Planning, shopping and budgeting for meals

Whatever you’re planning to cook – a special dinner for family and friends, a quick evening meal for one or two, the menu for your first week living alone – you need to think first about what sort of meal or meals you want to produce, and then consider balance, budget and time.

What sort of meal?

  • Think about the purpose of your meal or meals, and who is going to eat them. Are you planning:
    • a quick supper for the family?
    • a week of cooking for your first week alone?
    • a particular treat for a best friend?
    • something to impress a new boyfriend?
  • Do your family or guests have any particular likes or dislikes, or any special requirements (vegan, vegetarian, fasting)?
  • Is the food the main event, or are you eating quickly before going somewhere else?
  • Are there fussy children or demanding teenagers (not like you)?
  • Think about the season, where you will be eating and the time of day – different types of food are more welcome on different occasions.

Balance

  • Aim for balance and variety – both within individual meals and over the course of all the meals you cook over a week or so.
  • This is better for your health and for everyone’s enjoyment; most people don’t like eating the same thing every day and prefer to have different (though complementary) textures, flavours and colours within a meal.
  • A crisp, green salad freshens up a pizza or meatballs; creamy yoghurt and soft naan bread add complementary flavours and different textures to a vegetable curry; a mix of colourful vegetables brighten up a roast chicken.
  • If you’re having a pudding, make sure it provides a good balance to the main course and doesn’t have the same main ingredient as in the main course (so don’t follow a meat pie with a fruit tart, for example; try a chocolate mousse instead).

Budget

  • Think about the cost of your meal and make sure it’s within your budget.
  • Save luxury ingredients for special occasions – you don’t need them every day and won’t appreciate them if you do.
  • All our recipes use simple, everyday ingredients but still taste delicious!
  • Some expensive ingredients can be good value:
    • a small block of Parmesan cheese can last for ages and adds a really good flavour to all sorts of dishes
    • real vanilla extract will take your baking to a whole new level.
  • Make food go further: if you roast a chicken for Sunday lunch, you might have enough leftovers to make chicken salad, chicken curry, a chicken pie…
  • Heating up a whole oven is expensive, so make the best use of it. Make a pudding and roast some vegetables at the same time as roasting your Sunday meat, or do a whole batch of baking in one go – you can freeze some of your cakes to enjoy later.

Time

  • Think when you want your food to be served and work back from that time.
  • If you know that you don’t have much time – for example, for weekday evening meals – choose something simple; save the more complicated recipes for weekends.
  • Buying the necessary ingredients can sometimes take longer than the actual cooking, so if you don’t already have the ingredients make sure that you’ll have enough time to get them.
  • Work out shopping and cooking times that fit in with the rest of your life. Everyone has different preferences and different lifestyles.
  • Keep a basic stock of the ingredients you use regularly, so you don’t have to go shopping every time you want to cook. The Love Food Hate Waste website gives a useful list of store cupboard essentials.