I try to shop with the rules of a healthy balanced diet in mind, although it isn’t always easy if you’re working to a limited budget. I make my shopping list in four sections: PROTEIN first, as it’s generally one of the more expensive food groups. CARBS next, as they’re cheap and filling. FRUIT AND VEG from the tinned fruit aisle, the baking department for dried fruit, the freezer department and the fresh produce section. STORECUPBOARD for herbs and spices, flavours, and things to generally make your simple ingredients a little more exciting and a lot more versatile. See here for an example:
There’s no need to get everything all at once – all storecupboards are built up over time, with a spice picked up here and a vinegar there, a bag of flour one week and a bag of rice or pasta the next. Here are a few essentials that I try to keep kicking around – but please, if you only have a very tiny budget or not much spare, don’t feel you have to get everything on this list. Pick a few recipes with similar ingredients to start you off, and go from there.
Many people associate protein with ‘meat’, indeed, my vegan friends are constantly asked where they ‘get their protein from’. Sources of protein are not just limited to chickens and beef, but can be found in much cheaper forms. Tins of sardines, for example. Jars of fish paste. Bags of frozen fish fillets. Tins of beans and pulses, or the dried variety to soak and cook in advance. I pack out soups with pulses (kidney beans and chickpeas, usually), and also use tinned beans to make chilli, burgers, curries, daals and stews. Beans, pulses and lentils are easier and cheaper to store than joints of meat, as they can be stashed in a cupboard and have a long shelf life.
A large pot of plain natural yoghurt goes a long way, either as a standalone breakfast with a little tinned fruit mixed in, or as the base for a smoothie with a fistful of oats, a sauce for meat, a curry base, or to toss through pasta with lemon and herbs. Value range cheeses are excellent, with Brie, anything hard and strong, and blues all packing a punchy flavour for pennies. The stronger the flavour, the less you need for your recipe, so don’t be put off by the whiffier varieties, just use less.
The cheapest carbohydrates in the shops are invariably, at the time of writing, long grain white rice and tinned potatoes. Brown rice costs less than white rice, despite white rice being processed. Something about supply and demand, I suppose, but I am neither a rice grower nor a supermarket buying controller. The same goes for pasta. White flour, again, is cheaper than wholemeal flour. I go by the principle of ‘everything in moderation’ – I was brought up on white rice and white bread and I did just fine. Besides, if you are cooking your meals from scratch, from this book, a little white starch isn’t going to do you any harm. Especially not as an alternative to salt-and-chemical-laden ready meals, for example. A bag of oats goes a long way, too, for porridge, breakfast smoothies, flapjacks, granola, oat pancakes…
Most supermarkets sell large bags of apples, pears and bananas. They may be small, or wonky, but they’re very useful for getting fresh fruit inside you – or your children – for a fraction of the cost of the loose and beautiful ones. Check out the tinned fruits too. Tinned pineapple, mandarins, peaches and pears are handy to have in the cupboard as a snack, dessert, for flavouring yoghurt or even throwing into a curry. The freezer department is always worth a look too, for bags of frozen berries much cheaper than their fresh counterparts. I love a bag of cheap sultanas, too, for making my own granola, as a snack for my Small Boy, for stirring into porridge, or poshing up a korma, etc.
I buy most of my vegetables either frozen, or tinned, with the exception of large packets of root vegetables. Onions and carrots tend to go in everything, so I buy them buy the kilo (at the time of writing this article, 1.5kg of Basics carrots are 75p, and 1.5kg Basics onions are 90p). Tinned carrots, tomatoes and sweetcorn are handy storecupboard staples, and often cheaper than their fresh or frozen counterparts. And mushy peas, if you like that kind of thing, but I am not a fan. I buy my greens frozen – spinach, broccoli, peas and green beans are all far cheaper bought frozen, and don’t go to waste in the drawer of the fridge.
Dark chocolate can be used as a base for mexican soups and chillis, melted into cornflakes for quick simple snacks, or as a hot chocolate.
Lemon juice: Bottled lemon juice is far cheaper than a bag of fresh lemons, and lasts longer. I have used it for years, even for very ‘foodie’ friends, and none of them have ever picked up on the difference.
Oil: Any oil will do. I use sunflower oil for cooking day to day, for salad dressings and even for baking. Olive oil is nice but useless for roasting as it has a low smoke point, so goes slightly rancid, and is much more expensive. I like the lightness of sunflower oil for making pestos and marinades and sauces, in that it takes on the flavours of the ingredients it is mixed it, lubricating and emulsifying without taking centre stage.
Raising agents: Bicarbonate of soda and yeast are essentials in my store cupboard as I bake a lot of bread (and cake!) and use them interchangeably in pizza dough. You can make a quick soda bread from just bicarb, lemon juice, flour and milk, so it’s useful to have kicking about.
Spices: My essential spices are paprika, cumin and turmeric, and for a long time they were all I had kicking about in my kitchen, with a sad chilli plant struggling on my window ledge. I use them all liberally, to enliven simple ingredients. If you live near an independent grocery store of the ethnic variety, pop your head in, as they usually have large bags of spices far cheaper than the tiny jars in your nearest supermarket.
Stock cubes: I generally use chicken stock for everything. There, I said it. But if you are a stock purist, keep a few varieties – most shops do a ‘value’ range of these too. I use half a stock cube for most recipes with a liberal pinch of salt, meaning they go twice as far.
Wine or beer: I buy a bottle of value wine, red or white, and keep it on the side to cook with. Depending on how often I use it, a bottle can last a month. If the thought of spending £3-4 on a botte of wine just to throw in cooking alarms you, then you can replace red wine with strong black tea for any slow-cooked recipes, as the aftertaste of red wine in cooking is the tannins, and you get the same thing from tea. Several of my readers tried it, and couldn’t tell the difference. Neither could the friends I made a black tea bourgignon for last summer, and most of them worked in restaurants. It’s the little tricks.
Taken from the book A Girl Called Jack by Jack Monroe. Adapted November 2015.