One day to go: Live Below the Line

live below the line
Could you live on just £1 a day?

Today I’ve been busy getting ready for the Live Below the Line challenge, which kicks off tomorrow, Monday 28 April. I’m taking part along with my family – my husband Jason and our two daughters Jessie (9) and Mia (6). The aim of the challenge is to spend just £1 each a day on all our food and drink for the next five days. For more on why we’re putting ourselves through this, read my earlier post.

Along with eating as much as humanly possibly in an attempt at stock piling, the first job was to sort out a meal plan. With a little help from some blogger friends (such as the lovely Louisa at Eat Your Veg who suggested the Chicken Brodo to make the most of the free chicken carcasses donated to me by my favourite butcher in Wells) and a bit of online research, I came up with a plan and then a shopping list and headed off to my local(ish) Aldi over in Shepton Mallet.

Here’s what I bought:

Frozen garden peas – 89p
4 pints semi-skimmed milk – 95p
Cream cheese with garlic and herbs – 55p
Blackcurrant and apple squash – 99p
3 leeks – 69p
10 onions – 69p
7 bananas – 68p
2.5kg white potatoes – £1.89
14 carrots – 59p
1kg porridge oats – 75p
9 apples – 89p
1 kg penne – 58p
Packet of ginger nut biscuits – 25p
4 cloves of garlic – 39p
1 kg long grain rice – 40p
Strawberry jam – 29p
2 tins of red kidney beans – 50p
1 cucumber – 39p
6 free range eggs – 89p
6 tomatoes – 39p
3 loaves sliced wholemeal bread – £1.35
6 wholemeal rolls – 55p

Total spend at Aldi = £15.54

I couldn’t find any cannellini beans or redbush tea at Aldi, so popped into Tesco for these. I was also convinced I’d be able to find some cheaper chopped tomatoes at Tesco compared to the ones I found at Aldi. It turned out I was wrong, but I couldn’t be bothered to go back again. So my mini shop at Tesco consisted of:

4 tins chopped tomatoes – £1.36
1 tin of cannellini beans – 50p
Redbush teabags (Jason and I are allowed two each a day) – 50p

Therefore our family’s total spend so far comes to £17.90. When you divide that by the four of us, that comes to £4.48 a day, equating to just over 89p each per day. I’ve left ourselves a little wriggle room as we will also need to factor in proportional costs for things like cooking oil, spices and seasoning.

I’ve never shopped at Aldi before, as I do most of our grocery shopping online (I’m not a fan of supermarkets) and Aldi don’t offer an online service, but I was pleasantly surprised at how far our budget stretched. I didn’t expect to be able to afford much in the way of fresh fruit or vegetables for instance, and I certainly didn’t think I’d be coming away with free range eggs, or biscuits.

live below the line

I was adamant though I wouldn’t buy any meat, and instead I’ve spent this evening boiling up the free chicken carcasses from my butcher and picking off a surprising amount of meat to use in Tuesday’s evening meal. That will be the only meat of the week.

So here’s our Living Below the Line meal plan for the week:

live below the line meal plan

People on Facebook and Twitter have commented that it looks quite a tasty menu and I must admit to being quite chuffed with what I’ve come up with. But it was bloody hard work. It took ages to come up with the plan, making sure ingredients required for one dish would be useful on another day, and then it took ages to do the actual shopping, adding up the cost of every item as I went along and looking out for all the cheapest offers. I really wouldn’t want to have to do that every week.

I should also point out that I’ve only included lunches for Jason and I. Jessie and Mia normally take packed lunches to school on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and have hot school meals the other two days. I’ve decided to let them carry on with this. My reasoning is that if we were on the poverty line in the UK, then I’d hope the girls would be in a position to receive free school meals. So I’ve taken their lunches eaten at school out of the equation.

It’s getting late now. I’ve just cooked up the leek and potato soup for mine and Jason’s lunch tomorrow, plus a big pot of veggie chilli, along with the chicken stock, and there’s a large pile of washing up awaiting. I’ll be back tomorrow to let  you know how our first day goes.

Oh, and if you fancy supporting our efforts, you can do so at the Rees Family’s online fundraising page.

Food shopping: how do you do yours?

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A few years ago, I would never have thought there’d be a time when I’d find the topic of grocery shopping even remotely interesting, but these days it seems I can talk for hours on the subject.

Food and cooking have become major aspects of my life, which means by default that shopping has too. It’s intriguing to me that people tackle this task so differently. I’m endlessly curious about where people shop for food, when and how often. Do they fill their baskets online or in store? Are they loyal to one of the big supermarkets or do they try instead to support high street independents? How much do people spend, do they plan meals in advance and write shopping lists, or do they purchase on a whim or according to what looks good or is on offer?

I was asked recently by mySupermarket if I’d give their website a whirl to do my grocery shop. I had thought about giving them a try several times over the last year or so but to be honest I’d just never got around to it. I’d fallen into a routine that worked for me, and it was never the right time to try something new. So when I was asked to review what mySupermarket has to offer, I was interested in seeing if it would be enough to make me change my routine, and this seemed like a good excuse to ask others about their shopping routines.

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So I posed a few questions on Twitter the other night. It would appear there are others out there who like talking about shopping as much as me.

Talking shop

Becky at The Ar-Blog does her grocery shop online “every week and a half ish”. She plans all the family’s meals and comes up with a shopping list for ingredients, after checking what they already have in the cupboard. “Plus we always have £5 for treats or posh nosh,” she adds. I do like that.

Laura from Strawberries and Facecream prefers to do her shopping online too, once a week. “Can’t bear taking the toddler to the supermarket!” My sentiments exactly. Laura’s a fan of Ocado where she says “the customer service is second to none and the food is always soopa fresh.” She also tries to meal plan to save money. “I watched some @jamieoliver Save programmes and it really inspired me.”

Likewise Emily from A Mummy Too does her shop online. “I do weekly after food planning and always from Asda as we invest in the regular delivery pass.”

But shopping online isn’t popular with everyone.

Lizzie aka @Mrs_Gaffer likes to do her shop at Tesco, or perhaps Asda if she’s nipping out to pick up extra bits in her lunch hour. She says she “tried online but prefer to choose my own veg etc. Sadly we’re creatures of habit.”

Sian from Fishfingers for Tea always used to do her food shopping online but she now finds “going to Aldi saves us so much money that I struggle to justify doing it online now!” Sian shops once a week with “milk top ups in between.” While most of the groceries comes from Aldi, she doesn’t mind a bit of shopping around, either at the market or places like Home Bargains, when she knows she can get certain things cheaper.

It sounds to me like Sian has got grocery shopping down to something of a fine art. She does her Aldi shop in about 20 minutes and the rest of her shopping takes no more than half an hour across the week. Of course, it probably helps that she produces a meal plan first, which takes around 45 minutes.

And many of us combine online with ‘real’ shopping, like The Ginger Gourmand: “Ocado for store cupboard stuff every 10-14 days. Fishmongers, markets, greengrocer etc at weekend.”

Some people are verging on the regimental when it comes to their shopping…

Ruby aka @RubyKnickers says, “Always Tesco, always online, always delivered on the same day at a similar time.”

While others are a little more laid back or, dare I say, haphazard…

Kirsty from Eeh Bah Mum says, “Ideally: weekly. Realistically: when I need stuff. In all honesty: halfway through cooking it.”

When Michelle from Utterly Scrummy Food for Families took me through her shopping routine, it sounded uncannily similar to mine. “We shop weekly with Asda, we’ve got a delivery pass,” explains Michelle. “I’ve got the menu planning and online shopping down to 1 hour maximum. I always do a stock take first too, so I don’t over-buy and look at our schedule for the week – work, school stuff, meetings etc. I dump stuff in the basket midweek to secure a slot, then amend once I have planned.” Other than the fact I tend to use Ocado or Sainsbury’s, this could be a description of how I do my weekly shop.

We all have our own ways of filling our cupboards and fridges with food, designed around all kinds of individual factors – from work and family to the fact that the shop on the other side of town has an amazing offer on pickled herring or our heads cave in if we are forced to spend more than five minutes in a supermarket with small children. But something that seems to unite most of us is cost. We are all looking to save money and pick up a bargain.

What is mySupermarket?

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The primary aim of the mySupermarket website is to help shoppers save both time and money by comparing prices from all the main supermarkets. There are three main ways people use the site: you can order your basket online, print your basket as a shopping list and take it with you to your local supermarket, or simply use it to compare different supermarket prices online. They’ve also launched a new mobile app, mySuperlist, which gives you another way to ‘shop on the go’.

I don’t really know why I hadn’t thought of trying them before because, when I think about it, the whole concept fits beautifully with how I shop already.

My routine is to do an online shop once a week, quite often with a glass of wine in hand, after first putting together a meal plan (I’m a huge advocate of the meal plan – take a look at my very first blog post), and after checking what supplies we already have in and what we’ve got coming up in the diary.

I tend to switch between Ocado and Sainsbury’s. Why? Well, because I haven’t worked out which is cheaper, and because only Ocado offers certain products we like, while other things I can only get at Sainsbury’s. Ocado, for instance, sells the perfect kabanos sausages for hiding a tablet in to feed to the cat. Don’t ask.

Switch and save

I was vaguely aware that mySupermarket allowed you to compare prices, but I assumed it would only really be helpful for comparing individual items. I didn’t fancy the idea of going to several different stores to get the cheapest deals on different products. It turns out the beauty of mySupermarket is it allows you to do an entire shop, all the while providing a running total of how much your basket would cost at both your chosen store and each of the others available in your area.

screenshot final cost comparison and savings

The price comparison above was from our Christmas shop. I’d never spend this much normally, but it was to last us nearly a fortnight and there were a fair few luxury items in there.

I was worried it would prove difficult learning my way around a new site, but I was pleased to find mySupermarket is extremely easy to use.

I started off by importing all my favourites from my Sainbury’s online account. Discovering I could do this was a huge relief, as I really couldn’t face the idea of starting over again from scratch. I then did my shopping as I usually would; first of all going through the things I needed for the meal plan I’d prepared for the Christmas and New Year period, and then going through my list of favourites for all the usual household items we get through, such as loo paper and washing up liquid.

And all the time, the tally in the right sidebar was showing me the total cost at Sainsbury’s compared with the other stores. I found it quite exciting to see how the totals varied –  the store in ‘first place’ switched frequently between Sainsbury’s and Asda. Ocado (my other usual online store) sat resolutely in bottom position pretty much from the start. The final difference between Sainsbury’s and Asda wasn’t huge, but I was shocked at the difference between Sainsbury’s and Ocado which was almost £30. I’m now not sure if those kabanos sausages are special enough to persuade me to do my entire shop there in future.

Swap and save

The other element I was rather impressed by was the way in which mySupermarket suggests smart swaps and replacements while you shop to help you save even more money – either by trading down or buying more to make a bulk saving.

swap and save

Finding the best deals can take a lot of time and effort when you are shopping online normally, and so I found I used this function quite a bit. There were times though when I didn’t like the cheaper alternatives provided, generally when I was looking at meat for instance and the swap and save items would not be free range. But probably seven times out of ten, I went with the cheaper option and ended up saving a fair whack.

Shopping list

I also liked the shopping list function. Rather than searching for items individually, one after the other, you can simply type in a long list – ideal when you’re going through the ingredients needed for your meal plan or a particular dish, and then mySupermarket searches for them all at once.

screenshot shopping list

Savvy buys

‘Savvy Buys’ is another useful offering from mySupermarket. This brings up any products that are more than 30% off their average price at that store. You’ll never find this kind of information promoted by individual supermarkets. Quite often I discovered they’re not actually promoted by the supermarket as special offers, so they would otherwise be incredibly easy to miss.

screenshot savvy buys

All in all I was extremely impressed with mySupermarket. I successfully saved £34 on my first shop, which is definitely not a sum to be sniffed at. I have since shopped using mySupermarket again; the next time I saved £13 but this was a much smaller shop, and again Sainsbury’s came out cheapest and Ocado most expensive.

The only slight issue I have with mySupermarket is that you must complete your full shop when you book a delivery slot. What I usually do, just like Michelle from Utterly Scrummy above, is to grab the slot I want and bung any old items in the basket to secure it. I then come back nearer to the delivery date, once I’ve prepared my meal plan, to do the shop properly. You can’t do this with mySupermarket at the moment, but when I mentioned this they said they’re aware that many people shop like this and their developers are working on ways to incorporate this functionality in the future. So that sounds promising.

I plan on sticking with mySupermarket for my weekly online shop. It turns out that what they have to offer is enough to make me change my usual routine, but to be honest that really isn’t a massive change as it fits so neatly. I genuinely look forward to using mySupermarket so that I can continue to find the best deals easily and saving lots of lovely dosh.

Have you used mySupermarket? Has it saved you money on your grocery shopping?

Disclosure: This is a sponsored post. mySupermarket paid £50 towards my first shop using their website in return for a review. All views expressed are completely my own and are 100% honest.

The art of shopping

How do you shop? Until recently I’d never given the way I shop for food and groceries a second thought. I never thought there might be different ways to shop, or any skill involved.

Shopping had always simply been one of those necessary chores I had to do on a frequent albeit ad hoc basis, whenever the fridge and cupboards started looking a bit empty.

Ever since leaving home at the age of 18 for university, I’ve shopped when I thought I needed to and bought what I thought I needed, generally the same items every time.

Perhaps it’s because I’d never been shown how to cook or shop. I rarely went food shopping with my parents and I never showed much interest in what was happening in the kitchen. Do we need to be shown? Did your parents teach you these things? Or I am simply trying to blame others for my inadequacies? Is shopping really a matter of common sense?

Well, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, my husband and I had to cut our budgets last year. Analysing our bank statements, we realised that this ‘finger in the air’ approach had resulted in massive over-spending, a hideous amount of food waste, and – what probably upsets me most – fairly mediocre meals.

When it finally dawned on me that a little simple planning each week would make life easier, it felt like a huge revelation. Silly isn’t it? I’m feeling quite foolish as I write this. It’s all so blindingly obvious when you think about it.

But when you’re rushing around in your twenties balancing work and a hectic social life, and then in your thirties balancing work and an even more hectic family life (with a bit of social life squeezed in when you can), you don’t really step back and think about how you do things. You just do. Or at least that was my problem anyway.

So the glaringly simple solution is to work out first what you’re going to eat and then you shop only for what you need. Easy, eh? Well maybe not. So many of my friends have been fascinated by my meal plans, curious about how I create them and intrigued about how long I’ll be able to keep it up for. Although I’ve come across many people out in the webisphere who make meal plans, I’m the only one out of all the people I actually know who does this.

The meal plan takes pride of place on our fridge

I don’t want to be teaching grandmothers to suck eggs. So if all this is too basic, I really won’t be offended if you quit here. But in case you are interested here is what I do…

My Sunday night ritual

Every Sunday evening, once the children are in bed, I sit down at my computer with a glass of wine and work out our family meals for the week ahead. I found it quite hard work at first. I’d much rather be sat on the sofa watching telly but I now rather enjoy surrounding myself with recipe books and checking out different blogs and websites to get ideas.

Supermarkets

I order the bulk of my week’s groceries online from one of the big supermarket chains. While of course I’d prefer to buy all our food from local shops and markets, the simple truth is that a) as a working mum I don’t have the time and b) I wouldn’t be able to afford it.

The beauty of shopping online is that I avoid actually having to step foot into a supermarket. They are not my favourite places. Although the real advantage of shopping online is avoiding temptation. Whenever I go into a supermarket, I always come out with more than I intended.

Veg boxes and butchers

But I don’t buy everything from the supermarket. I also get a weekly organic vegetable box delivered the same day as my supermarket shop and I buy most of our meat from the local butcher or farm shop, while fish comes from the Saturday market.

I might not have a massive budget but I like to eat good food. In my opinion organic vegetables taste so much better and are worth paying a bit more for, while meat from supermarkets very rarely compares with the local meat your butcher can supply. When you plan your meals carefully, you find you can afford to use good ingredients because you are wasting so much less.  And it’s worth eating meat less often in order to be able to eat better, tastier meat. Since shopping this way, I have succeeded in halving the amount I spend on groceries.

So on a Sunday evening, I’ll check to see what veggies will be included in our veg box and I’ll look at the family calendar to see when we’re busy and need easy meals and when we’re home so can spend more time in the kitchen. And our menu materializes magically from there.

Some days will see us feasting like kings on big roast dinners, while on others we’re eating beans on toast like paupers. It’s all about balance and moderation.

Once I’ve worked out our meal plan, I then get online and do the supermarket shop, highlighting in the diary what meat or fish I need to pick up during the week, preferably on days when I’m already out and about.

All in all, this will probably take me about two hours each Sunday evening. This might sound like quite a long a time but it really saves so much time and hassle later in the week.

There you have it. That’s how I shop. Now back to my original question. How do you shop? I’d love to compare notes.

PS I’m about to start posting my weekly meal plans – so watch this space!

Why another food blog?

Earlier this year I realised I had to make some serious changes to how I shop for food and cook for my family.

My husband had changed jobs and starting a new career in a primary school, while I was in the process of cutting my work hours to spend more time with our children. Our monthly income had taken a severe nosedive.

One evening we sat down to work out where we could reduce our outgoings. We were shocked, nay disgusted, at how much we’d been spending on groceries. I’d always thought I was pretty organised with our food shopping, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. What made it worse was how blissfully ignorant we were of what a hash we’d been making of things.

On top of the fortnightly deliveries from Sainsbury’s Online, our bank statements told a sorry tale of frequent pops to the local corner shop to top up on things we’d run out of (and of course those emergency bottles of wine required after stressful days) and buying impulse items at markets and farm shops, doing our bit to support local producers naturally.

Despite spending an astronomic amount on food and drink, it occurred to us that we hadn’t really been eating well for our money. All too often we’d go to our (full) fridge but be lost for what to cook for supper. None of the lovely ingredients would quite add up to a meal. So we’d end up resorting to a basic staple (like spaghetti with sauce) or, I’m sorry to say, ordering a takeaway.

Then there’s the food waste. The amount going in the food bin each week as a result of this haphazard approach to food shopping was shameful.

Now I know it’s not rocket science but when the idea of a weekly meal plan occurred to me it felt like a major revelation. My Nana and mother-in-law think I’m hilarious because this is how they always cooked for their families; simply sitting down once a week to decide on meals for the coming week and then shopping accordingly.

These days it’s not how most of us shop or eat. Not the people I know anyway. We decide what we fancy on the day, which means eating out lots, shopping every day or having a fridge full of ‘just in case’ ingredients that end up rotting to a squishy pulp somewhere at the back.

Because life is hectic we think we don’t have time to plan ahead. But I’ve learned over the last few months that spending an hour or so on a Sunday evening planning meals saves so much time later in the week. There are far fewer trips to the corner shop and I love having the freezer stocked with meals for those days when I know I’m going to be too busy to cook, never mind even think about food.

As well as massively reducing the amount of food getting chucked out and slashing our food bills by about half, the simple act of planning our meals has also led to us eating a much more varied, interesting and health diet.

Because I’ve been raving about the benefits of meal planning to anyone who’ll listen, friends have suggested I start a blog to share my experiences. So here it is. Notes from my kitchen for anyone like me trying to feed their family good, tasty, wholesome food on a limited budget, without compromising on quality of ingredients.

So watch this space for recipe suggestions, weekly meal plans and ways to save money as well as details of my culinary successes and failures. I just want to share what works for me and my family in case any of it’s useful, and I’d love to hear from you on what works for you and yours!