Feeding the family... why costs bite as price of food keeps on rising

The Food Standards Agency has suggested a family of four would need to spend �119 on groceries each week to maintain a healthy diet.
The Food Standards Agency has suggested a family of four would need to spend �119 on groceries each week to maintain a healthy diet.

Recently on a shopping trip to a local supermarket I picked up a small box of cereal. It was £4! Genuinely shocked, I checked the ingredients to see if this pricey breakfast food was perhaps laced with Beluga caviar, or white truffles, but no, it contained the usual stuff - wholegrain oat flakes, cane sugar, sunflower oil, etc.

Recently on a shopping trip to a local supermarket I picked up a small box of cereal. It was £4! Genuinely shocked, I checked the ingredients to see if this pricey breakfast food was perhaps laced with Beluga caviar, or white truffles, but no, it contained the usual stuff - wholegrain oat flakes, cane sugar, sunflower oil, etc.

We all know that supermarkets are not exemplars of altruism, but I am flabbergasted by the cost of food these days - and I know I am not alone.

According to the Office of National Statistics, the average family of four in Northern Ireland spent £59 a week on groceries in 2017.

I’m not sure if people are lying when they fill in these questionnaires, but to my mind and the simple straw poll I conducted, that falls very short of the reality. Indeed, the Food Standards Agency suggests that if we are to achieve a healthy, balanced diet, we should be spending £119 on the weekly shop.

For the last three weeks, I have been keeping a note of what my family, two adults and two children aged 11 and six, spend on groceries. The first week was horrendous at £150, all done in a major supermarket chain.

The second week, I applied the old adage of shopping around and bought the essentials like fruit, vegetables, bread and milk in one discount supermarket chain, and the remainder in my usual supermarket- the total was down to £136.

The third week, I got it down even further to £120.

My shopping experiment was not in any way scientific or like for like. For example, in the first week the shopping included washing powder (eye-wateringly expensive) and wine (mid-range price); in the second and third weeks, it didn’t.

I consulted with some friends, who agreed that they too spend on average £150-£200 a week on their families of four. One said: ‘‘We spend about £200 a week, but that varies from week to week if we need to get stuff like washing powder or dishwasher tablets.’’

Another said: ‘‘I noticed a significant jump in prices after the Brexit vote with all the pound weaknesses. For many foods the size or weight of packages have decreased but prices have not.’’

And yet another added: ‘‘I shop online so I can find the lowest prices and don’t browse or I end up spending a fortune.’’

Consumers are bracing themselves for an expensive and uncertain post-Brexit future. A survey by Mintel found four out of five fearing price rises on household essentials such as food, drink and clothing,

Eighty-three per cent admitted they are concerned about price hikes in goods and services, while 59% are most worried about the soaring cost of groceries, according to the poll.

Everyday dairy products such as butter, yoghurt and cheese could become luxury items in Britain after Brexit, with price rises being caused by the slightest delay in the journey from farm to table, a report by the London School of Economics finds. The LSE research, commissioned by the company behind Lurpak, Anchor and Arla brands, also found that speciality cheeses could become scarce after Brexit, with escalating costs whatever the outcome of the exit negotiations.

So, what can we do about it and is it possible to feed a family for £59 a week? Probably, if you don’t eat very much and pre-plan meals, reduce waste and trade down to own brands.

In the supermarket or online, you cannot allow yourself to be deflected by impulse buys. Also, you would have to stop pandering to your kids.

On this kind of budget you can’t afford to let everyone eat what they like whenever they feel like it. Frugality, requires a degree of fascism.

We should also forgo heavily advertised brands (despite grumbles from the kids) and buy – or at least try – own label.

The main challenge on a low budget is keeping some variety in your diet and also not extracting all joy from the experience of eating.

The two adults in our family are pescatarian (we eat fish, but not meat), the children are not, but they are incredibly fussy. What we try to do is a couple of days of the same thing, say veggie chilli con carne or tuna meatballs and pasta.

It is possible, of course, to wheel out some well-intentioned nutritionist to talk about “filling soups” or “bowls of pasta” in defence of the notion that it is possible to eat well, cheaply. However, anyone who has ever subsisted as an impoverished student will testify that, while such dishes might do the job of filling a person’s stomach, bowls of tasteless soup or rubbery spaghetti night after night, can be enough to drive a person to the nearest chip shop!

TOP TIPS FOR FEEDING THE FAMILY ON A BUDGE

Looking for ways to ease those weekly food bills? Here are some simple suggestions.

With budgets tight, many households may be looking for more ways to reduce mealtime costs.

With a bit of planning, research and forethought, it’s always possible to shave some pennies and pounds here and there. These 12 top tips, from Anders Nilsson from myvouchercodes.co.uk may just cut the mustard...

1. meal plan for the week

On a Sunday evening, set out your meal plan for the week, you can write this up and stick it on your fridge, or print off a meal planner template which details what you and the family are going to eat that week, covering breakfast, lunch and dinner. You’ll be more likely to stick to a plan and won’t risk running to the shops.

2. Go with a shopping list

Scan the cupboards before you head out, and if you’ve got your meal plan set out for the week then you already know what ingredients and products you’re going to need. This will stop you from adding unnecessary items into the basket, and double-buying items you already have at home.

Also, don’t go to the shops when you’re hungry - you’ll end up buying treats you don’t need.

3. Buy frozen rather than fresh

While you might like fresh onions, peppers and vegetables, it can work out cheaper to buy frozen. And you can use what you need and leave the rest for a later date - meaning there’s less risk of food ending up in the bin.

4. Try going into stores rather than shopping online

By hand-picking items yourself, you may get better use-by dates and you have an easier comparison of alternatives if something is out of stock - keeping you within your budget.

5. Buy in-season produce

Fruit and veg are much cheaper when they’re in season, so take advantage of this (often better for sustainability too).

6. Pick a store’s own brand or head to discount stores

Don’t be a brand snob - instead, go for a store’s own products. These are often a fraction of the price and taste just as good as the well-known brands. If you’re set on sticking to a brand, why not head to a discount retailer, where you can pick up branded produce for a cheaper price.

7. Know the difference between ‘best-before’ and ‘use-by’ dates

You don’t always need to throw food away just because it’s reached its best-before date. Best-before dates are about quality. If a product is slightly over its best-before date but still looks and smells OK, it may still be fine to eat, despite not being as fresh as it once was. But use-by dates are about food safety. Foods can be eaten until the use-by date but not after. After the use-by date, the food could be contaminated, even if it still looks OK.

8. Learn to portion control

Avoid piling plates too high, which can lead to more food going in the bin. Start out small and get through what’s on your plate first, you can always go back for seconds if you’re still hungry.

9. Cook in batches

Batch cook meals such as cottage pie, chilli and lasagne and freeze what you don’t eat for another time. Or make two meals from similar ingredients so you don’t get bored of eating the same meal over a couple of days - for example, by adding kidney beans and chilli powder to leftover bolognese to turn it into a chilli.

10. Use up leftovers and fruit and veg

When you’re using vegetables for a meal, blend any leftovers which are still useable and turn them into a soup. You can pop any spare in the freezer and have your own instant homemade soup to hand. Use leftover fruit to make desserts such as pies, sponges and banana bread.

11. Do a little research online

For more inspiration, make the most of free apps and blogs focused on feeding the family on a budget.

12. Grow your own

From growing fresh herbs on your windowsill to growing fruit and vegetables in your garden, growing your own can not only save money but give you access to the freshest of ingredients, as well as teaching the kids about where food comes from.