Budgets – And Belts – Are Getting Tighter

Crowd of people marching with banners to protest agains the cost of living crisis.
Cost of living protest in London – 12 February 2022; picture by Alisdare Hickson, licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Living in destitution

In February, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research released a report that predicted a 31% increase in destitution – poverty that is so extreme that the basic necessities of life like food, shelter, hygiene and warmth, are unaffordable.

That was before the billionaire Chancellor of the Exchequer delivered a mini budget that failed to support the most vulnerable people in the country. It was also before the Chief Executive of Iceland supermarket announced that food bank users are turning down potatoes because they can’t afford to cook them. 

Destitution is on the rise

There are currently more than a million people living in destitution in the UK, one of the richest countries in the world, and that figure is likely to rise, because the Chancellor’s mini budget did not increase welfare payments, did not halt the proposed rise in national insurance payments, did not address the increase in the cost of food, or gas and electricity, and did not even wave at the escalating cost of childcare.

Right now, the UK is facing the biggest fall in the standard of living since rationing came to an end in the mid-1950s. The lives of a lucky few (which includes both the Chancellor and the CEO of Iceland) will remain unchanged. For the majority of the country, some serious belt tightening is likely to be needed. But for many, those belts simply cannot be tightened any further than they already are.

In these difficult times, many people fall back on takeaway foods because they believe that they cannot afford to buy ingredients and cook real food. But takeaway food works out far more expensive than home cooking. On average, home cooking costs five times less than getting a take-out. Plus take-out generally doesn’t taste nearly as good as home cooked food, and home cooking is way better for you.

Microwaves are cost-effective

Graphic of a microwave oven.
Microwave Oven; picture by DomPaulrignon on Pixabay, free for use

The most cost-effective method of cooking is the microwave, partially because they work really quickly and partially because they are relatively small (compared to an oven), so the heat is concentrated in a much smaller area. Over 90% of UK households already own a microwave. Although purchasing a new microwave might be beyond the reach of some, a quick online search found a wide range of places selling second-hand ones for relatively low prices.

There are a surprising range of things that can be cooked in a microwave. Baked potatoes for a start. Simply scrub your spud, make a couple of holes in it (to let the steam out as it cooks so it doesn’t explode all over the inside of your microwave), cook for about four minutes, flip it over (to make sure it cooks evenly) and cook for another four minutes. Smaller spuds will take slightly less time.

Just waiting for you to add something…

A plain baked potato, with nothing added to it contains a good amount of carbohydrates, more than a quarter of your daily fibre requirement (as long as you eat the skin), a little bit of protein and good amounts of vitamin C, folic acid, vitamin B6, and the minerals magnesium, potassium and manganese.

Adding some baked beans significantly bumps up the protein, the carbohydrate, and the fibre, and adds good levels of copper and selenium to the meal. And mashing some butter into it adds in some much needed vitamins A, D, E and K. 

Cook it for pennies

Even with the increase of the cap on gas and electricity prices in April, a microwave will only use around 28p worth of electricity in an hour. Of course, nobody cooks something in a microwave for an hour, so the actual cost of cooking will be far lower. The cost of the eight minutes of power needed to cook that baked potato would be around 3.7p. The budget supermarkets sell a four pack of baking potatoes for 39p (9.75p each). So a microwaved plain baked potato can cost as little as 13.45p.

You can cook a lot more than just baked potatoes in a microwave. You can scramble or poach eggs, cook pasta, rice, chicken, fish and even desserts. There are lots of ideas here

Slow cooking – convenient and cheap

Graphic of a slow cooker
Slow Cooker; on Pixabay, free for use

Another excellent energy saving cooking method is the slow cooker. First introduced to the UK in the 1970s, this cost-effective gadget has been growing in popularity for over a decade because they are incredibly cheap to run, and unbelievably convenient. You chuck stuff into the crock, turn it on and go and do other things. When you come home the house smells a-ma-zing and you have dinner, ready to eat with no cooking to be done. Almost like magic.

With a slow cooker you can make soups, stews, pot roasts and curries, pretty much any meal that cooks in one pot. You can make all kinds of desserts; you can even make bread! Slow cookers come in a range of different sizes, from a small 1.5 litre which is perfect for one person, to a family sized 6.5 litre. They are relatively inexpensive, a small 1.4 litre can cost less than £15, but, like microwaves, a quick online search found a range of second-hand versions which are even cheaper.

Long slow cooking means that the cheapest cuts of meat, like beef shin or chicken thighs are the best ones to use; not only are they packed with flavour, the long slow cooking tenderises them perfectly. A favourite in this house is gammon soup; the following recipe is for a 4-litre crock pot. 

Recipe for gammon soup

Most supermarkets sell gammon joints and some of them sell gammon shank (sometimes called gammon hock). Put either a small joint or a shank into the crock. Most supermarkets also sell packets of mixed split peas, barley, and lentils, usually called something like “soup mix” or “broth mix”. Chuck around 150g of the mix into the crock. Peel three or four big carrots, chop them into chunks and chuck them into the crock. Scrub about 200g of spuds, chop them into large chunks and chuck them into the crock.

Why not “Prep” the night before?

If you can’t be bothered to peel and chop carrots and scrub and chop spuds first thing in the morning, well, do it the night before and leave them in a bowl of cold water. Then come morning, fish them out and chuck them into the crock! Then throw in a couple of bay leaves and a tablespoon of dried parsley.

Add water, to a couple of centimetres below the lip of the crock, so that the lid will be just clear of the liquid. Turn it on and walk away. Eight hours later, use a couple of forks to “pull” the gammon into sheds and serve. This can be adapted to any cheap cut of meat and different veggies can be added, depending on what you like.

It’s so good (for you)!

Gammon soup provides a good amount of protein and carbohydrates, some great fibre, good amounts of vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene) and vitamin K, vitamins B1, B3, B6 and folic acid, and the minerals iron, copper, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc. And the salt content of the gammon is really reduced by the amount of water used.

Taking prices from one of the budget supermarkets, the cost of this meal is around £4.59. There is enough there for at least four people, so it comes in at around £1.14 a head. And if you are factoring in the cost of the electricity to run the slow cooker, well they use about the same amount of energy as a lightbulb. This means that, although you are running it for eight hours, that meal will only use about 18p worth of electricity. 

There are thousands of slow cooker recipes online. Some that have been costed, based on Asda prices, can be found here.

Batch cooking and other money saving ideas

One of the great things about a slow cooker is that it can be used for batch cooking. Always assuming that you have the freezer space to accommodate boxes of pre-cooked frozen dinners. Batch cooking generally is a great money saver because the fuel used to cook, on the stove top, in the oven, or in the slow cooker, is the same whether you make one meal, or many.

Other ways to save money in the kitchen include padding out mince dishes like cottage pie, chilli, or spaghetti bolognese with pre-soaked red lentils. This can help to save money because it makes the food go further and doesn’t change the taste. You can also add in grated carrot, courgette, cabbage, finely chopped celery, or a handful of frozen sweetcorn or peas. This stretches the meal and, as an extra bonus, adds additional high nutrient foods to it.

Let water do the work!

If you need to use boiling water for something, using a kettle is quicker and cheaper than heating the water in a pan on the hob. But if you are cooking on the hob, always put a lid on the pan, because this traps the heat inside the pan and makes things cook faster.

Lentils, rice and pasta all need to absorb a lot of water during cooking; if you pre-soak them for a couple of hours, they need a lot less cooking time. Likewise, if you pre-soak oats overnight, the porridge you make in the morning will need only about half the amount of cooking time. Potatoes don’t absorb water when they are cooking but cutting them up small means they will cook faster.

There are ways to save money in the kitchen and still eat great healthy food. Happy cooking!