Families who are finding it hard to make ends meet during the cost-of-living crisis may now be struggling more than ever, as inflation has unexpectedly jumped again.
Inflation rose from 10.1% in January to 10.4% in February, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), with food prices at their highest rate in more than 45 years. Indeed, the consumer brand Which? has found the cost of some everyday groceries has more than doubled over the last year.
But savvy shoppers can find plenty of ways to reduce their food bills, promises personal finance expert Jasmine Birtles, founder of the financial advice website MoneyMagpie.
“Prices are going up across the board, but most worrying are the basics, like pasta, bread, milk and eggs. That really affects the poorer families – we’re not talking caviar,” she says.
“You can still have cheaper, nutritious meals, you just can’t buy the fun stuff quite so much – you need to use your money to buy the basics because they’ve gone up so much, and it might mean the kids can’t have the chocolate cake.
“But there are lots of ways to save money on your food shop, if you plan ahead and are careful.”
Here are savvy money-saving suggestions from Birtles and children’s food writer Annabel Karmel…
1. Shop online
“Online shopping will help you make fewer impulse purchases and budget carefully, so you make savings,” says Birtles.
She advises shoppers to go for own brand items rather than branded goods, as they tend to be cheaper.
2. Use social supermarkets and discounted food apps
“There are a lot of places you can get free or cheap food for the family – obviously there are food banks, but there are also social supermarkets, which sell discounted food to people on lower incomes. They fill the gap between supermarkets and food banks,” explains Birtles.
There are also apps like Olio, which connects you, neighbours and local businesses with each other. It means surplus food – whether that’s produce near its sell-by date in local stores, or your neighbour’s spare homegrown vegetables – can be shared instead of thrown away.
The Too Good To Go app provides low-cost Surprise Bags of unsold food that would have been wasted by local restaurants, cafes and shops, and Approved Food sells food that’s either near or just past its best before date at bargain prices.
3. Choose when and where you shop wisely
Birtles says if you shop at the right time – usually early in the morning or late in the evening – you can get plenty of reduced food.
“I’m a big fan of yellow stickers on reduced food, and your freezer comes in handy if you buy a lot of food with yellow stickers on,” she says.
It could also be a good idea to shop at your local market, which can be cheaper than supermarkets, and you can pick up great bargains just before closing time.
“You’ll have less to choose from, but because the vendors don’t want to take anything away with them they often sell off produce cheap towards the end of the day,” says Birtles.
4. Make your own
Buy cheap tinned tomatoes to make homemade pasta sauces, suggests Karmel.
“Whipping up a homemade sauce with a tin of chopped tomatoes is not only delicious but resourceful,” she says. “Simply add garlic, onions and dried herbs and you’ve got yourself an authentic, tasty sauce without the supermarket price tag. Plus, you know exactly what’s in it, and can rest assured there are no added nasties.”
5. Get the kids to help find the best value items
Birtles says it can be good to get the kids involved in finding the best deal.
“That teaches them how to manage money,” she says. “As long as they’re not the sort of kids who moan that they want this and that, then they can be worth taking. Send them off looking for the cheapest bag of sugar or whatever, and you can teach them to do it by weight, depending on their age. That’s good training for them!”
6. Stock up on tins
Not only is tinned food convenient, it saves on waste and money and can be just as nutritious, says Karmel.
“Use a tin of chickpeas to make a veggie curry, mini falafels, burgers, or a quick hummus. Beans and pulses are fantastic as they are so versatile, affordable and are packed with nutrients,” she says. “Canned fish is another great cost saver – it’s high in protein and iron, so is a great food to include in your family’s diet.”
7. Buy for batch cooking
“The ultimate cost-saving hack is to get batch cooking,” advises Karmel. “I like making a Bolognese sauce packed with blended onions, leeks, celery, mushrooms, tomatoes, pepper, carrots, and my secret ingredient, apple. It’s delicious!
“I also find roasting a chicken at the beginning of the week to be helpful, as you can create lots of nutritious and delicious meals off the back of this, such as pasta dishes, croquettes, quesadillas, curries, pies and sandwich fillings.”
8. Buy cheaper cuts of meat
“There are cheaper cuts of meat that are perfectly good – I grew up on liver and bacon and liver and onions,” Birtles says.
Karmel adds: “When shopping, don’t overlook cheaper cuts of meat like chicken thighs, which in fact contain more iron than chicken breasts and are perfect for a stir-fry.”
9. Explain money is tight to the kids in a fun way
It’s not always easy to talk to children about money matters, but Birtles advises parents to make it into a game or quiz to engage younger ones.
“Turn it into something fun if you can,” she suggests. “We don’t want to worry them, but at the same time it’s helpful for them to understand what the situation is, and when you can’t buy everything they want at the shops it’s not that you’re being nasty, but it’s tough for everybody and you all need to work together.
“Families that discuss things do better than the ones where the parents keep the tough stuff to themselves.”