Cook Smart champions: How we cope with the cost of living crisis
In this new series, our readers share their best tips and tricks for making the weekly shop go further, without compromising on taste or nutrition.
The full-time carer
Shelagh Thompson, 55, cares for her sons David, 28, and Karl, 26, and lives with her husband Peter, 57, who is a nurse, in Liverpool.
Food budget of £110 per week
Both of our sons have profound and multiple learning disabilities, autism and David is non-verbal. We have a lot of extra living costs to help take care of our sons and also keep them fed as they are both fussy with food. Everything from colour, texture and composition of meals can cause them to be physically ill, or refuse to eat if different bits of the meal are touching on the plate. I’m a vegetarian, too, so it's a juggling act cooking and serving something everybody likes.
There isn't more money to put towards our food shops, so I've been buying less meat - which the boys all really loved - and disguising meat alternatives to covertly give the boys veggie meals. I’ve been finding ways to make vegetarian dishes more appealing to Karl and David, like adding baked beans and mushrooms, or blending pasta sauces. I’ve switched supermarkets, and while I’ve always bought organic produce, the price is becoming more prohibitive every week. I used to go to farm shops, but now I’m mostly shopping in a budget supermarket instead.
The boys are both on gluten-free diets, but the cost of gluten-free food has soared. I make gluten-free bread myself now, but it takes a long time, and I’m already working boys all really loved – and 90 hours a week. I prepare cold pastas for lunches to give myself a break. I will treat the boys to red meat or a whole chicken occasionally, and avocados for me.
Shelagh's top tips
- Plan two weeks of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks and treats. It’ll help you stay on budget, and you can plan in a little of what you fancy.
- Check if your bank does any ‘roll ups’ to round your debit card spends to the nearest pound and put away the excess. I do this, and every few months I have enough saved for a few days away or treats for the family.
- Oven roast the vegetables in veggie meals like lentil lasagne for full, rich flavour that will please the meat lovers in your house.
- Buy less meat, but buy the best you can afford and use other produce to bulk out your meals.
Shelagh's favourite BBC Good Food budget recipe
This creamy pesto and kale pasta was a real hit for the family and worked out at just 90p per portion. My sons loved all the ingredients. I made it with extra virgin olive oil instead of rapeseed, and used gluten-free pasta, vegan pesto and soft cheese.
More like this
The young family
Freelance PR consultant Francesca De Franco, 43, lives in Banstead, Surrey, with her husband Matthew, 45, and daughters Sofia, 13, and twins Maria and Gabriella, 11.
Food budget of £100-150 per week
I don’t have any loyalty to any supermarket or brand, and sign up to points cards for all of them, as well as their email lists. If I neglect one for a couple of weeks, they’ll email me money-off vouchers to entice me back. I do packed lunches for the twins every day and I repurpose a lot of our leftovers by adding raisins to couscous and chopping up chicken Milanese, which the girls enjoy cold. They’ll also have sandwiches with cold cuts I’ve bought on offer, and carrot batons that I have peeled and chopped myself. I won’t pay for pre-prepared veg any more. When shopping, I’ll pick up snacks like raisins and cupboard staples like rice and dried beans in the world food aisles. They’re cheaper and just as good, if not better, for being authentic to the region. I bulk out meals by swapping meat for cannellini beans and adding lentils to make my fresh produce work harder and keep our large family fed. The kids love grating oodles of parmesan cheese on the many pasta dishes we have, but it’s expensive. I’ve swapped it for another Italian hard cheese for half the price. I plan only three evening meals a week, leaving time and space to use up our leftovers or take up special offers when I see them. It’s reduced our waste and forced us to double- check sell-by dates and be flexible in our cooking.
Francesca's top tips
- Bulk-buy cheap chopped tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas and cannellini beans. I buy 12 tins of each from a local deli as there’s a real economy of scale.
- Use less-popular cuts of meat like pork shoulder and cook gently for longer. It’s full of flavour and exceptionally cheap. We also buy rabbit from the butchers. It’s common in Italy, not so much here, but it makes a great ragu to use for pappardelle.
- Shop for seasonal fruit and veg. The girls love strawberries, but we only buy them in season as they’re fresher and cheaper for not having been shipped thousands of miles. I also always have peas, sweetcorn, and broccoli in the freezer, too.
Francesca's favourite BBC Good Food budget recipe
My family love the flavours in this dish, and you can be flexible with the spices in case you don’t have one of them. Swap cumin for taco spice or ground coriander, and substitute cinnamon for nutmeg or allspice. I dice whole chicken thighs because it’s cheaper, and pick up the flatbreads in the supermarket’s world foods aisle.
The single parent and son
Lisa Lovell, 51, is a charity youth engagement coordinator and lives with her son in Milton Keynes, Bedfordshire.
Food budget of £70 per month
I learned from a young age to cook on a strict budget due to family circumstances, and from living independently in my mid-teens. I spent years being skint, and learned the importance of having a well-stocked pantry so I always had something to cook. When people began to panic during the first lockdown in 2020, I felt prepared because my pantry was already stocked with all sorts of flour; plain, bread, self-raising and gram, as well as various types of rice, pasta, endless dried spices, canned kidney beans, tomatoes and passata.
My son Kane, 24, is a dancer, and when he isn't auditioning or working in London, he's home with me. Kane has a very healthy appetite, so I whip up cheap, filling and healthy vegetable dishes to serve alongside our mains, such as salad with tomatoes, onions, herbs and rice wine vinegar, or cucumber with lemon, salt and garlic. The dishes don’t have to be complex, but having a stocked pantry will help you make sides with whatever you have in the fridge. With food prices on the rise, I’ve made the switch from canned beans, peas and pulses to dried, and I’m now making space in my garden to grow my own vegetables. I’m also cooking more vegetarian and vegan dishes so I can better stick to my food budget, as meat has become so expensive. I never waste any food. A Sunday roast pork is transformed into special fried rice on Monday, while a whole chicken will make multiple meals, including wraps, ramen, and chicken and sweetcorn soup.
My ‘splurge’ is having a box of organic vegetables delivered once a month. Anything that I can’t use straightaway can be frozen, or pickled to enjoy later on. For Christmas, I get a capon from my local butcher, who gives me a discount. I use supermarket points to buy mince pies, dessert and crackers for cheese. I also have a hamper hack for Christmas: from January, I choose someone to make a hamper for, and in each monthly shop, I buy one item that I know they like. By November, I have a full hamper.
Lisa's top tips
- I make my own bread, rolls and flatbreads – they're not only cheaper, but taste better, too.
- I've swapped canned beans and pulses for dried. They need soaking overnight, but are much more economical.
- If you're going to the effort of making lasagne or mac ‘n’ cheese, make extra to freeze.
Lisa's favourite BBC Good Food budget recipe
The solo diner
Scott Dixon, 52, is a part-time civil servant who lives in Edinburgh.
Food budget of £25 a week.
My top tip for keeping your grocery bill down is to find out when the end-of-day supermarket reductions begin and where to find them – you can save up to 75%. During a recent shop, I paid just £11.39 for over £45 worth of groceries. Anything I can’t use on the day, I freeze.
I regularly batch-cook soups. You don’t need anything special – just a deep pan and a cheap hand blender. You can get a bag of carrots and celery sticks for about 40p each, and a piece of ginger for 20p. Chuck those in with a stock cube and you have four portions of peppery, delicious soup for £1 (or 25p a bowl). I always take a packed lunch to work. It’s easy to prepare a wrap or sandwich, then I pack a banana, some juice, a few cherry tomatoes and crisps. That’s lunch for under £1, or a week’s lunches for less than £5. I don’t buy takeaways and instead make a variety of dishes and freeze them to enjoy later, such as cottage pie, chilli con carne and casserole.
I luckily haven’t had to make any adjustments to my food shop because of all the yellow sticker items I purchase anyway, and I’m very happy to plan my week of meals around what I have available in the freezer. The one thing I will be investing in at some point is a bigger freezer so I can make the most of those reduced-price foods and
Scott's top tips:
- Buy chicken thighs instead of breast. They’re cheaper, succulent and still versatile.
- My 1400-watt halogen oven is my star bit of kitchen kit. It’s much cheaper to run than a 2000-watt oven, heats up instantly and saves on electricity (it costs just 61p a week versus £1.17, based on three uses a week).
- I use cashback websites, various loyalty cards and a credit card to receive offers on my shop.
Scott's favourite BBC Good Food Recipe.
The house-share saver
Dani Cole, 26, works as a journalist and lives in a Manchester house-share with four others.
Food budget of £20 a week.
I’m in a privileged position because I don’t have a car or any dependents, but I still think you can't be too careful when it comes to saving and cutting costs. I work full-time, but have taken on a part-time job in a bar to help me reach my first £10,000 saving goal by January. I hope to eventually save £20,000.
I use automatic saving apps for community sharing or receiving extra food and take inspiration from a Facebook group teaching members how to eat for £1 a day, as well as budgeting using an app to keep track of spending.
I'm lucky my rent is below £400 a month, inclusive of bills and utilities, and we each chip in £20 a month for cleaning and essentials such as milk and butter.
I typically skip breakfast and have two cups of coffee, one at home and one at work. It used to be a nice latte, but now I get a 99p one from a fast-food chain. For lunch, it’s a sandwich plus two pieces of fruit. For dinner, I batch-cook a one-pot meal on a Sunday that can be easily reheated in the microwave throughout the week. Something like a lentil dhal, or stew with lots of vegetables. I sometimes roast a beef joint and eat that with rice or potatoes and some leafy veg.
A loaf of brown bread will last me two weeks, so I freeze what I don’t need immediately to avoid waste. I like to socialise with friends and family over lunch or a coffee and allocate about 20 per cent of my income for that.
Dani's Top Tips
- Try cheaper cuts such as liver, and slow cook with generous seasoning and spices. It’s very nutritious. For a treat, I buy full-fat beef mince or a sirloin steak.
- Shop online to avoid till-point temptations and extras you don’t need.
- Delete any takeaway and food delivery apps. It’s so easy to lapse into spending money on them when you’re tired or busy. Instead, freeze meals to give you an easy option that won’t involve any extra spending.
- I don’t look at the reduced aisle in supermarkets unless I need something to eat that evening. Otherwise, it’s an extra spend I don’t need to make.
Dani's favourite Good Food recipe.
The mum with limited mobility
Punteha van Terheyden, 36, is a freelance journalist and BBC Good Food writer. She lives with her husband Andy, and their daughter Millie, six, in Leicestershire.
Food budget of £70 a week.
I have endometriosis and a hip condition, both chronic and painful. I can't stand or sit for long, or walk far. I love cooking and want Millie to enjoy our Iranian heritage and food. In the past, this led to food waste because I’d buy lots of fresh produce aiming to cook, but was often in too much pain. Since prices shot up, I’ve changed tact.
Now, once a month, I batch-cook three dishes in my slow cookers, oven and hob. Over three or four days, I prep sitting down, cook and resting on a stool, and Andy does the bending, lifting, washing and walking to and from the fridge.
It takes planning, but it means I don’t cook daily and always have homemade dinners. I now only cook when I’m not working and pick dishes with the same base to save energy. I’ll make white sauce and cook mac and cheese, lasagne, and creamy mushroom pasta. I’ll also use lamb bought on offer for three Persian tomato-based lamb dishes: loobia polo (saffron lamb, herby tomato and green bean rice), aab-goosht (minty lamb, pulses and potato in a tomato and mint soup) and khoresht gheimeh (cinnamon lamb, dried lime, yellow split pea and tomato stew). They all start seared with turmeric, onion, salt, pepper and saffron. Then, into slow cookers or on the hob with tomato paste, herbs, veg and water. Or, I’ll do three chicken thigh dishes. I’ll make a big pot of fluffy basmati rice and freeze it.
I don’t buy everything in supermarkets – I use deals at my local butcher and order Persian ingredients like sumac, pistachio, barberries, dried limes, borage and valerian root from an Iranian supermarket in London. It’s cheaper, comes in larger quantities and is better quality
I use a lot of saffron, the most expensive spice, but get a Spanish brand when it’s on offer in my local health food shop. Like my Iranian nan, I grind the strands with granulated sugar (3:1 ratio) to make it go further and balance the bitterness. If saffron isn’t prepared properly, you’ll use unnecessarily large volumes without releasing the fragrance.
I grind, then steep in hot water. My favourite kitchen aid is a vegetable chopper box, cutting prep time exponentially. The rise in food costs has made me plan ahead, stop wasting food, be realistic about my physical limitations, ditch branded items, shop around and buy in bulk.
Punteha's favourite Good Food recipe easy crepes.
The sandwich carer
Claire Jacobs, 38, is an independent social worker and content creator. She lives with her mum Christine, 58, and her son Noah, 10, in Sussex.
Food budget of £75 a week.
I look after my mum and son, and do my best to balance our different tastes and food needs, as many things trigger Mum’s health conditions. Her food has to be plain, while Noah and I are able to be more adventurous.
We eat salmon and mackerel, while Mum can only have tuna. She can’t eat turkey or chicken, or have even a hint of spice, like black pepper, which means I either make two different dinners every night, or plan our meals ahead.
I batch-cook dinners like lasagne and bolognese in the slow cooker for Mum, or I’ll make an extra portion of dinner and freeze it for the days I don’t have the time or capacity to cook two meals. That way, there’s always be something nutritious and home-cooked for Mum to reheat.
Food costs are increasing in a shocking way, and I can’t buy as much of what I want: a broad range of nutritious foods for Noah and the red meat or fish Mum likes.
I used to get a whole small chicken for a weekly roast for £3.20 – now it’s £4.80. My non-dairy butter has gone up by 40p. Though my budget is £75, my basket is often £90, so I’m forced to cut back.
I’ve swapped our favourite brands for the supermarket’s own, use frozen vegetables instead of fresh, and use half the red meat I did before and top up the rest with a meat substitute. It’s a constant juggle figuring out how to stretch the budget, especially with the supermarket’s economy items being out of stock so often.
It’s getting harder to think of things that are nutritious and on budget. I like mackerel for its omega-3, but canned isn’t as good as fresh. I’m also concerned with animal welfare. Morally, I don’t want to buy the cheapest eggs or canned fish, but I can’t always afford the ethically sourced ones. It’s a difficult choice, but I find a middle ground where I can, so I can afford to care for loved ones.
Claire's favourite Good Food recipe 10-minute couscous salad.
The part-time worker
Pinky Shairra, 39, is a part-time nanny. She lives with her two young children, Keane and Kayla, in east London.
Food budget: £50 a week
Before the hike in the cost of living, if we fancied sausage and eggs for breakfast, I’d pop out to get some. Now, I question if it’s smart to cook at all. Instead of doing a food shop every week, I check if bills are due to come out of my bank account. If so, I feed myself and the kids with whatever I already have in the cupboards, fridge and freezer.
I invested in an extra freezer during the pandemic and also keep stocked up on tins and dried food, including pasta and rice. I grew up in the Philippines, cooking simply. My kids are not fussy and have grown up eating whatever I put on the table, including leftovers. If dinner is rice with a fried egg on top, they’re fine with it.
To get the nutrients we all need, I buy frozen vegetables and turn frozen fruit into smoothies for
the kids. When I shop for meat, I freeze whatever I’m not cooking that day. In the past, I’d forget what was in the fridge and have to bin it. Now, I would feel truly awful to waste food.
During the week, the kids are in breakfast club at school for less than a pound and they get school dinners. I eat at work three days a week which helps manage my food budget. During the half terms and summer holidays, I make more cheap, frozen meals like nuggets, chips and burgers, and don’t feel bad about it. My kids are fed, and eat varied foods the rest of the year. I’m doing what I can to survive.
I also make food that’s multipurpose; I’ll make mince with beans or tomato sauce with carrots, and we’ll eat it with rice on one night and pasta the next. Then, I’ll add spices and frozen peas to the leftovers and turn it into tacos for the kids.
One thing I’ve learned while living in the UK is that not all meals have to be hot ones. Cereal is fine for breakfast, and sandwiches work perfectly for lunchtime.
Pinky's favourite Good Food recipe sticky Chinese chicken traybake
Our CookSmart promise is to support you with the challenge of rising food and energy prices, we’re bringing together knowledge and ideas to help you eat well whatever your budget. You can find even
more resources and advice on low-cost cooking at Cook Smart with BBC Good Food. We’d also love to hear from you with any tips you have to share using the hashtag #gfcooksmart.