Eat to Thrive Podcast #3: Stretching your food budget
In this podcast, I discussed some strategies that can help you maximise the amount of food you get for your hard-earned money.
Here in New Zealand, we consider ourselves a fairly lucky country by world standards. However, a significant number of families struggle to put enough food on the table every week. In the 2008/09 Adult Nutrition Survey, 14% of households reported running out of food due to lack of money. Imagine having a family budget so squeezed, that the only area you can save any money on is the food you and your children eat. This situation isn't limited to the poorest members of our society either; those on minimum wage working multiple jobs living in our major cities, and middle-income families making large rent or mortgage payments experience food insecurity too. Sometimes families are only one serious illness away from financial trouble, when the main breadwinner can't work for a period of time. You have to pay the rent or mortgage, and the power and phone, but the food bill gets trimmed.
Food security is defined as:
"the assured ability to acquire nutritionally adequate and safe food that meets cultural needs and has been acquired in a socially acceptable way"
Carter, Lanumata, Kruse & Gorton (2010)
Often this financial pressure leads to cheaper, nutrient-poor "filler" foods being bought, just to fill hungry tummies. This can have a serious impact on the nutrition status of everyone, but especially the children in the family, and can affect their growth and development.
Unfortunately, there is no easy fix. The issues that contribute to low food security can only be addressed by large-scale socio-political change. The tips in this blog post certainly aren't going to solve the problem, but hopefully you will find some ideas to help you minimise your spend while looking after your health at the same time.
1. Eat seasonally.
Fruit and veg prices rise and fall with the seasons. Tomatoes are much cheaper during the summer, when the supply is plentiful. During winter, when they have to be grown indoors in heated glasshouses, the cost is greater due to a smaller quantity available, and the additional costs of running the glasshouses. Becoming familiar with which veg and fruit is in season will help save money, as you can focus on the produce that is cheapest (and freshest) at the time. It's also likely there are less "food miles" associated with seasonal produce, especially if local growers are the suppliers. There is one thing that can put a kink in this theory though; the weather! Remember back in 2018 when we had a long patch of very wet weather, and cauliflower was $10 a head? When this happens, you can either substitute with another vegetable (one also in season but less affected by the weather), or use frozen produce. Don't be afraid to buy frozen veg; it has been picked and packed super-quick, and is just as nutritious as fresh. An additional bonus is there is less wastage, as you just take out what you want, and pop the packet back in the freezer. Keep an eye out for specials in the freezer section, and buy an extra packet of your most-used frozen veg when they are cheaper, if you can.
You can download a great poster from Healthy Food Guide on seasonal produce here.
...and one from Vegetables New Zealand here.
You can also search by season on the 5 Plus a Day website in case you want to know what to use for before you go planning your meals.
2. Don't limit yourself to shopping for fruit and veg at the supermarket.
Looking for other places to get your hands on some fresh produce?
Shop at fruit and vegetable specialists
Greengrocers and markets - their prices can often be cheaper, and turnover is high so the produce is nice and fresh. Find your nearest one, and scope them out. If getting there is an issue, see if you can car-pool with a friend, a family member or a neighbour, and shop together.
Grow some of your own veg and swap with friends, family or neighbours:
If you have the space, you might consider trying to grow some of your own veg at home. Maybe some fruit too! A stack of old tyres and half a bag of seed potatoes; a six-pack of lettuce seedlings bought from a weekend market; a couple of tomato plants; some carrot and radish seeds; one courgette plant (believe me, you only need one...!), and you could save yourself a wee stack of cash. You might even be able to swap produce with someone else - often you are better at growing some things, and someone else can grown something you can't. Another benefit of this is it can bring you closer to your neighbours, and increase feelings of connectedness and community in your neighbourhood.
Garden Grow is a great site to find when to plant a wide range of vegetables in your home garden.
Join a fruit and veg co-op:
There are three fruit and vege co-ops running in Christchurch, with many hubs around the city. The Christchurch South fruit and veg co-op, the Affordable fruit and veg group, and Food Together. You can join a co-op, and as well as a weekly payment to buy your bag of goodies, you volunteer a little bit of your time on a rostered basis to help pack the produce. You can find out more about the co-ops and how to join on the Community and Public Health website. You will find a whole lot of recipes to go with your produce here too.
Forage for free food!
Did you know you can forage for food around Christchurch?
There is a map of the fruit and nut trees in the red zone - just be considerate when harvesting produce, and only take what you need. There is also a Facebook group - Otautahi Urban Foraging, where people share information on where to find produce around the city.
3. Get into meal planning.
Imagine yourself doing a weekly food shop complete with a shopping list of all the ingredients you need for 7 dinners and five lots of school lunches. Think what it would be like not having to wonder "what's for dinner?" every night. Picture yourself going straight to the recipe for tonight's dinner and having that same dinner on the table in a jiffy. Meal planning is a great way to save serious time and money, as well as a bit of stress making dinner decisions on the fly. Using a shopping list can also help avoid those impulse buys, you know, the ones where you only went into the shop for milk and bread, but came out with 10 items. People are also increasingly choosing to do their food shopping online - as you can stick to a budget and avoid impulse buys - but this does come with a delivery cost. One website of a major supermarket chain charges $13 for delivery for an order of up to $200 value, so you would have to decide if this was worth it for you.
Meal planning takes a bit of practice, but the more you do it the quicker you will get. Put aside one day a week to do your planning and shopping, start with a small collection of quick and easy recipes, and if you have kids get them involved too. Evidence shows that when children are involved in food choice and preparation, they are more likely to meet their 5 plus a day fruit and vege target. You can read more about what's in my Meal Planning Toolbox here.
Here are some more sites with some really good meal planning info:
4. Cook from scratch whenever you can.
This one really depends on the time you have available, and your cooking knowledge and skills. You really do pay more for convenience - foods that are already prepared cost more. You can buy all sorts of food pre-made; frozen mashed potato, chopped carrot sticks, even frozen toasted sandwiches! This doesn't mean that every time you cook a meal it's going to take ages. You can batch-cook meals. This is when you cook a bulk lot of the base of a meal, and freeze it in portions for later. Then you can make any number of meals from that base mix, by adding various other ingredients that are quick to cook. The Heart Foundation has an awesome cookbook called "Cheap Eats" that uses this technique. One example is a basic meat sauce recipe (made with mince, onions, carrots and tinned tomatoes), that you can make 5 different meals from! You can even cook a large batch of rice and freeze in bags for later use, saving money on those quick-cook rice sachets and pots.
Check out other Heart Foundation cookbooks here
...and some awesome Love Food Hate waste cookbooks here
You can also find some kid-friendly recipes on the Healthy Kids website
5. Stretch the expensive ingredients.
Meat is often the most expensive part of a meal. In New Zealand, most of us eat quite a bit of it, easily meeting our protein needs. What we don't do too well is eating our 5 plus a day, or eating legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans and peas). You can trim your food spend while increasing your fibre, vitamin and mineral intake by bulking out meat dishes with added veg and a tin of legumes. For example, if you are cooking a casserole, add a tin of cannellini beans and some chopped carrots; or a tin of chickpeas and some chopped pumpkin or kumera. Cooking a mince dish? Grate in carrot, courgette, and add a half a cup of dried red lentils. The lentils will break down and thicken the meat sauce beautifully, and the kids won't even know they are there.
You will find some more great ideas on how to stretch the pricey ingredients in your meals here:
So, to sum it all up:
Eat seasonally and explore cheaper sources of fruit and veg
Get into the meal planning habit
Try and cook from scratch as often as you can and as time permits
Stretch out the more expensive ingredients with cheaper veg and legumes
I hope you found some useful ideas to save yourself some cash in your food budget, and some websites to inspire you to get into the kitchen and whip up some yummy (and budget-friendly) healthy meals.
Carter, K.N., Lanumata, T., Kruse, K., & Gorton, D. (2010). What are the determinants of food security in New Zealand and does this differ for males and females? Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health [online]. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-6405.2010.00615.x
Chu, Y.L., Farmer, A., Fungoes, C., Kuhle, S., Storey, K.E., & Veugelers, P.J. (2012). Involvement in home meal preparation is associated with food preference and self-efficacy among Canadian children. Public Health Nutrition, 16(1), pp. 108-112.