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Budget Meals

Updated on August 27, 2010

It makes sense to organize your menus and shopping in advance. The best way of doing this is to sit down once a week, say on a Friday evening, and make a list of what you intend to cook during the coming week. If you are planning a particular dish, list all the ingredients. Always check that your store cupboard has adequate supplies of any basics, such as flour, sugar or pulses, that you will need. If you don't have a specific dish in mind, your list should include notes such as 'vegetables for soup' or 'meat for stew'. So long as you know the quantities needed, you can take advantage of whatever is best-looking and cheapest in the shops.

Menu planning does not have to be a chore; once you get into a routine, you won't always be wondering what to prepare for the next meal. Plan your cooking so that you don't have to spend too many hours a week in the kitchen. Time spent one day should leave you more free on the next. Some food (a large joint of meat for instance) can be used for two meals and the scraps can probably be stretched to form part of a third. Similarly, making a mammoth quantity of soup will see you through a good many snacks (you can always vary the flavor by adding extra pureed vegetables or minced leftovers).

Saving Money, Saving Time

While you are in the kitchen, watching carefully over some dish, use the time intelligently. For example make a quantity of rubbed-in mixture for pastry, which will keep well in the refrigerator for about 10 days.

Choose dishes that can be cooked simultaneously in the oven, or cook all of them on the hob, rather than using both forms of heat. If you have a hot oven, think what can usefully be cooked in it at the same time, for example pulses or prunes, as this will make maximum use of fuel.

Try to offer as wide a range of food as possible as this will ensure your family gets the nutrients they need, without becoming bored by repeating dishes too often. To be really appetizing, a meal should contain a variety of textures, colors and flavors. In general a 'wet' course should be followed by a 'dry' course (or vice versa) and 'white' meals, such as avocados followed by fish pie and finishing with cheese, are to be avoided. Always balance a rich or starchy main course with a light dessert.

The appearance of the food is just as important as its preparation, so a small bunch of parsley or watercress on your list will enliven the main course.

Economy is always important so don't be tempted to buy more than you really need, unless you are planning to use leftovers the next day or have a freezer in which to store the surplus.

Seasonal fruit and vegetables are always cheapest and very often nicest. They are more expensive at the beginning of their season when they are scarce and become cheaper when plentiful. If you are an inexperienced shopper, it is helpful to get hold of a chart which lists what foods are in season and when.

Learn how to select meat and fish that is really fresh, however humble the cut or type, that way you won't be disappointed.

However, slightly damaged fruit or vegetables can be an excellent buy if they are used for a dish where this will not matter. A good time to buy these is Friday or Saturday evening when shopkeepers are anxious to sell perishable stock. Remove damaged portions and use these foods for soups, purees and mousses.

Photo by Pasi Pitkanen
Photo by Pasi Pitkanen

Bulk Buying

Buying in bulk has two main functions: to cut down on time-consuming shopping trips and save money.

A well-stocked store cupboard ensures that you never inadvertently run out of essential items and can always cater for unexpected guests.

Before buying anything in bulk, first consider where it is to be stored when you get it home.

Ideally you should an adequately ventilated cupboard space in, or adjoining, your kitchen. A cool dry place where the temperature remains relatively constant is essential. Cans will rust, with alarming effects on their contents, if exposed to damp while sugar and cereal products must also be protected from mice and insect infestation.

A corner of the loft or garage is not the most convenient place to go searching for urgently needed golden syrup or a bag of flour. If this is where your stores must be kept, you need a well-organized kitchen cupboard, topped up regularly in advance.

Shopping Within A Budget

You may be able to visit a cash-and-carry store or hypermarket with the intention of buying all you need in one fell swoop, but this entails a heavy capital outlay and is not possible for everyone. A trip of this kind, which is undertaken only rarely, does keep down petrol costs. However, you must remember to include the cost of your journey when assessing whether you really save money.

A method of bulk buying which is less hard on the purse is to buy one item when you see it as a special offer in a shop. This means being always on the alert, but excellent bargains are to be had in this way.

The item being sold at a reduced price is often a 'loss leader', that is, the retailer is not making a profit.on that particular item, but is using it to lure you into the shop, where he hopes you will buy other items as well. Provided you can resist temptation and pick up the cut price goods only, you will be able to build up your store cupboard gradually.

When you see an item going cheap it is important to be sure that it is something you really need and will use. Even with popular foods be sure that your family will accept the brand that is on offer as tastes of baked beans, for example, vary from one manufacturer to another.

Quantities

Quantities need care. Before you set out on a bulk buying expedition, make a list of the things you need and also note how many of each you are likely to use before your next planned trip. It is easy to pick up boxes of everything only to find when you get back home that 12 bottles of furniture polish will last a lot longer than 12 rolls of toilet paper. Also, beware of over-stocking a favorite food. Your family may develop a dislike of it if they eat too much.

If it is not possible to split boxes at the store, it may be worthwhile making the trip with a friend so that you can take advantage of lower prices between you. Bear in mind that, if you agree to do shopping for several people, you will spend a fair amount of time dividing up the goods and getting your money back.

There are two major problems when buying in bulk. Firstly, there is the tendency to buy more than you really need. When you've made your shopping list, stick to it. Secondly, when you know there's a large supply of goods stacked away it is easy to use them extravagantly. Do not allow the family to open five different types of cereal at breakfast time just because you have them in stock. Give out new tubes of toothpaste only when required. In fact, it's a good idea to keep your bargain buys locked away from the family's eager hands.

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