How to feed a family of 4 for £20 a week: A mum's challenge

Can you really feed a family of 4 for £20 a week? Mummy blogger Anneliese Giggins gave it her best shot!

How to feed a family of 4 for £20 a week

Want to know how to feed a family of 4 for £20 a week? Mummy blogger Anneliese Giggins gave it her best shot!

Mummy blogger Anneliese Giggins shows how to feed a family of 4 for £20 a week! She just loves a challenge.

Last time it was homemade food, this time she's trying to feed her family of 4 for only £20 a week - yes, really! Read our exclusive blog to see how she got on. Over to you Anneliese...

How to feed a family of 4 for £20 a week - what's it all about Anneliese?

I think it's fair to say I like a challenge but I'm wondering if I may have set the bar too high this time. For 30 days I will be scrutinising every single price label, my calculator will be dusted off and put to daily use. Each potato, piece of pasta, smear of margarine, in fact every item of food which passes my family's lips will be calculated and I will be keeping a very beady eye on the shopping receipts.

Yes, yes, YES, this may seem rather a boring activity but it's all for a good reason, I promise! I think we are all aware that food prices are sky high nowadays and they continue to rise. An average family of four will spend at least £225 a month on food (according to Office for National Statistics) and I'm sure some of us spend even more, especially when celebrating special occasions such as birthdays and Christmas.

Anneliese, husband Neil and her two little boys, Isaac and Oliver

A fair few of us now prefer to carry out the weekly or monthly shop online, however some still prefer to be the one to choose and pick out food at the supermarket or local grocery and butcher. Whichever way we choose, most of us feel our heart sink when we see the grand total and begrudgingly reach into our wallet. We are left wondering if we have enough money in the bank to cover the monthly utility bills, will there be any cash left over to treat the kids to a day out?

I admit that I've become guilty of just shoving food into our shopping trolley without always searching the shelves for a cheaper alternative. Before the children came along, I had more time to look for bargains but, when the boys are arguing in the shopping trolley, all I want is to make a hasty exit from the overcrowded supermarket and get the hell out of there! Once I get home and unpack the food, I can't believe how much money was spent and how little food we have to show for it.

See Anneliese's first food shop receipt here and this week's grand total

On that note I want to carry out a little experiment to see if our family of four can survive on spending just £20 a week on food. Can we get to the end of the 30 days well fed on such a small budget? I don't think it would be good parenting to feed my children gruel for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so I will be hunting out the cheapest but also the most nutritious recipes I can find. And in terms of the food shop I will be doing one bulk shop at the beginning of the challenge and smaller shops over the 4 weeks. My budget it £80 for the month levelling out as £20 per week.

So here's to 30 days of analysing every till receipt, counting out grains of rice and making every carrot count! There will be no room for waste; every morsel of food we buy MUST be eaten. Hopefully along the way I can find easy ways to make savings, crafty recipes which don't rely on expensive ingredients. We might even save enough money to replace our very old TV!

Total of money spent so far = £49.94

 Week 1: The good, the bad and the 'what was I thinking?'

The first week of my challenge has come to a close. For the past seven days I have been counting my pennies and making sure that I make them go as far as possible. When shopping, I no longer notice the branded tins of baked beans or chopped tomatoes and my hand automatically reaches for the cheaper value option instead. Although I am only at the end of week one, I already feel I have learned so much. It's almost as if I am learning a new language, but instead I'm educating myself on how to make savings on food. It certainly is a big learning curve!

Get the recipe: Tomato risotto and garlic bread = £2.10

When I think about what has challenged me and my family most this first week, I immediately think of the boredom! The food is so repetitive. It doesn't take long to go off Cornflakes and I'm not sure that porridge in August is such a great idea! The daily snacks like biscuits and malt loaf are also wearing thin but, funnily enough, my boys seem perfectly content with what they are given. Maybe it's just Neil and I that are being fussy! The evening meal is a saving grace as we don't feel as though we are doing without. We've been making risotto, spag Bol, pasta salads and more! I'm preparing our usual fare and simply making deductions, choosing cheaper ingredients and shopping in a budget supermarket.

Despite the monotony of some of the food, the buzz of saving money at the cash till more than compensates! After our first bulk buy we still needed to stock up on things such as sausages, pasta and rice but, by choosing the cheaper alternatives, we managed to walk away from the cash till with a spring in our step rather than a heavy heart! Of course it was hard to resist grabbing a packet of burgers or a pizza but we found ourselves tutting at the expensive price labels and walking away!

Get the recipe: Penne Bolognese = £1.60

Although my week was lacking in food excitement, things were livened up with an interview for BBC Radio Oxford. I went along to the studio to talk about my new challenge and to chat on the phone to a member of the BBC Good Food Magazine team and to none other than Jack Monroe. And I must say I was rather star struck to get to talk to Jack Monroe and to hear her great hints and tips.

Even though she no longer lives on a harsh budget of £10 per week, she can still recite the price of a tin of kidney beans and chopped tomatoes etc. I felt humbled to hear how Jack had to survive for 18 months on such a repetitive menu and an incredibly small amount of money. I know for a fact that there are many others who just manage to scrape by.

See Anneliese's second food shop receipts here and this week's grand total

From my time at the radio station I learned that there are cheaper protein alternatives to meat, meals can be bulked out with beans and lentils or even tofu and great bargains are to be had at local farmers' markets; just go at the end of the day when things are being sold off cheap. I also learnt that frozen vegetables and fruit are often cheaper, last longer and are just as nutritious as the fresh version. And if there's the possibility of growing your own fruit and vegetables - go for it! I don't know what I would have done without my father-in-law's home grown cucumbers...

Week one round up

  • Best thing we ate this week: We really enjoyed hummus with pitta bread and vegetable sticks. My younger son was particularly keen!
  • Cheapest meal of the week: Homemade tuna fishcakes (I made enough fishcakes for three meals) with potato wedges and baked beans. £1.45 for the meal.
  • Kids' favourite dish of the week: Tomato risotto with garlic bread. Clean plates all round!
  • Failure of the week: Running out of milk and having to buy some from our village shop. Two pints of milk cost 89p instead of 95p for FOUR pints of milk at Aldi. That was painful and will not be repeated!
  • Best thing I learned this week: When making risotto save a lot of pennies by using basic white rice. I used 'normal' rice for my tomato risotto and no one could tell the difference. Thanks to Jack Monroe for such a great tip!
  • Thrifty trick of the week: I usually throw away pastry offcuts but not this time! There was a bit of leftover pastry from my quiche this week and I managed to make eight mini jam tarts out of it. A great treat for the kids (and Mummy and Daddy) and they only cost a few pence - result!

Quiche (£2.60 for 10inch) and jam tarts (15p) - made with the same pastry! Get the recipe: Broccoli quiche

Total of money spent so far = £69.62

 Week 2: Bargain hunting and lots of hummus

I'm now at the halfway point of the challenge. It's very probable that, from now on, I'll be counting down the days in anticipation of the end! We are not going hungry and are eating well, but I find myself hankering for the little extras I usually take for granted. Treats like a scoop of ice cream at the end of a warm summer's day or even fruit salad are off the menu. Instead we settle for a slice of slightly stale malt loaf or a Rich Tea biscuit, which sadly do little to fill the void!

Get the recipe: Hummus and carrot wraps = 24p each

This week, our breakfasts were either crunchy cornflakes or porridge with honey. I don't usually eat cooked breakfasts, but now all I want is a poached egg, baked beans, mushrooms, toast and lashings of ketchup. When it comes to lunchtime we embrace hummus and use it on anything and everything. My youngest, Oliver, loves it on toast, while the rest of us enjoy it in wraps with grated carrot, or as a dip with pitta bread and vegetable sticks. Unfortunately, I doubt it will be long before I'm sick of it!

Making pizzas with Isaac - Get the recipe: Cheese and onion pizza

We are still enjoying dinners, as we are managing to eat the same sort of meals we normally have, such as sausage hotpot, chilli with rice, and homemade pizza (now made with tomatoes from my father-in-law's garden). When I started this challenge my biggest worry was hunger. We have big appetites and I was obviously anxious that my children might not have enough to eat. However, we all go to bed with full tummies so we really can't complain. I just wish we could have a little more variety!

Chilli and rice = £1.90

At the weekend we went into town to compare prices at several £1 and 99p stores. I found some good deals on branded products, but they still worked out a little dearer than the value brands at a bargain supermarket. There might be only a few pence difference, but every penny adds up. After leaving empty-handed, we drove a few miles to our local farm shop on a hunt for potatoes. The shop was beautiful and there was plenty of delicious food on display. It broke my heart to only buy a bag of muddy potatoes! However, we were pleased with the price as we managed to buy twenty for £2.50. This meant we have enough money to buy some hummus for next week. Hurrah!

Our supermarket shop was very small this week - just a few essentials, like milk and bread. I had to control an urge to throw packets of fresh pasta and tubs of ice cream into my basket. I feel increasingly grateful that I don't have to continue living on such a rigid budget once the challenge is over.

See Anneliese's third food shop receipt here and this week's grand total

Week two round up

Best thing we ate this week: Homemade pizza. I love making pizza when I get the time, but this challenge made it a necessity. We thoroughly enjoyed preparing and scoffing it!

Cheapest meal of the week: Jack Monroe's carrot, cumin and kidney bean burgers with potato wedges and baked beans. £1.03 for the meal.

Kids' favourite dish of the week: Homemade gnocchi in a homemade tomato sauce, with a sprinkle of grated cheese on top, plus garlic bread. My children barely came up for air as they polished it all off!

Failure of the week: Maybe the boys are hungrier than I thought, as I found them sitting on the kitchen floor eating breadsticks. Now we only have four left to last for two weeks. Eeek!

Best thing I learned this week: Cheese is expensive and I'm trying to use as little as possible. Previously I would add as much as a recipe stated but now I add it to taste. Making a cheese sauce, I added half of what I would usually just by ignoring the scales, adding it little by little and having a taste.

Thrifty trick of the week: Instead of adding a whole tin of sweetcorn to my sausage hotpot, I kept half back and used the remainder in a pasta salad. You can do the same with a tin of tuna or beans, saving half for another meal.

 Week 3: Blackberries to the rescue!

It's the end of week three. Our fridge is looking bare and the fruit bowl now sits empty on our dining room table. Our boys prefer vegetables to fruit, but we normally fill the bowl with bananas, oranges and apples to eat as a snack or after dinner. Thankfully we are eating nutritious, homemade meals every day and no ready meals or jars of sauce have passed our lips. However, I am aware that, in this third week, our five-a-day fruit and veg can't be reached. Most days we manage three or even four, but not five. When looking at the price of fruit in the supermarkets and at the farmers' market, it's easy to see how difficult it is to include fruit in your daily diet if you are on a tight budget.

To overcome our current predicament, a friend suggested we search hedgerows for blackberries, as they are currently in season. We donned our waterproofs and welly boots and headed for the field behind our house. We got decidedly soggy in the pouring rain but had fun as a family picking the blackberries and came back with a generous bounty, which we devoured with rice pudding!

Blackberry rice pudding = 15p for 4 servings

We are getting used to having the same lunches day in and day out. My youngest, Oliver, was delighted to have another tub of hummus to enjoy this week. He loves it on toast but enjoys dipping carrot and cucumber sticks into it, too. My elder son, Isaac, has never been keen on sandwiches but adores pitta breads filled with cucumber and a little mayonnaise and he tucks into his lunch without any fuss - hurrah!

As for snack time, the boys are still happily tucking into malt loaf. However, I can't face it anymore and neither can my husband - we would rather go without. My sweet tooth has been longing for something chocolatey so I made some chocolate cornflake cakes with Isaac at the beginning of the week. I was very glad that I'd bought some value chocolate at the start of the challenge, ready for such a moment! The sweet crunchy cakes were delicious and we are going to make another batch next week.

Chocolate cereal cakes = 38p total This third week also proved to be a social week. First, the boys and I were invited to a friend's house for a play date; lunch would be made for us. At first I wasn't sure if we should go as I was unable to contribute, but I realised that I couldn't stop my children from having fun and seeing their little friends. We were treated to delicious homemade carrot soup and Oliver couldn't get enough. I look forward to returning the favour once this challenge is finished!

On Saturday we had friends over to our house for lunch and I had a massive panic about what I could feed them. Neil suggested homemade pizzas. It worked out perfectly - Isaac helped me and there was plenty of pizza to go round so no one starved, as I had originally feared. This challenge doesn't exactly lend itself to social occasions but we managed to scrape through!

Sausage and mash = £2.24 total

There are still no complaints at dinnertime. We have been enjoying things such as sausages with mash and vegetables, a potato and chickpea curry, and spicy mixed bean tortillas. Sadly I only have a small piece of cheese left for the last week of the challenge. I will have to be very, very sparing as I simply have no money left for more!

See Anneliese's fourth food shop receipt here and this week's grand total

Week three round up

Best thing we ate this week: We love our weekly pasta salad. I chop up some boiled eggs, slice up cucumber and tomatoes and stir in some mayonnaise. Yum!

Cheapest meal of the week: Homemade tomato pasta sauce with pasta and garlic bread. £1.25

Kids' favourite dish of the week: Sausages with mashed potato, carrots, peas and gravy. £2.24

Failure of the week: Finding a mouldy onion and having to throw it away. I bought two bags of onions at the beginning of the challenge; I should have purchased one at a time to avoid waste.

Best thing I learned this week: It's worth getting outdoors and scrimping for fruit. I can't believe I never thought of doing this before!

Thrifty trick of the week: For a cheap tomato pasta sauce, I gently fry a chopped onion in a little oil then pour in two tins of chopped tomatoes and gently simmer for around 20 minutes until the tomatoes turn to a thick pulpy consistency. It's then ready to eat with pasta and a grating of cheese!

Total of money spent so far = £79.92

 Week 4: Done and dusted

The challenge is now over and I am breathing a sigh of relief. This final week was the toughest yet and I honestly wasn't sure if we could scrape by with what little food we had. We didn't go over our budget but the last few meals were far from exciting. My boys really enjoy my tomato risotto and have come to expect an obligatory slice of garlic bread to be served alongside. Imagine their disappointment when not only did I leave the cheese out of the risotto but also that there was no garlic bread to accompany their meal. I was out of money and we had to make do with what we had. I simply added more rice to the risotto so we still had full tummies; I think I was just about forgiven!

There was also no money to buy bread so I made my own this week. I enjoyed venting my frustrations as I kneaded the dough. However the loaves I produced were not as big as the loaves you can buy. They also do not keep well. This made me question what is added to shop bought bread to make it keep for longer, not a nice thought.

Carrot soup and homemade bread = 50p for 4 servings

We had lots of carrots in stock this week and I was keen to use them up so I decided to make a big batch of carrot soup. I admit that it wasn't the most flavoursome of soups, but it was packed full of vitamin A and there was enough for two lunches. Obviously soup wasn't enough to keep us going until dinnertime so it was served with some of my homemade bread. I felt very virtuous to know that I had made both with my own two hands. I have made a mental note to try to make my own soup in future!

This week Isaac was keen to help me in the kitchen again. We made chocolate cornflake cakes which helped to satisfy my chocolate cravings and we also made a small batch of ice lollies. A friend of mine makes lollies with just banana and milk and they are surprisingly tasty. Isaac was perfectly content chopping up a banana and pushing the button on the blender. He then thoroughly enjoyed his refreshing banana ice lolly.

Ice lollies = 35p for 4

Although a few of our meals this week were disappointing, mostly due to the lack of cheese, we did manage to enjoy a roast dinner. We had to opt for sausages. However I pushed the boat out and made some Yorkshire puddings, which felt like a real luxury! On our last day we were completely out of food apart from a tin of baked beans and some stale bread but, instead of finishing off the challenge with beans on toast, I made a baked bean 'pie' as suggested by Donna, who has been following the blog. It made a more interesting alternative and was much enjoyed. The baked bean pie was followed by a tin of peaches. What a classy way to finish the challenge!

Sausage roast dinner with homemade Yorkshires = £2.60 for 4 servings

Week four round up

Best thing we ate this week: Sausages with homemade Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, broccoli, carrots, peas and gravy.

Cheapest meal of the week: It has to be the baked bean pie!

Kids' favourite dish of the week: Tuna pasta bake

Failure of the week: Discovering that I have an unopened bag of rice and pasta left over. Had I planned better I could have used that money on some fruit. I'm SO cross with myself!

Best thing I learned this week: It's amazing how much soup can be made from just a few veggies. It only costs a few pence to make a simple soup. I cooked up a big batch and put half in the fridge for another day.

Thrifty trick of the week: It's better to buy loose vegetables so you can weigh them on the scales and buy exactly what you need. No waste and will save a little money.

Grand total of money spent = £79.92 - in budget!

*Download Anneliese's meal list and prices here*

 Week five: Looking back...

My challenge has come to an end and in all honesty it couldn't have come soon enough! We have been eating either cornflakes or porridge for breakfast for 30 days but I may as well have been chewing on cardboard. I do not rate the value cornflakes and will be glad to be rid of them! On the other hand the lunches have been more varied and we will happily continue to eat salad sandwiches, pasta salad, pitta breads and hummus. I was surprised by how I could slightly modify our evening meals and still put filling and nutritious meals on the table. No one felt unsatisfied and we never felt hungry. If I'm honest I wondered if might have lost some weight during the challenge but no, I didn't lose an ounce! I think this shows that we ate well and didn't go without.

I believe we saved a lot of money by simply switching our usual supermarket to a bargain supermarket and I am sure that this was the key to getting through to the end of the challenge. However, when you only pay 15p for a tin of rice pudding or 29p for a jar of jam you start to question the quality. I checked labels and was surprised to see that the value jam contained the same amount of fruit as a far more expensive brand and had less added sugar! Sadly, my euphoria was soon dashed when I discovered that the tins of baked beans I'd been using contained 7g more sugar than the beans we usually buy. When it came to salt I couldn't see much variation between brands so that helped me to feel a little more positive!

Get the recipe: Spicy mixed bean tortillas = 68p per portion

I required a lot of chopped tomatoes for the challenge and, after eating our way through 15 value tins, I have no complaints at all and will definitely buy them again. The one thing I will never buy again was the sunflower oil spread; it was horrible. When spread on hot toast or a jacket potato it left an oily layer and never really melted.

The meat was a fair quality but the sausages were 'watery' and lacked flavour. My husband feels strongly about only using local and well reared meat so I'm sure we will go back to visiting the butchers. No one wants to spend ages checking labels but I do think you get what you pay for when it comes to such things as baked beans, bread and meat. However, don't be put off, as you can make great savings on many other products such as dried pasta, milk, eggs, flour, chopped tomatoes, fruit and vegetables. The list goes on!

This challenge was to try to find out if it really is possible to feed a family of four for just £20 a week. I realise it would be harder with teenagers but my children are still small; maybe I'll have to repeat the process in 10 years time - or maybe not! Yes, the challenge is just about possible, most things are, if you really set your mind to it or you are without choice BUT is it an enjoyable experience? No.

After the first week, I could already see where I had previously wasted money, by the end of week two I was very grateful that I did not have to do this for longer than 30 days and by the end of the challenge I knew I wouldn't want to do this again. We managed to eat well but this tight budget does not allow for much variety or the ability to regularly meet your 5-a-day target. Fresh fruit and vegetables come at a high cost, so cheap carrots, broccoli, apples and bananas are the order of the day. I don't know if I could have managed without my father-in-law's home-grown cucumbers and tomatoes. It is definitely worth trying to grow a few vegetables and fruit if there is space in your garden. We have strawberry plants but they were sadly out of season during the challenge!

Get the recipe: Pasta salad = 17p per portion (with homegrown veg)

If you are in a position where you only have a small amount of money to spend on food you have to make choices. Would you be able to worry about added sugar? Do you buy a punnet of grapes for £1.25 or do you use the money to buy ingredients for a main meal? The answer is that you have to make do and, as long as you are making the most of what you have and are putting food on the table, you are doing well.

I have learned so much throughout these 30 days. I'm able to buy certain foods far cheaper at a bargain supermarket. I know that using white rice instead of risotto rice makes no difference and I realise that I can make satisfying family meals that don't cost the earth. You can usually take things out of a recipe or make substitutions and not notice the difference. It is certainly far cheaper to make meals from scratch than it is to buy a ready meal, jar of sauce or a takeaway, not to mention healthier!

I walk away from this challenge grateful that I can indulge in a tub of ice cream tonight and feel lucky to be able to stop living on such little money. However, I am aware that we still have a budget for our food shopping and I am determined to continue to make savings on what we buy. Certainly not £20 a week; £30 would be far more achievable!

Budget recipes from the challenge

How to feed a family of 4 for £20 a week - our favourite budget recipes the challenge...

Tomato risotto               Broccoli quiche

Penne Bolognese                  Cheese and onion pizza

Spicy mixed bean tortillas              Cucumber and tomato pasta salad

Feeling inspired to the challenge? Do you have any tips on how to feed a family of 4 for £20 a week you'd like to share? Head over to our Facebook page to join the conversation! 

Anneliese Giggins
Freelance food writer

Author, writer and Mum of three, Anneliese Giggins has been creating recipes for for the past 9 years. She has also created food-related content for household names such as Daily Mail, Daily Express and Her most successful to date was how to feed a family of 4 on £20 a week