If you’re young and hard up, eating a varied, delicious and high quality diet can seem a starry-eyed dream, never mind trying to eat consciously or sustainably. But with a little time and thought, it need not be so. There are simple and obvious ways to ensure you eat well. One sure-fire method, regardless of your budget, is to cook – more or less from scratch – all that you eat. If you don’t cook already, it’s not difficult to learn the basics, especially in a digital world packed with online tutorials.

With cooking as your starting point, these suggestions might help you eat like a king (of sorts) on a budget.

Plan

Trust me, becoming a rigorous planner, while rather uncool, is the key to eating well on a budget. For two years now my household of two has got by on meagre funds, but a lack of cash has not meant a dull, unhealthy or unsustainable diet.

Most food lovers prefer a spontaneous approach to shopping – picking up a romanesco because it looks fantastic and intriguing; eagerly grabbing the first rhubarb of the season; or taking home the freshest of whatever the fishmonger had to offer that morning. However the crash-back-to-earth truth for those of us living with less, is that this impulsive approach relies to a large extent on well-stocked cupboards and pantries. Once home with your impromptu bounty, wracking your brains and looking up recipes, you realise you also need, for example, anchovies, parsley, white wine, honey and chicken stock to make what you had in mind. Having maxed-out your budget, however, you’ll be unable to enjoy your fabulous ingredients as you dreamed, and, at worse, you’ll find yourself throwing out a sad looking romanesco some days later.

The key to a tasty diet is planning in advance what you’re going to eat every week. Sometimes annotating a diagram of 21 meals as I interrogate my boyfriend about what he wants for dinner days ahead can seem ridiculous, yet I’ve come to enjoy this weekly ritual. It’s a window of opportunity to really think about what you will eat, how good and healthy it will be and how much time you’ll need to dedicate to cooking. Look for recipes on the web to inspire you, especially those that are seasonal and point you in the direction of what’s affordable and in abundance right now. If you can, buy cookbooks second hand and build up a collection of those that make you want to cook. Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries is one cookbook you’ll keep for a lifetime, and it’s also organised seasonally.

Most crucially, this nerdy shopping list will protect you from the financial abyss of post-work supermarket shopping on an empty stomach – to be avoided at all costs.

Avoid supermarkets

Supermarkets, aside from being soul-crushingly monotonous and propped up by unsustainable models of production and supply, are often surprisingly expensive. A lot of what is stocked in big chain stores can be found cheaper and better elsewhere, and you won’t succumb to the allure of 3-for-2 deals devised to get you spending more.

One hangover from the waning ‘Age of the Supermarket’ is the detached, sanitised and impersonal style of shopping that has become the norm. Once you are accustomed to buying food pre-priced and pre-packaged, the sight of loose vegetables priced by the kilo, or the thought of having to discuss cuts of meat with your local butcher, can seem daunting. The unpredictability of buying food weighed and measured on the spot can be especially off-putting and even embarrassing for those of us with tighter purse strings. Once, buying organic duck breast and totally clueless about how expensive it might be, I handed over €30 with a sinking heart, rather than abashedly explaining that it was more than I could afford to spend.

The key here is to jump in at the deep end: befriend shopkeepers and market traders and wear your skint-ness on your sleeve. I tell fishmongers, butchers and other shopkeepers exactly how much I want to spend up front: “€4 worth of Parmesan please!” You will soon become chums with these people, who will find you endearing rather than annoying, and might even reward your loyalty with mates rates, redefining the hackneyed ‘every little helps’.

Your food waste will fall dramatically once you eschew supermarkets, and you’ll likely save a small fortune. Even better, this human interaction with the people that serve you in the shops is good for the soul.

Organic vs. non-organic

When it comes to eating organically and ethically, those of us with skinnier budgets may have to prioritise our concerns.

Initially I only bought organic for those products I considered the worse offenders in terms of animal welfare – pork, poultry and dairy. Equating ‘organic’ with ‘pricey’, I assumed that this was all I could manage. I soon noticed, however, that the difference in price between organic and non-organic products is often negligible, sometimes non-existent. So, increasingly, the majority of what I buy – especially cupboard fillers like rice, pasta, tinned tomatoes – is now organic, and I’m not any worse off for it. Do your own supermarket-style ‘price checks’ and see what the difference really is, and where you can afford to, go organic.

Yet sometimes the price difference is too big or an organic equivalent is simply not to be found. And whilst the reliability of ‘organic’ is robustly upheld in some countries, it remains fuzzy in others, so make sure you know what you are buying. Those of us with limited means must pick our battles and try to find out how our food is produced when the organic emblem isn’t an option. After some illuminating chats with my butcher I buy non-organic beef, which he tells me is locally reared by small-scale farmers. Or I rely on the advice of my fantastic greengrocer, who stocks a mixture of organic and non-organic produce, alongside resources such as the Environmental Working Group’s pesticide guides that indicate which fruit and vegetables carry more pesticide residue than others.

Meat and fish

Living on a tight budget means eating less meat and fish – no bad thing as we humans are gobbling up unsustainable amounts of the stuff.

In my experience, the key for those of us who are hard up and not vegetarian is to eat small portions of meat just once or twice a week. Start with bony ‘lesser’ cuts of meat and offal, which will flex your cooking muscles. You’ll be amazed at how cheap they are, and cooked well they can be delicious. Also, ask your butcher to set you aside a weekly bag of bones, ghoulish as it sounds. A homemade stock or broth will enhance the simplest of dishes. But every now and again, treat yourself to a fantastic slice of meat and do it justice in the kitchen.

When it comes to fish, it’s a case of figuring out what is sustainably sourced, as well as affordable, wherever you’re based. Sites such as the Marine Conversation Society’s FishOnline (and the phone app to go with it) can help. Once you’ve eliminated fish that are intensively farmed, unsustainably caught and/or super expensive, you’re often left with very slim pickings. In Amsterdam I eat a repertoire of herring, mackerel, small North Sea shrimps and squid. While living in Britain I got my fish fill with cultivated mussels, herring, sole and pollock.

Eating well, when skint, comes down to planning and resourcefulness, with a pinch of joie de vivre. Having to keep an eagle eye on what we spend forces us to explore alternative vendors and produce, and become at one with the seasons. Learning cooking skills from the bottom up – starting most of your meals with onion, garlic, herbs and spices – is like learning the basic grammar of a seductive foreign language. Overpriced processed food and expensive restaurant meals will lose much of their appeal when you know how to make them yourself, and much better, at home. Just as important, though, is learning to let go of the reins, throw caution to the wind and splurge when the urge hits.

Photograph: Michael Porter

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  • HHGeek

    Also: go onto Freecycle (or similar) & scrounge a slow cooker. Opens up all sorts of options on cheap protein (meat, fish, pulses) without high energy costs. Lots of people buy them then never get around to using them much, not least because they can’t be doing with point 1), planning.

  • C.U. Jimmy

    £4 worth of Parmesan please? Ha. You’re not skint.

    • JZHannah

      Why exactly? I know many a person on a tight budget who live on lentils and rice all week so they can afford a good knob of cheese to grate over things or that one bottle of decent wine on their night off. There are different ways to approach skint.

      • C.U. Jimmy

        For me, being on a tight budget is very different from being skint. On a tight budget you can make choices such as the one you mention – when you’re skint you might only have ten pounds a week to feed two of you – as was the case for me. And not just feed by the way – that was for soap, clothing, shampoo/everything else as well. So, four pounds on cheese? Definitely not.

        • Lou

          I was 4 euros of cheese which is £2.92 right now.

    • Lou

      IT was 4 euros my friend. 🙂

  • Joanne Davey

    Great advice Zoe. Thank you x