Festive food: The challenge of creating healthy, affordable family meals

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Christmas dinner

Creating healthy but affordable meals - particularly at Christmas - can be a challenging task, especially for families who have young children, according to an Oxford Brookes academic who has been researching feeding practises across Oxfordshire.

There is a vast amount of advice available on how parents should be feeding their young children. Nutritional science research identifies different parental feeding styles and associated health outcomes, while celebrity chefs encourage parents to produce tasty, practical and ‘homemade’ meals. 

But household finances can significantly limit how far parents can go in order to achieve this. Budgetary pressures intensify during school holidays and celebratory periods such as Christmas - both of which are associated with higher spending patterns. The Food Foundation suggests that as much as 55% of households with children are concerned about maintaining their children’s health and wellbeing, because they simply can’t afford their food and energy bills. Recognising the particular challenges families face in the Christmas period, food activist and footballer Marcus Rashford and TV chef Tom Kerridge recently held a cook-a-long session on creating low-cost festive feast.

Against this backdrop, Dr Irmak Karademir Hazir, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Oxford Brookes, together with Dr Sangeetha Thondre, Senior Lecturer in Nutrition, hosted a Christmas lunch on 6 December at Donnington Doorstep Family Centre in Oxford to discuss feeding and affordability with local families. The centre offers regular family drop in play sessions, where children and parents can also have lunch at a very modest cost. Donnington’s talented cook, Mrs. Carmen Barradas, uses the ingredients from the nearby Food Bank to create satisfying and healthy recipes. The centre and researchers collaborated as part of a British Academy funded project, Understanding feeding practices: A longitudinal study of feeding, eating and foodwork in families with young children.

Parents identified several issues that undermined their attempts to manage their budget. These include food waste associated with children rejecting certain food items, time constraints and the recent increases in prices of fresh fruit and vegetables. Some also shared their concerns over high levels of salt and sugar hiding in sauces and ketchups. 

But Dr Karademir Hazir observed that: “Parents develop particular coping strategies to deal with the challenges of feeding their families affordably. These strategies help parents with limited resources feel less vulnerable at a time when there is mounting pressure on them to encourage healthy eating habits in their children.”     

When it comes to festive food, these six top tips could help families keep costs down:

  • Use seasonal vegetables rather than more expensive out-of-season alternatives in meal preparation. 

  • Have a weekly meal plan - this also helps to reduce food waste and assist with time management.

  • Batch cooking and freezing: having a home cooked meal ready in the freezer reduces the chances of serving processed foods.

  • Buying in bulk and cooking large portions is also considered to be a good strategy to reduce spending.

  • Shop from different supermarkets: parents who use this strategy tend to purchase stable/long-lasting foodstuff such as tinned tomatoes, from more affordable chains and fresh ones (with shorter use by dates) from higher end shops to balance their monthly spending.

  • Making a small investment in kitchen products to save more in the long run. For instance, a slow cooker. Busy parents often have to resort to ready-made, frozen alternatives when they have limited time to come up with a meal to appeal to both adults and youngsters.

The open-plan layout in the Donnington Centre also allows the families to see the meals being prepared and gives them the opportunity to get tips and recipes on cooking affordable and healthy meals. 

The Donnington Doorstep Family centre welcomes donations via their website: http://www.donnington-doorstep.org.uk/support-us/give-money

Find out more about the research into feeding in families