Ten tips for how to eat on a budget when you’re single and living on your own
It is more difficult for people living alone to eat on a budget than it is for couples: singles aged 27-29 years spent an average of $5009 on food in 2008-2009, $1426 more than the $3583 per person spent by couples (May 2011 report, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). However, if you are on your own, you can narrow that difference massively and save money on the cost of eating by making a few changes. Here are ten tips to help you on your way.
1. Cut down on fast food, eating out and ready meals
Food eaten outside the home accounted for nearly $900 of the extra spending by singles. The higher costs of take-outs and ready meals eaten at home compared to cost of meals cooked from scratch surely contributed a lot to the remaining difference.
If you do not know already, LEARN TO COOK. Cooking can be fun! There are lots of recipes for easy and cheap meals. You can experiment and adjust recipes to make dishes that are perfect for you. Being single, you do not have to worry about keeping someone else happy as well as yourself!
Cooking extra portions to freeze means there will always be food for those times when you can’t be bothered to cook from scratch. In time, you will have a varied stock of prepared meals and will only need to cook once or twice a week or when you feel like it. As well as being convenient, this saves on energy use.
Your body will also thank you for giving it more healthy home cooking. You will be in full control of what goes into the pot and onto the plate, thus avoiding the hidden fat or sugar and unhealthy additives often found in ready-prepared food
This pictorial guide to cooking for beginners also includes a bonus DVD with 60 how-to videos of useful techniques and know-how. Now there is no excuse for anyone to say they can not cook!
2. Never shop hungry
Make this a golden rule. Living on your own, you can always adjust your timetable to suit your own needs. Studies have shown that people who go shopping before eating will spend more than those who go after eating, especially if they are feeling hungry. This is more pronounced for women than for men.
3. Have no fear of family packs
A freezer can use a lot of energy so look for an energy- efficient model. I think that doing without a freezer altogether is a totally false economy. The more freezer capacity, the better!
Often it is difficult to find food packed in small quantities. When small packs are offered, the cost per weight unit is usually much higher than with large packs. Do not feel forced into buying small-sized packs just because you live on your own. With a freezer, you can make the most of the savings available on family packs and multi-buy offers.
In fact, a freezer is most energy-efficient when it is full, so making the most of bulk buying and bulk cooking will help your energy bills too.
Remember to go through your freezer, fridge and store cupboards regularly so that things do not get forgotten. Setting yourself a day or even a longer period during which you will only use food already in the house is a marvellous money saver as well helping to keep your stores under control.
4. The early bird might get the worm, but the late bird gets the best deals
I am amazed by what bargains can be found when I go to my store later in the day, especially if a holiday is coming up. Shops will give huge reductions on food near the sell-by date, so as to get at least some return on it. Again, with the more flexible timetabling of a single person, you can use this to your advantage by shopping at these times.
Remember, many things can be frozen, so even if sell-by has today's date, you can still save it for another time. I always buy sliced bread like this for the freezer and use it toasted. This is also how I make immense savings on meat, poultry and fish.
Just be aware that vegetables and fruits will need preparing before freezing, so don’t buy more than you can eat over a short period if you do not wish to do this. Also, be very careful with prepared salad and stir-fry packs if they contain sliced capsicum peppers. I’ve noticed these tend to ferment and/or go slimy very quickly, sometimes even before the sell-by date. In fact, I tend to avoid such packs altogether and buy whole peppers to chop up instead.
5. Brand disloyalty
It is now generally known that many supermarket own-brand products are exactly the same as the big brand name, made by the same manufacturer but sold in different packaging. In addition, many obscure brands can be not only cheaper, but sometimes better than a big brand.
Many big brands use various campaigns and free offers to retain sales. Often these are aimed at children, who are further influenced by their peers at school. Living on your own, you are immune from the pressure this can put on parents. Try cheaper equivalents and see if you like them.
Cheaper is not always more economical, so compare ingredient lists and weights . Flavour comes into the equation too. For example, a premium cheddar cheese with a full rich taste is not only nicer to eat but goes a lot further when added to dishes for flavor than a pale and insipid cheap brand.
Store loyalty cards definitely do help to save money on food, if the store is otherwise competitive with pricing. I find using the points on my card, with judicious use of special offers in-store, combined with discounts on food near sell-by date (see no. 4) can sometimes give me overall savings of 30% or more on my food bill.
6. Experiment with alternative foods
As well as experimenting with alternative brands and own brands, use your freedom as a single person to experiment with new foods.
Less well-known types of fish, for example, especially if they are small, are often sold at a fraction of the price yet can be as delicious as expensive species. Mackerel is a very economical fish. It has the health benefits of an oily fish. Grilled mackerel is excellent as is mackerel cooked in cider with sliced apples and onions.
7. Experiment with new cooking methods
Different methods of cooking can help you eat on a budget, as well as broadening your horizons. Living alone, you have only your assumptions and prejudicesto conquer.
Ethnic cuisines in particular have dishes that aim to spin out expensive ingredients while also tasting delicious. Experiment with pulses (legumes) as an addition to or full substitute for meat. Explore the world of pastas and risottos. Stir fries are a great way to use up quantities of various vegetables. One meal I particularly enjoy is stir fried vegetables with a handful of cashew nuts added and a little soy sauce. The cashews and vegetables complement each other, without either being overpowering.
8. Cut your energy bills with the right cooking equipment
Ovens are expensive energy guzzlers. Cutting down on oven use has brought me huge savings on my energy bills. Of course, certain things, such as jacket potatoes, do taste better oven-cooked than microwaved, but alternative cooking methods work for many types of food. Long slow stewing is a good alternative to casseroles and adjustments to seasonings etc during cooking are easier to make.
Energy-saving cooking equipment has a place in every kitchen and need not cost a lot. Singles living in small spaces may even find it more convenient to do away with a classic cooker altogether and make do with two or three small appliances.
Top picks for energy-saving equipment:
A. Induction hob (induction stove top)
Many people are unaware that portable versions of this wonderful cooking aid are extremely cheap to buy. What is more, their low power rating means they can be used on the electric hook-ups available at camp sites. I much prefer taking mine along rather than messing around with portable cookers that run on gas cylinders.
An induction ring works by using electromagnetism to generate heat in the metal of the pot. Induction stove tops give instant and extremely controllable heat, and use a fraction of the energy of conventional gas or electric hobs.Although stoves with induction rings tend to be more expensive, stand-alone single- or double-ring induction stove tops are available at very reasonable prices.
I love the fact I can bring things to the boil almost instantly on my stand-alone induction stove top. I can then lower the heat to a very low simmer for long, slow cooking without the need for constant supervision and stirring. Braised beef, using a cheaper cut, comes out deliciously tender in a rich sauce when cooked this way.
A 3-hour timer and 10 power levels for the range 140-450 deg F are useful features that make this portable induction stove top even more versatile.
The basic crock pot has become a tried and tested kitchen favorite. It is a great choice for working people, because with just a little forward planning and preparation you can have a tasty and economical meal ready and waiting for you when you get home.
B. Crock pot (slow cooker)
A crock pot may seem a bit old fashioned, since the concept has been around so long. However, it is ideal for setting up a meal to cook over five to ten hours while you are at work or play or during the night while you sleep. It is incredibly energy efficient, with power consumption like that of a light bulb.
Long, slow crock pot cooking is ideal for cheaper cuts of meat, and also for beans , lentils and other pulses (legumes). Incidentally, you can make huge savings by buying dried legumes instead of canned ones. However, remember these usually need to be soaked for several hours before use. Bring them to the boil in a pan and discard the water before putting them in the crock pot as some beans can contain toxins that need to be inactivated at a high temperature.
C. George Foreman grill
A George Foreman grill saves power because it grills the food on both sides and thus shortens grilling time. It is also a healthy way of cooking, because the fat drains off along the channels into a collecting tray.
I tend not to use the microwave to cook a complete meal. However, I would not be without it for thawing and reheating frozen meals and for rapid cooking of some vegetables. Although power consumption is high, this is compensated by short cooking times. Remember though that a microwave left on standby can consume a lot of energy while doing nothing. It is best to power it off completely.
9. Love your leftovers
Consider leftovers a challenge for your creativity rather than something for the trash. When cooking for one, even a small quantity of leftovers can be turned into another and different meal. Think in terms of fillings for jacket potatoes, toppings for pasta, noodles or rice, additions to stir fries, stews and soups, omelette fillings, pie fillings; the possibilities are endless and the savings significant.
Remember though to follow simple safety rules for your health. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers as soon as possible. Make sure they are properly thawed and thoroughly heated when reusing. Unless it is frozen immediately, do not keep cooked rice for more than 24 hours.
10. Have a party!
Celebrate the fact you can eat well on a budget with your friends. Throw a party. Ask everyone to bring something as a contribution to a shared meal. Challenge them to make something that is easy, cheap and delicious. Ask people to bring the recipes they used. You can swap them and get new ideas for yourself.
Above all, remember that eating on a budget when you are living on your own should not be a dismal punishment. Saving money on food bills can be fun and creative if you are prepared to put in a little effort and some imagination.
You might wish to check out: Meals for one, an easy weekly menu featuring autumn and winter foods by Sally's Trove