What is it about Christmas that means we need to consume quite so much food? Why do families who manage perfectly well on £100 for the weekly shop suddenly find themselves spending £118 on one meal? Why do we manage to get by on 2,000 calories a day with ease and then feel the need to eat 6,000 in one day?
And what can we do to avoid overspending on festive fayre without cheating the family out of a feast this Christmas?
Lots of us are thinking more carefully about how much we spend on Christmas, and according to Amex we're planning to save £170 on gift shopping this Christmas. However, we're not so hot on cutting the food costs at this time of year. A survey by Travelodge found that this year we expect to spend £118.31 on Christmas dinner - 16% more than last year.
So how do we cut the costs?Those who pride themselves on spontaneity are not going to like this, but by far the most important ingredient in saving money on food is planning. The only solution to waste is to get your diary out, work out exactly what you are doing for the Christmas period, assess what meals you need, and then plan those meals.
Christmas DinnerYou'll need to plan your Christmas dinner. In a strict food wastage' sense, the most efficient way to approach this meal is to work out exactly what everyone will eat, and then buy this amount exactly- down to the last sprout. The food 52 blog estimates you'll need 3/4 of a pound of turkey per person and one potato. You'll also need a third of a carrot, a quarter of a parsnip, five sprouts, two pigs in blankets, and a ball of stuffing. For pudding you'll need an eighth of a full size Christmas pudding each and a splash of cream.
There will be no leftovers, and no sneaky extra potatoes, there will be no sense of largess, and hungry people may be disappointed. But on the other hand there will be no waste - and according to a GoCompare survey 35% of us resent the wasted food on the Christmas table, so it should cheer Christmas up for a third of people. You'll also avoid consuming the national average of 6,000 calories on the day itself, and keep your costs to as little as £5 a head.
More luxurious alternativeIf this sort of approach doesn't suit, there's a second alternative - you can plan for leftovers. The problem for most families is that they over-cater for Christmas, and then don't make a plan for the leftovers. These just sit in the fridge until one day you give up and throw them away.
If, for example, you allow a pound and a half per person for the turkey, you will have enough white meat left for sandwiches on Boxing Day, and enough dark meat for a turkey curry. If you throw in extra vegetables, you'll have vegetable soup for lunch on the 27th, and with extra sprouts, pigs in blankets and potatoes you can have bubble and squeak for tea then too.
If your plans do change, and you end up out and about at mealtimes, you don't need to throw anything away, just cook the soup and the curry and freeze them for later and take your sandwiches out with you.
The disadvantage of this approach is that there will be the temptation to overeat on the day. However, you don't run the risk of disappointing anyone with your portion control, and you can save money this way. If you are tied to buying a specific number of sprouts you'll end up getting them loose, which can cost more than twice as much per sprout than a bag. Knowing how you'll use the leftovers gives you the freedom to buy them in the most cost-effective way possible - whether that's loose, bagged or on offer.
ExtrasYou'll also need to plan for extras. If you leave it until the supermarket, you'll end up buying everything with a picture of holly on it, and come home with mince pies, a yule log, panettone, chocolates, biscuits, and a partridge in a pear tree.
Think about when you'll be eating these things and how many of you there are, and don't get carried away. There are only so many mince pies a family can get through.
If you're going to cater for unexpected guests too, make sure it's something that lasts, or something you can use up as leftovers. Panettone bread and butter pudding, for example, is delicious and works best with slightly stale leftovers.
Where to buyYour first step is to decide which approach you're going to take. Are you going to strip the costs to the bone, or do you want to trade up the most important parts of the shop?
If you're up for a low cost Christmas at all costs, we revealed in November how you can get the whole feast for £1.70 a head, by shopping around and buying from the value ranges and the freezer section. However, there are only a certain number of people who will want a frozen sprout on Christmas Day.
In reality, few people take this approach. A study by the Grocer magazine found that 42% of people trade up to premium brands, and one in five go to a posher supermarket too. Marks & Spencer was the favourite here, followed by Waitrose.
The best approach, therefore, is to target where you trade up. And there are three simple rules.
First, not everything is worth trading up. In most cases, the vegetables can come from the cheapest source. If you check them over and they're in good condition, then there's no point paying extra for them to be trimmed, or chopped, or put in a bag with some butter. 500g of sprouts, for example, will cost £1 from most supermarkets, so why pay £2.50 for 330g to have trimmed ones from Waitrose?
Second, trading up isn't always better. Taste tests consistently reveal that the most expensive products aren't always the winners. A Which? test this year put Aldi first for mince pies, and Lidl second. They both beat offerings from the main supermarkets and specialists like Fortnum and Mason and Harrods. Aldi's Christmas Pudding was also top in the Good Housekeeping Institute festive tests.
Third, target how you trade up - focusing on the product rather than the brand. The cheapest frozen turkey around is £2.08 per kg from Lidl, but you may want to trade up to the cheapest fresh bird which is £4.50 per kg from Aldi. You may want to trade up still further, but you have to ask whether the best option would be £8 per kg for a standard Free Range Turkey from M&S, or £7.17 per kg for a Free Range British Bronze Turkey from Morrisons (for the sake of comparison a free range bronze bird from M&S is £14 per kg).
And finally, the best advice as ever is to do as much legwork as you have time for. Local independent greengrocers, markets and butchers are often the cheapest, and most flexible, so when you're comparing prices at the supermarket, try to make time to factor in a visit to the local shops to see how they measure up.
Whatever approach you take, the best way to avoid overspending is not to panic and buy things just-in-case. Many of our Christmas food shopping traditions are based on the days when we would stock up and not venture out for a week. Back then we all over-catered for fear of running out of things. In many cases nowadays the supermarket will only be closed for a day, so don't over-do it. Just buy what you need and if you run low on Quality Streets you can pop out on Boxing Day for some more.