Thursday, 31 March 2016

Results of cutting food bills in February: saved 30%

During February, I set out to spend less while eating more healthily (post here), and after a month of planning, shopping, cooking and using up food in the house we saved almost 30%.

After Christmas, our food bills were running at just over £60 a week for our family of four, but I was keen to cut them further.

In the end, after scribbling shopping lists, looking up recipes, making meal plans, staring at cupboard contents, ekeing out ingredients and plenty of half term picnics, our food bills came down to just under £43 a week.

So cutting food bills during February worked well for us, and I've put my top 10 tips from the frugal food challenge at the end of this post.


CUPBOARD COMPARISON

The key to cutting costs was trying to use as much as possible of the food we already had in our cupboards, fridge and freezer.

I made a big effort to use up odd and abandoned ingredients shoved to the back of shelves and forgotten in the freezer. I had a go at using up stocks last July, but there was still some stuff left (post about the storecupboard stock check challenge here).

Here's some fascinating photos of what our kitchen looked like before and afterwards:

Main food cupboard - before

Main food cupboard afterwards - a lot lighter on tins, rice and pasta

Big fridge before
Big fridge afterwards- barer shelves,more boxes of leftovers

Freezer before
Freezer afterwards - very little left
Small fridge before

Small fridge afterwards - even fewer bottles and cans

Top of the green cupboard before

Top of the green cupboard afterwards - less cereal, no onions, still some potatoes and fruit

Mantelpiece before

Mantelpiece afterwards - finally, the spaghetti is finished!

SPENDING SUMMARY

After checking the contents of our kitchen, and plugging it into my whizzy spreadsheet, here's the summary of what we bought during February, and what we had left.

Week 1 
Food bought: £68.55
Food left at end Feb: £2.68

Week 2 
Food bought: £28.37
Food left at end Feb: £0.11

Week 3
Food bought: £38.59
Food left at end Feb: £2.02

Week 4
Food bought: £41.48
Food left at end Feb: £8.42

Total for whole of February
Food bought: £176.99
Food left at end Feb: £13.24
Food bought & used during Feb: £163.75
Food bought / week: £42.72
Food bought & used / week: £39.53

So during the month of February we spent £177 to feed our family of four, which averages out at just under £43 a week. Compared to the £60 a week we spent during January, we have cut our food bills by nearly 30%.

Of that, we've actually eaten just under £40 worth a week in addition to the food we already had in the house.

I had hoped to cut costs further using supermarket vouchers, but fate intervened.
Somehow Morrisons, the Co-op and Sainsbury's all held back on any money-off vouchers during February.
Then of course at the beginning of March I got sent a set of "£2 off a £20 spend" offers from both the Co-op and Sainsbury's - just too late to be of any use for February's food spending challenge. Pah.


TOP 10 TIPS FROM FEBRUARY'S FRUGAL FOOD CHALLENGE

Here's what I learnt from our efforts to cut our food bills during February:

1) Cut back, but keep cooking
Making a concerted effort to shop and cook for less really did make a dent in our food spending, even though I kept on with pretty normal family meals with plenty of fruit and veg.
However, it did take time. I think one of the main reasons are food costs are so low is because I do a lot of cooking, rather than relying on ready meals.

2) Switch to cheaper options 
When shopping, I kept an eye on the price per kilo, and focused on buying cheaper options.
So with fruit and veg for example, I bought things like carrots, onions, apples and plums rather than more exotic offerings, and included some tinned fruit. That's why I was particularly glad to find some yellow-stickered strawberries and avocadoes in the last week, as I'd been avoiding the expense earlier.
We also cut costs by eating several vegetarian meals each week, and bulking out smaller quantities of fish and meat with plenty of veg.

3) Combine different odds and ends
Some stuff was stuck at the back of the storecupboard because there wasn't quite enough for a meal.
I did things like cooking two different kinds of pasta in the same pan, to make enough for everyone, or serving each person different leftovers at a single meal.
If we ran out of one ingredient, I tried to use something else instead, rather than simply replacing it - so I used granulated sugar when baking some favourite biscuits, rather than my standard soft brown sugar, and they tasted crunchy but fine.
We ended up with some slightly odd combinations, in attempts to consume less favoured ingredients, and not all experiments were successful.
Using up leftover mincemeat in flapjack was delicious, but my attempt at dahl with yellow split peas was not.

4) Take the time to use up abandoned ingredients
Planning meals made a big difference to both costs and using up assorted abandoned ingredients. Surprise, surprise, if there's stuff lingering too long in your kitchen, there's usually a reason. Typically either we didn't really like it, or I didn't really know how to cook it, or we needed to buy something specific to make it edible.
During February, I finally took the time to look up suitable recipes.
Making a list of my top 10 abandoned ingredients (see the end of this post) worked well, and helped focus my efforts at the end of the month.

5) Be prepared and plan ahead
In fact planning in general made our food bills less expensive. On occasions when I can see food will be expensive, I try to plan ahead. So for example we took picnics with us when heading out for half term, to eat in an assortment of cars, trains, buses and museum picnic rooms when weather was too cold.
I know the kids will be ravenous after swimming lessons, so I pack some multi-pack crisps and drinks in the swimming bag, rather than resorting to the vending machines.
When a whole horde of cousins descended for Saturday lunch half way through February, I wondered if was going to scupper my attempts to keep costs low.
However, we have visitors on a regular basis, so I tend to stock up on suitable food when shopping.
I planned a meal round ingredients we already had, including a bargain bit of roast beef stashed at the back of the freezer for just such occasions, and finished with bread & butter pudding made from the left over panettone on my hit list.

6) Buy what you need, not what's run out
We only made inroads into the unwanted ingredients once I switched to buying specific extras to make the most of the food in the house, rather than automatically restocking stuff that ran out.
(For more on how (not) to shop for a frugal food challenge, read about my bumbling efforts in the first few days of February here.)
Sticking to a shopping list and buying limited amounts also meant we didn't waste much, because it all got eaten.

7) Stop shopping!
The other revelation that is hardly-earth shattering was that if I wanted to stop spending so much on food, I really did need to stop going to the shops. Even cut-price yellow-stickered bargains add up.

8) Clearing space, getting rid of guilt
Now I can open the cupboards, fridge and freezer without getting glimpses of food that makes me feel guilty, because we really should get round to doing something with it.
Throwing away half-used packets and frozen remnants would have seemed a waste of money and resources, so I'm glad we were able to eat them instead.
Also, we no longer risk life and limb when stuff falls out of overstocked cupboards!
Now I have much more space to fill with food we actually like to eat. Recently I was able to bag a bargain leg of lamb, safe in the knowledge there was space in the freezer to keep it for a special occasion.

9) Blogging saves money
No, really. Writing about my attempts to cut our food bills made me hesitate before putting extra items in my shopping trolley, especially later in the challenge. So I suppose you could say the blog itself helped save money!
However, it did create some pent up demand. I rushed out on March 1 to buy some celebratory ice cream, safe in the knowledge I wouldn't have to post a picture of it...

10) Short term benefits
Making a big effort in February made a dent in our food costs, but some of the food used up will now need replacing. (But only some - I won't be buying any more dried borlotti beans in a hurry, after it took 7 years to use up the last packet.)
Although I did fork out for essential ingredients like flour, cereal and stock cubes when we ran out, I put off buying other staples like tomato puree, vinegar, sugar and soy sauce until after the end of the month. Our food bills in March will definitely be higher, but hopefully I can continue with some of our cost-saving measures.

Anyone else have any top tips for a storecupboard challenge, using up the odd and abandoned ingredients stashed at the back of your kitchen?

Anyone else willing to give it a whirl?

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Cutting food bills in February - final week

Using up frozen puff pastry:
roasted veg tarte tatin with blue cheese

During February, I had the grand plan of trying to spend less while eating more healthily.

Yet I started the last week of February raring to get to the shops.
Why? Because during half term we had cleared our kitchen of virtually all fresh food, and I was keen to fill up on fruit and veg.

However, I still wanted to keep an eye on our food costs, and delayed any supermarket shopping until Tuesday evening.

This meant I started Monday morning with banana-free porridge (run out of bananas), ate soup from the freezer with leftover dahl and a defrosted brown roll with cream cheese for lunch, returned to the freezer to feed the children (fishfingers and the last of some frozen mixed veg, plus potato wedges from the bottomless sack) and then used leftover roast chicken and chicken stock from the freezer to make chicken and (frozen) pea risotto with cherry tomatoes and cucumber as a side salad (run out of lettuce).

After poached eggs for breakfast on Tuesday morning (run out of milk), I even made a quick trip to the library after the school run, in search of recipe inspiration for the remaining ingredients.

This meant I could make a shopping list focused on the last few meals to get us to the end of February.

SHOPPING

After making my shopping list, I nipped into the Co-op before the main trip to Morrisons, and was delighted to find several of the items in the reduced sections, like apples, lemons and hot cross buns.

Plundering the yellow-stickered stuff meant I could load up on more exotic options, from strawberries to vine-ripened tomatoes, avocadoes and even Cambazola blue cheese. At full price, it should have cost £11.07, rather than the £4.32 I spent.

Bargain haul from the Co-op: £4.32

Later in Morrisons I was still keen to include more variety, and came away with red cabbage, butternut squash and taramasalata for a change, as well as staples like milk, bread, yogurt, cheese, eggs and tinned tomatoes.


Main shop at Morrisons: £30.24

I tried to avoid further spending, but did pick up some odds and ends at the Co-op during the rest of the week - reduced apples and cucumbers (75p), a reduced yellow pepper and some reduced cubed lamb for a celebration meal (£2.58) and a couple of big bottles of milk (£2).


Co-op: £2.58
Co-op: 75p

























On Sunday we went out for the paper, and splashed out 50p on a packet of Jaffa cakes as rampant bribery to encourage the children on a country walk.

In total, our food spending in the final week of February came to a bit higher than I'd hoped, at £41.48.

ABANDONED INGREDIENTS

At the start of the month, I made a hit list of the ingredients pushed to the back of the store cupboard and lingering in the freezer (post here).

In the final week I made a concerted effort, and used the chicken stock to make risotto and cous cous to accompany tagine made with the cut-price lamb.

The real success was using up the leftover mincemeat to make flapjack (highly recommended, although admittedly not the healthiest lunch...). Unfortunately my second attempt at dahl, using some of the yellow split peas, was nowhere near as nice.


Final farewell to the Quorn mountain

We demolished the final remains of the Quorn mountain by using the chicken pieces in a stir fry with noodles (I liked it, the kids were less keen) and eating the sausages with mash and red cabbage one lunch time.

I was also glad to use up the end of a packet of borlotti beans (sausage casserole) and odds and ends of frozen veg in the freezer.

MEALS

The general themes in our final week were stretching the remains of the enormous chicken, and using up as much as possible for everything else.

The bargain chicken I couldn't resist buying the first week ended up making multiple meals. It started off as a Sunday roast for the whole family, but there was enough left to make chicken risotto the next night for my husband and me, and a chicken pasta bake a couple of nights later, with a portion for a packed lunch afterwards.
It also came in handy for other packed lunches, once as cold chicken with leftover mash and veg, and once as a chicken sandwich.
So in the end the single 1.8kg chicken formed the basis of meals for 11 servings.

One of the highlights was the roasted veg tarte tatin, pictured at the top of the post, eaten with a green salad. It used up the last of a packet of puff pastry and assorted veg, and the yellow-stickered Cambazola gave it a real lift.

We also ate some slightly strange meals - the whole family ended up eating fishfingers, wedges and beans one night, and one of our last lunches involved a ham sandwich for my son, a cheese sandwich for my daughter, the last carrot, cumin and kidney bean burger for my husband, and the Quorn sausages with leftover mash and red cabbage for me.

We finished the month with veggie curry, as a way to use up elderly cauliflower with some carrots, onion and the last of a jar of Patak's curry paste. More virtuous than delicious, I reckon.

Anyone else had any triumphs or disasters when using up ingredients from the back of their cupboards, fridge and freezer?

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Cheapo fitness - Couch to 5K

Running - no fancy fitness equipment needed

As a way of getting fit, I do not recommend drinking too much and telling your friend that sure, you'll run the marathon with them.

(Although to be fair, we were talking about a marathon next year, rather than next month. I wasn't that drunk).

However, it did focus my mind on my rather sparse fitness regime. And by sparse, I mean non-existent.

I have at various times in my life done assorted sports, most of which are currently ruled out due to needing a team, pricey equipment, expensive membership, loads of time, far off facilities or a higher temperature. I'm not joking about the temperature - Hadleigh swimming pool is handy but frosty, unless you're sitting at the side watching your children's swimming lessons, in which case it is roughly as hot as a sauna.

Realistically when it comes to getting fit on a minimal budget, I'm looking at running.

Now, I am not a natural runner.

I cannot sprint to save my life, and when forced into the 800m race during school sports day, I was lapped by other competitors.

My physique is hardly suited to running. When attempting to train for a long-ago sponsored race in a local park, a group of teenage girls shouting encouraging comments along the lines of "wear a sports bra". Embarrassingly, I already was. So much for training - I ended up as the woman who walked the Race for Life.

Subsequently, when my son started nursery and I had a few hours child-free, I did attempt to get out running. I even got as far as one of the specialist shops that video you from unflattering angles and flog you expensive running shoes. (I am reliably informed this is officially known as "gait analysis". All I know is that I'm glad I don't usually see the back view of me running).
In one of life's little ironies I then promptly got blisters not from running but a long walk, and by the time they'd healed I got out of any running routine.

So now I'm back at square one, and recognise that running itself is free, the equipment is minimal, you can do it straight from your front door and there are loads of free training programmes out there.

I have even attempted a couple of running programmes in the past, and can recommend Couch to 5K.

There's an assortment of Couch to 5K apps and podcasts out there from different providers, but the basic idea is that the programme takes you from a coach potato to running 5 kilometres in 9 weeks, just by committing about half an hour three times a week. Realistically, you may need to add a whole load of time after the half hour for recovery, if your fitness level is currently closer to the couch than the 5K.

The real bonus is that you have someone in your ear, telling you when to start and stop running,  accompanied by enouraging music. This means you don't have to faff around with some kind of stop watch or timer, clasping a bit of paper and forgetting how many repetitions you've done.

I've started out on the NHS podcasts in the past, which have the benefit of simplicity. By this I mean there's nothing you can customise, and you won't recognise any of the music:
http://www.nhs.uk/livewell/c25k/pages/couch-to-5k.aspx

Anyway, now I've joined the 21st century by buying a smartphone, I can even download the podcasts onto my own device, rather than borrowing my husband's elderly iPod.

If you look at any motivational ads for running, all you seem to require is a fancy pair of trainers and a swishy ponytail and you're good to go.

However my attempts did not get off to the best start. It took me three days to actually start running, after a day full of good intentions but no action, and a second day when I entirely failed to find my fancy running shoes.

By day 3, I had finally managed to download podcasts onto my phone, and unearthed sports bras, sports socks, headphones and some tracksuit bottoms. I still can't find my running shoes, but I did discover some trainers, so elderly they are older than my children.

Despite the shocked disbelief shown by my husband, and my daughter's supportive comments ("But you're not ready to go out yet, you're still wearing your pyjamas...running clothes? But your trainers are WEIRD") I did finally manage to do my first Couch to 5K running session today.

I may have looked slightly odd, clasping a DVD alongside my water bottle and phone, until I'd run past the library to return it. I may have avoided any eye contact with passing pedestrians, joggers, dog walkers and a whole posse of hikers, especially when red in the face and yanking up the saggy elastic on my tracksuit bottoms.

But I did complete Day 1 of Week 1 of Couch to 5K.

Just another nine weeks to go.

Anyone else have any top tips on exercising without expense? I think I may need inspiration if I'm to get as far as a second session...

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Family favourite lemon drizzle cake

Lemon drizzle cake, shortly before it all disappeared

I intended to write a lengthy post all about the results of cutting our food bills during February, but got side-tracked by cooking (and eating) lemon drizzle cake.

Earlier this afternoon, my husband hustled the children off for a wood gathering trip, disguised as a country walk. With the recent chilly weather we've been running short of kindling for the wood burner, and the Railway Walk in Hadleigh is a great place to go looking.

It meant I could wade through assorted financial and school admin, but I also cooked a quick cake.
I reckon if you come back wet and muddy from a long walk, there's nothing like tucking into a hunk of cake still warm from the oven.

Lemon drizzle cake is one of my favourites, because it is so easy to cook, and doesn't require any fancy icing.

Luckily the cake came out light and fluffy, and I just about had time to take the photo above before the whole lot disappeared.

So if anyone else is looking for a cheap and cheerful crowd-pleasing cake, I recommend this one.
It is not remotely gluten free, or sugar free, or diet-friendly, or fashionable - it just tastes great.

Lemon Drizzle Cake

Ingredients - cake

4oz / 112g Stork or softened butter, plus a bit extra to grease the tin.
6oz / 170g  caster sugar (or pretty much any sugar, it'll just be a bit more crunchy with granulated sugar)
6oz / 170g self raising flour
1 level teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons / 45ml milk
Zest of a lemon

Ingredients - topping

3oz / 85g caster sugar (again, granulated is fine)
Juice of the lemon

Cost - £1 for a cake that really should serve 8 to 12, but rarely does

Based on using Stork margarine (£2 for 1kg box), granulated sugar (55p for 1kg), value range self-raising flour (45p for 1.5kg), baking powder (£1 for 170g on offer), Morrisons mixed weight free range eggs (£2 for 15), milk (£1 for a big 2.272ml bottle) and a lemon (£1.26 for a bag of five)

Budget tips

This is quite a low budget cake because you can make it with granulated sugar without mishap, and it only uses two eggs, topped up with some milk.
You can also use bottled lemon juice in the topping.
Part of the reason I made this cake today was because we had half a lemon knocking around in the fridge, plus the other half that I'd juiced for a different recipe. I grated the zest off both lemon halves, juiced the one that still had any juice, and topped up the lemon juice with bottled stuff.

Method

1) Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees C or gas mark 3.

2) I use a half size roasting tin for this recipe, about 17cm by 23cm at the base, but a round cake tin would work fine.
To make sure the cake will come out without sticking, put the tin on some greaseproof paper, draw round the base, and cut out the resulting shape.
Then grease the bottom and sides of the tin with a bit of Stork, pop the greaseproof paper into the bottom of the tin, and grease that too.

3) Mix all the cake ingredients together. Yup, the whole lot - Stork, sugar, flour, baking powder, eggs, milk and lemon zest.
It's particularly easy if you've got a food processor, and can chuck the whole lot in, turn it on, and stand well back.

4) Scrape out the resulting cake batter into the greased tin. Make ineffectual attempts to spread it out evenly across the bottom of the tin.

5) Put in a pre-heated oven and leave to cook. My original handwritten scrawl dictated by my mother reckons it needs to cook for about 50 minutes, and maybe a bit less if you have a fan oven.
Now I'm trying to coax cakes out of an elderly Aga, I put the tin on a grid shelf on the bottom of the roasting oven, with the cold shelf on runners above it, and it takes 20 minutes at whatever heat that is.

6) While the cake is cooking, measure the sugar for the topping into a glass, and mix in the lemon juice. It should end up quite a thick liquid, rather than really runny.

7) When the cake looks golden brown on top, bounces back a bit when touched with your finger, and the edges of the cake have shrunk away slightly from the sides of the tin, whip it out.
Before it cools, stab the top of the cake at regular intervals with a cocktail stick or skewer (this allows the lemon drizzle topping to seep into the cake). Spoon over the lemon juice / sugar topping, encouraging it to run all over the top of the cake.

8) Leave the cake for about 10 minutes, so it can cool down a bit, and the topping becomes a bit crunchy. When you want to turn it out, slip a knife round between the side of the tin and the edge of the cake to increase the chance it will come out of the tin cleanly.
Then turn out the cake onto a clean hand or a clean tea towel, strip the greaseproof paper off the bottom, and put it on a cooling rack to finish cooling.

9) Fight your family to eat large chunks while it's still warm. Resolve to start your diet, or resume any sugar-free marlarkey, tomorrow.

What are your favourite family friendly cakes? I'd love some inspiration!

Friday, 4 March 2016

Getting out in the garden

Daffodils in the sunshine

Recently with all the brilliant blue skies and crisp cold sunshine, I managed to get out into the garden to do some clearing up.

I live in hope that if I can do some weeding now, it will stand me in good stead later in the year. Apart from anything else, it's a lot easier to get at the weeds before the main plants explode into growth.

Bed to the right of the front door: before

I started off on one side of the front door, keen to remove some of the dead leaves, and let the bulbs underneath grow up.

While I was working, a cheeky blackbird came to chance his arm at any worms uncovered during the digging. He was so tame that he'd perch only a foot away from me, occasionally fluttering away if I moved suddenly, but always returning.


The blackbird with a keen interest in gardening

After the hacking back, pruning, deadheading and digging out, the flower bed did look a bit better. Even turns out there were quite a few primroses and snowdrops underneath everything else!

Ta dah, bed to the right of the front door afterwards

It didn't feel like I'd cleared out particularly much, but it still seemed to fill a pretty big garden waste bag.

Whole bag of weeds and dead leaves

My sporadic efforts at gardening usually seem to be driven either by people coming to visit, or the garden waste removal once a fortnight, or a combination of both.

In Hackney, the garden bin was emptied for free. Here in Suffolk, we have to pay the local authority £40 a year to empty a big wheelie bin of garden waste every other week. This tends to focus my mind on making sure they actually have something to remove!

The next bed I tackled, a couple of weekends later, was in the back garden.

Bed by the cellar window: before

This particular flower bed, next to the steps down from the back door, has been infiltrated by an army of grass, keen to annex the bed as another part of the lawn.

The odd shard of roof tile is one of many clay tiles and red bricks I've heaved out of assorted flower beds here, there and everywhere.

The pots at the front are perched on top of a large slab of York stone. Underneath is the original Georgian well, with brickwork spiralling down to the water level. I've only seen it once (that slab is hefty) and took a couple of pretty rubbish photos, but this might give you some idea.


Well underneath the flower bed ,
with sunlight reflecting off the water right at the bottom. 

I was glad to see the blackbird back again, to supervise my attempts, and stock up on worms.
Anyway after a sustained effort at removing grass and brambles, it was even possible to see some of the earth undeneath.


Bed by the cellar window: afterwards

Hopefully at some stage I'll get the chance to go back and do the other end of these flower beds...

Anyone else taking the chance to tidy up outside while the weather is bright and breezy?