Entering a supermarket used to fill me with dread. Those neon lights and aisles of options are often bewildering. I'd arrive for a few essentials, but suddenly blinded by choice, I'd leave bleary-eyed, carrying more than I'd planned to purchase. But at 30, having spent a decade spending money thoughtlessly, I set myself an ambitious goal to save for a house deposit. The budget didn't allow for wasteful grocery purchases, so I had to learn how to get the best bang for my buck when it came to eating well.
While I was saving my house deposit, and during my first year of home ownership, I had limited spare coin. So simply thinking about food shopping sent my anxiety levels into the stratosphere. I mean, I had to eat. But some days I really resented the need to service my stomach. So, I became obsessed with finding clever ways to eat well without blowing my budget.
Plan your meals
Before my house deposit power-save, I had a habit of wandering into a supermarket and buying ingredients that didn't equal a cohesive recipe. Cauliflower, chia seeds, smoked salmon and a block of dark chocolate, for example. Unpacking the groceries at home, I'd discover I'd spent $50 and I couldn't cobble a meal together. Now, I choose recipes with an affordable base: rice, lentils, soba noodles or potatoes, then make a big batch and freeze the leftovers so I can pull them out for lunch.
Scour the markets
Markets are the best place to stock up on fresh produce with nothing but loose change. Go at the end of the day and you're in for a real treat. If closing time is near, your friendly fruit and veg person will likely be flogging the day's leftovers for a song. If you can get something bulk, your challenge is to come up with a recipe using that item as the key ingredient. I once bought a massive bag of tomatoes for a dollar. Gazpacho, anyone?
Use an introductory meal-kit offer
Yes, this is cheeky, but it works. Companies like Hello Fresh and Marley Spoon often do a free or heavily discounted trial and you can cancel after your first week. When I did a free meal-kit trial, I received three dishes for two people valued at $70. Although I'm single, I'd make up each dish and freeze the rest for later. I chose the vegetarian option (even though I eat meat) because this provided me with more budget-friendly recipes that I could use again later. I didn't cancel after my free trial though. I opt to get a delivery every six weeks or so. It helps me add to my cheap feed repertoire. I re-make my coconut lentil dhal about once a fortnight, which gives me a few serves for about $4 a pop.
Grow your garnish
Look, I'm no green thumb, but I have a sunny kitchen windowsill and three small pots with rosemary, coriander and dill that I purchased from a hardware store for about $20. Keeping my herbs watered and well-loved means I don't drop $5 on a small pre-packaged punnet every time I make a dish. Even if the budget's tight and I'm eating a simple tuna rice dish, a sprinkling of home-grown fresh herbs adds delightfully fresh flavour.
If funds are limited, you're likely to be eating pretty simple dishes. Rice, again? I know, it can be rough. So sauce is your friend. One of my cheapest dishes is soba noodles with wilted spinach. Uninspiring on its own, but add generous spoons full of lemon juice, garlic and olive oil and you'll happily go back for seconds. For salads, I mix up olive oil, dijon mustard and honey and coat my greens liberally. Even the saddest looking vegetables come to life when topped with a tangy dressing.
Stock up on staples
Buy your basics in bulk and you'll have dishes for days. Pantry staples include: olive oil, flour, sugar, rice, pasta, garlic and onions. Knowing you have a good supply of base ingredients on hand makes it easier to whip up meals without emptying your bank account. With these basics available, you'll only need to pick up a few vegetables and proteins to create a hearty meal.
Know what's in season
Before my house deposit power-save, I'd think little of spending $9 on raspberries in the middle of winter. Now I know they're a summer fruit. Understanding what's in season means I enter the supermarket with an upper hand and will likely get my key ingredients on special. For example, in spring I'll cook up dishes with eggplant, beetroot, fennel or asparagus. Not only are my vegetables deliciously affordable, they're at their tastiest, too.
Smashed avocado is a treat
It won't shock you to learn that an avocado and a loaf of bread is going to cost less than the fancy version on offer at your local cafe. I get that you want to go out sometimes, though. I don't begrudge you this. Leaving the house and letting someone else do the dishes is a modern luxury that we all like to budget for from time to time, but if you're saving it's not something you can do frequently. Having said that, if you've eaten sensibly during the week, it can be a guilt-free indulgence.
Smashed Avocado: How I Cracked the Property Market and You Can Too by Nicole Haddow is out now (Nero $29.99).