Eating for performance on a budget

Laura Gaga has a passion for eating well for less and avoiding food waste. Through her alter ego, Reduction Raider, Gaga regularly updates her thousands of Instagram followers on her latest bargains, tips and vegan recipes. She is also a dedicated runner, and is currently in training for a 50 kilometre ultra marathon. We spoke to her about how she saves money and cuts down on food waste, all while fuelling her body for exercise.

Tell us about your approach to acquiring food.

The majority of food items I buy in a shop are discounted – they’re usually marked with a yellow sticker which shows their reduced price. I’ll buy yellow sticker items and then either use them straight away or freeze them for future use. Bread’s a great example – you often see bread reduced, it’s actually one of the most-wasted foods in the UK. You can buy it reduced and freeze it and it will last for a long time.

I also use an app called Olio, which connects you with your neighbours to share food and other things. As an example, I’ve got three different bags of protein powder at the moment and I didn’t pay for any of them as I got them all through Olio. Those kinds of things tend to be a bit faddy – people sometimes buy them but don’t always hold onto them.

On top of that I rely on friends – my now-retired best friend at work has an allotment and I’d make use of anything that he gave me. One year he gave me 12 pumpkins and me and my sister had a big operation of cutting the pumpkins, roasting, freezing, and doing a million other things with them.

I think the more stuff that you get reduced or free, the less inclined you are to buy food full price or spend loads of money on food. So when I go to work I take my own lunches, whether that be leftovers or something I’d prepared the night before. I don’t buy teas or coffees out if I can help it because, again, it puts into perspective how much money you’re spending on food and drink and how much you can save.

And what about your approach to cooking?

Shopping and getting food the way I do has meant I’ve become really good at experimenting. What I do, rather than following a recipe to the T, is have an ingredient and think about what I can make with it or google ideas for it. Starting to get food this way was great because it got me in the kitchen. I was always a bit of a ‘can’t cook, won’t cook’ but this got me cooking and preparing my own food. It got me excited about food.

As an example, I’d never eaten radishes before but when I started seeing them reduced I’d think ‘okay, I’ve got to get them at those prices’, so then I’d think about what I could use them for and would end up eating them in something like a stir fry or roasting them.

I think there’s also an element of sometimes blocking out some external and internal voices that tell you you should be eating a certain way, particularly as women.

You’re a dedicated athlete, how easy is it for you to get all your nutrients this way?

As a vegan, it requires a bit of thinking, but when I started doing this I was a carnivore and honestly I really didn’t have to think too much about my nutrient intake. It was really easy to get everything from every food group.

I would buy meat and fish when they were reduced, and then I would freeze them, so that would be my protein taken care of. When I learned that you could freeze milk that was brilliant, so I would buy and freeze reduced milk and get my calcium that way.

I mentioned bread earlier, that was one of my main carbohydrates. I’d also get reduced potatoes – they last in the fridge or a dark place for ages.

You always see fruit and veg reduced, I guess because they have a shorter lifespan, so I’d buy lots of fruit and veg and, again, I’d freeze a lot of it if I wasn’t going to use it straight away. Frozen fruit is brilliant because you can then have it on hand for snacks.

So when I was a carnivore I didn’t really pay too much attention to getting all my nutrients, other than maintaining a relatively healthy diet: eating fresh food and cooking from fresh.

I then became pescatarian, then vegetarian and went vegan just over two years ago. It was when I went vegan that I suddenly had to pay more attention to my food groups and where I was getting my nutrients from.

Things like carbs were easy enough because I was so used to buying breaded items or potatoes, but I had to think a lot about things like where I got my iron or protein from. It all came down to doing a bit of research and educating myself and having a curious approach to food.

What tips would you give to someone looking to make savings through their food shopping?

1. Freeze

You can likely freeze a lot more than you think. Freeze fresh food and cook in bulk and freeze portions of that. Freeze, freeze, freeze, freeze, freeze.

2. Understand best before dates

I see a lot of food that gets discarded because of best before dates. A lot of people get confused with best before dates; all a best before date means is that’s when food is at its best. It’s not a legal requirement and it doesn’t mean that it’s unsafe to eat. Most food can be eaten beyond its best before date. Tinned food can often be eaten a long time after the best before date, it’s tinned to prolong its shelf life.

3. Don’t say no to free food

Often we can overlook other food sources: a friend who’s got too much, a neighbour that’s got an apple tree that’s prepared to share or a shop that is throwing stuff away. You’ll be amazed at the amount of stuff that you can pick up from different sources.

4. Start now

At the moment we’re all obviously in a lockdown, so this is an ideal time to start experimenting and getting creative with what you have, it might get you into the swing of things for when restrictions are relaxed or lifted.

What advice would you give an athlete looking to save money on their food shopping yet maintain or improve their performance levels?

Have your goals in mind. At the moment I’m training for an ultra marathon so I’ve always got that in mind. I’m always thinking about what I want to achieve and what I want my body to do.

This morning I went out and I did a speed session. I wanted my body to perform, and to go to certain speeds and it wasn’t going to do that if it wasn’t fueled. So I thought about what I had and what I could eat that would allow me to achieve my goal.

Think about what you want your body to do, recognise when you need to adapt to allow it to do different things and try to become aware of when your body’s performing and when it’s struggling.

Quite a few years back I underestimated the amount of fat I needed to run a marathon, it meant that I wasn’t getting enough fat and my periods ended up being interrupted. So now I keep a period tracker and I’m mindful of the changes I need to make when my period’s due.

I think about how I can get fats into my system with whatever I’ve got or whatever I’ve picked up. So think about what the food is and the purpose that you want it to have and get creative with what you’ve got or look up ideas if you need to.

Use what’s available and be prepared to experiment with food, think a little bit outside of the box and challenge some pre-existing ideas. I might think something to myself like ‘okay, a portion of toast for breakfast should be two slices’ but I don’t really know where that idea has come from other than marketing. Sometimes you need to challenge that because you need to think about your day as a whole.

So I don’t just think about what I’m eating for breakfast, but what I’m going to have throughout that day. So if I’m thinking I need to up my carbs, or I’m not going to get as much in the rest of the day, then maybe I need to have four slices of toast for breakfast. So don’t just think about one meal, think about the day, and then the week and then consider the food you’ve got to make up all of those meals.

Look things up, do a bit of research. If you’re wondering how you can get protein, look up protein sources. Once you know that something’s rich in nutrients you’ll likely to be more minded to buy it when you see it reduced.

Finally, I’d always advise making a list of what you want: so if you want to get your calcium in for example, have yourself a list of foods that are a good source of calcium and then when you see them make sure you buy them and, again get a little bit creative about what you make with them.

You can follow Laura on Instagram @reduction_raider1