As the bill at the supermarket checkout goes up, there's not much you can do to avoid the squeeze on groceries. Right? Wrong, according to three savvy cooks and shoppers who are experts in stretching meals further, finding treasure in the crisper and making hay when the specials shine.
With food costs up 1.3 per cent in the past 12 months, combined with skyrocketing transport and oil costs, now is a good time to shake up your shopping list.
Ditching premium steaks and other beef, up by more than 30 per cent on last year's wholesale prices, is a great way to begin slashing your grocery bill.
"Open your mind up to a few different cuts and have a look at those less expensive [steaks]," says Lucy Tweed, author of cookbook Every Night of the Week. "Don't put yourself under pressure to buy them then. Maybe go away and do a bit of research on how to cook them."
Putting dinner on the table for five people each night has become a ninja skill of Tweed, a Sydney-based cookbook author and food stylist. Her Every Night of The Week account on Instagram shares the hacks she uses to create meals that are unfussy, family-friendly and delicious.
Fried rice (see recipe below) is a go-to because Tweed can still deliver a protein hit to her family with only 500 grams of mince, compared to the kilo or more needed to make burgers.
Melbourne's Julia Busuttil Nishimura, author of Ostro and A Year of Simple Family Food, agrees you can use less meat in clever ways. She buys Italian sausages and breaks them up to make pasta sauce, or gets a small amount of pancetta that can be fried off as the base of soups, pastas or stews.
You can also buy meat that's on special and freeze it to use for dinner in a month or two, says Tweed.
However, specials can also be a distraction. Make a list and never go shopping hungry, says Good Food contributor and recipe developer Katrina Meynink. You should also check the fridge and cupboards before you head to the shops and cook around what you already have.
Busuttil Nishimura agrees that a list is good, but notes flexibility in your meal plan is important too. Don't get fixated on finding specific items, she says. If green beans are cheaper than broccoli, you should take advantage of that for the stir-fry or salad you had planned.
As for bargains, whatever fruit and vegetables are in season are more likely to be cheap. "They're always going to be a better price and they're going to taste better," says Busuttil Nishimura.
You can find out what's plentiful at different times of year by checking websites such as Environment Victoria and Love Food Hate Waste in NSW. A Coles spokesperson reports that right now apples and avocados are cheap due to bumper crops.
Many supermarkets also sell imperfect (and cheaper) fruit and veg, such as Woolworths' Odd Bunch range. "It might not always look perfect, but tastes great and is priced up to 40 per cent lower than the conventional range," says a Woolworths spokesperson.
There is plenty of room for frozen veg, too, even on a food stylist's table. Tweed keeps peas, broad beans and kale in her freezer for price-stable vegetables to add to salads, pastas, soups and more.
"Of course fresh is best, but when it comes to getting some level of greenery into your mouth it's a perfectly acceptable and nutritious alternative."
But Tweed says her top money-saver is not sending the cook to the supermarket. "They get too inspired. If I go to the supermarket, I go completely AWOL … the budget doubles."
Five family dinner ideas for less than $20*
Julia's tomato pasta ($6-$7)
"It's so affordable and so delicious. You just need garlic, tomatoes (canned in winter, fresh in summer) and olive oil." Use basil if you've got it, but don't buy it especially.
Katrina's crisper frittata (from $11)
Got eggs? You've got dinner. "I will get all the vegetables and bits and bobs left lurking in the back of the fridge and turn it into a frittata."
Lucy's baked potatoes ($10)
"Half a potato in the oven baked on 200C is one of the best meals a person can have." One topping might be a can of baked beans, sour cream and grated cheese.
Julia's tuna patties ($11-$12)
"My mum always used cans of tuna to make patties with leftover mashed potato, whisked egg, garlic, onion and any herbs you have lying around."
Lucy's fridge-saving fried rice (from $10.50)
Cook extra rice (or order extra with your takeaway) and freeze it so you're ready to whip this up. "It can be whatever you might have left over in the fridge, even like a floppy carrot, you just grate it in and cook it."
*prices based on meals for 4 people using average supermarket prices
What the experts buy more of
- Canned chickpeas, beans or other legumes
- Canned tomatoes
- Tuna, anchovies and other tinned fish
- Kale or cavolo nero
- Frozen veg
- Secondary cuts of meat
What they avoid
- Red meat, especially prime-cut steaks
- Herbs (or try to use them all)
- Pre-made sauces or meals
Lucy Tweed's san choy larb fried rice
This is a combo of some of our favourite dinners, why settle for one when as a team they satisfy every craving?!
- You really just need a handful or two of mince for a family of five – it's mainly for sticky flavour and can be omitted.
- There's nothing like a tossed fry-up to disguise the older veg; waste not, want not.
- Rice, I mean… what a grain, a feature act in so many of our dinners because: cheap and easy.
- The flavour and speed of this recipe rely on a couple of jars of homemade stuff from the fridge. If you didn't want to make the aromatics blend, you could sub out for a tablespoon of your favourite jarred curry paste.
- 1 small can of water chestnuts, finely chopped
- 500g pork mince
- 4 cups cold steamed rice
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 2 cups finely chopped or grated veg
- 2 tbsp oyster sauce
- lettuce cups, fried shallots, sliced spring onion, coriander leaves and chilli oil/sauce to serve
- 1 lemongrass stalk, white end roughly chopped
- 1-2 makrut lime leaves, spine removed
- 1 garlic clove
- 3cm piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
- 3 spring onions, roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp salt
- 3 tbsp olive oil (or any low flavour oil)
- juice of 2 limes
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tsp sugar
- 2 tbsp hoisin sauce
- For the aromatics: Blend all together in a small food processor and store in the fridge in a jar for 3-4 days or freeze ice cubes and store for months.
- For the dressing: Place everything in a jar and shake. Store in the fridge for a week.
- For the stir-fry: Put the water chestnuts into a large serving bowl.
- In a large frypan or wok, brown the mince over high heat, until golden and cooked through. Set aside in the bowl with water chestnuts.
- Combine the egg and rice in a mixing bowl, ensuring each grain is coated in the egg. I do this gently with my hands or a fork.
- Pan-fry the eggy rice in a tablespoon of oil over medium heat stirring regularly for 5 minutes. Add the peas, while still frozen, and fry for a further 3 minutes. Place this into the serving bowl also.
- Back in the pan over high heat, pan-fry 1 tablespoon of aromatics and the veg for 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until softened and beginning to golden, then add this to the serving bowl.
- Using a large spoon, toss everything well with the dressing, top with a glug of oyster sauce and serve with lettuce cups, fried shallots, spring onions and some coriander, with chilli oil on the side.