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How do busy people budget for a healthy family diet?

A new report has lifted the lid on how much the poorest people in Northern Ireland have to pay for food

By Helen Carson

Published 10/06/2015

Grocery shop: Heather Hall and Anna Dziadosz
Grocery shop: Heather Hall and Anna Dziadosz

Healthy eating made the headlines here recently when First Minister Peter Robinson suffered a suspected heart attack, then he revealed there were times when he had lived on a diet of junk food - but how many of us eat a good, nutritionally-balanced meal? And how much does it cost to eat a balanced diet every day?

The latest findings from a pioneering consumer-led report has revealed the cost of feeding ourselves well can be up to a third of our incomes. And separate research from the Consumer Council in Northern Ireland shows 43% of local people say they are worse off now than two years ago because of higher food prices, with some struggling to achieve a healthy, balanced diet.

The Cost of a Healthy Food Basket, which was conducted by safefood in partnership with the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland and the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, has lifted the lid on how much some of the most impoverished people in Northern Ireland will have to fork out for food.

According to the research, a pensioner living on their own should be spending £59 a week to ensure they are getting a nutritionally-sound diet, while a family of four - based on two adults and two children - should have a weekly food bill of £119 to stay healthy.

So, how do busy women balance the budget week-in, week-out, while managing to feed their families a healthy, balanced diet? Unemployed mum-of-four Heather Hall, from Sandy Row, says it isn't easy and she regularly has to make hard decisions when it comes to what her young family will be eating.

She says: "There are times when I think there won't be enough money to buy food to feed the five of us. I often find myself looking at the bottom of the freezer and thinking, 'There must be something else in there'."

Another local mum, Anna Dziadosz, who lives off Tates Avenue with her husband and two children who are under six-years-old, says she has learned to manage money so there is always enough to eat: "I work out the cost of everything first before doing an online supermarket shop at either Tesco, Asda or Sainsbury's."

Both women use supermarket loyalty schemes to accumulate points, discounts and money-off vouchers as well as bulk buying in-store offers on items they use regularly. They both cook all their meals from scratch in a bid to get the most out of every penny they spend on food.

Heather says: "I wish we had extreme couponing here like they have in America. I would definitely do that."

Both mums says their children use their weekly pocket money to buy treats such as sweets, with the majority of the weekly food budget being spent on grocery staples such as meat, fish, diary, vegetables, bread and fruit.

Heather Hall (35), lives in Sandy Row with her four children, Harry (14), Victoria (12), Max (five) and four-year-old Charlie. She is unemployed and currently studying for a Diploma in Reflexology. She says:

How often and where I shop for food depends on how much money I have in my weekly budget, so it could be a big weekly grocery shop or I will just buy enough for a few days at a time. If I have more than one bill coming in the same week, then a weekly shop sometimes isn't possible. There are times when I think there won't be enough money to buy food to feed the five of us. I often find myself looking at the bottom of the freezer and thinking, 'There must be something in there'.

I have four children, so if they need money for school trips then there is even more pressure on how much I can afford on food. If one of the children needs a pair of shoes, that is £30 gone in one week, just like that. I buy groceries in the supermarket - it's usually Tesco - and food such as fresh fish, meat, milk, fruit and vegetables are always on my shopping list. I always look out for offers and I will buy as many as I can and freeze them or stock up the cupboard. I use any money-off vouchers or coupons and always use my Tesco Clubcard to get points which will mean discounts off the food bill - that is all you can do when money is tight. 

Because I have four children I feel like I am constantly buying milk, both from the supermarket and the corner shop - we can go through three litres of milk in one day.

As soon as I buy milk it disappears from the fridge. It's the same with yoghurts, my children just devour them.

When it comes to fruit, I buy apples, bananas and oranges which the children will go through quite quickly, too.

I do buy fresh meat such as chicken, mince steak and lamb from my local butcher, but if it is on offer at the supermarket then I will definitely buy it there.

We eat all the usual vegetables - potatoes, cauliflower and carrots. I tend to always buy a bag of potatoes, even if the ready peeled ones are on offer and cheaper by weight - it's just the way I was brought up.

I cook and prepare our meals from scratch. I do feel we eat a good nutritional diet the majority of the time.

I make lasagne and the children love chicken strips in wraps or homemade pizza at the weekend for a treat. I don't like them to eat a lot of sweets because they are bad for their teeth - there is already a lot of added sugar in food, so I try to limit this day to day. I don't buy many sweet treats as the children tend to buy these for themselves with their pocket money."

Heather's shopping list

Whole fresh small chicken £3

Mince steak, 600g £4

Supermarket own brand frozen cod steaks, 500g £2.50

Potatoes, 2.5kg £1.68

Carrots 60p a kg

Fresh large cauliflower £1.35

Supermarket own brand semi-skimmed milk, 3.5litres £1.48

Fruit yoghurts, supermarket value brand, four 33p

Supermarket value brand Lasagne sheets 40p

Onions 78p a kg

Chef Beschamel sauce £1.80

Supermarket value brand tinned tomatoes, 400g 34p

Supermarket value brand cheese, medium block £3.08

apples, five pack, 80p

bananas, five pack 80p

oranges 30p each

Supermarket value brand sliced pan bread 45p

Heather’s average weekly grocery bill: £130-£150

Anna Dziadosz (26), originally from Poland, lives off Tates Avenue, Belfast, with her husband Sylvester, who works for a specialist paint company, and their two children, Michalina (6) and Kasper (4). She is a full-time cleaner at Windsor Women's Centre in south Belfast. The couple's joint weekly income before deductions is £450. She says:

I like to know how much money I spend on food so I make a list of the meals we want to eat for the week ahead, then another list with all the ingredients I need to buy. I work out the cost of everything first before doing an online supermarket shop at either Tesco or Asda or Sainsbury's, if I have money-off vouchers. I prefer to shop online as if I go to the shop, I will buy things that we don't need and spend more money.

In a typical week I would buy and cook a chicken for a roast dinner, then make sandwiches and soup with the leftovers to feed us the next day. We also like to eat meals like Spaghetti Bolognese and some Polish food, too. There is a good selection of Polish food in all the supermarkets now so it's very easy to get hold of.

A weekly shop usually includes five trays of meat - chicken, beef or pork, frozen fish, vegetables such as potatoes, fresh carrots, cabbage and turnip, frozen peas - we eat everything really. When it come to fruit it would be apples, pears, bananas and oranges which are bought daily. I look out for offers on things like strawberries, raspberries and blueberries as they tend to be very expensive. As a family we eat a lot of dairy, including milk and yoghurt, and my children love cottage cheese. I buy buttermilk for my husband and I as we love to drink it. Like Heather, the children buy sweets with their £2 a week pocket money which they usually spend on chocolate.

I bake a cake at the weekend - it's whatever my children want, sometimes it's chocolate or a fruit cake. I love cooking and baking, it is a joy to me. Again, we go through a lot of milk so I have started buying long life milk as my children drink it all, then there isn't enough for my coffee in the morning. I have started to hide the long life milk as they would drink that, too.

I feel that I am feeding my family well, but I do like to know how much I spend on food. I started to make lists when I realised the shopping bill was almost £200, that is why it is important to plan.

There are times when our budget is under pressure, and if I need to, I will go to Iceland and buy meals - a large cottage pie and a large lasagne will feed us for a week for £35.

Occasionally when my mother visits I will go to the Chinese supermarket and buy a five kilo box of chicken breasts which costs £20, most of which I freeze and the rest I will share with my mum and my brother as there is enough to go round."

Anna’s shopping list

Whole small chicken £3

Supermarket own brand frozen cod, 500g £2.50

Dried spaghetti pasta 75p

Mince steak, 600g £4

Supermarket value brand tinned tomatoes, 400g 34p

Supermarket value brand sliced pan loaf 45p

Onions 78p a kg

Potatoes, 2.5kg £1.68

Carrots, 1kg 60p

Cabbage 68p

Turnip £1

Frozen peas 89p

Bananas, five pack 80p

Apples, five pack £1.50

Oranges 30p each

Strawberries £3

Semi skimmed milk, 3.5 litres £1.48

Long life milk, 1 litre 65p

Supermarket value brand flour 45p

Eggs, 10 £1.50

Caster sugar, 500g 99p

Supermarket value brand butter, 250g 86p

Cocoa powder, 250g £1.99

Chocolate cake covering, 300g 67p

Supermarket value brand mixed fruit, 500g 95p

St Ivel buttermilk, 284ml 50p

Supermarket value brand cottage cheese, 300g 64p

Anna’s average weekly grocery bill: £100

Belfast Telegraph

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