Rising prices mean many families are struggling to pay the weekly food bill

After a Consumer Council report highlighted shoppers’ fears, two mums reveal just how much they spend

Helen Carson unpacking the shopping with the help of her son Pierce.
Helen Carson unpacking the shopping with the help of her son Pierce.
Avril Keys at home doing some online shopping on the computer with the help of her 4 year daughter Gemma

Rising prices and the recession mean we are all feeling the pinch, but a whopping 87% of Northern Ireland consumers are worried about the cost of food. Despite supermarket price wars, the cost of the weekly shop is now a huge concern.

Fears over how much we pay for food have now reached the stage where even middle class mums are having to think more about what they put in their trollies.

The latest findings from the Consumer Council of Northern Ireland Hard to Stomach report show that 82% of people here are making changes to how they shop, cook and eat in a bid to slash the weekly budget. A further 61% of people think supermarkets could do more to only charge a fair price, despite offers the big grocery chains tell us they have in store.

And it’s little wonder that people from all backgrounds are cutting corners as food shopping has gone up in price by £10-£30 more than this time last year, according to the Consumer Council.

“Our research has found that almost 9 in 10 consumers are worried about the cost of their food and groceries,” says Antoinette McKeown, chief executive of the Consumer Council. “It’s a concern that cuts across all ages, income brackets, cities, towns and villages.”

So, have BOGOFs (buy one get one free) passed their sell-by-date with multiple buys sometimes proving a false economy? We caught up with two local mums to find out how they balance their household budget with their families nutritional needs.

Avril (39), a fashion blogger, and Brian Keys (44), a financial services project manager currently out of work, live in Drumbeg with their three children Callum (8) and four-year-old twins Katie and Gemma. She says:

I do a big shop once a week always online at either Tesco or Sainsbury. My budget is £100 — I’ve never been able to get it below that. I shop online mid-week — if you spend over £100 at Sainsbury delivery is free whereas Tesco charges between £3 and £6.

I spend less when I shop online as when you go into a store you see offers and spend more than you intended.

As well as the main weekly shop, Brian and I would probably spend another £30-£50 during the week on things that run out, and fresh food that we need to buy more than once a week.

I make packed lunches for the kids as with three of them it is very expensive to pay for school meals. I’m at home anyway, so I’m able to cook a dinner for them in the afternoon.

My delivery is very similar week to week, with 80% of the same things. It would probably be cheaper to go to the butcher to buy meat, but for me doing that makes it harder to keep on top of a budget.

I always buy mince, chicken, sausages, fish and a whole chicken. The fish and chicken are always frozen, the cheaper cod and haddock are always fine when cooked in a pie.

I will make four to five days dinners from the meat, these are planned meals that are dishes made from scratch.

I do fish pie, chicken curry, lasagne or a shepherd’s pie.

Then we’ll have a ‘junk day’ when we have fish and chips, and it will be frozen fish and oven chips.

The rest of the week will comprise of leftovers and pasta.

Occasionally we make pizzas or scrambled eggs with beans because I think every mum should have one day a week when she doesn’t have to cook.

You do get bored making the same meals all the time, so something quick is perfect and it is what young children want to eat.

There’s no point spending money on something fancy. The children love spinach and ricotta filled pasta and I usually have one of those in the fridge if I don’t feel like cooking. I’ll serve it with a jar of tomato sauce.

I do a roast chicken dinner on a Sunday, and there is enough left over for dinners on Monday, so it is a good buy.

We’ve started having fajitas once a month as they are tasty and it is a bit different, but there isn’t enough in them for growing children. Occasionally I buy stewing steak and make a stew, but not every week.

Brian and I have a Chinese takeaway once a week and the children will have leftovers as they don’t eat Chinese food.

We go through so much fruit — I could buy twice as much as I do. My weekly online shop includes a bag of bananas, two bags of apples and two bags of those little oranges.

In summer I buy more as soft fruit, like strawberries, is cheaper. If I see fruit on offer I’ll buy it. Garages are good places for this, the last time I was out getting petrol I got a bag of apples for a pound.

I rarely buy fresh pineapple or grapes as they’re too expensive.

Breakfast cereals are dear now. I’ve trained my kids to eat the supermarket own brands, and they prefer most of them, except for Cheerios.

Much of my shopping is own brand or, cheaper than that again, the Tesco Everyday range.

Bread is very expensive and we eat a different variety every week as I only buy what is on offer.

I tend not to buy BOGOFs unless it’s something I’m going to use, otherwise it’s just a waste. And I find the stuff on offer isn’t as good value — there might only by three apples in the bag rather than six.

I try not to throw food out and freeze anything before it goes out of date, especially expensive things like meat.

The thing I waste most is potatoes and the odd tomato and cucumber. Mostly I know to cook something, then freeze it. You can do this with potatoes, but sometimes I just don’t get round to doing it.

 The only biscuits I buy are Jaffa Cakes as they are healthier. I won’t buy other biscuits because I’ll only eat them all. I do buy the odd six-pack of crisps as a treat for the kids and Frubes for lunchboxes.

I do freeze the end of dinners, and sometimes there’s enough for each of us to have a different meal, for example, a lasagne helping or a fish pie.

There is less waste now — if there is food around the kids will eat it. When my two girls come in from school they eat until dinner time. They want fruit, yoghurts, pancakes — and this is after they’ve had their lunch.

Each of the children have their own box of treats with sweets from selection boxes left over from Christmas or Easter, and they guard it well.

They tend to get enough sweets from their granny. There is always a tub of ice cream in the freezer which we have about twice a week.

In the summer it is fruit cocktails. We do make fairy cakes and flapjacks occasionally.

Food is more expensive now and we have to be careful with Brian looking for work. I do shop more economically. We used to entertain a lot, but really don’t anymore.

If granny invites us to her house for dinner or to take us out we say ‘yes’.

As I’m in the house it is much easier for me to be organised and save money, but when you are working full-time it is a different story.

Helen Carson (46), Belfast Telegraph journalist, lives in Belfast with her 12-year-old son Pierce. She says:

I usually do a big shop once a week and it is surprising how much food it takes to feed us. A typical weekly spend is £80, with anything up to £30 during the week.

Pierce eats like another adult. He gets his dinner in school so in the evening he tends to have snacks like sandwiches or chicken goujons.

He takes a banana and a bottle of water to school every day.

Breakfast is the sparsest meal of the day with Pierce eating two rounds of toast and water, while I tend to eat a bowl of cereal or tea and toast.

I used to buy oat breakfast bars, to eat on the go, but now I take time for breakfast — it’s better value.

I have started taking lunches into work now, and that is usually three filled rolls, a yoghurt and a banana. Previously I would have little or no change from a fiver for a takeaway sandwich and coffee.

As I don’t get home until 6.30pm I bought a slow cooker and it is brilliant. I usually put chicken, baby potatoes and carrots into the cooker and it is ready for me when I get home in the evening.

I stopped buying bags of potatoes — other than the small baby varieties — months ago as they all ended up in the bin. Otherwise, my mum will boil a few extra potatoes and send them over with me when I pick up Pierce.

I either heat or fry these to eat with chicken breasts or a pork chop and peas and sweetcorn.

I tend to buy frozen vegetables every few weeks with the odd tin of carrots or peas.

For a treat I will buy the small fresh corn cobs and mangetout combo from Tesco. But generally fresh vegetables just don’t work for me, and will end up getting thrown out.

Frozen chips, battered fish and fish fingers are all standard in my freezer along with bread.

Tinned soups, beans and spaghetti bolognese (which Pierce loves) are always on my shopping list, along with yoghurts, Yakult, bread, olive spread, a packet of fresh chicken breasts, bacon, bananas and multi-packs of bottled water.

Rather than shopping religiously every Sunday I now check my cupboards and just get what we need at the local Co-op which can have some good offers. There’s also less temptation at a small store.

My cupboards are full of spices now as these are great for marinades which add interest to fresh meat.

Previously I bought ready meals which are about three times dearer and just have some sauce or cheese added which you can easily do yourself. I keep Rapeseed and Olive oil in my cupboard for cooking and marinades — this does save considerably compared to prepared meals.

Brands are a divisive issue for me as I will only buy Quaker Porridge oats, Tropicana orange juice, Robertson’s marmalade, Heinz Ketchup, baked beans and soup, Denny bacon and Kingsmill bread whereas I’m happy to buy own brand frozen or tinned veg, cooked meats, milk, olive spread and cooking oil.

I know I could save money if

everything in the trolley was at least own brand, but I much prefer the brands where I buy them. I never buy fizzy drinks or red meat because we don’t use them and it’s just more unnecessary expense.

If I’m making spaghetti bolognese I use turkey mince, but it’s only once in a while. Pierce is the only child I know who doesn’t drink cola.

I will cook a proper meal for Pierce and I on a Saturday, and we both go to my mum’s on a Sunday for a roast dinner.

I usually take over fresh strawberries and blueberries to have with vanilla ice cream, and will make an apple crumble sometimes in the winter to have for dessert.

Previously I always bought pancakes and potato bread for a weekend fry-up with bacon and eggs, now we just have grilled bacon sandwiches.

Because mealtimes are all about more speed, less prep, I have invested in a George Foreman grill and my mum bought me a blender to make soups.

While these gadgets aren’t essential, they have encouraged me to make more food from scratch and there is less washing up with the one-pot slow cooker meals.

As well as the weekly shop I will pick up fruit, yoghurts, milk and bread during the week. I stopped buying multi-packs of crisps and biscuits ages ago as we just don’t need them — again it’s an easy way to cut costs.

Every now and again I will buy a ready meal, Tesco Finest paella, £3.75, which can be microwaved in six minutes.

Pierce loves Heinz tinned spaghetti bolognese but at almost a pound a tin when it’s not on offer, it is quite expensive.

I also love fresh salmon which, again is a rare buy as it’s about £3 for two steaks. When it comes to fish, it’s usually tinned or frozen.

I do like guacamole, £2 and Ryvita crackers, £1.59, for snacking — but again they are now an occasional treat.

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