Like many others, I was invited to cook some of the meals from the Sainsbury's Feed Your Family For £50 meal plan which purports to provide 3 meals a day for 7 days, for a family of four.
Of course, I don't have a family of four and would not have stuck to it exactly even if I had (I had food already in the house and meals out already booked into the diary). So my evaluation isn't complete, by any stretch. But receiving the shopping for one week's meal plan and making a few of the meals from it allowed me to get a feel for it and look into how it all works.
Here are my findings:
- It's hard for those of us who do cook regularly, make good use of ingredients, utilise left overs and and how to plan ahead to remember that there is a huge part of the UK population that does not share these skills. In some cases, of course, it's lack of interest, but in many households, it's down to a genuine lack of knowledge, confidence, inspiration.
The meal plan has been much discussed on food blogs in recent weeks, and I've read many comments about how much better a use of the budget keen and willing cooks can make, but I've also read comments on national newspaper sites which show that, for many people, this be beyond them, and that these meal plans are a step forward from their current position.
The meal plans, basic though they may seem for regular cooks and shoppers, will help those who haven't done it before to understand the point of and get into the habit of planning their meals ahead and shopping to a budget. Perhaps they'll be inspired to develop their own meal plans, according to family preferences, using what they have learned.
- As has been revealed by a number of surveys in recent years, many families get stuck in a rut, cooking the same handful of recipes week in week out, month in month out, year in year out. The £50 meal plans may provide some ideas and inspiration to break out of that mould and try something new. Certainly, the sausage and bean casserole in Meal Plan 2 was a dish we'd probably not have cooked without encouragement, but which we really enjoyed.
- The meals are apparently well-balanced in terms of nutrition; indeed Sainsbury's say the plans have been approved by the British Nutrition Foundation. Of course, the plans wouldn't suit a family with a vegetarian or a coeliac, but for a family with no special dietary requirements, they are designed to provide a healthy diet.
I think more fresh fruit and vegetables and less carbohydrates would be better still, but I suspect that the plans as they stand are still an improvement on the diets of many people in the UK today.
- The meal plans features simple, home-cooked meals; there's not the reliance on oven-fries and ready-meals that I expected. Those items both have their place (and I make use of them regularly myself), and some of them are cheap enough that they could probably fit into the budget, but the meal plans show that home-cooked meals can stretch a limited food budget further.
- Some articles and meal plan books aimed at spending less on food probably go too far for a target audience that isn't necessarily into cooking, nor wants to spend a great deal of time or effort. Whilst I love making stock from my roast chicken carcass, chutney from fruit that is past its best and using leftovers, I accept that many people do not and I appreciate that this meal plan doesn't alienate people by making frugal home-cooking seem too daunting.
- The dreaded online-shopping omissions and substitutions! In my "£50" shop, a bag of parsnips was omitted completely, as were both red and white onions. Three loaves of supermarket own brand bread were substituted with only two (same sized) loaves of a more expensive brand. Basic mushrooms were substituted with a smaller volume of non-basic ones. And basic potatoes were substituted with a significantly smaller volume of organic ones.
All in all, this resulted in a glaring hole in not just one but several recipes. A family hoping to follow the plan in full would have to do additional shopping at additional expense, to cover the short falls.
This, on top of the fact that the order actually came to £53.80 not £50, means that we're talking about a real spend of nearer to £60 to really cover all the food required.
- The meal plan allows nothing at all for snacks during the day. I think this is hugely unrealistic, especially in a family with two teenage children, who I'm sure would be complaining of hunger mid-morning and late-afternoon.
There are also no drinks at all included, not even tea or coffee (let alone sugar) or basic fruit squash to have with meals.
And no puddings, not a single one.
It's a budget plan, yes, but the best way to help people stick to it is make sure it really does provide enough to feed a family without feeling so austere.
- Because several ingredients are used in multiple recipes, if there's a particular dish that a family dislikes and wants to change for something else, it takes a lot of effort to work out how to amend the shopping list without messing up what is needed for other dishes.
- There is no provision for having friends around at all, either family friends or the kids' mates.
I'd like to see one meal a week that makes enough to feed guests. If there are no guests, it can either be made in half the quantity or half can be frozen for another time.
- There are a fair few ingredients that are not included in the plan but are expected to be in the store cupboard.
The meal plans include items such as olive oil (in fairly large quantities over a whole week), dried mixed herbs, fresh garlic, mayonnaise, flour, beef and vegetable stock, mustard, vinegar, tomato puree and ketchup.
However, the shopping list doesn't seem to set aside any of the £50 to renew the store cupboard. I would say that at least £5 of the £50 should be set aside for renewing these items.
- I'd like to see a better integration into the budget of making use of a good store cupboard and bulk buying some items. So, for example, one week's shopping might include a larger bag of rice or lentils than would be needed for that week's recipes, but the rest could go into the store cupboard. Some of the extras could be used in the following week's meal plan and that week would also include buying extra of something for the week after that…
In addition, extra recipes, that can be pulled together from store cupboard ingredients, could be provided as an addendum to the meal plan.
This kind of added complexity in the meal plans would help teach people about building up and maintaining a store cupboard, and how to make use of it during lean times or when one has extra mouths to feed.
- With Indian food one of the nation's favourite cuisines, I'd include some kind of curry at least once a week. Bottled sauces are expensive but decent curry pastes less so, and could be used week to week. A basic range of spices would also be a useful store cupboard addition, though, as above, I'd like to see that included in the budget.
- Of course, it's a budget meal plan, but the lunches in particular are repetitive and boring. Breakfasts too, to an extent, though that doesn't bother me as much. I'd find it hard to eat nothing but sandwiches every week day. Then again, I'm coming from a foodie perspective and an unusual desire for variety in my diet.
- The recipe instructions are not always sufficiently detailed, especially for less experienced cooks, which is the group I think the plans will most strongly appeal to. Following Plan 2's frittata recipe, we got an edible result only because we continued cooking for much longer than the recipe indicated, because we could see and feel that it wasn't ready in the allotted time, at two different stages. That said, it did work out and was tasty, as was the sausage and bean casserole recipe we adapted (to use better sausages).
- There is only one evening meal recipe that is vegetarian. I would think an easy way to save money (that can then be spent elsewhere such as snacks) is to include two vegetarian dinners a week. Perhaps the target audience wouldn't go for that?
- It's a very carbohydrate-heavy diet. I realise that meat protein, and to an extent dairy protein, is more expensive than carbs but I know I'd be pushing my plate away if I tried to eat so many carby meals day in day out.
- I feel very strongly that meal plan pricing should be based on regular prices for goods and not include any short term special offers. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and archived meal plans have a note, if you try and buy the associated ingredients, that "this meal plan may now be over £50".
If this is more than a flash in the pan gimmick, and is really something Sainsbury's want to bring more people to, the archived meal plans should still be available for £50, for at least a couple of months after their publication date, if not longer.
- Some of the products are really short-dated, with use-by dates of just a few days from delivery. This means that you have to swap the menu days around to suit the shelf-life of ingredients, or have a lot more freezer space available than many people have. I think this is a general problem with supermarket deliveries, from what I understand, and something I'd like to see resolved in general. If I was shopping in the store, I'd choose the longest dated item on the shelf; I want the picker to do the same on my behalf!
- Despite there being a quick click option to buy all the shopping required for a meal plan, delivery is not included, so will add to the final price. I realise, of course, that people have the option of printing the shopping list and doing the shop in person, but wouldn't it be nice to waive the delivery fee for those buying into the meal plans?
- There are some great resources on the web which can help with meal planning on a budget. I've just been checking out The Resourceful Cook, which has lots of meal plans on file, which you can filter by the number of people to be fed, by budget, by cooking experience and more. More importantly, they offer great flexibility, with the option to swap out some of the recipes or to increase the numbers you'd like to feed from a particular meal, say if friends are coming round. And, in order to create a more useful shopping list, you even have the option of adding drinks, treats and snacks, toiletries and house hold items such as bin bags, cling film, cleaning products. I've not used this tool yet but it looks great, and I've seen many positive comments about it from people who've already tried it.
For a great post from a blogger who did trial the plan more comprehensively, visit Feeding Boys And A Firefighter.