'Planning our meals was key to saving'
Rob Finch thought he was running a pretty tight ship until he did the Eat4Cheap challenge and shaved nearly 20% off the family's weekly shopping bill.
Eat4Cheap is more than just a money-saving challenge, it's an attempt to demonstrate that eating healthily is cheaper than you think.
The week-long challenge was an opportunity for Rob and wife Lisa to review their eating habits to see where they could improve their diet.
Adding to the challenge of eating healthily as a family was planning their meals around the comings and goings of their five-year-old daughter, Tilly.
The keys to saving money in the Finch household were writing a weekly meal plan, cooking from scratch, eating less meat, buying cheaper cuts of meat and eating leftovers for lunch.
From an average weekly spend of about £130, the family managed to reduce their shopping bill to £106, "without making too many sacrifices" says Rob.
"We were never hungry and we never felt like we were particularly compromising," he says.
Sitting down to plan their meals for a whole week was an opportunity for the couple to delve into their ample collection of cookery books that had been gathering dust on a kitchen shelf.
"We have our favourite meals that we tend to stick to week in week out, which means we don't get as much variety as we could," says Rob.
"The planning prompted us to flick through recipe books we don't normally look at and try something new.
"We made sure that all the ingredients we bought would be used in the meals we planned to cook so there was no waste, which also saves money."
Comparing their regular shopping list with their Eat4Cheap list revealed some unhealthy habits that Rob had not fully appreciated until then.
"We realised how much salty and sugary food we were eating," he says. "Also, we ate a lot of biscuits, didn't drink enough water and we had a slab of meat every evening.
"It's not uncommon for us to use up 500g of minced beef in a spaghetti bolognese for the three of us. Do we really need to eat that much meat? Probably not."
Instead of the usual ready-cut beef chunks, the couple opted for a 375g shin of beef for £2.35, which they used in a stew with vegetables, such as mushrooms, and suet dumplings.
A cheaper cut of beef, shin tends to be tough and sinewy and is ideal for stewing so the connective tissue melts during cooking, adding extra flavour and richness.
"We were worried the shin wouldn't stretch far enough to feed three," says Rob. "But with all the veg and the dumplings, there was more than enough for dinner and lunch the next day."
Sunday roast was chicken but instead of piling the plate with meat, the couple used the advice on the eatwell plate and added an extra portion of veg.
Rob says: "This meant we had plenty of chicken left over for sandwiches in the week, to be added to pasta sauce and for a chicken and leek pie."
One of the healthiest changes the family made during the challenge, which also saved money, was the switch from crumpets and branded breakfast cereals to porridge with blueberries.
"Porridge is simple to make and ridiculously cheap compared to most breakfast cereals," says Rob.
Adding fruit to their porridge was an easy way of increasing their fruit and vegetable intake to meet the recommended target of at least 5 A DAY.
"We'd have two or three portions of vegetables at dinner time and we generally had fruit for dessert and as a snack," says Rob.
For the last few months the couple have been paying for a weekly delivery of a fruit and veg box, which has helped them get their 5 A DAY on most days.
"The fruit and veg box isn't cheap but it has really made a difference to the amount of fruit and veg we eat each week. To compensate for the extra cost, we now buy less meat."
For the Finch household, the Eat4Cheap challenge was less about how much they could save and more about how they could add more variety to their diet to make it more balanced.
"We were eating the same things over and over again," says Rob. "This was an opportunity to review our eating habits and see where we could make improvements.
"We thought it would be hard to save any more than we already did on our food shop, but to save 20% far exceeded our expectations."
Dietitian Azmina Govindji says:
"One of the nicest observations here is Rob's comment that they 'were never hungry'. Often people feel spending less on food means eating less and consequently going hungry, but that needn't be the case.
"Flicking through their old recipe books in search of creative ideas meant that they were having more variety, which helps them get a wider range of nutrients. They've cut down on meat and invested in fruit and veg boxes - a convenient way to eat better."
Article provided by NHS Choices