I was so excited when Hannah from the blog Mind Running Wild contacted me offering to write a guest post. One of my greatest regrets is that I didn’t study abroad while in college. Hannah is currently living my dream in London, where she is always cooking up something healthy & vegetarian in between her adventures in and around the city.
Here are some of Hannah’s best tips for where to eat vegetarian on a budget in London. Bonus: Many of these tips apply around the world too – grocery stores, markets, and happycow.net have been a constant so far in my trip across Southeast Asia!
I’m Hannah and I blog over at mindrunningwild . I’m a 21 year old college student on her year abroad.
When I heard that Diana was looking for some guest posters I thought I’d tackle what most veg people wonder when they find themselves in a new place for the first time: “Where can I get good food? How will I find food?” Thank you so much Diana for allowing me to write about this, something I’ve dealt with firsthand now, and like to consider myself pretty skilled at navigating.
I’ve looked forward to studying abroad since as long as I can remember. It wasn’t ever a question of whether I would, it was rather a question of “where?” As a vegetarian, I wanted to make sure I was not going to have to live off of one food group or something really boring.
So when it suddenly came time to apply (gosh, time flies in college!), I had a bit of choosing and comparing to do. I was stuck between someplace beautiful, and someplace where I knew I could feed myself. Of course this wasn’t the only factor, I simplify here, but you get the point. Where on earth could I go to experience the world in one city?
Settled upon my decision to study at SOAS, I set about to researching my options. Woman cannot live on white pasta alone (although I swear my male flat mates do…)
My first research was into supermarkets. I have a self catering flat with six other flat mates, so I cook all my own meals. My research led me to a wide variety of choices (ranked from “not posh” to “posh”):
Iceland: The dollar-tree of grocery shops, this store is your one stop shop for anything cheap that costs £1. Mostly consisting of white bread and refined sugar cereals, along with tinned things, numerous aisles of frozen foods, veg that are alright, if a bit tired, and your standard fair of milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt, butter, etc. I don’t usually shop here, but if I’m in a pinch and I know I want something on the cheap, I’ll stop in. Note: Iceland isn’t as ubiquitous as the chains I’ll talk about now, but it’s good in a pinch if you’re after something cheap and quick. Iceland offers a “bonus card” which I haven’t, for some odd reason, picked up yet….
ASDA: I haven’t actually been in here. ASDA (pronounced As-da, go figure, although I’ve been calling it A.S.D.A) is related to the American Wal-Mart, so perhaps the force is with me- I do not shop in Wal-Mart. From the looks of the website, it’s got standard things, with the roll-back guarentee.
Tesco: Tesco is the first UK grocery that I visited, so it holds fond memories for me. Thanksgiving of my 18th birthday I bought my first legal bottle of wine in Scotland. Ah the memories. Tesco is essentially the same as the subsequent two shops (Sainsbury’s and Waitrose) although it always just seems a bit less put together? The three claim to hold the same prices, and I’ve just chosen Sainsbury’s since that’s whose card I got first. Tesco has a “clubcard” which can earn you points and money off future purchases. I have one of these and it is quite easy to use. Tesco Metro and Express are about in the city.
Morrisons: I stumbled upon this one day when I was out in the peripheries of London, towards the edge of Camden market. It was a superstore and seemed the closest to an American grocery shop that I’ve seen since I’ve been here. Serves up your basic needs.
Sainsbury’s: My personal favourite. I first befriended Sainsbury’s while I was studying at Oxford last summer. It was local and I was cheap. Still cheap and still local, Sainsbury’s and I remain fast friends, especially with the “Nectar card” I’ve had with me since I found the place last summer. Sainsbury’s offers a wide range of goods; organic, natural, free from, run-of-the-mill, you name it. I love to shop the “reduced” aisle because you can often find amazing steals on the cheap (hello 1kg box of Wheat Bran Flakes, down to £0.60 from £2.60!) They’re dented, but still taste fine. Also check Sainsbury’s local, which sources food locally from within the UK!
Waitrose: Maybe they’re too elitist to have a loyalty card, or maybe they just don’t need one. Waitrose has certainly earned my loyalty by being the only grocery shop in the area that continuously stocks my favourite and beloved Kabocha squash. Waitrose, although holding onto its posh reputation, claims to have a brand price match with Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Make sure to check the end cap bins for reduced items which, although downtrodden, hold up alright inside.
Marks and Spencer: M&S, as we affectionately call it is a mini department store. It has clothing and homegoods as well as a more gourmet/specialty foods section. More of the same, with a M&S own brand twist and a wide variety of “gourmet” food items like chocolate, cakes, spreads, and the like. Check M&S Simply Food for a wide array of premade meals to go, including some pretty darn good sandwiches and salads.
*Also of note but less easy to find: Planet organic, The Coop, Whole Foods (foodie mecca)
Once you’ve been to the shops, make sure to check the markets too! Camden, Portobello, Chapel, Spitialfields, Borough, local farmer’s markets, etc. These markets often offer samples which you can make into a meal or snack if you’re not phased by the idea of eating what they offer but not buying it (unless you fall in love- I’m working on this bit). Often you can get fruits and veg cheaper here than on the high street, and oftentimes you get to speak directly to its source!
Another sure bet for lunch on the go is corner shops or pharmacies. I know what you’re thinking. Seriously? Pharmacies? Boots pharmacy has a really nice line of sandwiches that they stock in a meal deal which includes a drink and a snack for under a fiver. Can’t beat that when you’re in a rush. Supermarkets also carry an impressive amount of surprisingly delicious pre-made foods for fairly low prices (lower than heading into the local sandwich shop perhaps). The US has nothing on the amount of rush-around food the UK has going on.
Restaurants can be expensive, especially in London. Pick your battles carefully. Many more Posh restaurants offer set meal deals at lunchtime, so consider going out for lunch instead of dinner. Also look for all you can eat buffets (often of the Indian variety) which can re-boost your depleted energy for between a fiver and a tenner.
Check those ethnic places! I think in this day and age you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant that didn’t offer a veg meal. Still, if you’re not a pasta type of person (your truly), or don’t believe in ordering a salad when you go out to eat (also yours truly), I’d look for those hole in the wall places or specialty veg restaurants. You’re also safe with ethnic restaurants, as many dishes there are veg already. Don’t be afraid to ask for your meal without the meat as well, subbing in something else. If people are human, they’ll accommodate.
And lastly, when you want to splurge, always go to Whole Foods, High Street Kensington to indulge in their £14.99 salad bar, which spans three double-sided buffet lines (to match their three floors of wonders, perhaps?) Lord knows I always do
Best of luck, if you come to London. Check websites like Happy Cow to get the lay of the land, but don’t be afraid to explore! Veg options are abound, especially in this city so peppered with cultures. Dig in!