For many families, the pressure on household budgets is being felt most keenly at the supermarket checkout.
With the cost of meat, fresh vegetables, and fruit on the rise, the temptation is always there to turn to fast food as a cheaper and more convenient option.
Australia’s most trusted voice in nutritional advice, Rosemary Stanton, says there are plenty of options to create a healthy meal for less than the cost of a takeaway.
Jorja McDonnell spoke to Dr Stanton from her home in Kangaroo Valley on the NSW South Coast, to discover her top tips for thrifty folk and what you can make from the cheapest pantry staples.
1. Team work makes for dream work
If just one person in the household is making dinner seven nights a week, exhaustion will often cause that person to head to the drive-thru.
Dr Stanton said everyone in the household should share in the cooking.
She said planning meals and cooking healthy food is an important life lesson for younger members of the family.
“We need to teach our kids to cook from a young age, and we have to trust them to make a few mistakes,” Dr Stanton said.
When it comes to reducing expensive packaged and processed foods in school lunch boxes, she suggests teaming up with other parents.
“Get together with the parents of your children’s friends, and agree that none of you put packet foods in the lunch, maybe except on Fridays,” she said.
“Go halfway and make it a thing you do once a week instead of every day. Then the kids can’t come home and say ‘I’m the only one who doesn’t have some incredibly expensive muesli bar or packet of something’ ‘ . “
Making their own school lunches can also be another opportunity for kids to be involved.
2. Reach for legumes, the nutritious all-rounder
Packed with fiber, protein, and iron, legumes such as chickpeas and lentils are Dr Stanton’s number one grocery pick.
Whether you buy them dried or canned, they’re incredibly cheap and there are so many ways to use them.
Added to meals with lots of vegetables and a small portion of meat, they make for a perfectly well-rounded meal.
Dr Stanton said legumes are some of the best foods for us, nutritionally speaking.
“Lentils, chickpeas, or any legumes are really good sources of iron,” she said.
“Most people get more than enough protein in Australia … the greatest worry we have in the diet is lack of fiber.
“Not very many people actually have enough fiber in their diet.
“I’m a very great fan of legumes because they’re so cheap.”
Another one of Dr Stanton’s picks is green peas – just a simple bag from the freezer.
“They’re good, they’re cheap, they’re available, and they’re one of the best sources of dietary fiber among the vegetables.”
3. Meat doesn’t have to be the star
Dr Stanton said many Aussies eat far more meat than we need. For many home cooks, it’s the star of every dish, but it doesn’t have to be.
“Meat can be extended in many ways – you don’t need all that much meat in pasta sauce, for example,” Dr Stanton said.
“Add some lentils or chickpeas with your cut of meat, and it goes much further. You don’t need to make meat the star performer on the plate.”
4. Breakfast of health champions
“If you start with breakfast, the cheapest option by far is home brand rolled oats,” Dr Stanton said.
At around $ 1.40 for 750 grams, the affordable, filling and nutritious choice comes highly recommended from the expert nutritionist.
Dr Stanton said it was a far better choice compared to packaged cereals, both in price and in sugar content.
“The more junky the cereal, the more sugar it’s going to have in it, and the higher the price,” Dr Stanton said.
“Most kids really like porridge, and it does cook very quickly – if you’ve got a microwave you can even do it in your bowl.”
5. The freezer is your best friend
Dr Stanton said there is no need to turn your nose up at frozen vegetables – in fact, they are a fantastic resource in the kitchen.
They’re generally cheaper, and just as good, if not better than the fresh stuff. After all, they are frozen almost immediately after being picked and chopped.
But the freezer is ideal for more than just veg. Making extra meals and freezing them – when you do have the time to cook and money for couple of extra staples – is a smart way to save, while still eating healthy.
“If you buy something when it happens to be on special, you can get it in the freezer,” Dr Stanton said.
“Cook twice as much as you need, because you have to spend a little time cooking anyway, and then all you’ve got to do is take it out and eat it.”
If you’re not going to eat your dinner leftovers for lunch, freeze portions for an easy meal later on. As a bonus, you’ll be cutting down on food waste.
Just be sure to label and date anything in the freezer, so it’s not forgotten completely.
So, why are fresh food prices so high?
At the local supermarket, there is a multitude of reasons behind rising prices on produce. According to a spokesperson for Woolworths, the main reason is rising wholesale prices for fresh food – particularly beef and lamb.
“We’ve adjusted some of our retail prices following wholesale cost increases from our suppliers,” the spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for Coles pointed to a range of influences for higher prices on fresh food.
“We appreciate that there are a number of factors driving inflation for all retailers, including increases in the cost of raw materials, energy price rises, freight costs, extreme weather events and ongoing COVID impacts.”
Meanwhile, an Aldi spokesperson added that supermarkets still need to pay primary producers fairly for their goods.
“We are seeing a number of increased costs in our supply chain. Even when prices on individual products to increase, our commitment is to keep prices as low as possible for customers while maintaining fair agreements with our supplier partners.”