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It may not be obvious but your food expenditure is a key area where it’s really easy to spend more than you realise. As we all have to eat it may seem an impossible task to try and take better control of that outgoing cost, however there are loads of ways in which you can not only spend smarter when it comes to food but also eat better.

Here are some simple tips on how you can cut back on the expense of basic living costs when it comes to food shopping.

1) Cut down on the snacking.

Most snack food is costly in terms of both cost and general good health advice. Chocolate, crisps, biscuits and so on are well known to be full of processed sugars and when bought on impulse are expensive – especially when you add up how much you’ve spent over a week or two.

If you absolutely can’t live without those sweet treats then you’ll find bulk packs in many discount shops at a fraction of the cost compared to buying them one at a time from most corner shops. Better yet try switching (if only partially if that’s all you think you can manage) to healthier options such as fresh or dried fruit, nuts or other less-processed alternatives that you can usually get a good bulk price on at your local greengrocers or health food shop.

2) Buy and cook collectively.

You can make significant savings by pooling the food shop with your house or flat mates and cooking one big collective meal a day rather than buying just for yourself alone. Proportionately most items in supermarkets are cheaper to buy in bigger packs, so a four-person amount of meat or veg is going to work out cheaper split four ways than buying just one portions’ worth.

Even if you’re on your own you can use the same technique if you have access to a half decent amount of freezer space by cooking twice the amount that you need and freezing half of it – just make sure you remember to get it out and reheat it properly!

3) Make it yourself.

Sandwiches are a classic example of shoppers paying a massive mark-up for convenience.

For example an egg mayonnaise sandwich is likely to cost anywhere between £1.20 and £2 in most shops, however the cost of making it yourself is the equivalent of 2 slices of bread, an egg or two, a squirt of mayonnaise, a bit of margarine and about 4 minutes with a pan of boiling water – by our rough reckoning that’s an approximate cost of 15 – 20p using budget brands.

The same basic arithmetic applies to most ‘ready to eat’ cold food you can pick up from shops and other catering outlets and you could easily save 50% or more of your weekly expenditure on sandwiches and so on by spending 5-10 minutes the night before making a simple packed lunch.    

4) Budget brands are just as good.

When it comes to food the vast majority of budget ranges available are just as tasty and nutritious as the full-cost equivalents. Stock cupboard staples such as dried pasta, tinned tomatoes, seasonings, rice and bread are simply too basic for there to be any advantage in paying for anything more than the cheapest option on the shelf.

Vegetables and fruit are the same, although depending on your personal politics you may want to take into account air miles or whether or not you approve of buying fruit and veg that is out of season. Certainly mis-shaped fruit or veg is just as good to eat as the perfect versions.

Meat is one area where you may want to consider spending a little bit more, depending on how much you eat – budget branded meat can sometimes be ‘inflated’ with high water content or be overly processed, but for most of the items you buy at a supermarket there is no real advantage in paying more for branded or ‘top shelf’ goods.

A quick tip – look for the cheaper versions at the bottom of the shelves, it’s a well known trick of supermarkets to place the more expensive items or the ones they want to you to buy at eye or chest level.

5) If you don’t need it don’t buy it.

Beware the BOGOF deals and other offers that tempt you to buy more than you originally intended, particularly with perishable (i.e. fresh) food. In fact it’s best to slightly underestimate how much fresh food you are likely to get through as research shows that the vast majority of people in the UK end up throwing some food away as it’s not eaten before it goes off.

Deals and offers can work to your advantage but only when you are 100% certain you are going to use up all of the ‘extra’ - so dried goods such as pasta, cereals or absolute basics like toilet paper are safe bets!

6) Plan and prepare.

The best way to take maximum control of your expenditure on food is to figure out well in advance what you are going to eat for each meal and then shop accordingly. In essence this involves coming up with some form of meal plan, which can range from a seven-day sketch of your main evening meals right through to a really well thought-out rota covering all three main meals which then runs for a whole month before looping back to the beginning.

This may sound a bit overwhelming, however a simple meal plan is incredibly straight forward and takes very little time at all. As an example here’s a five day ‘evening meal only’ plan:

DayMealNeed to buy
Monday Jacket potatoes with cheese & beans Baking potato
Tin of beans (budget brand)
1/3 of a block of cheese or budget brand cheese spread
Tuesday Chicken fajitas Chicken breast (1 servings’ worth from freezer)
2 fajita wraps
One onion, one red pepper
One tin of tomatoes
Mexican spice mix
Wednesday Macaroni Cheese Serving of dry macaroni
White sauce packet mix
Half pint of milk
Third of a block of cheese or budget brand cheese spread
Thursday Fish and chips One battered portion of fish (from freezer)
Portion of chips (from freezer)
One serving of frozen vegetables or tin of mushy peas
Friday Spaghetti Bolognese Quarter of a packet of spaghetti
Half a pack of minced beef (put rest in freezer)
One onion & one clove of garlic
One tin of tomatoes and dollop of tomato puree
Shopping list: 1 baking potato, 1 tin of beans, 1 block of cheese, chicken breast, 2 fajita wraps, 2 onions, 1 red pepper, 2 tins of tomatoes, minced beef, dry macaroni, dry spaghetti, white sauce packet mix, Mexican spice mix, milk, frozen fish, frozen oven chips, frozen vegetables or tin of mushy peas.

You’ll see that some items are italicised, these are items that you may have in your store cupboard anyway and they will keep for a long time. Other items (the chicken, beef, frozen fish and oven chips) you’ll only be using a portions’ worth of and as long as you put them in the freezer on the same day as you buy them they’ll also keep to be re-used for the next weeks’ meals. Just make sure you read the packaging for instructions on freezing, de-frosting and reheating – meat in particular has to be properly defrosted before cooking!

However you can do better and technology can help you go further in saving money, planning a healthy menu plan and even take care of making up a shopping list for you.

There are a lot of menu ideas out there and whether you’re an 18 year new student living away from home for the first time or a seasoned cook who is used to preparing your own meals (or even meals for others) there’s always a lot to learn from looking at new and different ways to make quick, easy, cheap and tasty meals.

We’ve collected some links which are easily found by doing a search for ‘student meals’ or ‘student menu plans’ and whilst we do not endorse any one in particular it’s worth having a browse and conducting your own searches.

A similar Google search for ‘meal planning app’ turns a wide range of both free to use and paid-for Apple and Android app’s that you can use to generate meal plans. These apps generally cater for all tastes, dietary restrictions and often have a ‘spend limit’ to allow you to manage the maximum shopping cost - some of which also then link through to supermarket websites to let you know exactly how much a specific menu plan will cost. In some cases also allow you to order the food shopping to be delivered to your door!