As editor of one of the country’s leading food magazines I spent much of my time creating recipes for time-poor families who were on a strict budget. When faced with the cruel reality that it is sometimes cheaper to do a family’s weekly shop exclusively from the pre-prepared freezer section, I became passionate about finding ways to get the best value from my local supermarket, without compromising on good, wholesome food. Here are some of the best tips my fellow food writers and I have found along the way and easy routes to managing the dreaded supermarket run on a shoestring.
It’s no surprise that in most supermarkets you have to walk by the freshly baked bread and cakes to get to the dry goods aisle. By surrounding customers with the smell of delicious bread and rotisserie chickens upon walking through the door, supermarkets are well aware that our mouths are watering, and we are automatically less disciplined shoppers. Likewise, the fruit and vegetables are always positioned at the front of the shop because their bright colours naturally put shoppers in a good mood. Try to avoid this classic trick by doing your shopping backwards. That is, rather than starting in the fruit and vegetables and bakery section, begin at the jarred and tinned goods. By the time you reach the most tempting aisle, most of your shopping will be done and you will be less tempted to splurge.
Emma Parkin, editor of Easy Parenting and former editor of Easy Food magazine knows that if her store cupboard is stocked, she is always minutes away from a good meal. “If you keep your cupboards stocked with the basics, you’ll always have the makings of a simple meal at hand,” she says. “For example, I make sure that I always have a supply of tinned pulses like butter beans or chickpeas as well as tinned tomatoes, onions, frozen spinach, rice, a few spices — so I can knock up a quick veggie stew or curry when the fridge is empty.”
Music played in supermarkets is designed to make us linger, and as a result, pick up more than we intended. Most shops that sell food play music that is extremely slow to ensure that we glide through the aisles, stopping to read labels and forgetting all about that appointment we have in 10 minutes. Take our advice: load the most upbeat playlist on your Spotify account and you will not only spend less time shopping, but you will buy less too.
There are major bargains to be had in the freezer and the dried goods aisle.
Frozen vegetables, in particular, will almost always be cheaper than fresh vegetables, and just as nutritious. I keep bags of frozen sweetcorn, peas, broad beans and even tiny pearl onions that have been peeled and blanched in my freezer to bulk up winter casseroles and add a fresh hit to rich stews. Emma Parkin knows that a little help from the freezer and her store cupboard can mean stretching a meal an extra day or even two. “Frozen veggies and pulses are brilliant for bulking up a meal,” she agrees. “I recently made a bolognese sauce and the next day I added some paprika, a tin of kidney beans and some frozen spinach to transform it into a tasty chilli con carne”.
Sarah Woods, founder of Irish food website www.ilovecooking.ie knows that without planning, a week’s shopping budget can easily go awry. “I am juggling a young family with a full-time job and if I don’t plan our weekly meals we end up spending a fortune,” she says. She plans her week’s meals meticulously, checking out the supermarket deals of the week, and creating dishes around what’s on offer. “Always know what’s in your cupboards, fridge and freezer and plan to use up what you have. Be savvy, and carry ingredients over to other dishes — for example, if you use half a pepper in a chilli con carne tonight, be sure to use up the other half in a frittata tomorrow night. This saves money and food waste. ”
Just before closing time, all freshly baked goods are knocked down to a fraction of the price. Equally, after restock first thing in the morning, all stock at almost use-by date is priced down, along with bruised or older fruit and vegetables.
Known affectionately in Irish supermarket circles as yellow stickering, these bargains are not to be sniffed at. Meat with a day or two left can be popped straight into the freezer for use at a later date and fruit and vegetables are absolutely fine for use – they just look a little mis-shapen.
While Buy One Get One Free might seem like a great idea, consider whether you actually need what is on offer. If it’s an everyday item, split with a friend so that you both reap the benefits without any food wastage, or to prevent your store cupboard being taken over by tins you might not use. “Be realistic and make sure that you have enough space in your freezer/fridge to store all the food,” cautions Emma Parkin. “Don’t waste the food, work it into your meal plan - an on sale item is only a good deal if you use it!” Sarah Woods agrees. “Use cut-price meat and vegetables to make freezer dinners that can be eaten at a later date. Not only will it save you money but you will have some of your meals sorted for the week ahead.”
Often ‘value’ packs are not value-filled at all. Before buying that multi-pack of peppers, price the individual ones to see if it matches up. Do not assume that you are getting a good deal, always look at the price label on the shelf and compare to the offer to see if you are truly getting a deal. Fresh food is the prime suspect for this kind of ‘deal’, so be extra vigilant in the meat and fruit and vegetable aisles.
Emma Parkin suggests shopping around for the best deals. “I tend to buy all the basics in one supermarket and avail of the meat and vegetable deals being offered in other shops. I religiously check the weekly offers in my local supermarkets before planning our weekly menu, and that means that I am always getting the best value.”
Foodies talk a lot about eating seasonally, and if you are minding your pennies, then it’s a great way to plan a family’s weekly menu. Fruit and vegetables that are in season are naturally cheaper and have travelled less food miles to get into your dinner, which I believe makes them better for you. Sarah Woods concurs.“When fruit and vegetables are picked they start to lose their nutrients so think about how many nutrients are lost when travelling half way across the world. Ireland has some of the best fruit and vegetables available and they taste even more delicious when they are in season. What better reason to buy Irish and in season than that?”