Cheap food in the UK doesn't have to be bad food. You can eat well and you can stick to your budget all over the UK. You can even fill up for free now and then.
Even after they've searched out the best transportation and accommodation deals, visitors are often surprised to discover what a big dent the cost of food in the UK can put in a small budget. But it is possible to keep your daily food spending under control.
One easy thing you can do is watch your tipping. Tipping - or the service charge - is often added to your bill - so the check you receive already has the tip included. If you aren't sure, don't be embarrassed to ask. If service is included, you can add a little more if you've been impressed with the service, but it's not expected.
Tipping aside, here are some more ways to fill up on the cheap in Britain.
The British once ruled half the world. Now half the world seems to have come back to Britain to open up restaurants. You can find good Indian food all over the UK - it's as commonplace here as pizza or spaghetti joints are in the USA. And the variety of Middle Eastern and other ethnic food is equally impressive, cheaper than fine dining and more delicious than fast food. Try Punjab for old-fashioned Indian food at reasonable prices near Covent Garden. Or search out authentic Balti in Birmingham.
Not all pubs serve food but the ones that do can be good places for cheap and generous portions of traditional British meals - shepherds pie, cottage pie, ploughman's lunch, baked potatoes with fillings, sandwiches and snacks.
Pubs that serve traditional meals will usually announce that fact on a chalkboard outside the pub. Lots do a traditional Sunday lunch - a home-style meal of roast joint (beef, pork, lamb, poultry), roast and mashed potatoes, vegetables (carrots, cabbage, sprouts), Yorkshire pudding and gravy for £7 to £10.
Try The Fox Inn an Essex country pub.
Make a Date for Lunch
With the foodie revolution that has been going on in the United Kingdom - especially in the last 10 years - there are celebrity chefs, garlanded with awards and Michelin stars, all over England, Scotland and Wales. Dining out at their stellar establishments usually comes with an equally stellar price tag.
One way to get around this without missing out is to give yourself a treat for lunch. Some of the best restaurants offer diners a chance to sample their style and their special dishes with a cheaper, two-course fixed price menu at lunchtime. Simpsons in Birmingham, for example, has a 3-course lunch menu that costs less than half their evening meal.
Chinese restaurants offer excellent value in most parts of the UK. (Must have something to do with the long lease the British once had on Hong Kong.) Even in London, it is not hard to have two courses, rice and tea for about £10. Depending upon how greedy you are, you can also have a reasonable dim sim feast for about that much. And outside of London, lots of Chinese places offer all you can eat lunches for about £5.99.
A meal of fish and chips from the local "chippie" is a very British takeaway. It's cheap, it's tasty and the portions are almost always enormous - so you can save even more by sharing. A "small" portion of chips from the average fish and chips shop, is usually more than enough for two and might even satisfy three. Ask to be shown the difference between a small and a large portion of haddock or cod. Most of the time, the large portion is big enough for two to share. For about £6, two people can share a generous meal of fish, french fries and tea or soft drinks. Try a pickled egg or pickled onions - for about 50p extra - for a totally British experience.
Market stalls are great places for tasting cheeses, olives, bread, honey, cold meats. If you're in town on a market day (which can be every day in some places), cruise the market stalls to see what looks good. If you're not offered a free sample, ask for one. Cheese stalls, in particular, will usually oblige.
Work a large market well and by the time you're ready to buy something, you'll be too full to eat.
Look, as well, for stalls that cook some of what they are selling to eat on the spot. Fresh sausages, seafood, roast pork sandwiches are delicious and cheaper than in a restaurant or shop.
Do avoid the vans selling hot dogs and pre-formed hamburgers though - if you value your digestion.
London's Borough Market is particularly good for grazers.
Join Caff Society
"Caffs" are small, steamy places with Formica tables, a big kettle for tea on the "hob" and more variations of egg, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, beans, tomatoes and chips than you ever imagined. Caff is actually the slang word British people use for these casual cafés. They are independent, family-owned places that serve up cheap, wholesome food to local people, workmen and students. Almost every town has a caff or two - near the train station or on the edge of the market district. You won't have a gourmet meal, but you could easily have a generous serving of chicken with mashed potatoes and two veg for about £5, and a full English breakfast - at any time of day - might cost all of £3.
Pack a Lunch
Guesthouses in the country - especially those popular with walkers or cyclists - may make up a reasonably priced packed lunch if you ask. Find out what's included because it may be more than enough for two. We once paid £14 for a packed lunch, which may seem expensive, but it included:
- three thick sandwiches
- a small pork pie
- an apple, a pear and a banana
- a packet of shortbread
- another packet of cookies
- a slice of cake
- a bag of crisps
- a hunk of cheese
- a chocolate bar
- a juice box
- a bottle of water
- a can of soda.
Three days worth of lunches for the price of one brown-bag lunch.
Go Vegetarian (Part Time Anyway)
Vegetarian restaurants are almost always cheaper and more informal than conventional restaurants. Dishes based on rice, pulses and grains are not only filling and satisfying for carnivores but usually more complex, intricately seasoned and spiced than comparably priced meals in ordinary restaurants.
The Happy Cow is a useful, online directory of vegetarian restaurants around the world with more than 4,800 listings in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as London listings by postal code. Word of warning though. You will have a hard time finding a decent veggie meal in Northern Ireland where fewer restaurants are listed. Ah well, there are always chips.
Have a Picnic
You don't need a fancy deli to put together a nice - and cheap - picnic. Enjoy local beauty spots while munching on bits and pieces collected at a local supermarket or Marks & Spencer. If the weather is miserable, make it a tailgate picnic. One good thing about the weather in the UK is that it is usually cool enough for well-cooked foods to last several hours - if not days - in a back-pack, bicycle pannier or the trunk of a car. Be sensible about this of course.
Fill Up on Breakfast
When hotel guests dawdle over one poached egg or a bowl of cornflakes at breakfast you can't help thinking that they'll be ravenous by lunchtime. If you are staying on a bed and breakfast basis, take advantage of the generous meal that is offered - even if that means breakfasting a little bit later, just to work up an appetite.
Does a full English breakfast, accompanied by toast, fruit and all the trimmings, or a full Scottish breakfast with the addition of porridge, kippers or finnan haddie (smoked haddock poached in milk) seem like more than you can face early in the day? Try thinking of it as fuel for survival. Besides, unless you have a tapeworm, you'll be so full you won't need to spend anything on lunch.
Fill Your Pockets With the Freebies
Your room probably has a "hospitality tray" with the fixings for tea and coffee making. Most of the time, these have a few packets of shortbread or ginger snaps. They're included in the price of your room (unlike the goodies in the mini-bar), so if you don't eat them, you might as well take them with you. Ditto if there's a bowl of fruit.
This is the last resort, but it's still worth thinking about to take the edge off your appetite on the road without wasting money on snacks.