Shop smart, cook smart, eat smart – some tips to save money on food
The cost of living has gone up. Many of us will be affected by the rise in food, energy and fuel prices. Surveys report that the concern about the rising costs of living is linked with spending less on food shopping and essentials.
With more of us living on tight budgets, eating a healthy, balanced diet can be challenging. In this article, we look at some tips to help make your money go further when shopping and look at some of the nutritious foods that are lower in cost.
You may not know that an important way to save money on food shopping is by planning meals ahead and writing a shopping list before going shopping. You can also look at and make a list of the foods you have at home, whether in the cupboard, fridge or freezer, so that you can use them in your meal planning. Planning can make it less likely for us to be tempted into buying unnecessary items, can help us cut down on waste and save money.
Look for special offers on long shelf-life products like dried pasta, rice, noodles, dried or canned beans and pulses, canned tomatoes, and cereals. You may also find foods reduced in the supermarket later in the day and these may be great for your freezer.
Is it really good value? It can be hard sometimes to compare the prices of foods in different pack sizes. You can sometimes find the cost per 100g or 100ml in small print on the shelf label that will help you quickly check. Be careful as sometimes the shelf label may not be updated to reflect special offers or promotions and sometimes different measurement units are used.
Try supermarket own brand or value brand products as these will normally be cheaper than branded products, but if you like particular branded products and they can be stored in a cupboard or frozen, try to stock up on these when they are on offer (if you have enough space at home). You can also look at the local sellers in your area – greengrocers, butchers, markets, fishmongers, where you may find some foods cheaper. Specialist diverse food shops like Asian stores can have spices and chillies at a good value. Do also check the supermarket world food aisle as you may find some items cheaper here. You can also grow your own herbs in very little space – like on a windowsill.
Make your meat go further – add beans and vegetables to dishes. You can add chickpeas to a chicken curry or lentils to a meat-based pasta sauce, or tofu to a stir fry. A whole chicken can be good value, especially if you use it for more than one meal (leftovers can be used in lots of ways, such as sandwiches, curries, pasta and risotto). Frozen meat tends to be cheaper if you have the storage freezer space. The government advises us to keep the amount of red and processed meat you eat to no more than 500g (cooked weight) per week as eating a lot of these can increase your risk of bowel cancer.
Choose canned oily fish in oil or water such as sardines and salmon. Canned fish is normally cheaper than buying fresh fish, is easy to prepare and has a long shelf-life. Canned oily fish is high in omega-3 fats, which can help to keep the heart healthy and is a source of vitamin D, an important nutrient for our bones and muscles. Frozen fish is also a good value choice and can be used in a range of dishes including fish pie. If there are special offers on fresh fish, you could also take advantage of these and freeze any that you are not going to use straight away.
Check the frozen and canned fruit and vegetable section. Frozen vegetables tend to be cheaper than fresh, and they still count towards your 5 A DAY. Freezing preserves nutrients so that some frozen vegetables can even give you more of certain nutrients than fresh versions. Using frozen fruit and vegetables also can help you use the exact amount you want, when you want it giving you more time to use it and stop it going to waste. Canned fruit and vegetables are also good choices but watch out for canned fruits and vegetables that have added sugar (syrup) or salt and opt for those in fruit juice or water instead.
Cook smart – there may be some changes we can make to reduce energy costs when cooking such as cooking in bulk, defrosting your fridge and freezer, keeping the lid on pots when boiling food and cooking several dishes at once if you do use the oven can help you use less energy when cooking.
Shop with the food groups in mind. A balanced and varied diet is good for our health. Find some tips below in the different food groups to save money balancing your diet.
|Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates||
Lower cost options
Cooking tips and ideas
A note on food safety – can you reheat rice?
Yes, but you should never reheat rice more than once. And when you do reheat rice, make sure it is steaming hot all the way through.
If you have leftover rice, you should chill it as quickly as possible, ideally within one hour. Dividing it into smaller portions can help with this. Also don't leave rice in the rice cooker, steamer or pan to cool down.
|Fruit and vegetables||
Lower cost options
Cooking tips and ideas
|Dairy and alternatives||
Lower cost options
Cooking tips and ideas
|Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins||
Lower cost options
Cooking tips and ideas
Understanding food labels to help reduce waste: ‘Use by’ and ‘best before’ dates
You will see 'use by' dates on food that goes off quickly, such as meat products and ready-prepared salads. Do not use foods or drinks after the 'use by' date on the label, even if it looks and smells fine. Remember the ‘use by’ date relies on you storing the food properly, as described on the food label. If you do not follow these instructions, the food will spoil more quickly, and you may risk food poisoning.
‘Use by’ dates do not always mean ‘eat by’. If a food can be frozen then its life can be extended beyond the ‘use by’ date. Follow the instructions on the packaging carefully such as ‘freeze on the day of purchase’ ‘defrost thoroughly before use and use within 24 hours’ or ‘cook from frozen’.
‘Best before' dates appear on a wide range of frozen, dried, tinned and other foods. The 'best before' dates are more about food quality than food safety. When the date runs out it does not mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose its flavour and texture. Always store the foods as described on the food packaging.
Eggs are an exception for the ‘best before’ date. They should be eaten within a couple of days of their best before date.
The sniff test
For foods with a best before date, you can use sensory cues to find out if the food is OK to eat. You could look for visible mould on bread, taste to see if biscuits/crisps are stale, or sniff/smell some dairy products with a best before date to see if they have soured.
For food with a use by date, the ‘sniff test’ is not a suitable method for testing if food is safe to eat. Food can look and smell fine even after the use by date has passed, but the product will not be safe to eat. We can’t see or smell the bugs that can cause food poisoning.
Manufacturers decide whether to apply a use by date or a best before date on their products. This will depend on factors such as how the food is made and how risky it is. They will make sure the right label is used on the product.
Source: Food Standards Agency
Frequently wasted foods and how to use them up
In the UK, we throw away 6.6 million tonnes of household food waste a year. This is costs us on average up to £60 a month. The foods most often wasted include bread and bakery products, vegetables and salad, fruit, drinks, dairy products and eggs, meat and fish products and meals (homemade and pre-prepared).
There are many ways to reduce your food waste. Using up your leftovers may seem boring and unappetising but there are plenty of delicious meals and snacks that can be made from even the smallest portion of leftovers and save you money too.
- Use leftover vegetables to make soup. When you make your own soup, you can add as many vegetables as you like – the more the better.
- Other ways to use leftover vegetables include finely chopping and adding them to pasta, couscous and rice, or adding them to a can of beans (many beans will work including kidney beans, butter beans or pinto beans) and serving on toast or in wraps or pittas. Leftover vegetables and potatoes (perhaps from a Sunday roast or other meals) can be used to make bubble and squeak (mashed potato and green veg mixed together and fried in a little oil) or fishcakes. Why not try omelettes or frittatas to use up spare eggs and any leftover vegetables?
- Overripe fruits? Why not blend with milk, yogurt or fruit juice to make a delicious smoothie. Add some to stews or casseroles (such as tagine), to add a naturally sweet flavour to dishes.
- Use up your potatoes in a cheesy potato bake or a potato topped pie, curry or thinly sliced potatoes in a Spanish omelette. Or try mashing with other root vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes and swede. Alternatively, mix in some green vegetables like leeks, peas or spring onion.
- Leftover bread starting to go stale? Try making your own breadcrumbs and use for coating fish or chicken, or for a delicious crispy topping on a pasta bake. Alternatively freeze those breadcrumbs for later and use for a homemade stuffing with your Sunday roast. If you have a fresh loaf which is only just starting to dry out, then try sprinkling on some water and bake in the oven for a few minutes – it will taste like a freshly cooked loaf again.
More ways to reduce your waste
- Make your own frozen meals by doubling your usual recipes and freezing half. Put chilli, cottage pies, soups and stews in freezer and microwave safe containers, for quick lunches and dinners for those days when you do not have the time to cook. Soups made with added pasta, rice, beans, lentils or root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips and carrots are tasty, filling and relatively low cost. This may also help reduce gas /electricity bills compared to cooking each recipe from scratch.
- Keep an eye on your portion sizes and try not to cook more than you need. Measure out foods like pasta and rice before you cook rather than guessing portions. Not only will it help you to save money but can stop you from over-eating. Find out more about portion sizes with our Get Portion Wise guides.
- Limit dining out or buying on the go. It is often easier to grab meals on the go but remember that you will pay extra for that convenience and risk wasting food you have already bought for the week. If you want to save money and eat healthily, you could try making lunches or portioning up leftovers the night before. Alternatively, buy less food at the supermarket if you know you’ll be eating out a lot that week.
- Keep a supply of frozen and canned fruit, vegetables and canned pulses. These have a long shelf-life so you can use them as and when you need them, without them going off.
- Set your fridge at the correct temperature (between 0-5 ºC) to avoid food going off unnecessarily. Find out how to set your fridge correctly on the Love Food Hate Waste website
- Try using cookery websites for recipe ideas, based on what you have left in the cupboards – great for those last few days before you go shopping again. You will be surprised at what you can make with even just a few ingredients.
- Get creative – did you know that citrus fruit peel, cabbage hearts, carrot tops, cauliflower leaves and herb stalks are all edible? So, there’s no need to throw them away.
For more on reducing food waste read the ‘Waste less food section’ on our page on healthy and sustainable diets.
Information reviewed August 2022. Next review due August 2025.
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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any personal advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.