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How to eat healthily on a budget

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Local vegAs we all come back down to earth with a bump after the whirlwind of socialising, eating and drinking that comes with Christmas, it's no wonder that January is the month that many of us make an extra effort to eat and drink more healthily. This isn't always easy, especially as January is also the month that brings credit card bills to make you wince and depleted bank balances.

One of the difficulties facing people with tight budgets is that it doesn't cost much to eat junk. It is well known that, even despite recent price rises, the proportion of our income we spend on food has been on a downward trajectory for many decades. Highly-processed, "industrial" food has become ubiquitous in our supermarkets, using mass-produced, nutrient-poor ingredients to push prices artificially lower. This has been at great cost to our health, but also at great cost to the welfare of animals, whose lives are barbaric and short; farmers who can barely make ends meet; agricultural workers who suffer harsh working conditions for minimal pay, and also the environment as food is transported across the world because it is less costly in monetary terms than growing food closer to home.

The tragedy is that the suffering and environmental damage to keep our food bills low is completely unnecessary. Yes, high-quality and ethically produced food can be more expensive, but it doesn't have to be. It is perfectly possible to eat in a way that is good for our health, human and animal welfare, the environment and our finances. If you're struggling to balance the books this month, here are a few tips:

Replace costly meat

  • Meat tends to be the most costly food item in many households. If participating in "Veganuary" is not for you, Tinned Fisheggs, mussels, offal and tinned fish such as mackerel and sardines are all highly nutritious protein foods that suit all budgets – just be sure to check for the MSC label on tinned fish (all tinned fish sold at True Food is, of course, sustainably sourced).

Add pulses and grains to meals

  • Pulses and whole grains are filling and better for balancing your blood sugar than the refined alternatives and cost very little (see Diana's excellent article and recipe on legumes). The most inexpensive way to buy these is dried – you can buy as little or as much as you want at True Food as these are sold loose. Dried pulses do take a while to prepare and cook, however, so a few tins of beans are handy to keep in your store cupboard. Although it's not necessary to combine pulses and grains at each meal, together they form "complete" protein that the body can use in the same way as animal-based foods, or they can be used to pad-out a meat-based dish.

Eat seaonal fruit and veg

  • Eat fruit and vegetables that are in season. Not only will they taste better, but they are priced at their lowest at the peak of their season, and you can also buy local rather than imported produce from the other side of the world. January is good for root vegetables – carrots, parsnips, swede, celeriac, and leafy green vegetables. Fruit-wise, UK-grown apples and pears are still available, and citrus fruit from southern Europe often costs least at this time of year.

Avoid super priced superfoods

  • Food retailers know that January is a time of year when people try to improve their food choices. Steer well clear of anything marketed as "healthy" or a "superfood". You'll be paying a premium for their health-halo status and truly healthy food doesn't need a label!

Know your ‘use by’ from your ‘best before’

  • Make sure you distinguish between "use by" and "best before" dates. "Use by" dates should be heeded (although some leeway is given in their calculation). "Best before" dates are only an indication of food quality, not safety, so don't throw something out just because it's past its "best before" date – it will still be perfectly edible! With fruit and veg, your eyes and nose will tell you whether it's OK to eat or not. Supermarkets like "best before" dates as it encourages customers to throw away food and buy more.

Check out True Food's rootle box

  • True Food encourages the opposite: take advantage of the rootle box, where fruit and veg that is past its best can be bought at only £1 per kilo, which is great for cooked fruit dishes,  soups or vegetable stocks.

Plan meals and use leftovers

  • Plan your meals and write a shopping list to make sure you don't succumb to unnecessary impulse purchases. Weekly meal planIf you end up with cooked food left over, unless you have plans to eat it up soon, freeze it for another time. If you have an eclectic mix of uncooked ingredients left over, soups and stews are easy to make and are great comfort food during these colder months.

By encouraging customers to only buy as much as they need, selling real food that is in season and locally produced, and not discarding produce that is a little past its best, True Food can help you to eat healthily on a budget, as well as give you the reassurance that it has been ethically sourced with minimal environmental impact. A win-win situation!