Once you know what you have already, then start on your grocery list. Make a list of all your basic essentials, these are all the things that you need to have in stock to keep the family ticking over – Not what you would LIKE to have, just what you NEED (nope, emergency chocolate and wine doesn't count).
The Essentials Shopping List should start with fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables. It’s possible to make a wide variety of nutritious meals by combining fresh or frozen produce with basics from your store cupboard such as flour, rice, eggs and seasonings. With fresh produce you can get loads for your money, provided that you buy what is in season. Having said that, if there is an excellent offer on frozen vegetables I normally buy a couple of packs to store in the freezer and add them to stews or bolognese style mince based meals when I reheat them as a quick addition of extra vegetables with little effort and less dishes to wash. It also makes meals go further if you think there might not be enough to go around or if you have unexpected visitors for dinner.
Next list your basic range of storecupboard staples – things like flour, bread, eggs, milk, butter, oil, baking powder, salt, dried pasta, etc. Just the basics that you USE regularly. Not what you think you might use if you ever get around to dusting off your recipe book collection!
Then you need to write down a basic range of cereals Cornflakes, Weetabix, Rice Krispies, Rolled Oats, etc - all of which can be used in baking recipes as well as for breakfast. Using ingredients for more than one purpose is the cornerstone of budget conscious shopping.
Add to your Essentials Shopping List a basic range of tinned foods (such as tomatoes or baked beans), then a basic range of seasonings, sauces and spreads. Then you can include a basic range of frozen food but remember, it’s just the essentials! Peas and beans are fine but iceream and frozen pizzas will be going on the Luxury Shopping List.
The Essentials Shopping List will be completely different for each individual household. It depends on the ages of your children, number of people in the household, dietary needs, etc.
After you’ve listed all your essential food items you then need to add meat (unless of course you're vegetarian), and then any essential cleaning products, nappies, wipes and other personal hygiene products.
Essentials Shopping List
Fresh fruit and vegetables – onions (red or brown), potatoes, carrots, garlic, apples, bananas, whatever is cheap that you need for your meal plan, and in season - write them all down. They can be fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables whichever offers best value and suits your recipes.
Store Cupboard Staples – flour (plain, self raising, bread flour, wholemeal - whichever you will USE not leave sitting around in the hope you will use it), oil, sugar, eggs, milk, butter, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda (handy for cleaning too), salt, cheese, lentils, rice (long grain and Arborio), dried pasta, etc.
Baking stuff- coconut, vanilla extract, raisins, cocoa, yeast, etc
Spreads – peanut butter, honey, jam, Vegemite (all of these can be used in baking as well as on bread)
Cereals – cornflakes, weeatbix, rice krispies, rolled oats, muesli (all these can be used in baking too)
Canned food – baked beans, tinned tomatoes, chilli beans, kidney beans, sweet corn, tuna, fruit, etc
Dried Pulses and Legumes - lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, pearl barley, soup mixes
Sauces – Tomato sauce, sweet chilli sauce, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar (great for cleaning too)
Seasonings – Mixed Herbs, oregano, cumin, turmeric, paprika, curry powder, coriander, mixed spice, cinnamon, chilli, etc
Frozen food - Peas, beans, mixed vegetable, pastry blocks/sheets
Meat, Fish and Poultry - beef mince, pork mince, whole chicken or chicken pieces, good quality sausages, bacon, fish fillets (whichever fish is on offer)
Cleaning products - Bleach, floor cleaner, surface scrub, the ones you would normally use. Remember the basics ranges and store brands are usually much cheaper and do the same job as the more expensive brands. I tend to buy those brands, especially bleach and disinfectant.
Toiletries – tissues, toilet rolls, hand soap, shampoo and conditioner, soap, shaving gel, razors, sanitary products, kids toiletries.
Pet supplies - food, flea treatments, worming medication, cat litter, whatever your pets will need that week.
The Essentials Shopping List should include the basic ingredients of your regular meals as well as your baking staple ingredients. Quite often there may be things that you think are essential now, but if circumstances change they can be left off the list. For example if friends invite you to dinner, neighbours give you fruit from their trees, you manage to forage some wild blackberries, or your vegetable garden provides you with some food for the week.
The Luxuries List
This is the list of items that your household likes, but are not essential to your survival. Ice cream, wine, sugary branded cereals, shop bought biscuits, pot noodles, fancy olive oils, convenience foods like oven chips, lunch box bars and packet drinks, etc.
There is no way that you can be expected to determine the difference between a need and a want in the middle of the supermarket, especially if you are tired, have children or partners nagging for something, and basically want to escape the world for a bit with a large glass of your favourite tipple somewhere quiet.
The Essentials List and the Luxuries List clearly define your spending priorities and put in perspective what you NEED to buy versus what you'd LIKE to buy.
Sticking to a strict budget is very virtuous but can be absolutely torturous if you don't include an inexpensive treat each week. If you give yourself a little treat it makes a strict budget much easier to stick to and will help avoid a big blow out due to frustration and deprivation later on. Most household bills like mortgages, council tax, etc are fixed costs. Grocery shopping is one of the few expenses that we have complete control over. If you can save money whilst still putting tasty and healthy food on the table, the money you save can be put towards other expenses or saved for longer term goals and expenses like school uniforms, car MOT, or family outings.
The best way to use your Luxuries List is to choose only one or two items from it when you shop - but only if you can afford it.
By separating items out into the two lists you will become far more careful about how you use luxury items and ingredients to keep meals interesting therefore and you will find yourself using less of them. Having a little of your favourite foods, ingredients and treats helps you stay on track with your budget and a little treat should prevent a major blow out later on.
It's all in the way you sell it - be creative with descriptions of meals
When your nearest and dearest ask what it for dinner don't say "Leftovers" or you will probably get whinges and groans. Instead give your family a sales pitch, sell your hard work. For example, if you're making leftover homemade bolognese into pasties, tell them "We’re having delicious beef bolognese enveloped in rich flaky puff pastry to make special individual parcels". It sounds miles better than - last nights leftover mince, a handful of frozen mixed vegetables and a pack of pastry that needed using up. You can even put the first letter of their name cut out of pastry on top or cut the vent in the pastry in the shape of the first letter of their name. Some times little things like that can make a big difference for reluctant diners.
I'm not saying that you need to give a flowery and grand description of each meal. Nobody has time or energy for that kind of faff. Just try and make your family appreciate that you made the effort to cook for them. Don't be afraid to use a bit of cunning descriptive language to sell leftovers or new recipes to potentially unwilling diners. Failing that, in our house there are only two options: eat it or starve!
Here's two really cheap recipes that always go down well in our house:
Twice Baked Potatoes
Sufficient large potatoes to allow one or two halves per person, scrubbed well until clean
Milk and butter for mashing the potato.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Selection of fillings: grated cheese, leftover shredded chicken, diced ham or cooked bacon, tinned tuna, chopped spring onion or chives, tinned corn kernels, baked beans, basically whatever you have available and is to your taste.
Wrap the cleaned potatoes in foil and bake at 180C for about one hour or until a skewer or knife goes in easily. Take the potatoes out of the oven and allow to cool. If necessary, you can refrigerate them until later at this point.
When you are ready to carry on with the recipe, halve the potatoes lengthwise and scoop out the cooked flesh. Be careful not to puncture the skin and leave enough potato on the skin to form a bowl for the fillings.
Mash the scooped out cooked potato, add any fillings you like and season to taste. Gently spoon the mixture back into the shells of the potatoes, piling it up generously. Sprinkle grated cheese on the top if you like.
Return the potatoes to the oven and bake at 180C for a further 30 minutes or until golden brown and well heated through.
You can serve the stuffed potatoes as a dinner with salad, on their own as a lunch, or as a side dish.
Brown Rice and Vegetable Bake
1 cup brown rice
2 onions, finely sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
10 big chard leaves or 2 handfuls of spinach
1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
3 Tblsp grated Parmesan cheese (or vegetarian equivalent)
2 large tomatoes, sliced
3/4 cup grated cheese
Preheat oven to 180ºC. Lightly oil a large baking dish with cooking oil spray. Cook the rice according to packet instructions.
Cook dinely chopped onions in the oil until soft and slightly caramelised. Remove the stalks from the chard and cook on high in microwave for 2 minutes. If you are using spinach leave the stalks on and cook in the same way. Squeeze out excess moisture then chop up.
Combine all the ingredients except for the tomatoes and a handful of cheese. Spoon everything into the prepared dish and flatten down lightly so the top is even. Arrange the tomato slices on top and then sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
Bake in the oven for about 35-40 minutes or until firm in the middle and lightly browned. We usually serve this with a large side salad of homegrown greens.