The church I attend is home to an organisation called Christians Against Poverty. They do all kinds of helpful stuff to help people get out of debt and stay in the black. Recently one of the CAP volunteers posted on one of our church facebook groups saying they were doing an event to talk about living well and eating well requesting some ‘expertise’.I’m gutted I can’t go to the event. For those of you who don’t know, I have a degree in Health Promotion. Despite having done no science at high school, I found myself headed to the medical school to do a Bachelor of Health Sciences from my third year of a Master of Arts in Geography after spending a lot of time doing cooking on a budget and health education workshops with young people in my first paid Community Education job. It has been a while though, so don’t ask me which Vitamins and Minerals are in which foods when I’m not near my old textbooks!
I’ve written a few guest posts for the Postgraduate Search website which included one on helping your money go further as a student, and I also did a guest post for my friend Caroline on her ‘Have a Whole Foods Holiday’ series she did a few years ago. Given that I’ve spent the last year trying to make my redundancy pay and teenage savings last as long as possible while finishing my postgraduate degree, I have had to get more creative and find some ways of living without the disposable income I once enjoyed (by disposable income I mean I could pay my rent, bills, run my small car and go out to the pub once a week with my friends. I may also have bought a new pair of shoes or a nice top once every few months). I struggle with depression and the thing that can often set me off in a downward spiral of never ending duvet days without showering is not eating well, not getting exercise, not having opportunity to socialise with friends and not having my brain engaged. So I wanted to share some of what I’ve found that has helped me stay sane and (relatively*) healthy.
Eating well on a budget and not going completely insane eating the same meal for days on end when you are single is a challenge. Add some annoying food intolerances/allergies to that and well…yeah. It’s a recipe for food becoming something you put off because you simply can’t face having to eat it again.
I have three main tips that I’ve found helpful…
1. Use your freezer and your plastic tub collection.
Buying in bulk is often cheaper. I’d also take advantage of deals – as long as it was on a product I use regularly and would keep – when I saw them. However, buying in bulk could mean you end up eating the same meal every day for a week when you are single. The way to take advantage of the bulk buying bargain without being sickened of the sight of the same meal over and over is to cook in bulk…then deposit it into portion sized containers and freeze them!
I managed to adapt a recipe for vegetarian chilli that was a godsend during my first year at university. My first couple of weeks at uni I really struggled as most of the foods on campus were pre-made and had stuff I couldn’t eat in them. Leaving my house at 7.45 a.m. and not getting home until 7 p.m. (or later if I needed to study or something happened with the trains) took it’s toll. I would feel physically sick by the time I got home – and some of it was from hunger. My wonderful friend Kathy suggested buying a food flask, and this £10 investment paid back its value! Once every six weeks, I would make a huge pot of chilli. I would defrost a portion overnight, heat it up and boil some rice to go with it and spoon it into my food flask and that was my lunch every day at uni. It was wonderful to have a proper hot meal. I’d also pack a ton of snacks – a flask of water that could be refilled if needed, nuts, celery sticks, fruit and some chocolate banana teabread. The teabread I also made in a batch and cut it into portions and froze it. It was always defrosted by lunchtime if I took it out before going to uni in the morning. The snacks would help keep me going during class or when I was starving on the train home – and stopped me using expensive vending machines or the train snack trolley.
Another great meal to take for lunch was soups. Again, I’d make a big batch and freeze it in portions to take with me to work. Lasagne, Meatballs and Fruit crumble are other things I’ve made and decanted into smaller containers to be frozen.
2. Plan your meals
You need to get organised for this. And I tried to have things overlap. For example if I was making chilli, I’d often have half a jar of tomato passata leftover. This with some spinach and pasta would be my dinner or lunch for the next two days. I also had celery leftover when I made my veggie chilli. Celery sticks would be my choice of snack to use them up.
Make your shopping list up accordingly, and be disciplined in sticking to what is on your list and ignoring all the marketing strategies they have to make you buy stuff you don’t actually need in the shops!
3. Eat seasonally
One of the best ways to get lots of fruit and vegetables in you without breaking your purse strings is to eat seasonally. I confess, as a lass who grew up in the middle of a city and has never had a garden to keep I had no clue about where food comes from. It was only when I bought a recipe book from Innocent Smoothies that I learned about seasonal foods – they had a great calendar type chart that I use all the time now. There’s also a really helpful website called Eat Seasonally that will help you too. Not only does it taste better when it’s in season, it’s also way cheaper. You’ll also find that if it’s produced closer to home it’s cheaper too. A punnet of strawberries will be half the price in Scotland in July compared to March!
Staples in my cupboard and fridge:
Unsalted butter or a soya spread
Chilli powder, cinnamon, italian herb seasoning, reduced sodium salt, peppercorns
Light Soy Sauce
Self Raising Flour
Growing parsley, rosemary, coriander and basil in their little plant pots (when I haven’t killed them)
…and then whatever ingredients you need for your meals – spinach, broccoli, milk, bananas, apples, beef, chicken, carrots, peppers, sweetcorn, potatoes…?
Some of my favourite regular meals & snacks
-Carrot and sweet potato soup
-Tomato and basil soup
-Toast with Scrambled egg and salad
-Pasta with tomato sauce, spinach and mozzarella
-Turkey meatballs in a tomato sauce
-Chicken and broccoli bake
-Baked Sweet Potato with salad and a filling
-Grilled fish with boiled potatoes and broccoli
-Cheesey spinach macaroni
-Stir fry vegetables with soy sauce
-Chocolate banana teabread
-Cous cous with leftover vegetables
-Bagel with sliced banana
-Sugarsnap peas or mangetout
-Pumpkin and sunflower seeds
If you are really not sporty like me, the living well part is quite difficult on a budget. Pretty much every sport I’ve liked costs money to do – whether it’s dance classes, rock climbing or surfing. That’s not much help with you don’t have spare cash to buy/rent equipment or pay for the classes. Or a gym membership. Even swimming was too expensive, especially if I was on my own. Not only did I have to pay the price of swimming pool access but I needed contact lenses or special prescription goggles so I could find my way from the changing rooms to the water and back.
It’s worth seeing if there are any groups in your local area running a walking club (there are several groups in Edinburgh who meet up to do walks along the Railway Path, Corstorphine Hill, Blackford Hill and so on that costs nothing). You may even find some folks getting together in a local park to play football or do keep fit. Find your local community centre and go in – have a look on the noticeboard and see what opportunities and groups you didn’t know about.
If you have a device that plays podcasts (like a phone or mp3 player), you’ve got a good sports bra and a pair of trainers then the NHS Couch to 5k podcast comes recommended by several of my other unsporty friends. I did download it and then realised that I just hate running!
I did however, really find myself getting energised doing Pilates. I went to a class for a while when I had a local authority gym membership, but couldn’t afford to keep it up. Instead I went to TK Maxx and got a pilates mat (which was about £8) and a DVD off amazon called Pilates for Dummies that cost me about £4. Every week my friend and I got together in my house to do that Pilates DVD together. Not only did we feel great (if a little sore at times) but it was a lovely cheap social activity that we kept up for a year. It cost nothing after our initial £12 investment!
I’m also a huge fan of walking. Sometimes I’d get a bus to hang out with a friend and then walk back home. Sometimes I’d meet up with a friend and we’d walk along Silverknowes and Cramond, or walk around the Old Town, up Arthur Seat, along the Union Canal or Water of Leith Walkway…I didn’t even need a sports bra for that!
Keep your brain engaged
Books are one thing I don’t think I could live without. I’ve been kept afloat with numerous generous book tokens from friends at birthdays and Christmas, and I won’t lie – in the last year I’ve at least twice gone a week barely eating because I’ve spent my food budget on books. So if you’re a book addict like me, joining the local library is a must so you don’t have to buy them (you do however, have to remember to take them back on time…something I was terrible at doing because I often take months to finish a book because I like to have about 6 on the go at the same time).
The other thing I found really helpful was to go out. Going out was tough when I had no money. Sometimes I didn’t have enough money for a bus fare. When I did, I loved to go and take advantage of the free stuff in Edinburgh. A trip to the Botanic Gardens. A trip to the National Art Gallery. The Fruitmarket Gallery. The City Art Centre. Sitting in Princes Street Gardens people watching. The Museum of Scotland. The Museum of Childhood. The Writers’ Museum. The Museum of Edinburgh.
We are truly blessed with all this culture on our doorstep, and when I have a job again, I will do my best to give donations to these places so they can coninue staying open for free. These city centre locations I frequented on days when I was pounding the pavements handing in my CVs to any business with a ‘Staff Vacancies’ sign (and anyone else that would take them). A walk through the Grassmarket and down to one of the art galleries was a needed cheer up after every visit to the Job Centre for my weekly interrogation.
One week I found myself with an extra bit of cash and I bought a ukulele for £21 and started teaching myself songs with chord tabs and YouTube videos I found on the internet. It was just something to keep me sane during hours and hours of job searching and applications…because when there’s only the TV, social media (which is just a way to stir up the green monster of envy when you see all your friends eating in restaurants, buying a new fancy outfit, going to pubs and enjoying sunshiney holidays!) your brain gets bored and dulled…and that would sometimes push me close to the edge of the depression pit. Whenever I could I’d save up money to meet up with a friend for coffee (I’d get the cheapest thing on the menu – but hey I was going ‘out’) or go to the cinema for the Filmhouse Friday matinee (£4 concession) or Cheap Tuesday at the Vue (half price tickets). Sometimes it was as simple as organising a fun night in with a friend – bringing our own snacks and watching a DVD we already had or a film that was on the telly. And did I mention that many libraries have DVDs and even CDs of music you can borrow too?
Maybe for you, you might like playing guitar, writing poetry, painting, crafting, sketching. Whatever it is, make some time to do it.
Those last things may seem really daft because they aren’t about staying physically active. But I found that doing something fun, and experiencing some kind of art and culture inspired me. I don’t know what it is but it just reminded me that I’m a human being with the potential for ideas and creativity. For me, the arts and culture activities were just as important as eating well and doing physical exercise for keeping me emotionally and mentally well.
Anyway, for any single people trying to stick to a budget, and/or working out how to stay sane while you’re in between jobs…I hope this helps you. It isn’t easy, and in our materialistic, voyeuristic, expensive western culture it is hard to stay positive and live well. However, it is important that we do. We all have something to give in this world, and staying as healthy as we can is going to benefit ourselves and others.
Good luck, and feel free to share your own ‘Eating and living well’ tips!