Out of the reams of material written about how to eat well, Michael Pollan’s now famous opening to his book, Food Rules, still offers the best advice. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. With these simple words he gave a prescription for not only a healthy, sustainable diet, but also a way of keeping the cost of our food to a minimum.
It is a myth that we need to buy expensive, organic produce, or shop in ‘foodie’ delis to be doing our bit for the planet. Eating sustainably and eating cheaply can go hand in hand, so long as we re-programme our consumer approach to food. The best way to reduce the impact our food makes is actually to buy less of it – shocking but possible I promise! We also need to start sourcing our food from outside the supermarkets. These top ten tips will point you in the right direction.
1. Grow your food
Whether you live on an acre of land or in a block of flats, you can always find somewhere to grow food. A window sill or balcony are perfect for herbs, salads or tomato plants. If you have a bigger space, there’s no excuse. At this time of year, you can make most of the family meals with the produce from a good size veg patch. If you plant from seed, you’re looking at a few pennies per lettuce or beetroot bunch. Or if, like me, you cheated and used seedlings then it’s more like a 10p a vegetable. Either way, it’s pretty good value for organic, freshly picked produce.
Growing your own food remains the single most effective way of connecting you to your food supply. If you’ve grown it, you not only want to eat it but there’s no way you’re going to waste it either. In the last few weeks, I have put courgettes in everything from fritters to chocolate cakes to ensure that the hours I lovingly weeded, watered and waited are not in vain.
2. Reduce meat
Meat is not only expensive to buy; producing it takes a significant toll on the planets resources. In the U.S. alone, 70 percent of agricultural land is given over to growing food for livestock, using huge amounts of water as well. The 2011 Livewell Report – aimed at establishing the ideal balance between healthy and sustainable eating – recommended reducing our consumption of white and red meat from an average of 79kg per person a year to 10kg a year. Everyone from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to Jamie Oliver is now behind cooking more vegetarian food, so start experimenting with some new recipes.
3. Visit markets
Farmers markets continue to be one of the best locations to buy local food cheaply. Of course, you can also buy some very expensive food here too, so stick to the seasonal fruit and veg. Try visiting at the end of the day to get the real knock down deals – no stall owner wants to be left with a pile of unsold bread rolls or wilting herbs. As well as markets, look out for farms where you can pick your own fruit, or buy honey and eggs from a roadside table.
4. Buy direct
One of the best ways to reduce the cost of organic food is to buy direct from the retailer through a food co-op. This is particularly good for dry goods like rice, beans, nuts and flour, which you can buy in bulk and divvy out to members. Co-ops do require a little extra work as members need to collect the money, separate the goods and generally be quite organised, but the reward is in purchasing quality food at wholesale prices. Go to www.foodcoops.org and type in your postcode to find one near you.
Another way of buying direct is to look for companies already offering this service. One example is Somerset Local Food Direct, which sources food from local farmers and producers, and delivers them to your door for £3.00 – cheaper than the cost of the petrol to the local supermarket, in my case.
Finally, you can sign up for a box scheme. There are well known companies like Riverford or Abel and Cole but you can find cheaper, more local options. Close to us, we have a community farm which delivers and a Victorian walled garden where, for a tenner, you can get a box of veg all grown on site.
Despite the commercialisation of our food supply, there is still an abundance of food to be had for free. If you live outside of a city, you only need to look in the fields and hedgerows to find a wealth of vitamin-rich produce waiting to be whipped into a meal. In the last few months, I have served up wild garlic pesto, nettle soup, elderflower cordial and gooseberry fool, and I’m only a beginner. Experienced foragers will be stockpiling nuts, roots and mushrooms by now.
Urban foraging requires a different approach – namely knowing where the supermarkets out their produce at the end of the day. (It’s usually in a bin behind the store). Don’t by shy – it’s a disgrace that good food is wasted like this. Dive in and do your bit for the planet and your pocket.
6. Buy and cook in bulk
It may seem to counter-intuitive, but buying more can often cost less. A number of wholefood stores now offer the opportunity to buy oil, lentils, cereal, beans and other dry goods in large quantities at far cheaper prices per kilo than if you buy a smaller amount.
Also cook more than you need and freeze it. There’s a lot of time and energy that goes into making a lasagne, so why not make two and put one away for another day.
7. Talk to a granny
Part of the reason we spend too much on food is that the old wisdoms are no longer passed down. We don’t trust our noses to tell us when food is off, but throw it out according to a date that the supermarket has stamped on the lid. Making jams, preserves and pickles when fruit is cheap and plentiful was once a family activity and recipes were passed down through the generations. My granny – like many others – cooked a roast on Sunday, served it cold on Monday and turned it into mince for Tuesday’s dinner. Re-discovering some of these old frugal ways, can keep costs and waste to a minimum.
8. Make the most of leftovers
The average British family throws out £50 of food a month. We think nothing of scraping our child’s untouched meal into the bin or throwing out the end of the cheese or bread. There are hundreds of recipes that will turn these unwanted leftovers into another family meal, which will not only save money but prevent you from having to cook from scratch again. Whizz up stale bread to make breadcrumbs, put soured milk into baking, freeze leftover wine or beer in ice cube trays to use when cooking. Check out www.lovefoodhatewaste.com for more tips.
Get to know your neighbours and start a food exchange. Some might have apples trees while others are great at baking. You could have more rhubarb than you know what to do with. Those who have excess food and little time could provide the produce while others could turn it into delicious pies, cakes or jams.
10. Eat less
It might sound a little extreme but the reality is that most of us eat too much. Our bodies would be much better off if we gave our digestive system a break – at least between meals – and didn’t eat until we were bursting. Obesity is now as big a problem worldwide as hunger, so buying and eating only the amount of food that your body actually needs can help the planet, your pocket and your health.
Photograph by Susy Morris
Sign up to our Newsletter
Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news