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How to save money at the supermarket with picky kids

·Personal Finance Columnist
·6-min read
Trading down brands at the supermarket can help with saving money while still keeping picky kids happy. Photo: Getty
Trading down brands at the supermarket can help with saving money while still keeping picky kids happy. Photo: Getty

Earlier this month, environment secretary George Eustice suggested that anyone who was struggling with their budgets could consider trading down brands at the supermarket — and the nation collectively rolled its eyes.

The idea that anyone living on a low budget has never tried an own brand or a budget label is frankly insulting. However, there are plenty of us who consider ourselves to be reasonably smart shoppers, who could save more.

I’ve always been a fan of own brands and I’m happy to go elbow-to-elbow over the yellow stickered food at the end of the day, but I know I can try harder.

My Achilles’ heel is that my kids are incredibly picky eaters. I’ve spent years working with life-threatening food allergies and sensory issues so when I find a food that the kids will eat, I don’t mess with it. In some cases, we’ve ended up with the premium brand and in some we buy the supermarket own brand. It’s always felt like spending 50p more on a loaf of bread that I know my kids will eat makes more financial sense than buying a 70p loaf nobody will touch.

Read more: What is the cost of living and how you can manage yours

However, given how horrendous my energy bills have become, I decided it was time to put the shopping around tips to the test.

I didn’t try anything too difficult for the kids — so we stuck to salted crisps, sliced white bread, mature cheddar cheese, oven chips and baked beans. We tried the premium brand (total cost £9.39), the supermarket own-brand (Asda at a total cost of £6.10), and the Smart Price version (£3.68). I also did a spin around Aldi, and where the total cost of the full basket was £3.73.

A microwave macaroni and cheese meal for one amongst other products in the Asda Smart Price range, the British supermarket giant's value range on 11th February, 2022 in Leeds, United Kingdom. Asda have committed to doubling the number of its stores stocking the reduced cost range of foods following criticism from poverty activist Jack Monroe that the supermarket was doing little to help consumers through the cost of living crisis. (photo by Daniel Harvey Gonzalez/In Pictures via Getty Images)
Trading down brands is a great way to save money and although you might be able to tell the difference, it doesn't always matter. Photo: Daniel Harvey Gonzalez/In Pictures via Getty

It revealed five key things:

1. Largely, it’s impossible to tell the difference between the premium brand and the supermarket own brand

There are small differences, such as the fact that Asda beans are a bit softer than Heinz (KHC), or the bread is a bit less browned than Hovis, but none that were big enough to spark rejection — even from my picky kids.

There were some exceptions to this rule, such as the Asda own brand chips that were declared to be both raw and burned (I followed the cooking instructions, I promise).

However, given that this basket came in at 35% less than the premium brands, at least trying to trade down makes a great deal of sense on these kinds of household staples.

2. You can usually tell the difference between the supermarket own brand and the budget range, but it doesn’t always matter

The chips were much smaller, and tasted very different to the premium brand, but one of my kids said they’d eat them.

The same goes for the cheese, which had a slightly different flavour. The tin of beans offered fewer beans and more sauce — which was a bit thinner too — and while they begrudgingly said they might eat them, I know from experience that the extra sauce spreading across the plate would kick off a host of food refusal.

They actually preferred the crisps because they were thicker and less salty.

The difference in price was striking, and if they’d gone for all of the Smart Price options, I could have shaved almost two-thirds (61%) off the cost when compared to the premium brands.

A selective focus image of tin of baked beans open on the work top.
Even picky kids might not be able to tell the difference between premium brands and supermarkets own brand items. Photo: Getty

3. Not every option will work

Along with the overly saucy beans, the Smart Price bread was rejected. It was much denser, the sensory issues kicked in, and the test was abandoned mid-mouthful.

I also did a price comparison at Aldi, and where something was cheaper than Smart Price, I tried that too. Most of the prices were very similar — in total, Aldi came in at just 5p more expensive than Smart Price — but the bread and beans were both slightly cheaper.

Read more: How to cope with bills out of the blue when you really can’t afford it

Unfortunately, neither hit the mark. My kids declared that the bread was stale (it wasn’t it was just drier), and the beans were bitter (they were just a bit less sugary).

In some ways this was a relief, because I didn’t fancy visiting an extra supermarket each week to save 3p each on bread and beans.

4. Finding the right combination can save you a fortune

If they’d gone for the cheapest version of everything, my basket would have cost £3.62 and saved over 60% compared to the premium brand, whereas opting for the cheapest versions they were happy with came in at £4.09, or 56% less than a premium brand shop.

We’re not premium brand shoppers as a rule, but even from our usual combination of own and premium brands, trading down saved 50%.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2021/11/05: A shopper seen in Aldi supermarket. According to a research from Which? (A company that promotes informed consumer choice in the purchase of goods and services), Aldi has been named as the cheapest supermarket in the UK for the second month running, beating its rival Lidl. Which? found a basket of 23 items from Aldi cost £24.24 on average in October 2021, compared to £24.97 at Lidl. (Photo by Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
With the cost of living on the rise, it might be time to put the shopping around tips to the test. Photo: Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

5. The process of trial and error needs planning

This is not the time to be wasting food, and trying a cheaper brand that ends up in the bin is going to cost you more in the long run. It means it’s worth having a plan B for everything that doesn’t work.

For us, the bread that fell short will go into a bread-and-butter pudding tonight and the rest will be frozen, while the beans will be washed and used for a cassoulet. Meanwhile, the oven chips will stay in the freezer until the next time my teenage son invites his friends round and they all claim to be starving.

This kind of planning, as well as the whole process of roaming the supermarket with a calculator, is a cost of a different kind that needs to be factored in too.

Read more: Money: 5 things everyone should do today to protect their loved ones

You’ll need to check the price of the budget brands against what you usually buy, you might need to visit a number of supermarkets, and you may need to come up with a creative solution for items the family rejects. It’s time and effort that an awful lot of people can’t spare when they’re working all hours to make ends meet.

So while it’s easy for someone to say trading down brands is a great way to save money — because it really is — it doesn’t mean you have the time and effort to spare on trial and error.

Instead, it’s worth trying what you can, when you can, and being kind on yourself if all of this is a step too far.

Watch: How to save money on a low income

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