I started 2019 determined to slash our food bills by using up what we had in the house. After buying way more than we actually are over Christmas, I was keen to spend less in January.
In total, we slashed our food costs to just over £195 for our family of four during January, which worked out as £44 a week. That covered groceries for all of us for breakfast and main meals, plus lunches for my husband and I, as the children eat school dinners.
Overall we spent less than half as much on groceries in January compared to December. For a more realistic comparison, without Christmas costs, it was almost a quarter less than our food spending November.
When I mentioned cutting food costs to £44 a week to a friend, she said: “How?”
I’ll talk a bit more further on about the tactics I used and some surprises along the way but I reckon the five things that really made a difference are:
1. Used up food in the house
The food we ate didn’t cost as little as £44 a week – that was just the extra shopping. I made a big effort to use up the stuff left over from Christmas, plus food lurking in our kitchen cupboards, fridge and freezer. Our meals would have cost a lot more if I’d started with empty shelves.
2. Cooked from scratch
If I want to cut food costs, I do more cooking. When you buy food where someone else has done the work – from fajita kits to cooking sauces, lazy garlic to frozen pizza – you’re going to pay extra for it. It’s a trade off between whether you spend money or spend time.
3. Ditched brands
Virtually all the groceries I buy are either raw ingredients, such as fruit, veg, meat and fish, or supermarket own brand products. Looking back over January, I only bought about 15 branded items, and all but a couple were either on special offer, paid cashback or were reduced. Swapping to a cheaper supermarket, and buying own brand products and stuff from value ranges really does cut costs.
(I’m still sticking to Quaker Oats and Heinz ketchup though)
Think we’re also fortunate that we don’t have any food allergies or intolerances, so don’t have to fork out extra for gluten free food, for example.
4. Nabbed yellow-stickered bargains
I’m also out and proud about buying reduced-price short-dated food.
Whether or not you can save this way depends a lot on what and when your local supermarket marks down. I’m lucky that the yellow-stickered sections in our local Co-op include food I actually want to buy, with fruit, veg, bread, meat and fish, rather than dented tins and ripped boxes. Food also gets marked down early morning and I’m able to nip in straight after the school run. That wasn’t possible when I lived in London and worked full time.
Overall I spent a bit more than £40 on yellow-stickered food during January. Given the Co-op normally halves the prices, I’d have needed to spend another £40 or so if I’d bought it all at full price. That would have pushed our weekly spend over £53.
5. Slashed snacks and booze
It’s the packaged snacks that really push up our food shopping bills. Stuff like crisps, croissants, sweets, ice cream, biscuits and soft drinks.
So during January I basically stuck to food for three meals a day plus a bit of baking, and if anyone wanted other snacks they could eat fruit, yogurt, own brand cereal or toast. Also helped that we’re not big drinkers, and didn’t need to buy beer or wine when we had stuff left over from Christmas.
Familiar tactics to cut food spending
The theory of cutting food costs – using stuff up, cooking, ditching brands, buying yellow stickers, scrapping snacks – is all very well, but here’s how I put it into practice.
I’ve done month-long store cupboard challenges in the past, so used a lot of familiar tactics this year:
- Made a list of the food we already had
- Jotted down meal ideas
- Bought only the extras to make meals, not automatically replacing things that ran out
- Took lists when I went shopping
- Combined odds and ends, such as using two different kinds of sausages in one meal
- Made a ‘hit list’ of abandoned ingredients that had been lingering too long
- Searched for recipes to use up the hit list, like curries for red lentils & frozen spinach
- Included veggie meals rather than eating meat with every meal
- Cut food waste by checking what needed using up at least once a week
- Froze stuff that might otherwise go off (then remembering to use it later!)
- Prepared ahead, whether packed lunches or food for the family to eat while I was away
- Avoided the shops to stop myself from further spending!
For more ideas: 80+ ways to save money on your food shopping
Surprises while cutting food spending in January
However, my attempts to cut our food spending also brought up some surprises:
- Beyond baked beans. We didn’t subsist on rice and gruel to cut our food costs. We were able to eat a mix of more budget recipes and fancier food, mainly thanks to the Co-op’s yellow-stickered shelves. Ingredients included salmon, brie, lamb, chorizo, haddock, prawns and steaks in peppercorn sauce.
- More variety. I ended up eating more interesting lunches when I wasn’t just buying ham and sliced bread for sandwiches on autopilot. Overall it’s been more fun eating the rolls and part-bake baguettes from the freezer, or soup with lentils from the back of the store cupboard, or the stir fry to use up the last nest of noodles. May not repeat some of the weirder combinations though – toasted Brie and beetroot sandwich, anyone?
- More creativity. I was forced to become more inventive, when I was trying to use up what we already had, rather than throwing money at a problem and buying more. Sometimes it worked well – using cream in curry when we didn’t have coconut milk, and making a fab bread and butter pudding with Christmas panettone. Split pea soup without bacon was less successful.
- Renewed zest for cooking. I actually rather enjoyed trying out some new recipes, not just sticking to familiar favourites. Highlights included the lamb, chickpea and spinach curry and the roasted vegetable lasagne.
- More adventurous food for my son. My daughter is quite picky with her food, so I often make blander meals for all, or just the kids. This month, while I focused on using stuff up, I cooked several curries – and turns out my son really liked them. So I may continue making a few more adventurous meals in future, with an alternative for my daughter.
- Frugal habits die hard. Even though I was meant to be cutting costs, I still couldn’t stop myself buying bigger packs when it was cheaper long term. We didn’t need 3kg of rice, 200 tea bags or two packs of Quaker Oats just for this month, but they’ll all save food costs in future.
- Less stress. Making a list of meals once a week didn’t just save money – it also saved stress. It saved me from those panicked moments in front of the fridge, thinking ‘what on earth am I going to cook?’. I could just look at the list, knowing we had everything needed.
- Less guilt. It’s a big relief to have used up some of the food that had been lingering too long – without wasting resources by throwing it away. For the first time in more than two years, I don’t have the remains of a jar of mincemeat stuck in the fridge. I can look at my emptier shelves with a lighter heart!
- More space. Now we have more space in our kitchen cupboards, fridge and freezer, I’m looking forward to filling it up with food we’ll actually eat. With all the uncertainty of Brexit, I’ve been stocking up on some long lasting essentials.
Now – over to you. What really makes a difference to your food costs? Do share in the comments, I’d love to hear!