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6 Feb 2021

Seven tips for cooking cheap healthy meals

Trying to have a healthier diet but on a budget? Here's how to eat well for less
Woman shopping in a supermarket

Eating more healthily is one way we can all give ourselves a better chance at staving off illness and, while it can feel daunting, it doesn't need to be expensive.

The coronavirus pandemic hasn't exactly helped, though. Alex White, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, says: 'Trying to eat healthily on a budget can be a real challenge, and it's particularly difficult for many at the moment who may be struggling financially or are unable to go the shops to buy food if they are self-isolating or shielding.'

If you're keen to have a more balanced and varied diet, here are some simple tips and tricks for making healthy meals on the cheap.

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1. Plan a healthy shopping list

'It's a great idea to plan your meals, which can cut down on waste and help you avoid impulse buys,' says Alex. 'Both of these will save you money.'

Not only that, but research shows planning your meals in advance can help with weight management and sticking to a healthier diet.

Although you can plan two-weekly or even monthly lists, a good starting point that isn't too daunting is the British Nutrition Foundation's 7-Day Meal Plan, which can be tweaked to suit your own likes and dislikes.

Once you know what you plan to cook, you can create a shopping list to match your menu.

See our guide to surprising foods you can't freeze and a reminder of what you can

2. Learn supermarket discount tricks

Shop during 'happy hour' Most supermarkets discount fresh items towards closing time, enabling you to grab bargains. The NHS says: 'If you time it right, the reduced-to-clear shelves can save you big money.' However, make sure to check use-by dates and don't fall foul of supermarket special offer tricks.

Use our exclusive Which? price comparison analysisThis will help you to discover which is the cheapest supermarket to shop for your healthy eating supplies.

Shop online If you're able to get an online shop slot, this could help to reduce temptations strategically placed in front of you in store and keep you within budget. Research shows that one third of grocery shoppers said they were less inclined to make impulse purchases when shopping digitally.

Buy loose fruit and veg Similarly, pre-packed fruit and veg often costs more than the loose variety. Buying pre-packed means you could buy more than you need and end up wasting it. Check the price per weight, such as £/kg, so you can choose the cheapest option and go for seasonal options where possible for better value.

3. Buy cheap cuts of meat

Alex says: 'You can opt for cheaper cuts of meat, such as chicken thighs instead of chicken breast.' These are just as nutritious as more expensive ones.

Some cheaper cuts of meats such as beef or lamb benefit from a longer cooking time, for example in a slow cooker or pressure cooker, to break down the fibres and bring out the flavour.

Cheaper cuts of meat

  • Beef Brisket, skirt, flank or minced beef
  • ChickenThighs and legs
  • PorkShank, shoulder, knuckle, belly and trotters
  • Lamb Shoulder, scrag and middle neck, chump and breast.

While supermarkets are often cheaper for meat than butchers, a butcher will be able to offer a greater variety of different, cheap cuts that are just as tasty.

If you are planning to buy a pricier cut, find out where to shop for the best sirloin steak.

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4. Bulk out meals with healthy extras

Bolster meaty meals with cheap and nutritious plant-based ingredients to make them go further. Swapping out the meat altogether in some meals will also help to keep costs down, but a half-and-half approach is a good compromise.

Bulking out enables you to cook bigger batches, reducing the overall cost. You can pop some leftovers in the freezer, too, for handy backups when you don't have time to do meal prep.

Here are some suggested bulking out ingredients and the types of dishes they can be used in:

  • Porridge oats Breadcrumb substitute or used to thicken soups and stews
  • Pulses (such as baked beans, chickpeas, kidney beans and butter beans) Chillis, cottage or shepherd's pie, tomato-based pasta bakes, quesadillas or wraps
  • Meat-free mince (eg Quorn, textured vegetable protein) Bolognese, chilli or lasagne (to bulk out or replace minced beef)
  • Lentils Curries, soups, stews, mince dishes or casseroles
  • Pearl barley, rice, bulgur wheat and couscous Soups and stews, casseroles, meatballs, stuffed veg (eg peppers or marrow)
  • Grated veg Grated carrot or courgette can bulk out bolognese or pasta dishes nicely,while sneaking in some extra veg

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5. Buy a whole chicken

Alex says the cheapest way to buy chicken is to buy a whole bird.

'From a whole chicken, you'll get two breasts, two thighs, drumsticks and wings, plus a carcass for making stock,' she says. This is excellent for homemade soup - another good cheap eat and way to use up leftover veg.

As an example, although chicken wings can be bought from Tesco for £1.49 per kg and chicken legs for £2 per kg, a large whole chicken is £2.06 per kg compared with chicken thighs (£5 per kg) or chicken breasts (£5.27 per kg) bought separately.

If you don't need it all at once, you can freeze the bits you don't need.

6. Minimise food waste

Being a canny shopper is central to cooking cheap, healthy meals, but if you end up throwing it away then your economising is all for nothing. Planning your meals where possible will help.
One of the main foods that ends up in the bin is bread, even though it freezes perfectly well (as long as it's stored in an airtight containeror a freezer bag to avoid freezer burn) and still tastes great when thawed.
One way around this is to freeze half the loaf when you buy it, to avoid it going off as you work your way through the whole thing.

10 easy ways to reduce food waste in the home - more tips on reducing what ends up in the bin

7. Frozen and tinned food is your friend

It isn't just fresh food that's packed with nutrients - frozen and tinned options have plenty to bring to the table, too.

When fruit and veg is frozen, it's rapidly flash-frozen within a couple of hours of picking, which locks the nutrients. It's because of this that frozen fruit and veg is likely to be more nutritious than fresh unless you've picked it yourself and eaten it soon afterwards.

As for canned fruit and veg, although some nutrients - such as heat-sensitive vitamin C and the B vitamins - can be destroyed by canning, there are some nutrients whose absorption is improved by the heating process.

For example, lycopene - the antioxidant in tomatoes - is better absorbed after it's been heated, meaning you get more of it by eating tinned or pureed tomatoes than raw, fresh ones.

Celebrity chef Phil Vickery, ambassador for Love Canned Food, says: 'You can incorporate more fruit into your diet by adding canned fruit to breakfast. Top porridge with a mix of canned fruit; my personal favourites are canned peaches and mango.'

Tinned fish, such as sardines, salmon and tuna is a great way to get healthy protein and omega-3, without the cost of fresh fish.