Friday, 18 January 2013

Feeding a family on a small budget!

Lentil Bolognaise, still steaming from the pan!
There comes a time when most of us have to tighten our belts and cut spending to meet a reduced income or to make increased food costs fit an existing budget. I have practised frugal shopping to one extent or another for the whole of my marriage but for the last 16 months we have had extra money due to the shifts that Dewi has been on. Without even realising it, my shopping habits have subtly shifted and our food bills crept up by about a third. From April we are losing a considerable amount per month as Dewi's shifts return to normal and that means cutbacks! This month I am focusing on our food shopping, menus and eating habits and trying some new things as well as some old tricks to bring our food costs back in line with what our income will be! I have a target in my mind of £80 a week for the shopping (both food and other essentials such as toilet paper) but I haven't set it in stone as I don't want to make us miserable sticking rigidly to it if it simply isn't enough. I will review it as I go!

The first thing I did was to think about the meals that we eat and I noticed that were eating a lot more meat than this time last year which is expensive, and we are eating some 'cheat meals' as I call them such as frozen pizzas and jars of curry sauce. After agreeing with my meat loving husband that he was happy to eat meat just twice a week, the next job was a list of meals that might fit with our plans. I got out my favourite cook books and journal of magazine clipping recipes and listed all of the meals that we have enjoyed in the past that are less expensive to make but just as yummy to eat! I was reminded as I went through them of some of the money saving tricks I have used before, such as bulking out shepherd's pie, lasagne and chilli with lentils, reducing portion sizes of meaty meals and increasing the portion of vegetables served with it.

Another expensive habit we have is unlimited fruit consumption. I love it that my children snack on fruit. We don't buy biscuits, crisps and chocolate so they have no choice really and they never waste fruit....... however it is a sad fact here in the UK that a packet of biscuits costs 30p whilst a bag of apples costs £1.19 at a minimum (I like to buy British apples with the best flavour rather than the cheapest available). I have some misgivings about limiting the fruit that they eat but I realised that often they will eat one or two pieces in the run up to a meal because they are hungry and there is no need for that. I have decided to allow them three pieces a day spread out as they choose but each piece must be different. I calculated the number of bananas, apples, clementines and 'other fruit' we needed for the shopping list and will see how it goes! I buy soft fruits for Idris such as grapes, blueberries and raspberries. I can't afford for all of us to eat them but each of the children has had this luxury as a toddler to boost the variety of fruit they eat and I won't compromise on that!

Armed with this list (and I was impressed with the variety and number of dishes on it!), I wrote a meal plan for the week and from that, a shopping list. It didn't go completely to plan as Dewi offered to shop and I gratefully accepted but inevitable his choices aren't always that same as mine and I had also neglected to add a few staples onto the list such as squash, washing up liquid and vegetable oil! I will nip back this week for those items and perhaps put together a standard shopping list for future weeks that I can tick off as I notice them. I am keeping the receipts and over a month will work out how much of each basic item we get through with a view to making a monthly shop at a cash and carry for tinned tomatoes, pasta and rice etc. The web is great for being able to compare prices to find the best deals and although I don't buy into running around to list of places for individual items as the petrol you burn negates the cost savings anyway, heading to one place for a few deals just might be.

The one thing I can say is that shopping this way is more time consuming as it requires more thought, time and effort to even put a menu plan together. I am planning to work through the receipts and cost up each meal as well so that I have a reference point for the future. I think after a month or so of poring through the receipts, doing sums, researching bulk buy options and tweaking things to work well for us, that it will be less time consuming to do! I'm hoping so anyway. All new habits take time to get used to and it is necessary that we adjust to this one. Starting early has the added bonus of freeing up some cash to stash for a rainy day (my Mum will say that I am always squirrelling money away for this and that but I like to have separate 'pots' for separate things!).

I started this post the day Dewi went shopping and we have been eating this way for five days now. The fruit plan is going well, the children are being very good about it, although Idris isn't always sticking to his options! I calculated that 16% of our shopping this week was spent on fruit, I'll keep an eye and see how this goes. Usually I return half way through the week for more fruit but won't be this week!  I have been surprised that having worked out what meals fitted to which days, it has been pleasant to look at my plan and simply cook what is on it! I have been calculating the costs of each meal and have so far worked out that:
  • broccoli and bacon pasta is £3.30 for the meal,
  • mini toads in the hole with potato and carrot mash and onion gravy is £3.80,
  • lentil bolognaise with spaghetti is 90p for the meal!
It is interesting to see the costs and I'm thinking that keeping a list will mean that I can plan meals from a range of costs rather than unknowingly picking seven high cost meals. My next step is to start making double lots and freeze one batch to ease the pressure on another week. I didn't work it out per person as each family member eats a different amount and I usually save some for Idris's lunch the next day as well.

There is a whole lot that could be said about how your food choices impact upon the cost of your food. I know a family that will only eat organic, fair trade foods and their food bill is around £250/week, and they make other financial choices to allow this. The only staunch rule that I have is that I will only buy British meat as I know the welfare standards differ in the UK to other countries and can be more easily traced to source than 'EU meats' (note recent revelations of horse meat in value beef burgers). I take note of where vegetables come from and try to limit food miles and make the most of seasonal veg but it doesn't always happen. I have toyed with the idea of a veg box delivery but they are quite costly and might be something to consider once I have trimmed down other expenses!

I made a courgette loaf today with oil instead of butter (again, butter is really expensive and I go through two to three blocks a week with baking and cooking). It turned out rather tasty, if a little drier than I like, so I'm going to continue to experiment with oil as an alternative and add those recipes to my planner! The recipe is here if you are interested, I substituted the orange juice for lemons as I had two going begging and reduced the sugar by a third to suit our tastes.

This post has turned out much longer than I planned, I didn't realise how much there was to say about it! I'll update on our progress and hopefully settle on a figure in the next month or so. I shall create a separate page on the blog to list meals, costs and brief recipes or links to recipes for you to use!

This post is linked to Welcome Home Wednesdays on Raising Arrows.

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