Wednesday, 6 April 2011

How to survive on real food on a student budget

Baked beans- the sad symbol of student life?

As much as I love salmon, it's not a fish I have often, because I am a student living in a tiny kitchen on a tiny budget, who yet still opts for real food and free-range eggs and meat and seafood that's not intensively farmed and fed chemicals. It is possible. And I think I even spend less than the average student here actually.

Tip 1: Cut out the processed, packaged foods. They not only do nothing for your health, they rack up quite a sum in your grocery bills. If you want chips or ice cream, make your own- they're much better for you plus taste a lot better (called the "I-made-it-myself!" syndrome, but really,they do taste better.)

Tip 2: Get down to the farmers' market. I work for London Farmers' Markets part-time actually, best job ever! You can get locally grown vegetables and fruits and happily raised animals, at pretty reasonable prices. Even most of the stalls that aren't certified organic keep to very good farming standards, it's jsut that they can't afford the organic certification. You also make sure you get food that's grown in season, and are so much fresher, so they have more nutrients last a lot longer- less wastage. It's also a lot of fun for me talking to the producers and seeing new vegetables that I've never had before.

Tip 3: Look for what's on offer at the supermarkets (I'm not a market snob). Most of what I cook is based on what's currently in season (and hence on offer). My roommate and I are closet aunties (ok now it's public. ok it was public long ago, long-standing joke among mutual friends) and a conversation in our flat will go like this "Is that got savoy cabbage? Is it on offer?" "Buy 1 get 1 for all cabbages, ends this Sunday! If you're there can you help me check if Kerrygold butter is still 1 pound?"

Tip 4: How to eat grassfed/pastured/organic meat without going broke? Opt for lesser cuts, like the pork belly, so cheap and flavourful, and (to me) the ideal fat: meat ratio ;) You can even get adventurous and try chicken feet and pork trotters, which become so meltingly tender when you slow cook them, and are full of collagen that's great for the skin. I also like using offal which is so much cheaper than the rest of the animal, but even more concentrated in nutrients.

Tip 5: Similar to tip 3, buy the less popular fishes, like herring and pouting and sardines. When you choose them over the pricier cod and seabass which are heavily over-fished, it's not only a budget-conscious choice, it's a much more ethical and sustainable choice. You also get your dose of seafood and their omega-3 fatty acids goodness (did you know the mackerel has more omega 3 than salmon?), and more often than not, these cheaper smaller fishes are lower in mercury toxins as they're low on the food chain, so you get the good stuff with less of the bad stuff. And there is nothing wrong with using canned fish once in a while, especially since you get extra calcium from eating the soft bones.

Tip 6: Grow your own. I don't mean to buy a farm or to move to a place with a big garden. I have a few pots of herbs growing on my windowsill. I admit it's my roommate who's the one with the green fingers, who knows when the basil looks thirsty or the coriander is sick, but I want to encourage you to do it anyway. It's not difficult nor expensive plus it feels so Nigel Slater/ Jamie Oliver- chic.

Tip 7: Plan your meals- I don't mean an entire proposal written up, stamped and budget-approved. Just think a few days in advance, so you don't buy ingredients that you don't need and end up wasting. And pay attention to your oft-neglected pantry, you'll realise you really don't need to buy that bag of . It's also fun because it forces me to get creative with what I have.

Tip 8: Buy in bulk. This is a really good tip for for those with large freezers, or a large family, both of which I don't have in London. But I can still do that, by combining my shopping with friends, or by buying in bulk for items that don't spoil that easily anyway. I'm looking now at the shared giant bag of dried shiitake mushrooms we got from chinatown, and the 2 litre jar of raw honey in my pantry.

Tip 9: Amazon!! Probably one of the best things about UK. It's not only a fine place to get your books for school, it's where you can pick up things like the 2 litre jar of raw honey at a bargain. As with Tip 3, watch out for bargains and do your auntie calculations and comparisons.

Tip 10: Eat out only once in a while, as a treat to yourself. This is the sad reality of a poor student. It's sad because I love tasting new things and having a good time. So I find recipes and make them myself! Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay for less than a fiver. (Ok I know it's not totally the same, but you get the idea.) I can have Thai, Korean, Indian, Spanish, and the Singaporean food I miss. That's the upside of this whole situation, and how I ended up with this blog (:


  1. I stopped in from Real Food Weds. I am book marking you. My oldest will go to college in fall 2012 and I want to make sure he eats well. Great stuff!

  2. thanks! that's so sweet of you, reminds me of my mum before I went to college too ><

  3. What a great post, this is so useful! I spend so much in Sainsburys' right now and the market is just 5 mins away! I really like offal but I never know what to do with it, I think I will try and get creative next time :)

  4. Hi you are the first one who ask for my chinese tea leaf eggs. Thanks for your comment. :) LG Tina

  5. Hello there,

    i used to run a food blog along the lines of yours! I believe in eating "whole" as opposed to eating food with ingredients I never heard of (methylcarbocellulose aka wallpaper glue anyone?).

    Yet whenever people see the way I eat or cook, they sort of go on a preachy mode, questioning my way of life because they say it's pretty expensive (I don't think it is if you eat little meat and more eggs, plus I think of it as a long term investment for my health in the future — I watch way too many relatives around me die of diabetes or hypertension from eating out so foten).

    Anyway, run this blog well!

    1. Hey michelle!

      Thanks for the sweet comment! It makes me feel very encouraged, hearing about other people who believe in the same philosophy towards food. I don't think it's expensive.. really, I spend even less than most of my friends. You don't need a lot of meat, and even when you do, get the cheaper cuts that taste just as great if not even better after some slow-cooking. Pork belly from an outdoor bred pig costs less per kg than a couple of hormone-pumped chicken breasts!

      Cheers and hope to see you back on my blog :)