being coeliac are extremely low though, so that £3 loaf of gluten free bread is not a shortcut to health or wealth.
The charity Sugarwise would like to help us consume less sugar. Eating plant-based but not processed means consuming less sugar by default, but it is possible to go all-in and swear of all sugar ever again in fear.
Like correlation not equalling causation, this is another topic that I’ve seen Nutritionist Pixie Turner speak energetically about (at the Allergy & Free From Show funnily enough). Read her post Does being refined sugar free make you healthy?
She explains why “healthy” white sugar alternatives like agave are still free sugars, why we shouldn’t be afraid of sugar even so, and she also has a follow up comparing sweeteners. Go forth. (She’s a great author for nutrition and recipes too if books are in your spending priorities, or your borrowing them through Amazon. I’ve detailed her titles in another foodie post The Truth About Carbs).
Making Our Own Snacks
Prepackaged snacks basically come in three types:
- Very cheap but lacking in nutrition
- Expensive and nutritious
- Expensive and labelled as wonder food despite being mostly unpronounceable ingredients and added sugar
(Although refer to the above on why an obsession with sugar free is counterproductive). I’ve found it cheaper to make my own snacks where possible, but it’s also an opportunity to eat more fibre and more of our 5 A Day.
Here’s some ideas when hunger strikes.
Buy a bag of raw popping corn and make it yourself. This has more fibre than eating crisps. I don’t go for flavourings, so I usually put a teaspoon of spread or oil in the bottom of the bowl more so that the bowl doesn’t break in the microwave. I might add a bit of salt or paprika.
These are a source of protein and unsaturated fat and should keep blood sugar on an even keel. If you’re not a fan of raw nuts, try toasting them, turning them into energy bars with dates, or munching on a handful of your favourite fruit at the same time.
There’s no reason why we can’t munch on a carrot, or peppers, or cucumber if that’s all that’s in the fridge instead of going hunting in the shops for something processed. Kale and most veg can be baked into crisps with a little oil and salt.
Tinned and frozen fruit
I rarely feel inspired by fresh fruit, and buying something because we think we should eat it is no guarantee that we actually will dig in before it goes brown or sour.
Tinned fruit (in juice rather than syrup)is a fallback. Because I always have fruit in the freezer for breakfast potential, this can also be put with yoghurt for a snack, or during a heatwave, crunch on them like an ice cube.
The only prepackaged snacks I buy are Nakd bars and Nakd raisins during the Holland and Barrett sales if I can stack an offer and get the bars for 50p each or less, and the raisins for 25p a bag max. Go via Holland & Barrett at TopCashback first to get a percentage of your order as cashback.
This is still more expensive than raw snacks in their original form most of the time. However, they don’t have anything weird added, they travel well, and they just taste bloody good. I’d rather pay more for a flavoured raisin than not eat any fruit at all, and some days that’s how I feel towards fresh fruit.
Outside of Holland and Barrett promos, you can get boxes of Nakd bars from Amazon. The other advantage there is they usually have a choice of the newest varieties that aren’t even available at H&B. At the moment that’s the Banoffee Pie and Strawberry Sundae, or you can get a mixed case.
As Pixie points out in the post I linked to above about why sugar free is not automatically healthier, just because Nakd bars or a homemade snack bar has dates and nuts instead of white sugar/cocoa/partially hydrogenated oil/name-your-villainous-ingredient-here doesn’t mean they are calorie free or free, of natural sugar.
I’m not afraid of carbs. I don’t eat them in excess, but I don’t think there’s any such thing as a superfood either and I don’t attach moral values to food. A Nakd bar is not “good” and a chocolate bar “bad”. I’m not “bad” if I eat either one of these.
I’d still rather have a Nakd bar than a chocolate bar during an afternoon slump though and it’s not my fault my dentist judges me less as a result. A Nakd bar in my bag means I’m never caught out if a quick errand turns into something longer. I’d rather be addicted to those than crack.
So How Do You Eat A Plant-Based Diet On A Budget In The UK?
In a nutshell:
It can be cheaper to eat nutritiously if we shop around, buy whole ingredients, use everything we buy, and are savvy about the marketing for gadgets or trendy “superfoods”.
To avoid common mistakes when switching to plant-based, buy the majority of your veg frozen or tinned so that you’ve got plenty of variety without the waste.
Use a little of your most expensive ingredients and cast an eye over where you’re getting essential nutrients that you used to get from meat/dairy.
Fall out of love with eating out by remembering that a lot of the food isn’t made from scratch there and then. Also mind that these environments are designed to make you overspend, you can make some of it cheaper yourself and control the nutrition therefore, and still have fun with loved ones at home.
Experiment with flavour to find your repertoire by trying foods more than once, varing your methods and ratios, using recipes as only a rough guide, and holding your own taste tests.
Conquer self-sabotage whether it’s telling yourself you don’t have the time or the energy, or that you like going out too much.
Save a bundle by quitting specialist free from foods if you don’t have a diagnosed allergy or intolerance.
Make your own snacks to save another bundle.
What I didn’t include
A few other things will help reduce your grocery bill.
Save a third bundle on drinks. To swap soft drinks for more water put tap water in the fridge. This makes it taste better with out adding anything.
I don’t drink fruit juice or smoothies regularly because of the sugar implications. The experts explain that better in episode two of my recap of Diet Secrets and How to Lose Weight. (Don’t be afraid of sugar!)
It’s cheaper to make your own caffeine hits than to be in and out of coffee shops on the daily. I’ve covered various reusable alternatives in the Supershoppers series three recap under coffee loyalty schemes.
If you are going to frequent coffee shops, at least get some free money while you’re there: Free Money, Costa Coffee Points, Cashback, And More
If you suspect you still have a closer relationship with caffeine than sleep, then see the tips from Save Money Good Health on how to sleep better.
At some point I will do a YouTube video/podcast episode on sleep approaching the length and detail of this one. Subscribe below if you want to know when that lands.
Eating plant-based could transform your finances and your health
I’m not perfect. I don’t always follow my own advice. I buy Nakd bars even though I could probably invest in a food processor and the raw ingredients and make them cheaper myself. Perhaps I will do the latter, just not today. At least they are what they say they are on the packet as opposed to some trumped up spirualina-coconut sugar-superfood bar.
Learning to eat well on a budget and my specific approach has a lot of other efficiencies and knock-on benefits though. Not overbuying food means less overeating, less time spent saving it before it all dies, and less time shopping in the first place.
My refusal to spend too long cooking gives me lots of time for other things like writing this post. Not having to decide each night what to have, and not shopping too often means I have fewer decisions to make and saves me a lot of mental energy. I likely save on my energy bills by vetoing too many gadgets and anything that requires having the oven on for hours.
Don’t cancel your gym membership just yet
The nation spends a fortune on dieting and unused gym membership. They’re both intended as cures for overeating (and overeating by definition equals overspending).
While crash diets have to come with a health warning, it’s possible to end up stronger by eating more nutritiously and spending less. It doesn’t feel like being on a diet though, and there’s no need to feel hungry all the time.
That’s because we get far more value from eating mostly plants than eating mostly saturated fat or sweet things.
Activity is still important, but plenty of us buy a gym membership with the idea that we have to burn off our bad eating habits. Many a personal trainer will tell you that a strong body is built in the kitchen first. The activity loses its meaning without better nutrition.
While we all have our spending priorities, no one thinks paying £50 a month and never going to the gym is value for money. If eating poorly leads to thinking we have to lose time and money as a result either going on a treadmill for three hours, or paying for a treadmill we never see, then I’d rather eat well first.
At least get some cashback if it’s Pure Gym you’re joining.
And if your dinner still doesn’t look fit for Instagram…Who fracking cares?
Why not invest in a notebook for your shopping lists, budget planning, recipe experiments, price tracking ingredients, or carrying a note with you of anything mentioned in this post?