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leftover Bolognese with spelt crackers

Meal Planning on a Budget – Our Essential List

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?