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Ideas to feed your family during the COVID-19 lockdown

27 April 2020

Our National School Breakfast Programme, Project Support Officer and public health nutritionist, Gill understands the difficulties many families are facing in the current circumstances. Here she shares some tips to help ease some of the pressures around food.

There are few things in life as fundamental as our relationship with food – it nourishes and provides us with the energy to tackle our daily challenges, with mealtimes often providing a focus for family bonding and sharing. That’s why as a charity Family Action have introduced several programmes over the past few years, which support families with food – whether that’s through our nationwide Holiday Hub programmes or our government-funded National School Breakfast Programme (NSBP) or our Food On Our Doorstep Clubs. We knew from our work in this area that for many families feeding their children was already a challenge even before the coronavirus pandemic, and the current isolation guidelines will undoubtedly have increased the pressure to provide for families. Food costs have risen as we find our children at home for every meal, without the assistance of school dinners or programmes such as the NSBP to support some families.

The act of shopping itself has also changed recently – with increased demand and social distancing guidelines leading to queues and shortages, along with the social pressure to ensure each journey is productive. I’m a registered public health nutritionist with 20 years’ experience and I work for our National School Breakfast Programme which has provided advice regarding nutrition to schools, nurseries, homeless shelters and parent groups. Here I’ll outline some simple tips for how to shop smarter, make better use of your resources and put food on the table during a difficult period for us all.

Plan ahead and make a shopping list

Planning what you are going to eat, and therefore what you need to buy, takes time but it’s worth the effort. Doing so stops us buying too much food, saves money and it also means you only need to do one shop per week – so you are helping to protect yourself and other people against the spread of the virus. You can use this handy weekly meal planner to help you plan your weekly menu. It’s also useful to get your children involved in the planning stage – maybe they can take ownership for deciding, planning and making a dish? Doing so helps them understand what’s involved in preparing a meal, and can also be a fun activity for families during the long weeks of homeschooling. Planning in this way helps you decide what dishes you are going to cook for the whole week and what ingredients you need for each meal. When you shop, ensure these ingredients are included and stick to your list.

“Follow the same theme and get everybody to make their own version. Enjoy!”

Maybe think about adding some wraps and salad to your shopping list for a healthy and easy lunch that’s child friendly too. I had some wraps along with some left over salad vegetables. You could use sliced peppers, tomatoes, onions, sweetcorn, beans, chick peas, cucumber, lettuce, radish or any other salad vegetable. If you want you could even add fruit such as orange segments, apple chunks, sliced grapes, pineapple chunks or raisins. Be inventive with what left overs you have. I washed and chopped the salad vegetables and placed them on a large plate and added some grated cheese. We all made our own wraps and tried to make them as colourful as possible. You could have this for lunch as a change from a sandwich or you could have it for an evening meal and add some potato wedges as a side. If you don’t have wraps you could use muffins, bread, pitas, flat breads. You could also use cooked pasta, rice, quinoa, couscous or bulgur wheat as the base and follow the same theme – get everybody to make their own version. Enjoy!

Use leftovers

It’s always a good idea to think before you throw food out, but this is especially true now. Luckily there are often plenty of ways to use leftovers, for example:

  • Consider leftover vegetables from a Sunday roast in a soup.
  • Wash, peel and chop fruit at risk of spoiling and pop it in a freezer bag in the freezer. You can use this to make smoothies or as an instant fruit salad. Remember to label and date the bag.
  • If a recipe calls for half an onion chop the whole onion and freeze half.
  • Many online recipe websites, such as love food hate waste, allow you to put an ingredient into the recipe search engine to find suggestions for recipes that use that food. If, for example, you have some broccoli that needs using you could use a site like this to give you some inspiration. The ‘love food, hate waste’ campaign says that a family of four can save up to £70 a month by being careful and reducing the amount of food that is wasted.

Here’s my guide to making quick and easy homemade garlic bread:

Make two, freeze one

By making larger quantities of food and freezing some meals you can save time and money. If you are making spaghetti bolognese, for example, you can make double the amount of the mince base and pop half in a container to freeze once it has cooled. Remember to label and date the container! You now have an instant homemade ready meal in the freezer when you want it. You could use it as a base for shepherd pie, chilli, or even a baked potato filling… All you have to do is defrost and heat it fully.

Buy frozen foods

Frozen fruits and vegetables are great because you can easily use the amount that you need and return the rest to the freezer so there is no waste. Freezing vegetables does not cause them to lose any of their vitamins and minerals and if they are frozen on the day they are picked they can even have more vitamins and minerals than fresh vegetables. They are often a lot cheaper than fresh vegetables too!

“Making larger quantities of food and freezing some meals you can save time and money.”

Buy own brand and value ranges

Own brand, value and essential ranges are often cheaper than branded items and offer very similar products beneath the different packaging. For example, the value range of tinned tomatoes are about a third of the price of a branded tin of tomatoes.

Make meals go further

You can make dishes go further by adding cheaper items to them, such as extra vegetables and pulses such as lentils, beans, chickpeas, vegetables and tinned tomatoes.

As well as making the dish go further it’s also good for your health as doing so adds taste, fibre and vitamins too. For example, try adding a handful of dried red lentils to your shepherd’s pie mix. Add the rinsed lentils to the browned mince at the same time as the stock or tinned tomatoes. Remember to check the fluid level, however, as lentils absorb water so you may need to add a little extra fluid during cooking. The lentils take around 30 minutes to cook.

Cook from scratch

Cooking food yourself has many benefits:

  • You know what is going into your food, preventing excess salt, fat and sugar
  • It can save you money – especially as you can use cheaper ingredients such as chickpeas or lentils to make your meal go further

There is not always time to do so but if you are buying ready meals think of what you can put with it to make it go further. You could, for example, buy a basic margarita pizza and add your own toppings to make it more nutritious and more filling.

Here’s my own quick recipe for making chilli wraps:

Find the quick and easy chilli recipe here.

Find alternatives for hard-to-locate items

Currently, supermarkets are still adjusting to increased demand, so it helps if you can get creative with your ingredients. If you can’t get hold of baked beans, for example, you can have a go at making your own version using dried beans or tinned beans such as cannellini beans. If you’re having problems getting breakfast cereal a box of porridge oats can last a long time and couscous or quinoa make fine replacements for pasta in many situations. Get adventurous and try some new dishes with ingredients you can buy!

Here’s my list of useful cupboard essentials:

Useful store cupboard essentials during COVID-19

Make use of free school meals assistance

If your child received free school meals before isolation began then the government has outlined that schools should continue to provide meals in some form. This might be through food packages, through deliveries provided by a related charity or organisation, or even vouchers for use at the supermarket. In all cases, the way to access this food is by contacting your school. Read here to read the guidance given to schools by the government.

If you and your family are feeling the pressure during the COVID-19 outbreak, then consider contacting our free FamilyLine helpline. You can get in touch via telephone, text message or email for emotional support and guidance as well as practical advice and information.