Festive food without the foot-slogging

Kathleen Hennessy offers seasonal advice on ordering your supermarket groceries online

Soon it will be the season to eat, drink and be merry. But unless you have a truck – or a very small family – getting the provisions in for Christmas is likely to involve several trips to crowded supermarkets.

Thankfully, there is an alternative to elbowing your way through the hordes: food shopping over the internet. Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Waitrose all deliver groceries, most of them seven days a week and throughout the day (although some have a less frequent service on Sundays).

Supermarkets don't deliver to all addresses. As you might expect, Tesco has the widest coverage, transporting food and drink to 97 per cent of UK postcodes. It is followed by Sainsbury's (83 per cent coverage) and Asda (65 per cent). Waitrose, through its partnership with Ocado, delivers to 56 per cent of addresses, and 54 Waitrose branches sends vans out locally. Marks & Spencer does not deliver food, except for hampers.

Charges can range from nothing at all in the case of Ocado, if your order is worth over £75 and booked for a quiet period, to £6.50 for Tesco's most popular delivery time slots.

All the supermarkets offer a full range of products online. If an item is unavailable, a "logical" substitute is provided, which you are free to reject on delivery for a refund. Where an item is replaced by one of higher value, Asda and Waitrose charge customers at the lower price. Waitrose and Tesco also allow alternatives to be selected online in case a customer's first choice isn't available.

The freshness of food bought over the internet has been questioned by the consumer group Which?. It found that, on average, food bought online is 1.28 days nearer to its "best before" date than produce available in-store. "We investigated after complaints of food being very close to its 'best before' date," says Simon Spruce at Which? "Interestingly, when it came to the age of products selected for online shoppers compared to those in-store, all the major supermarkets were about the same."

Shopping in this way may not seem a green option, but supermarkets are addressing the environmental impact. Tesco offers you the option of having shopping delivered in reusable trays rather than plastic bags. Waitrose, Ocado, Asda and Tesco take back their bags for recycling.

Finally, just how late can you leave it to order? Tesco is delivering up to and including the morning of 23 December, and Asda up to and including the same date. Sainsbury's delivers until 22 December, while Ocado's vans will still be doing the rounds on Christmas Eve.