A lesson in old-fashioned home economics

19 January 2009

There are lots of ways to make a dent in your food bill, from shopping in lower-cost supermarkets to switching to own-brand products. But, while these tactics will certainly see the cost of your weekly shop fall, there’s a growing recognition that a return to old-fashioned home economics could save you more in the long run.

From jam-making, waste-watching and creative use of leftovers, the habits of our parents and grandparents are coming back into vogue, while old-fashioned practices extolled by the Women’s Institute since the First World War, are striking a chord with a new generation.

Stop wasting food

So where should you start? One of the most important issues is to tackle waste and the amount of food we throw away. The Love Food Hate Waste Campaign, run by waste advisory service WRAP in conjunction with the WI, claims we’re spending a whopping £10.2 billion a year on food that gets thrown away – amounting to £610 for the average family.

“The first thing to understand is which foods need eating first,” says Julia Falcon, spokeswoman for the campaign. At least 340,000 tonnes of avoidable food waste consists of food that is edible, according to campaign research.

We also need to have a better understanding of what the labels on foods actually mean. The sell-by date is what suppliers and supermarkets need to follow to protect themselves legally and “we can completely ignore this as consumers”, stresses Falcon.

Use-by dates, however, are more important as they are typically applied to items with a short shelf-life such as meat and fish and, for safety reasons, you should use these foods within 24 hours of the use–by date.

“A lot of these foods can be frozen if close to the date,” Falcon adds. “It’s worth putting a note on that product too so you know how long it’s been in the freezer.” As a general rule, she recommends using frozen food within a month of freezing.

Best-before labels are for dry or long–life foods like bread, rice and tinned goods. “These are simply an indicator that the quality will go down but it certainly won’t give you food poisoning,” she says. One exception is eggs, which come with best-before dates which should, instead, be treated as use-by dates.

Also learn to trust your judgment. You can bet your last rasher of bacon that, during the war and the rationing that followed, food wasn’t thrown out without a good look, smell and, where possible, taste to check it was safe to serve.

Because rations consisted of more powdered and tinned goods than fresh produce, cooking the small amount of meat and fish first would have been the priority before end-of-week longer-life treats such as pea-puree pancakes and cheese pudding. Consumers these days are lucky to not have the same constraints, but our careless attitude also explains why we produce enough waste each year to fill Wembley Stadium eight times over.

“With 24/7 shopping and supermarkets round every corner, it’s easy to go out and buy new food without thinking about how we can use what we’ve already got,” says Falcon.

Years of falling food prices, meanwhile, have encouraged us to buy what we fancy rather than checking out what’s in the fridge.

Research from WRAP shows that more than one million tonnes of avoidable waste is thrown away, with a quarter of the fruit and vegetables in our homes discarded untouched when we get back from the shops and ditch the old supplies we’d forgotten we had, in favour of the fresher items we’ve just purchased.

Planning ahead

To get round these problems, it pays to do a bit of planning before you hit the supermarket. Have a root around your cupboards and see what food you’ve already got and then write a list.

While lists may seem a little retro for some, Gill Holcombe, author of the book How To Feed Your Whole Family a Healthy, Balanced Diet with Very Little Money and Hardly Any Time, can vouch for their value. “I used to not bother, or I’d make a list then leave it at the bottom of my bag because I was embarrassed, but now I wouldn’t be able to go without one – it’s so easy to come out of the shop with four carrier bags when you just went in for a loaf of bread.”

In addition to being good at the shops, meal planning is another way of ensuring you only buy and eat what you need. Wartime rations meant that a bit of creativity was required to try and get as varied a menu as possible out of what was available. Compare that with the huge amount of choice we have today and working out in advance what you want to cook for the week should be easy by comparison.

“My absolute top tip is menu planning and shopping lists,” says Sorella Le Var, who led the East London WI’s Love Food group. Planning forces you to be organised and the by-product of this is that you end up buying less too.

Always having herbs, spices, garlic and vinegars at hand mean you can easily season and marinade foods. Frozen fish fillets and chicken are great freezer staples.

Cooking in bulk will also help with a lack of inspiration and cut down on the amount of time you spend in the kitchen. “My advice is to batch cook: don’t make lasagne or casserole for one or two people but for four. Then separate the portions and pop them into the freezer,” adds home economist James McIntosh.

Convenience costs

While latter-day Stepford wives may have had plenty of time to devote to meal planning and cooking, the pace of 21st-century life can leave you devoid of inspiration and you end up filling your trolley with pricier convenience foods.

“People are seduced by M&S ready meals, for example, when you should be thinking of how much cheaper it would be to make a shepherd’s pie at home,” says Gill Holcombe.

For instance, feeding a family of four with a ready-made shepherd’s pie from Tesco would cost £7.40, compared with approximately £3.13 for mince, potatoes and an onion from the same store, if you chose to make it yourself.

McIntosh also recommends that shoppers avoid buying pricey items such as cakes and biscuits, which you could bake at home for a fraction of the price. “You can make your own batch of biscuits in less than 20 minutes very cheaply with a few basic ingredients like flour, sugar, butter and so on,” he says.

Of course we do all lead busy lives, but the point is to use the time we have as productively as possible. For example, whenever you roast a chicken, don’t waste the opportunity to make stock from the remains. “If you’ve got herbs to season it, then that’s great, but if not, it’s literally a case of turning the tap on and boiling it up. You can put the stock in the freezer too and it’s so much cheaper than buying it,” Holcombe adds.

And, once you have cooked from scratch, be sure to use your leftovers, rather than leaving them to languish in the fridge for a few days before scraping them into the bin. “Leftovers are still proper food but the term is off-putting – I prefer to call them ‘ready ingredients’. For example, the cooked carrots from yesterday just mean that I don’t have to prepare them again, ” says Sorella LeVar.

Alternatively, you can always pop your leftovers in the freezer rather than the fridge – with a label saying when they were cooked and how many people they will feed. Or you can try and avoid having leftovers in the first place by watching your portion sizes. Check out lovefoodhatewaste.com’s portion calculator for guidelines.

Moneywise isn’t suggesting a return to spam fritters or powdered egg desserts – nor are we saying that the tough times of today are in any way comparable to enforced food frugality of wartime. Nonetheless, we think those principles can teach us a thrifty tip or two and help us all reduce the amount we spend on food today.

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