Meal Planning on a Budget – Our Essential List

leftover Bolognese with spelt crackers

Since my redundancy earlier in the year, I have been spending more time consciously thinking about the food we eat. Initially this was for budget reasons only, but it has had a really positive effect on our health as well. You see, by making all our meals from scratch and eating leftovers for lunch, we are avoiding grabbing easy snacks (often processed foods) and instead we’re eating a wider variety of vegetables.

But variety doesn’t have to come at an additional cost. If, like me, you have previously tried to stock up on healthy options only to have them sit in your fridge or cupboard well beyond their better days, please don’t give up. I’ve been pleasantly surprised of late just how budget friendly stocking my fridge full of fresh vegetables can be!

vegetable mixes for easy dishes

We’ve been avoiding meat, for budget and health purposes, but are still keeping fish in our diet. We’ve also been looking at cutting out wheat completely in meals we all eat (TJ and Little Man still have bread etc) and reducing our dairy intake significantly (this is a tough one as we do eat a lot of cheese in our house!) But even with the additional cost of dairy free milk and yoghurts and a lot more fresh fruit and vegetables, our weekly shop has still dropped a massive amount in recent weeks.

So how have we done it? Well, I keep my meal planning relatively loose by having a few recipe ideas in mind when I go shopping but enough flexibility to make the most of seasonal offers. And then I have my “Essentials List” which I know will help me make plenty of meals, even at short notice. This is what I would like to share with you today…

Our Essential List

  • Potatoes (for jackets and salads)
  • Carrots
  • Courgettes
  • Onions
  • Celery
  • Parsnips
  • Broccoli
  • Baby Corn
  • Mange Tout
  • Sugar Snap Peas
  • Green Beans
  • Mushrooms
  • Avocados
  • Tomatoes (fresh and tinned)
  • Tinned Beans
  • Gravy and/or Stock
  • Mayonnaise
  • Tinned fish, such as Tuna
  • Smokedfish, such as Mackeral
  • Eggs

The above ingredients make a variety of meals and are flexible enough to mix and match throughout the week. So, for instance, I always grate a few carrots and a courgette as a base for meals like Bolognese or a hot pot…

grated carrot and courgette base for Bolognese, hot pots and cottage pie

I find it makes a lovely, thick base that can sometimes seem to be lacking from meat free meals. I can then add a variety of other vegetables to it, depending on what I have available.

At the moment this is often baby corn, mange tout or sugar snaps peas. Whilst these may seem less than a budget choice, they are in fact a good option for additions to dishes. I find a pack of baby corn will easily do two meals, and the bags of mange tout and sugar snap peas can last 3 or 4 meals.

Likewise, a punnet of mushrooms will be good for a couple of dinners, and broccoli can go on for 3 or 4 meals too. All of these, in varying combinations, can make up a Bolognese, cottage pie or hot pot dish. And lightly steamed, make a delicious salad for lunch.

Talking of salads, I choose to make a salad base from avocado a lot of the time, as I struggle to digest raw vegetables and lettuce. It is certainly a far cheaper option than wheat free bread! But sometime,  if we have leftovers from the night before I will eat those with some Ryvita. TJ is equally as happy to take leftovers to work too.

leftover Bolognese with spelt crackers

Many of these meals need a sauce or gravy, so we always keep tins of tomatoes and beans in the cupboard. In fact I ran out of carrots for my Bolognese base the other day and substituted with a tin of baked beans and it worked out fun, if a little sweet to my taste!

You can mix it up by making the same Bolognese twice, only having it with pasta one day and jacket potatoes the next. Or you might like to add some spices and make a chilli to go with your spuds. It really is quite easy to make a few simple dishes go a long way!

And they don’t all have to take a lot of preparation and cooking time. One of our favourite meals at the moment is smoked mackerel with new potatoes and vegetables. 20 mins for the veg to cook, 5 mins to serve, and you’re done. Likewise with jacket potatoes, stick in the oven, make up some tuna mayo, and voila, a simply but filling meal.

smoked mackerel dinner

I’m not the most confident or creative cook, but I have really been enjoying helping our budget go further whilst feeding my family healthy and nutritious meals. I still have a lot to explore, like the noodles in our cupboard (stir fry, perhaps?) and the polenta bought on a whim (still no idea on that front!) And then there is the quinoa we could use in place of rice with a chilli, or mixed with veg for a tasty warm salad lunch. And, of course, I have yet to venture into the realm of breakfasts and puddings, but it’s a good start!

I’m going to be blogging more about our individual favourite wheat-free, vegetarian and budget meals, but for now I just wanted to share how we’ve started on this journey and what we have learnt so far.

Tell me, do you have an essential shopping list or go to recipes?

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Your list would work for me Amanda but my husband and teenage son are constantly hungry so I have to keep the store cupboard filled with sweet and savoury treats! My go to healthy recipe is one of Michael van Straton’s. It is tri-colour fusilli (or use any pasta) mixed with cooked spinach and broccoli florets, red or black grapes (halved), raw red onion finely chopped. Stir all together mixing a few tbsps of extra virgin olive oil and finishing with a couple of tablespoons of Parmesan cheese. I think it is really delicious and would eat it all the time if I could! x

    • Ah, I have a constantly hungry preschooler who refuses to eat cooked veg (but will eat it raw!!) and a hungry husband (due to some of his meds) so it can be tricky, but we’re doing pretty well on this so far thankfully! I love the sound of that pasta dish, thanks so much for sharing xx

  2. With an other half like Matt to contend with, it’s not worth it! We’d be making two separate meals of an evening. I do take my own lunch to work: 160g frozen mixed veg in Winter (85p per 1kg bag from Lidl, and pretty decent quality) and 80g each carrot, celery and cucumber in Summer, both with 30g-ish cheese. And when we have (vegan) friends over, I knock up a pretty mean vegan mass-catered dish (curried tofu (a firm (ha, firm! I’m not sorry…) favourite), chickpea stirfry, many-bean stew). I find it’s not about recipes as such, it’s about knowing what you can do with X, Y and Z. I do follow a recipe for the meals given above, but not to the letter: I add, subtract and generally play about with them! Given time, I’ll be doing them off-the-cuff.

    That said, we do have ‘staples’ for just me and Matt, but it does tend to be ‘ready meals’ as Matt can just read the instructions and go with them. He does make a great Quorn stirfry though (see below). It’s things like chicken nuggets (bought fresh), quorn escalopes, fancy burgers, kievs sometimes… Oh, but we do make cheesy chicken from scratch if you count Philadelphia cheese as an ingredient 🙂

    Skavenblight Quorn Stirfry (for 2, see notes)

    225g ish that Quorn chicken pieces stuff, fresh or frozen
    1 large onion
    At least 3 garlic cloves (as many as you can be bothered to do if you’re me, the more the merrier!)
    A thumb-sized piece of ginger root
    1 leek (Matt’s concession to vegetables: I don’t really like them!)
    1 pack those Sainsbury’s fresh egg noodles

    Preparation:
    Put kettle on to boil. Finely chop garlic and peeled ginger and add to a jug (for putting the hot water in). Add spices of your choice; we use:
    Cinnamon, cloves, ginger (less with real ginger root), turmeric, garamasala (just a touch), cumin.
    (I haven’t added spice quantities because it’s quite personal-preference).
    Add black pepper to taste and, if not using soy sauce, salt. Mix together with a dash of soy sauce to a paste, then add more soy sauce to taste (about 2tbsp). Add enough hot water to cover the Quorn in a bowl. Stir well and leave in the fridge for the day.

    Stirfrying time!
    Preheat wok/pan/whatever. Thinly slice the onion and fry over a middling heat until soft, add garlic if not included earlier (or if you want yet more…) and fry until onions are almost translucent, add sliced leek until soft (onions should be about caramelised!) then add Quorn and steeping juice: boil-fry for 6m, stir, and then boil-fry for another 6m.

    (At this point Matt likes to be Matt and have it served on a plate so he can pick the good-looking bits of Quorn and onion and as much leek as he can find out, so I do the noodles separate, but you may wish to add them in now or do them separately).

    Serve with cheese if Matt… Serve with extra veg Matt doesn’t like if Dawn. Matt also steals 80% of the noodles, so veg is a viable option for me.

    If served with the extra veg (Sainsbury’s basics stirfry mix, precooked and frozen in approx. 160g batches, 1 batch per person) and a fair share of noodles, it should serve 3-4. Frozen Quorn is cheaper than fresh, and fresh doesn’t freeze so well.

    • I also completely forgot to mention that cooking polenta is a fine art! I follow the instructions to add it very slowly to boiling water, and it still boils over, has massive lumps, is a bit weird etc.! It tastes alright, I quite like it, but I think I’ll stick to the precooked version.

    • I’ve had your cheesy chicken 🙂 and I also know what Matt is like!!

      The stir fry sounds fab (apart from the Quorn – can’t touch the stuff since my pregnancy, it is banned from our house lol) I love your beany ideas, and like you I am very much a switch this and swap that kind of gal when it comes to following recipes! We add frozen peas and sweetcorn to things in the winter, but I’m not a fan of frozen carrots which seem to be in all the mixes, so we tend to avoid them. I’m fussy with carrots to be fair, I think I ate too many of them growing up and had my fill!!

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