We’ve got you covered with the top tips on navigating the summer holidays in the cost of living crisis. Illustration: Lizzie Lomax
School’s out! Since the end of June, Scottish kids have been free of the shackles of homework. Now, all across the UK children are ready for the summer holidays. As lovely as it might be to have them home, parents know the drill. Entertaining them for six weeks is a challenge. And you have to do it without breaking the bank. In the cost of living crisis, it is harder than ever.
The lifeline of free school meals and childcare is ripped away for many families. It means more mouths to feed when grocery shopping has never been more expensive, and finding childcare when you can’t afford to take the time off work.
A place at a holiday club now costs an average of £157 a week, according to children’s charity Coram Family and Childcare. Many people rely on the support of family and friends to look after their children, although that isn’t always possible.
With added costs of food and buying new school uniforms for next term, it can be worrying. But there is help available for families who need support, and The Big Issue’s Summer Survival Guide is back to help you navigate the holidays.
We’ve rounded up our top tips and tricks to keep kids happy and healthy, and we’ll keep directing families to the places they can get help over the summer.
How to save on food over the summer holidays
It’s no secret that food shopping is getting pricier and pricier, so we’ve answered your questions about free and affordable food this summer.
Can kids get free school meals over the summer holidays?
Whether your child is eligible for free school meals over the summer holidays depends on where you live. In Scotland and Wales, kids from low-income families who are typically eligible for free school meals will get support over the school holidays. Councils typically provide families with meal vouchers, money or sometimes even packed lunches.
In England, your child might get meals or vouchers but only if your council has decided to provide them. London mayor Sadiq Khan has promised emergency food provision, and activities will be run across the capital this summer with free food on offer. In Surrey, a £90 voucher will be given to families per each eligible child. In Essex, families will receive a £75 voucher, which you can use in most supermarkets. Check your local council website to find out whether it has a scheme.
For the most part in England, the government is relying on the Holiday Activities and Food Programme to feed kids from low-income families (we’ll have more on this later).
If your child isn’t eligible for free school meals over the holidays, either because your council doesn’t offer them or because they don’t fit into the strict eligibility criteria, there are other options to get cheap meals for children.
A number of restaurants, cafes and supermarkets are offering highly discounted meals. Kids can eat at any time of day at Asda’s cafes for just £1, with no need for an adult to buy a meal alongside them. At Ikea, your little ones can enjoy pasta with tomato sauce and a soft drink for 95p. Any other kids’ meal is £1.50. Tesco is offering free kids’ meals with any purchase at its supermarket cafes during the school summer holidays. There are plenty more, but you might have to buy a full-priced adult meal.
There are a huge number of online resources to help families stick to a tight budget when cooking. Try out football superstar Marcus Rashford and celebrity chef Tom Kerridge’s Full Time Meals campaign for easy, cheap and low-energy recipes. BBC Good Food has a recipe for practically everything with a big section of budget meals. Jamie Oliver has 130 budget recipes on his website, and Beat the Budget is a recipe platform for healthy and cheap recipes which are also exciting and filled with flavour.
It’s also a good idea to seek out tips for being as thrifty as possible on your trip to the supermarket. For last year’s Summer Survival Guide, The Big Issue asked Kerridge how families could save money on their food shop. His tips were:
Try different cuts of your favourite proteins (chicken thighs are cheaper than breasts)
You decide when the food goes off, not the packaging
Get supermarket discounts before closing time and pick products with yellow stickers
Write a shopping list so you’re not tempted to buy more than you need
Don’t over-season your meals when batch freezing as spices get stronger over time
Make lists of wasted food so you remember not to buy too much in the future
How to save money on childcare over the summer holidays
Childcare is a serious worry for many families over the school holidays. Parents still have to work each day to make a living, and not all employers are flexible about working from home. While some have family and friends they can rely on for cheap childcare, that’s not an option for everyone, so we’ve tracked down some affordable options.
One of the best ways to check affordable childcare options in your area is to visit your local council’s website. Many council activity groups will be free of charge or cheap for families. There might also be discounts if your child attends for a full week, or subsidies for those on low incomes.
There are shorter activity programmes if you need to entertain your kids for just a couple of hours, or full days for parents who need childcare cover for the whole working day. Often, activity clubs will be run at local schools so it’s worth checking with your child’s school. Leisure centres in your area may also be running kids’ activity groups.
If your child has special educational needs, holiday clubs should have the provisions to give them one-to-one support and there may be discounted places – but you will need to check with the playscheme organisers to make sure they have the resources.
You can also contact your local family information service via your council to find out what affordable childcare is available locally. The service offers free and impartial information about local events and services available to children, young people and families.
Local YMCAs across the country offer holiday clubs and playschemes to keep your children busy and active over the half term. They most typically cater to children of primary-school age. Activities vary from place to place – and not all will be running clubs over the summer break.
A useful resource to find childminders and nannies near you is Koru Kids. There are options for full days of care, part-time care and a mixture of both. These nannies are vetted, DBS checked and trained in childcare and first aid.
You can also use the website Yoopies to source affordable childcare services (along with tutoring, pet care and cleaning while you’re at it).
What is the Holiday Food and Activities Programme?
In England, the Holiday Activities and Food Programme supports children eligible for free school meals over the summer holidays. This is funded by the government and provides “healthy food and enriching activities” to children who already receive free school meals.
If the school holidays are six full weeks, children will be offered at least 16 days of childcare. Each day must be at least four hours long and cover a four-week period. Kids will get at least one nutritious meal during the day.
Councils are working with a range of organisations to provide free spots on their schemes. This could be at a drama group, dance camp, sports club or other play groups.
You need to re-register to access the programme every new holiday season, even if you have accessed it previously. Families who are eligible for free school meals should receive information about how to apply for the scheme from their local council.
In Scotland, ministers have committed to making holiday childcare provision available to all children from low-income families through the Summer Holidays Food, Activities and Childcare Programme. The exact support available once again depends on where you live, so get in touch with your local authority to find out more.
Wales has a ‘Food and Fun’ School Holiday Enrichment Programme. It provides healthy and good-quality breakfasts and lunches, food and nutrition education sessions and sporty activities to children living in deprived areas in Wales.
In Northern Ireland, there is not a comparable scheme but there is a database of summer schemes which can be found at Family Support NI.
Many museums have free entry for some of their exhibits. You could walk among the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, learn about weird and wonderful inventions at the Science Museum or head to the Tate Modern in London. There’s the wacky House of Marbles games factory in Devon, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, or the Big Pit: National Coal Museum near Abergavenny. MoneySavingExpert has a full list of free museums in the UK.
Head to a toy library over the summer holidays
There are more than 1,000 toy libraries in the UK. They typically offer toys to borrow for all age groups and many run ‘stay and play’ sessions. You’ll have to pay a small registration fee to become a member and borrow toys, but it’s much cheaper than buying new. Contact your local council to find one near you.
Go to a free (or cheap) local farm
Many farms are run by charities so are free for families though they might ask for a small, voluntary donation. Your kids will love meeting and feeding the animals.
Create a nature trail
This is as simple as plotting out a walk in your local area and seeing if your kids can identify flowers and leaves. Get them to draw what they spot or do some flower pressing by popping them in books and letting them dry.
Head to a waterfall
There are waterfalls across the UK which you can visit and enjoy (try sites like TripAdvisor for information about ones near you). Your kids can experience some real beauty – make sure you check if there’s an entry fee before you visit.
Pay what you can
Plenty of organisations are running ‘pay what you can’ schemes. There are theatres where you can just pay a small amount – like the Nottingham Playhouse. Or try ‘pay what you can’ cafes such as those run by the Real Junk Food Project.
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Look out for discounts
The Official London Kids Week theatre promotion is offering free child tickets to London theatre shows with a full-priced adult ticket.
Aldi has partnered with Team GB and ParalympicsGB to offer free sports sessions for kids this summer if you spend £30 in store before 31 July.
Through National Rail, you can get two-for-one tickets at some of the UK’s biggest attractions. If you register with Days Out Guide and buy a National Rail ticket, you can get two-for-one tickets at more than 80 attractions, including Thorpe Park, Kew Gardens, Chessington World of Adventures, Alton Towers and Legoland Windsor.
If you receive universal credit, working tax credit, child tax credit, employment and support allowance, income support or jobseeker’s allowance, the whole family can go to London Zoo for £3. There are plenty more discounts on offer, so keep an eye out this summer!
Make your own slime, playdough or salt dough
There are simple recipes for making slime, playdough and salt dough, which barely cost anything and can easily be found online. Children love making a bit of a mess and having fun, and they’re easy and cheap activities which will fill an afternoon.
Join a free drama summer school
Longfield Hall in London, a community charity supported by Big Issue Invest, is running a free drama summer school for budding actors aged six to 16. They can register for one of two week-long blocks to devise and perform their very own play.
Looking towards the next term (because you have to start early), it’s worth thinking about the best ways to find inexpensive school uniforms and whether you can get extra financial support to cover the costs.
If your child is eligible for free school meals, you might also be able to get a school uniforms grant, but it depends on where you live. If you are based in England, check the government website and enter your postcode to see if you can get one in your area.
All councils across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offer some form of grant to cover uniform costs. But whether you are eligible and the amount of money you will get depends on your postcode.
If your local council doesn’t offer grants to cover school uniform costs, or if you are not eligible, the next step is to contact your school for help. Many schools offer support – including grants of their own, vouchers, or discount schemes. Most have second-hand sales, where you can snap up uniforms for a fraction of the price of new clothes.
Facebook Marketplace, Gumtree and eBay are packed with cheap second-hand school uniform options – keep an eye out for a bargain deal. It’s worth trying charity shops in your local area too.
Supermarkets also have deals on uniforms. For example, at Aldi, you can get a full school uniform for £5. This includes polo shirts, a sweatshirt and either a girl’s pleated skirt or boy’s trousers.
More help may be available through other charitable grants to help you with the costs of sending your kids to school. The charity Turn2us has an online tool where you can find out about all the charitable grants available to you.
Charity Glasspool has an Essential Living Fund, providing small grants for household items and essential clothing to people in need. This can cover the cost of school uniforms. If you need help, it’s also worth getting in touch with your housing support officer, local branch of Citizens Advice, a voluntary organisation or local authority officer.
If your kids have grown out of uniforms that still have some life left in them, you could donate items to help others. Uniforms dropped at any of 20 Wacky Warehouses, found mainly in the Midlands and the South, between 17 July and 3 September, will be donated to charities chosen by each local venue as part of a new scheme.
In London, Recycle School Uniform CIC collects uniforms and re-sells at an affordable price, while an online search will bring up school uniform banks and donation bins in your area.
Many schools offer take-back schemes, allowing parents to donate old school uniforms at the end of the year, which are then sold at a reduced price to others. Check if your school has a scheme like this. If it doesn’t, you might even be able to get one going with other parents.
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