Saturday, 27 August 2016

Top tips for thrifty packed lunches


Sometimes my summer holidays come straight out of a Victoria Wood sketch: "72 baps Connie - you slice, I'll spread".

Yup, it's all about sandwich making.

Summer is high season for packed lunches in our household, in our quest for living on less and making the most of it.

Almost every time you read an article about saving money, it mentions packed lunches - at work, on outings, on holiday. That's because packed lunches really do represent serious savings. 

Think about it - even if you only spend £5 a head in a cafe or sandwich shop, that's £20 for a family of four. Try that for four days a week, for six weeks of the summer holidays, and suddenly you've shelled out almost £500. Ouch.

So if you'd rather spend your cash on fun stuff not food stuff, here are my tried-and-tested tips for thrifty packed lunches.

Time vs money
As with much of life, it's a trade off between saving time or saving money.
Buying pre-packaged food is quicker, but will almost always cost more than if you make it yourself.
Splashing out on a box of quiche, fancy crisps, dips, packet of biscuits, can of Coke and a pot of melon and grapes is going to set you back a lot more than throwing together a ham sandwich and adding an apple, own-brand crisps, bottle of tap water and home-made cookie.

As an example, a quick and basic kid's packed lunch can cost less than 75p:
(prices from Morrisons, just because it's near me)

20p for a couple of thin slices of sandwich ham (£1 for 125g with 10 slices)
10p for a couple of slices of bread (if splashing out £1 for a loaf with 20 slices)
5p for a bit of butter (250g own brand butter for 87p)
14p crisps (pack of 6 own brand crisps for 85p)
20p apple (bag of 5 for £1)
6p for a couple of raisin cookies (blog post with costing here, using 50g raisins in recipe here).

Prefer buying to baking? Grab a pack of Clubs, Penguins or Kitkats when they're on offer at £1 for 8, so 12.5p each, and it would still cost less than 82p.

Multipacks are your friend
As you can tell from the example above, I'm keen on multipacks for producing packed lunches.
Bulk buying is almost always cheaper than buying individual items.
I stock up on multipacks of crisps, yogurts, fruit, fromage frais tubes, juice cartons and biscuits (anyone else get nostalgic when faced with a Penguin or an orange Club biscuit? Just me then?).
A stash in the cupboard also means you can grab stuff quickly for any last minute outings.

Child-friendly fillings
Making our own sandwiches means that everyone in our family gets something they actually want to eat.
The only acceptable sandwich for one child involves medium cheddar (not mature), grated, with none of that pickle nonsense. Dead easy to make at home, tricky when faced with a menu that only offers artisanal cheddar cheese on rye with rocket and lovingly crafted chutney.
Yet if my husband feels like eating salami and blue cheese, that's fine and dandy too.

Cheap and cheerful sandwich options
I try to ring the changes with assorted different fillings (apart from the grated cheese fanatic): ham, tuna, hummous, egg mayo, salami or on special occasions soft cheese & smoked salmon (look out for value ranges, smoked salmon sandwich slices or offers).
Additions like mango chutney, mayonnaise, onion chutney, pickle and mustard can liven up the taste for the adults.

Bring out the bread
Sure, the mainstay of our packed lunches is sliced bread.
But if we're off on holiday, and doing a lot of packed lunches, I'll throw in alternatives like rolls, burger buns, pitta bread, value range part-bake baguettes, bagels, wraps and sandwich thins. My sister's children love oatcakes. Mine don't.

Sandwich alternatives
If you can't face another sandwich, other options that work for us include;
- sausage rolls or mini sausages
- cheese scones. Cheap, cheerful and quick to make. Best baked on the same day you want to eat them, or bake and freeze.
- quiche, if your kids will eat it. One of mine will, one won't. Curses.
- pasta salad with tuna, mayo and assorted chopped veg like tomato and peppers
- greek salad pasta (pasta with tomato, cucumber, olives and value range feta aka "greek cheese"). 
- couscous with roasted veg like peppers, red onions, courgette and butternut squash, topped with more chopped feta
- chicken drumsticks, roasted the day before then chilled

My kids aren't overly keen on sliced veg in sandwiches, but they'll chew on a chunk of cucumber or some cherry tomatoes if offered separately. 
As a nod to health, I also take along a bag of chopped veg like carrot sticks, celery sticks, sliced peppers and even apple slices. 

When it comes to fruit, apples and satsumas travel well, and I take melon slices, grapes and strawberries in boxes. When on offer in summer, soft fruit like peaches, nectarines and plums can be good, even if messy. I've given up on bananas, after one too many squashed brown disasters. 

Even multipack juice cartons soon add up, so often we take refillable water bottles. If your kids are clamouring for variety, fill them with some sugar-free squash. My children love Fruit Shoots, but I'm only prepared to buy them on special offer, and have been known to substitute own-brand squash (shush, don't tell them). 

The odd pack of ready-salted isn't going to hurt anyone, but you might not want to take some every day. One super-cheap alternative is home-made popcorn, shovelled into freezer bags.

If you want to avoid warm yogurt, stick a few yogurt tubes in the freezer. Bung them in the packed lunch bag in the morning, and they'll defrost by lunch time, while keeping everything else cool too. 

Treats aka rampant bribery
Adding something sweet can provide an incentive to eat the healthy stuff, and will also help beat back demands for the tea shop.
I genuinely like baking, so often include quick and easy stuff like choc chip or raisin cookies, fruit scones, lemon drizzle cake, banana cake, flapjack or muffins. I also keep a bag of hot cross buns or teacakes in the freezer as back up.
Sometimes I even get organised enough to make jelly in little plastic boxes with lids, left over from weaning.

Max out the microwave
Microwaves can unleash a whole new world of packed lunch options, although admittedly they're a bit tricky to take on a family outing.
However, if you're taking a packed lunch to work, take advantage of any microwave available. Soups, pies and stews provide welcome relief from a sandwich treadmill.
I often cook extra food for dinner, so my husband can take a box of leftovers for lunch the next day.
One caveat - best to avoid strong smelling curries and fish pie for the sake of office harmony.

Caught short?
If you're out and about without a packed lunch, search for a supermarket.
Buying a meal deal or assorted rolls, filling and fruit, will almost always cost less than in a cafe or sandwich shop.
Nipping in for multipack ice creams or lollies can also cut costs on hot days.

What are your favourite packed lunch items? Any suggestions for more frugal food?

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Drumroll recipe index

Recipe inspiration! (although in the interests of full disclosure,
only one of those shelves is actually cookery books)

Just a quick one, to let you know that I've added a page listing all the recipes on this blog.

In a triumph of technology, there is now a whole second page on the website. Yes really. 

And then I got even more carried away, and added a third page called "In The Press", in case anyone wants to see what I've been writing elsewhere.

So if you look at the top of the blog, under the big "Much More With Less" headline, you should see the innovation of tabs for "Home", "Recipes" and "In The Press".

This means that if you've been racking your brains thinking: "I'm sure there was a recipe for cookies/ kedgeree/cordial" or even pizza/roast pork/pancakes, there's an easier way to track it down.

I've arranged the recipes into Savoury, Soups, Sweet and Live Below the Line, rather than a mish mash of everything, so fingers crossed that's helpful,

As I say on the recipe page, I'm a big fan of quick and easy recipes, using low cost ingredients. 

Some recipes I chuck together myself, but I also love trying out new recipes from a whole hoard of books, blogs, websites, magazines and supermarket recipe cards.

Where I've cooked other people's food, I've tried to include links to both my blog post and the original recipe where possible.

Over to you now - anything I've mentioned cooking where you'd like the recipe? Or just areas where you're keen to track down cheap and cheerful, fuss-free ideas?

Friday, 19 August 2016

Top 10 frugal things we did on our holiday

Hurrah for holidays

We're now back from two glorious weeks in Dorset, for a full-on bucket and spade, bring on the beaches, add ice cream kind of family holiday.

If you follow me on Instagram, you might already have seen a few flower photos from places we visited - do come over and say hi.

Holidays can be really expensive, when you add up all the food, outings, tickets, toys and the sack of coins just for parking.

Sure, with all the family outings we spent more than a normal couple of weeks at home. True to form however, I still took a money saving approach.

I intended to write a nice, quick post, but then got a bit carried away.

So here's a summary list of the top 10 things we did to cut the cost of a fun family holiday, with more below if you'd like extra details and pics!

Top 10 Tips for a Frugal Family Holiday

1. Prepare for packed lunches. Save a small fortune compared to eating out every time.
2. Bring on the beaches. Fun for hours with waves, sand, shells and games - when sunny.
3. Bag board games from charity shops. Stock up on entertainment at pocket money prices.
4. Go to the cinema for less. Plan A for rainy days, with inexpensive children's showings.
5. Locate the local library. Warm & dry with wifi, plus borrow books on a visitor's card.
6. Make the most of membership. Joined English Heritage or the National Trust? Use it.
7. Save with vouchers... Swap loyalty points for tickets & look out for "kids go free" vouchers,
8, ...and book online in advance. Save by booking beforehand, don't just rock up on the day.
9. Hang on to annual tickets. Just in case you do get the chance to return.
10. Check out church fetes. Cheap books, cheaper toys, cream teas, brass bands & raffles. Fab.

Yummy flapjack for packed lunches.
It's got oats and raisins, so pretend it's healthy.

1. Prepare for packed lunches
Yes even on holiday - especially on holiday - I made packed lunches whenever we went out for the day.
Taking your own food can save a small fortune, compared to the cost of eating out every time.
Cheese sandwiches, ham baguettes, bagels with cream cheese and hunks of quiche - we tried them all. (Post with top tips on thifty packed lunches here)
Taking packed lunches also left more in the budget for ice creams all round afterwards.
Plus it made the one lunch out with the grandparents, at the highly-recommended Hive Cafe, particularly special.

Sun, sea and shingle at Lulworth Cove. Just beautiful.

2. Bring on the beaches
Even the most screen-hardened, tech loving children might still be prepared to enjoy themselves on a sunny beach.
For the cost of a few pounds for parking, we spent hours on assorted beaches along the truly beautiful Dorset coast, from Lulworth Cove to West Bay via Charmouth, the Hive beach and Church Ope Cove.
The kids could paddle, jump over waves and even occasionally brave swimming. We lugged along buckets and spades for essential sandcastle building, hole digging, human burial, mermaid creation, beach decoration and stone collecting, with the odd attempt at fossil hunting. Add in a ball, a kite or a frisbee and you're away.
Thank goodness the weather was kind.
And thank goodness my children are now 6 and 8, so I could sometimes take a break with a book, rather than leaping up every two minutes to rein in toddlers set on certain death.

Bridport: a fine source of charity shops.

3. Bag board games from charity shops
The beaches were fab, but as ever with a holiday in England, it's not realistic to rely on constant sunshine.
Charity shops are a great place to stock up on low-cost entertainment for rainy days.
Before we left, I picked up a new board game, Othello, for £2.50 from our local Sue Ryder shop, which generated much family rivalry.
While away, doling out a couple of quid to your kids to spend in charity shops can be a great way to keep them busy, and get much more for their money.
We spent a happy morning pottering round the fine charity shops in Bridport, where my son insisted on buying a travel version of Connect 4.
Best 75p ever spent, as it kept us all quiet for ages and even came in handy on car journeys.

Finding Dory: the joys of marketing campaigns for children

4. Go to the cinema for less
Our plan A for a rainy day is always to head to the local cinema.
If you can lever yourself out of bed, tickets for early morning children's film showings can be super cheap. Think from £1.80 a ticket at Cineworld Movies for Juniors, £1.99 at Vue's Mini Movies or £2.50 with Odeon Kids, for films a few months after their initial release.
We headed into Dorchester, and splashed out an entire £3 a head to see a current release - Finding Dory. Bargain.

In Burton Bradstock, even the library looked picturesque.

5. Locate the local library
Libraries are another great option when the weather is rubbish - warm and dry with wifi, and plenty of books and comics to keep the children (briefly) occupied.
Even if you're on holiday, most libraries will issue a temporary card so you can borrow stuff too. Admittedly, it does help if you can remember to take along ID like a driving licence, and proof of address such as a recent utility bill.
We borrowed a shedload of books from Bridport Library while my husband did the Palmer's Brewery tour, and acquired a family friendly DVD (We Bought a Zoo) for 50p donation to the Burton Bradstock branch.

Posing up a storm in dressing up clothes at Portland Castle

6. Make the most of membership
If you've forked out to join English Heritage or the National Trust, it's worth checking if there's anywhere to visit near your holiday destination.
Once you've paid the subscription, you can rock up at whatever combination of castles, forts, country houses or gardens you fancy. The National Trust also owns great chunks of the coastline, so that car sticker can bring free parking, handy for Burton Bradstock, the nearest beach.
I negotiated a cheaper rate when renewing our annual family membership with English Heritage (£74 rather than £92.50), and we visited Lulworth Castle and Portland Castle while away. Tickets would otherwise have cost £16 and £13.70 respectively, for a family of four. If we visit Audley End now we're home, we'll have covered the annual membership, and any other visits to English Heritage sites will then effectively be free.
If you're signing up for the first time, always check if there are online discounts on offer, and see if there is any cashback on offer via sites like TopCashback and Quidco.
(More details about cashback in a previous post)
Thankfully, many English Heritage and National Trust properties are immeasurably more child-friendly than my memories of dusty guy ropes and guided tours. Loads nowadays have trails to follow and lots of stuff you can touch, push, play with or dress up in. We particularly liked the interactive booming cannon exhibit at Portland Castle and the bat hunt and exhausting spacehoppers at Lulworth Castle.

Anyone found Nemo yet? Nope? Moving on...

7. Save with vouchers...
There are only so many worthy castles and libraries two children can take.
One of the highlights of the holiday for our offspring was a trip to the Sea Life Adventure Park in Weymouth.
Luckily, you can often get cheaper entry to theme parks and assorted Merlin Attractions like the Sea Life centres by using Nectar points, Tesco Clubcard points or vouchers from branded food. Kellogg's, Birds Eye and KitKat have all run promos in recent years.
Last year I hoarded "adults go free" vouchers on cereal packets so we could go to Legoland (post about visiting Legoland on a budget here).
This year, we invested in Kellogg's cornflakes to get two free adult tickets to  Sea Life.
It's hardly a cheap day out, as even with the vouchers, the tickets still cost £47 for the four of us. This compares to prices from £75 when booked in advance, or from £94 if you show up on the day.
However, we did spend a good 5 hours there, and entry includes a trip up the Jurassic Skyline tower on Weymouth sea front.
The Sea Life centre itself is part aquarium, part theme park.
The children ran around gathering stamps in a little booklet at all the different exhibits of fish, sea creatures and other animals, including seals, otters and penguins. They were also given cardboard goggles and a sheet about spotting "Finding Dory" characters.
The site also includes a few gentle rides like a crocodile splash roller coaster, some seaside amusements like 2p coin drops, and a big water play area with slides, squirters and a large barrel that empties cold water down your neck.

Sarah Jane, the flying trapeze artist, with the ringmaster.

8. ...and book online in advance
While we were out and about, we picked up a voucher for Chaplin's Circus which was visiting Bridport during our holiday, and decided to splash the cash on a family-friendly evening out.
By booking online beforehand, and using the voucher code for free children's seats, our tickets cost £28.
If we'd rocked up at the box office, the same tickets would have cost £50 including booking fees.
The circus was tiny but lovely, with 1920s costumes and no animals.
The acts included glamorous ladies on a slack rope, spinning hoop, silks and flying trapeze, plus a fire eater / juggler, a ring master who was also an escapologist and the endearing clown, Twiglet.
My daughter was particularly delighted to win the raffle after the interval, and the inflatable beach ball and plaster animal moulds were particularly successful.

Mish mash of re-enactors when we used our annual ticket to Bovington Tank Museum

9. Hang on to annual tickets
Some attractions charge an arm and a leg, and then justify it by selling you an annual ticket, and encouraging you to come back lots of times (London Transport Museum, I'm looking at you).
Fine if you live down the road, not such great value if you're only in the area on holiday.
My advice: hang on to the ticket, just in case.
Last year during our solid week of rain, we ended up at Bovington Tank Museum. This is about the nearest you can get to tank heaven, if you are that way inclined. We paid £35 for the privilege of seeing tanks in the dry, and an all-action tank display while somewhat damp.
Anyway, I not only managed to unearth the ticket before this year's holiday, but we also squeezed in a trip before it expired.
We rocked up on a Saturday afternoon and walked straight into the middle of a surreal pick'n'mix approach to armed conflict.
They were holding a "Warfare through the Ages" day, so the whole place was pullulating with tents and re-enactors, everything from Roundheads and the Cavaliers and the American Civil War, via Napoleonic cavalry soldiers to the First World War.
It was most odd seeing sixteenth century characters trying out sten guns, and some rather fetching waistcoats worn in the gift shop.
We were also presented with free copies of Britain at War magazine on leaving. Bonus.
PS My husband informs me that two of the tanks we saw driving around and firing their guns were Canadian Leopard tanks "and well worth seeing".

Grand haul from the church fete

10. Check out church fetes
Church fetes, school fairs, village shows - I love them all. So I was particularly delighted that the Burton Bradstock Church Fete took place during our stay.
I'm putting this under a money-saving activity because we came away with a fine haul of second hand books, toys, games and a belting £1 investment in the tombola which won us two bottles of beer and a fruit shoot.
It was a truly trad fete complete with bat the rat, white elephant stall, cream teas by the WI and a big brass band. Fabulous.

Brass band from the Burton Bradstock fete. Fabulous.

If you've managed to get this far - congratulations.

We really did enjoy our holiday, and even if wasn't super cheap, we did make some savings here and there.

What are your top tips for a thrifty family holiday? Best ideas for frugal fun? I'd love to know.