How to save money on your grocery bill and still eat well

The typical Australian household spends about $10,000 a year on food. Picture: Shutterstock
The typical Australian household spends about $10,000 a year on food. Picture: Shutterstock

Is it possible to feed a family on a tight budget? More importantly, is it possible to feed a family delicious food on a tight budget? Gladly, the answer to both of these questions is yes. The secret to eating well for less is being organised, but it should never be about restriction. Think of it instead as reinvention.

The typical Australian household spends about $10,000 a year on food. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, food is the second biggest category of household spending, after housing costs and before transport.

With petrol prices at record levels, increasing rents and house prices, everyone is looking for any way to save money. But at the supermarket, too, we're noticing price increases. Supply chain disruptions have forced prices up, so too have natural disasters which have affected farmers in different areas across the country.

So, without further ado, here are a few tips to help save money and still eat well.

Plan meals

This doesn't have to be as arduous as it seems, but it's always a good idea to have some idea of what meals might be served during the week. Meal planning saves money because you're not throwing things out at the end of the week. It also takes the stress out of getting dinner on the table. Does everyone have a conflicting schedule? Pencil those nights in for something that will reheat easily. Will anything work for lunch the next day? Take lunch to work everyday. Make a shopping list and stick to it.

Leftovers

Get creative with leftovers and you'll save heaps of money. Indeed, cook too much the night before and a lot of your problems will be solved. Turn last night's roast into tonight's curry. Still a little fish left? Turn it into fish cakes with the rest of the mashed potato. Check out Love Your Leftovers: Recipes for the resourceful cook, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the River Cottage team (Bloomsbury, 2015, $45).

The freezer is your friend

Don't want to eat last night's meal again today? Freeze those leftovers. But think outside the icebox as well. Freeze bread, cheese, fresh ginger, rice. Chop up all the leftover veges at the end of the week and fill freezer bags full of mixed vegetables to use in soups and sauces. Is there a bulk-buy bargain at the supermarket, buy up and freeze it. There's a reason why sales of chest freezers soared during lockdown. Checkout frostbitefood.com for some handy tips and recipes.

Organise the pantry

How many times have you been to the shops and come home with a can of tomatoes only to find you have three there already? How many little jars of cinnamon does one kitchen need to have? Keep a regular inventory and twice a year do a big cleanout. Drag everything out to the kitchen bench, wipe everything over. Check on double-ups and expiry dates. Found a jar of baby capers that are still ok? Plan a meal around them.

It's the season

Eating seasonally is good for the planet and your wallet. We're spoilt for choice but food is cheaper when it's in season. Hit up the farmer's markets, eat locally, support producers. Even better, grow your own food. Even it's just some herbs in a pot on the balcony. Investing in a proper vegetable garden might seem like a big outlay to start with but it will pay dividends in the long run. Grow some tomatoes, some basil, and you've got dinner sorted.

Shop smart

So many ways to save money. Think about shopping online so you're only getting things off your list and not impulsive buying. If you need to go to the store, shop once, you tend to spend more over the week if you're dropping in after work everyday to pick up things for that night's meal. Look at other brands, look at the bottom shelves. Buy in bulk only if you have the capability to store it. Don't shop when you're hungry and leave the kids at home if you can.

By the book

Here are some of my favourite books full of good ideas about ways to save money in the kitchen and still eat well.

The Thrifty Pantry: Budget-saver family favourites from under $2.50 a serve, from taste.com.au. HarperCollins, $34.99.

The $50 Weekly Shop, by Jody Allen. Penguin. $24.99.

The Thrifty Kitchen, by Suzanne Gibbs and Kate Gibbs. Lantern. $49.95.

The Thrifty Cook, by Jacki Passmore. Penguin, $29.95.

Thrifty Cooking, collected wisdom from the Country Women's Association of Victoria. Murdoch Books, $24.99.

Shelf Love, by Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Noor Murad. Ebury Press. $49.99.

Ricotta and broccoli pasta bake

Grab your cake pan for this super-simple pasta bake.

Ingredients

50g butter, chopped

40g plain flour

500ml milk

250g smooth ricotta

55g grated mozzarella

40g grated parmesan

500g pkt dried rigatoni pasta

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 small head broccoli, trimmed, cut into small florets

120g baby spinach

2 green shallots, chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

3 tsp finely grated lemon rind

2 tbsp chopped fresh dill leaves, plus extra to serve

2 tbsp chopped fresh mint leaves, plus extra to serve

1 egg

1 tsp sea salt

1 tbsp panko breadcrumbs

Method

1. Place the butter, flour and milk in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk constantly for eight to 10 minutes or until mixture simmers and thickens. Remove from heat. Stir in the ricotta, mozzarella and one-third cup parmesan. Cool for 15 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, cook pasta following packet directions until just tender. Drain well. Preheat the oven to 180C/160C fan forced. Grease a 6cm-deep, 22cm round (base) springform pan.

3. Heat oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add broccoli. Cook, stirring occasionally, for two minutes. Add the spinach, shallot and garlic. Cook, stirring, for one minute or until fragrant and spinach just wilts. Remove from heat. Add pasta, lemon rind, dill and mint.

4. Whisk egg into milk mixture. Stir in salt. Season with pepper. Add half the milk mixture to the pasta mixture. Mix well to coat. Spoon half the pasta into prepared pan, pressing firmly to compact. Dollop with half the remaining milk mixture. Top with remaining pasta, pressing to compact. Dollop top with remaining milk mixture and sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Sprinkle top with remaining parmesan.

5. Bake for 40 minutes or until pasta is golden and set. Stand for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and transfer to a serving plate. Serve sprinkled with extra dill and mint.

Serves 6.

Easy Caprese strata

This super-easy bake is full of vegies and flavour. Just 10 minutes of prep, pop it in the oven and relax until dinner is ready.

Ingredients

500ml milk

125ml thickened cream

4 eggs

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 loaf of pane de casa, cut into 8 thick slices

2 tomatoes, sliced

120g baby spinach

1 tbsp baby capers

1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves, plus extra leaves to serve

80g grated mozzarella

olive oil spray

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/160°C fan forced. Grease a 6cm deep, 20cm x 32cm (6-cup capacity) baking dish.

2. Whisk milk, cream, eggs and garlic in a jug until combined. Season. Arrange bread slices, overlapping, in prepared dish. Arrange tomato and 50g spinach between bread slices. Sprinkle with capers, basil and mozzarella. Pour milk mixture over. Set aside for 10 minutes to allow bread to soak up liquid. Spray with oil.

3. Bake for 50 minutes or until golden, crispy and set. Set aside for five minutes. Sprinkle with extra basil leaves and serve with remaining baby spinach.

Serves 4.

Budget hack: Day-old bread is best for this recipe as it will soak up the egg mixture better than fresh bread. It's a great way to use up slightly stale bread.

Cheesy 2-minute noodles

Grab some 2-minute noodles from the pantry to make this super easy and super cheesy main, ready in just 20 minutes.

Ingredients

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

20g butter

1 brown onion, finely chopped

4 middle bacon rashers, trimmed, coarsely chopped

1 tbsp plain flour

4 x 72g pkts instant noodles, chicken flavour

500ml milk

150g frozen peas

80g grated cheese

1/4 cup fresh continental parsley, chopped

1 tsp lemon zest

Method

1. Heat oil and butter in a large, deep frying pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and bacon. Cook, stirring occasionally, for five minutes or until onion softens. Transfer two tablespoons of the onion mixture to a small bowl. Cover to keep warm.

2. Add flour and two of the chicken flavour sachets from noodles to pan (discard remaining sachets). Cook, stirring, for one minute. Reduce heat to medium. Gradually stir in milk and two cups water. Bring to a simmer. Add all of the noodles. Cook, stirring occasionally to break up noodles, for two minutes or until noodles are tender.

3. Add peas and cheese. Cook for a further one to two minutes or until peas are bright green and tender. Add parsley and lemon zest to the reserved onion mixture. Season. Toss to combine.

4. Remove noodles from heat. Sprinkle with the reserved onion mixture. Serve.

Serves 4.

Pantry hack: We used colby cheese for its mild flavour, but you can use any grated cheese you choose.

Pumpkin and hoisin chicken

This tray bake is super-easy and great for kids, who'll love to get their fingers sticky with the tasty glaze.

Ingredients

8 chicken drumsticks

500g Kent pumpkin, unpeeled, cut into wedges

1 brown onion, cut into wedges

227g can water chestnut slices, drained

80ml hoisin sauce

1 tbsp soy sauce

270g jasmine rice

1 green shallot, sliced diagonally

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 220C/200C fan forced. Line a large baking tray with baking paper.

2. Place the chicken, pumpkin, brown onion and water chestnuts on the prepared tray. Combine hoisin sauce and soy sauce in a small bowl, then pour over chicken and vegetables. Turn to coat.

3. Bake chicken and vegetables for 30 minutes, basting with sauce during cooking, until chicken is browned and cooked through.

4. Meanwhile, cook the rice following packet directions. Scatter shallot over chicken and vegetables. Divide rice, chicken and vegies among serving plates to serve.

Serves 4.

Budget hack: Buying a whole pumpkin that you can cut and clean yourself can more than halve the cost of buying ready-to-cook pumpkin pieces.

  • The Thrifty Pantry: Budget-saver family favourites from under $2.50 a serve, from taste.com.au. HarperCollins, $34.99.

Budget hack: Easy to make and works well for leftovers the next day.

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This story Try these budget-friendly family recipes for less than $3 a serve first appeared on The Canberra Times.