It has been a thoroughly awful week for anyone struggling to make ends meet in Britain. Demonising the poor, making ridiculous suggestions about making meals for 30p without factoring in the rising cost of energy or food, yelling at people to budget better or buy supermarket own-brands (as if they haven’t thought of that already), refusing to acknowledge the real issues that come with being time-poor as well as cash-poor, refusing to acknowledge that being poor can be expensive and lead to false economies that are unknown to better-off people… It was relentless.
Here at Munching Matilda, we solemnly promise to never demonise anyone who is struggling with the cost of living. Unless you are seriously well off, you will be affected. You will have noticed the higher prices at the supermarket checkout, when you fill the car, pay the electricity and gas bills, buy clothes and so on. The reasons for the rising costs are many and they are complex. Some factors are hard to control, such as Covid-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some factors are made worse by bad government decisions, such as assistance with energy bills that is really just a loan, and some factors could have been avoided, such as the vote for Brexit. But I am not going to bore you with my thoughts on why we are where we are. We’re here now, I hope things improve really soon, but in the meantime, Sam and I keep doing our best to offer advice to make people’s lives easier when it comes to food.
It is easy to feel powerless, but we try to soldier on. In writing about cheap ways to add flavour to food this week, I really feel like I am trying to fight a forest fire with a water pistol. My tips for adding flavour to food will still be out of reach for some people. But for others, I hope I can at least offer some simple advice to make meals tastier without breaking the bank. That is one of the things that makes me so veery angry when poor people are demonised – the horrible, cruel notion that everyone who is struggling should be forced to live absolutely joyless existences where nothing is nice or easy or pleasurable.
Here are my tips for adding a flavour punch on a budget, written while in a state of rage.
- Mix it up with herbs and spices: Buying every single herb and spice on the shelf is obviously going to add up, so look for ways to get more bang for your buck here. A jar of mixed spice or a herb mix, such as an Italian herb combo, in the one jar is a cheaper way to bring multiple flavours to a dish without spending a fortune. Tonight, I am making a Thai curry with a Thai seven-spice mix as the basis of the flavour – Sam and I went shopping at the Turkish and Asian grocery stores in her neighbourhood a few weeks ago and I got the bag of Thai seven-spice for 99p. I should be able to use it for multiple Thai curries. Which leads me on to my second point…
- Go beyond the supermarket: There is no point in me insulting anyone by telling them to buy own-brand products in the supermarket. I will leave that level of patronising nonsense to politicians. But it can be worth investigating smaller grocery stores away from the big chains. In my neighbourhood, I have fantastic Turkish and Pakistani grocery stores where I often find herbs and spices for better prices than supermarkets, as well as an interesting range of flavours that I might not have considered before.
- Make your own stock: I know I have banged on about this before, but this has changed my life. All vegetable and herb waste and scraps go into a bag in the freezer for a monthly stock cookery session. You get to control how much salt goes in, which is important if you need to watch your salt intake, you will know exactly what is in your stock and it should work out cheaper than buying stock cubes. This can also be done with meat scraps. Click here for more detailed advice on making your own stock.
- Garlic is glorious: There are very few savoury dishes that can’t be improved by the addition of garlic. If you find it more economical and/or less messy to use garlic powder or jars of minced garlic, this is absolutely fine. The same goes for onion granules, which can be a quick, cheap, easy way to add onion flavour without peeling and chopping an onion.
- Tinned tomatoes are a brilliant staple: I like Asda’s Smart Price tinned chopped tomatoes, although I was dismayed to see they have gone up from 28p to 30p at my local store. A cheap tin of tomatoes adds instant vitamins and flavour not just to the obvious pasta sauces and stews, but to curries as well. As a bonus, tinned tomatoes help thicken the sauce, which cuts back on flour, tomato paste or thickening granules.
- Pimp up readymade food: I got into a ridiculous argument with a GB News presenter on Twitter this week. Yes, I really should have known better – and I suspect she muted me after I urged her to look more deeply into the hidden costs of being poor. Anyway, one of her ludicrous pieces of advice was for poor people to microwave more readymeals to save money. First, let me say there is nothing wrong with readymeals per se, especially when you’ve had a long day and you cannot be arsed. The grim reality, however, is that the cheaper readymeals are generally of poorer quality in terms of flavour and nutritional value. They can be pretty joyless. If you want a readymeal that actually delivers on flavour and nutrition, you won’t get much change from a tenner and that is not an option for many. But sometimes, something easy is the only thing for it, whether this is for reasons of economy or time or both. Whether it’s a cheese pizza or a pot noodle – or indeed a readymeal – if you have a few herbs and spices in the cupboard, it will be that little bit tastier if you season it. Points 2 and 3 on my What to do if you can’t cook blog post might be useful.
- Citrus zing: Lemon and lime in particular can elevate basic flavours. For example, I often add a dash of lemon or lime juice to a plain white sauce and it really does make a difference. A bottle of lemon or lime juice can be a more economical way to add these flavours. These bottles last for months in the cupboard so need for refrigeration and no risk of waste when you find half a mouldy lemon because a recipe only called for a couple of tablespoons.
- Cheaper booze alternatives: Many recipes call for the addition of alcohol, but this is not a call you necessarily need to heed. Plenty of people don’t drink alcohol for a number of reasons and, especially if someone is a recovering alcoholic, may not keep any booze in the house at all. As well as the perfectly valid reasons for not drinking alcohol, it can be an expensive ingredient. Most recipes that involve alcohol do not require the entire bottle so, even if you buy a miniature bottle of spirits or a baby bottle of wine, it is not necessarily an affordable option. If you want the flavour kick that alcohol can add to a dish without actually using booze, there are plenty of cheaper alternatives. Depending on the recipe, these include lemon juice, lime juice, apple juice, wine or cider vinegar (be VERY sparing here lest you end up with something way too acidic!), black tea, rice vinegar, the liquid from tinned mushrooms, fruit or a jar of olives, stock, coffee (in desserts or cakes as a rule rather than a savoury dish!), tomato juice, grape juice, pineapple juice…
- Marinading magic: A simple marinade with a few flavoursome ingredients will elevate a piece of meat, fish, a meat substitute or even a vegetable for roasting, such as cauliflower. A yummy marinade can negate the need for a separate sauce. And if you add lemon or lime juice to meat or fish, this starts to cure it, which can help reduce cooking time while adding flavour. Click here for an easy, versatile marinade.
- Elevate your oil: It is easy to make oil work harder if you flavour it. A sprinkling of your favourite herbs or spices or a few cloves of garlic will add flavour to even the cheapest, blandest cooking oil.
Right, on that oily note, I am off to make my Thai seven-spice curry. I know that the above 10 tips won’t work for everyone, but I do hope at least some people will be able to find cheap ways to get a bit more joy out of their meals during these tough times. In the meantime, I remain angry that there are limits to what we can do to help people. Please feel free to share any more flavour-boosting tips with us and we will share them on our Twitter feed.