A jar of pasta sauce, some pre-made chicken goujons, “fresh” vegetable soup in a carton, and tubs of pesto and hummus will set consumers back close to € 20 if everything is bought in a large Irish supermarket.
However, if fresh ingredients are bought and meals are prepared then people will not only save a packet, but the food will taste better and be better for you, according to TV chef, teacher and food expert Aisling Larkin.
Larkin has long been passionate about the benefits of scratch cooking and stresses that, not only is it cheaper, it is also “healthier, for both mind and body and family”.
However, she knows that cooking seems daunting to many, believing that fear and misconceptions often lead to people reaching too readily for the ready meals.
People bought pre-made products for two reasons, she told The Irish Times: “They don’t know how to get the flavor into food and they don’t want the hassle of cooking. Cost is sometimes listed as a barrier but this is one of the only ones I don’t accept as a valid excuse. ”
She suggests getting some store-cupboard essentials. “There are initial basic costs to creating a store cupboard,” she says, advising that people can stock up on own-brand, cheaper tinned items and dried spices that all work perfectly well. “When you have them, then the ‘cost per use’ makes them so economically viable and the most sensible option all round.”
She also rejects the idea that it takes too long to cook. “You can make a fresh meal from scratch, on a budget, in 30 minutes,” she says, adding that it’s all about “getting a few basic, simple recipes under your belt.”
“Home cooks need to relax, learn simple stuff, like carrots take longer to cook than peas. Understand that before you put the meat on to brown you should have possibly had the potatoes peeled and on the boil.
“Don’t stand around waiting for one step to be complete. Gently multi-task and get into the flow of your body moving and rocking and reaching and get the steps complete in a timely order and fashion. ”
Most importantly, enjoy it, learn to treasure “those inviting, more-ish aromas of onions and garlic slowly sweating off in butter, or the sweet warmth of hot bread emerging from the oven”.
“Those aromas are so important,” she goes on. “This is where our digestive process and our satiety levels begin, in those very moments of eager anticipation; the smells, the taste testing as you go, the licks of the spoon. ”
Nervous chefs waste time worrying about small stuff: “This is all directly linked back to a lack of basic cooking skills. We need to learn those skills, regain our confidence and let go of that perfectionist mindset.
“You are not cooking Michelin star at home. You just want a lovely, time-efficient, nutritiously dense, flavorful meal you can share with some loved ones at the end of the day and one that doesn’t create a whole pile of washing-up either. ”
Larkin has numerous recipes that replicate processed meals at a fraction of the cost, with many available on her Instagram account @aisling_larkin_.
Take five: easy, cheap dishes
Tomato sauce for pasta dishes is the most basic: “It’s so simple,” she says. “Passata or a tin of tomatoes, tomato puree costs virtually nothing but gives the sauce a richer and deeper level of flavor, fresh onion and garlic or even dried onion and garlic, some herbs and a pinch of brown sugar is all you need but if you want an extra bit of fancy you could add a dash of balsamic vinegar. ”
She says a tin of tomatoes will cost 69 cents and the puree 59 cents – but you only need a spoon of that – and then you can buy dried onions and garlic own-brand for 79 cents and they will last ages so basically you can make a sauce for four people for the price of a tin of tomatoes and maybe 20 cents extra. That is half the price of a jar of processed sauce.
Chicken nuggets couldn’t be easier to make, she says. All it takes is a chicken breast – although thigh is even cheaper – an egg and bread crumbs. “And if you want to add zing maybe lemon zest or black pepper. An Irish chicken breast will cost € 1.50 and you get four nuggets out of that and the egg will cost 30 cents and the rest is virtuality free, ”she says.
“My 3-2-1 soup is always the most popular thing on my Instagram page. It is so simple. Three carrots, two potatoes and one onion, 500ml of stock and 500ml of milk added at the end. The secret is to extract the sweetness from the carrots and onions, so cook them over a low heat for a long time but don’t brown them before adding the stock. Then at the end add the milk and blitz for five or six minutes. Most people don’t blitz it for that long but that is the secret. ”
She is also a big fan of hummus. “Chickpeas are really cheap and super healthy, add garlic, tahini and lemon juice and some vegetable or olive oil with a pinch of cumin. The most expensive thing is the tahini – a jar costs about € 5.50 – but you only need a tablespoon. ”
Then there is pesto. “It simply came to our notice then. The processed versions sell for as much as € 5.50 but you can make it for a lot less. The ingredients are basil, Parmesan, garlic and olive oil. A lot of supermarket options use cheaper vegetable oil and Grano Padano cheese and spinach to bulk it out. It freezes brilliant and can keep for ages in jars once it is covered in a layer of olive oil. ”