Find out how I feed my family on a shoestring budget.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Rules

Hello and welcome to my blog.

After a conversation in the office a couple of weeks ago I realised that I spend significantly less (£35 per week) on shopping than most of my colleagues. A bit of further probing and I found out that the average family spends a staggering £120 per week on food. That means that most families spend almost as much per person on food as I do for my entire family. This made me realise that I possess the rare skill of making our budget go a long way (when it comes to food at least) and in these straightened times I thought others might be interested in how I do it.

It's not that I am unduly tight, just poor and careful. In fact I come from a long line of poor, but resourceful women. My mother is poor, her mother was poor and her mother before that (and at that time there was a war on so there was double the incentive to eek the weekly shop out). This unfortunate pecuniary disadvantage has had a Darwinian-like effect on the women in my family in that we have developed the skill of eeking, which has been passed down the generations. I was bought up on stories of how my Nan fed up her large family on feasts made out of half a carrot and an ounce of flour. She learnt the skill from her mother (who started her working life as a cook in service) and passed in on to my Mum. They both taught me.

The thing is some of my favourite childhood recipes were invented by my Mum and Nan when the cupboards were bare. Eeking is therefore about two skills: first, seeking out the bargains and shopping carefully and second, being able to cook. In my family we show love by taking time over preparing food. Going out to eat is nice and all, but it's more of a special treat if someone has taken the time and love to make what you really like.

This blog is a record of how I now feed my family on limited funds, but it's also a tribute to my female forebears and their ingenious culinary abilities.

So how to I actually do it.

I have a budget of £35 per week. For that I expect to be able to feed myself, my partner and my daughter three meals a day each plus snacks. We all eat our 'five a day' plus healthy amounts of protein and other nutrients. We eat a healthy, balanced diet supplemented by the odd not-so-good-for-you treat. I should also add that our £35 a week budget includes all our cleaning products and toiletries (how I manage that side of things is a whole new post).

Writing this has made me realise I have a set of guidelines I stick to. Here they are:

1. Have a budget. My budget is £35 per week, sometimes I spend a wee bit more, sometimes a wee bit less. I shop online now, but when I shopped in person I would draw out the money. Any left over went in the pot, for midweek top-ups or a safety net for the expensive weeks.

2. Plan meals. Work out what you are going to eat and shop for those meals. This will save wastage and crucially, cash. Also you can then plan your meals around a couple of key ingredients. For example if I buy a butternut squash I will use it across several meals.

3. Don't be a food snob. It's a myth that value is cheap and nasty and finest is the best quality. Check out this article at moneysaving supermarket for more info on downshifting your shopping. I don't buy 'value' everything, it depends what it is and the price. For example, regular bananas are cheaper than the 'value' bananas in both Asda and Tesco, but often value products are just as good and are in fact sometimes healthier (they tend to contain fewer ingredients, less salt, sugar and fat).

4. Compare prices. Supermarkets will include price per unit or weight on their labels. I look across my options to work out what the best value is. Sometimes bigger packs are cheaper, but not always. Supermarkets often use conflicting units to display this infomation. I use a trip to the supermarket to flex my mental arithmetic muscles.

5. Don't be beguiled by BOGOFs. Sometimes special offers are fantastic, but usually they're designed to get you to buy more than you wanted anyway. If the washing up liquid or toothpaste I want is on special, then I'll take up the offer, as these are non-perishable items. Biscuits are another matter however - if I buy double I'll just eat double.

6. Don't be sucked into a shopping rut. I'm a busy woman, but I am not averse to buying different things from different shops. My local cornershop sells lovely free range eggs for a fraction of the price of my local supermarket, so that's where I get my eggs. Most of us will pop to another shop near home or near work for a paper or a packet of crisps, so keep your eyes open for price comparisons.

7. Cook from scratch. My Mum cooks from scratch and so did my Nan (who's retired from the kitchen now). It's far cheaper, nicer to eat and doesn't usually take much longer than the microwave.

8. Ditch the meat. OK, many of you will shoot me for this, but I'm not trying to evangalise. It's just a simple fact that meat is expensive. My Mum originally started to cook us vegetarian meals because she couldn't afford decent quality meat. Being vegetarian definitely allows me to eat more cheaply than I would if I was a meat eater.

9. Cook in bulk. I work along way from home and I commute three days a week. I can't cook from scratch on these days, so on the days I am at home I cook meals I can easily make in bulk and freeze. Shepherds pie, curries, chilli, soups and stews are all great to freeze and can be made in bulk cheaply. This means I always have a stock of my own 'ready meals' available.

10. Make the most of filling ingredients. Rice, pasta, tinned tomatoes, potatoes, beans and pulses all  make other special ingredients go so much further.

So now you've read why I am writing this blog and my basic method for shopping and cooking. My weekly shopping lists and my favourite recipes will follow.

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