Between feeding three hungry little mouths, the school run, keeping on top of household chores and her freelance work, Rachel had enough on her plate.
But fully aware of the family’s costly food expenditure, she took on the NHS Choices Eat4Cheap challenge thinking she had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
The week-long Eat4Cheap challenge aims to show that eating healthily doesn’t have to cost more – in fact you can save money.
From an average weekly food and drink spend of £200, which included some eating out, Rachel managed to cut spending by £100 while still eating healthy balanced diet and plenty of fruit and veg.
It was a family effort, with the kids – Amelia, six, Leila, five and Joseph, three – all getting stuck in to bake homemade treats that would normally have been bought.
“I got the children on board by making it fun for them,” says Rachel, from Bristol. “They love baking so we made brownies together one day and pizzas on another.”
She saved money by reducing their consumption of meat and fish, eating leftovers for lunch, cooking in bulk, making treats at home instead of eating out and kicking her daily coffee shop latte habit.
“The challenge was a real eye-opener,” says Rachel. “I know we spend a lot of money on food and I felt there were areas where we could make obvious savings.”
One of the challenges for Rachel was to get the children to try different types of food. “Amelia and Leila have hot meals at school,” says Rachel. “But I tend to prepare another elaborate meal for their dinner.
“During the challenge, I really went back to basics in the evening with things like scrambled eggs, homemade soups and sandwiches with leftover chicken.
“I realised that I was putting too much pressure on myself to create these culinary feasts for the kids when a simpler meal is enough.”
For lunch her youngest, Joseph, would have the leftovers from Rachel and husband Toby’s dinner on the previous evening.
Gone were the usual after-school snacks such as cereal bars, mini cheddars and yoghurt raisins, replaced by fruit, carrot sticks and crackers.
“We always have a large fruit bowl in the kitchen full of fruit so the kids are used to eating fruit. So I’m fairly confident they were already getting their 5 A DAY.”
Less popular among the brood was the lentil and spinach dhal. “They didn’t like it at all,” says Rachel. “The girls were like: ‘Where’s our normal food gone?’”
The homemade pizzas however were a resounding success. “I bought some freshly prepared pizza dough from the bakery and the kids spread on the toppings, such as olives, sweetcorn and peppers.
“Cooking with the kids is fun and teaches them a valuable skill. Making homemade pizzas instead of buying them saved us around a fiver.”
‘No big changes’
Rachel didn’t make any big changes to her shopping habits. “I tend to do a big supermarket shop once a month and buy fresh ingredients from the high street during the week.
“However I was more stringent about buying value brands and selecting cheaper alternatives such as canned tuna chunks instead of tuna steak.”
Feeding a family of five requires military-style planning. “I normally sit down on Sunday to plan our meals for the week, but for the challenge I included the weekend as well,” says Rachel.
“I did an inventory of food we already had in and realised we had quite a lot in the freezer and store cupboard so I made sure I included as much of it as I could in our meal plan,” she says.
Instead of eating out on the weekend, Rachel prepared a carrot and coriander soup, which the family had for lunch with some fresh bread on Saturday and Sunday.
“I also stopped having my daily coffee shop latte,” Rachel says. “You get into buying habits that can end up being quite a drain on your expenses, which you can really do without.”
With meat and fish being among the most expensive items on their shopping bill, Rachel opted to base more of her meals on vegetables and starchy carbohydrates, as recommended for a healthy balanced diet, shown in the eatwell plate.
Instead of the customary minced beef lasagne Rachel made a veggie version, which was much cheaper, lower in fat and got the thumbs up from the kids.
Other cheap, fun, healthy meals for kids:
- Cauliflower and potato bake
- Spinach and lentil dhal
- Fish and potato wedges
- Tuna pasta bake with peppers
- Cheese and mushroom omelettes
Rachel is continuing with many of the money-saving tips that helped her slash £100 from her weekly shop, such as the weekend soup batch, now called the “Big Soup”.
“Joseph and I still have leftovers for lunch and the girls continue to have smaller meals in the evening on weekdays,” she says.
“I try as much as possible to cook in bulk so if I’m cooking a bolognese sauce, I’ll make enough so that I can freeze a portion or two.”
Dietitian Azmina Govindji says:
“Rachel has demonstrated that you can benefit from the Eat4Cheap challege even if you have a busy life. Teaching children to cook at a young age can help them to engage with family meals, and hopefully they will eat better as they’re more likely to want to taste their culinary creation.
“Buying value brands can allow you to eat the same basic foods at a lower price. And purchasing that daily coffee can really mount up to a hefty bill, so Rachel was smart to cut down on her shop-bought lattes. Cooking in bulk and freezing for another day makes good sense all round.”