Cooking and shopping – Heaven or hell?

I watched one of those programmes a while ago about people who need to adjust the way they shop for and plan their meals. I keep thinking about this woman who is the parent of an 11 year old and spends a whopping £1,000 a month on food shopping… Yes – just for the two of them. Despite that they were eating a diabolical mixture of pre-prepared dinners and huge amounts of chocolate and muffins. This poor lady was totally lost and confused about how to shop, what to buy, what to cook and where to go. It had all become so overwhelming that she was verging on phobic about supermarkets and simply didn’t know where to start to sort it out. Admittedly this is an extreme case, I suppose it wouldn’t have made good TV otherwise! It did get me thinking though – how many people would like to change the way they cook and eat but really don’t know where to start?

Here is my guide to turning  your kitchen nightmares into a more manageable and stress free part of life.

Start small – lifetime habits can be hugely challenging to break – start with the meal that you stress over most, and plan to solve the problems associated with that meal first. Give yourself anything up to a month to work on it, then once you feel more organised and the stresses are receding move onto the next meal. If you try and tackle everything at once you may find it overwhelming.

Start by assessing where the challenges actually are – if you are going to keep reading grab a pen and scrap of paper… Now you have identified the meal that causes the most problems can you identify what aspect of the meal causes you stress? Is it choosing what to cook, shopping for it, liking what you produce, clearing up or maybe the actual cooking process? Write down the answers. Here are some ideas to help you find solutions….

Problem 1. Choosing what to cook

What do you want the meal to be? Nutritious maybe? Or fast? Limited clearing up? Interesting and new? Once you know what you want out of the meal you are better placed to create something that delivers those things. Planning will help you achieve great meals and I’ll come on to that.

Problem 2. Liking what you produce

I think this is a big one for lots of food providers; if the kids will eat it you don’t enjoy it, or if you enjoy it they won’t eat it, or even worse an adult in your life won’t eat it either! I feel strongly about this, we are so incredibly lucky to have a variety of foods to eat and in plentiful supply, we should be grateful for what we have and in turn so should those we provide for. You work hard – I know you do… you’re a Mum! You absolutely do not need to be producing two meals in the evening or three different lunches. We are going to go on to planning – once your meals are planned – stick to it, if someone in the household doesn’t want it they can make themselves something else,  or leave it on the side in the kitchen until they do want it later. My kids have had to do this from the age of about four years. One of them ‘doesn’t like’ lamb and two of them complain about fish, but I still serve lamb – maybe not so much but I do cook it,  and every week we have fish. One genuinely can’t stand lasagne so I don’t make it – it’s a genuine thing so fair enough, but the fish thing – that’s a preference – it’s different. I will accommodate to a degree but not pander – no way Jose.

There is no such thing as kid’s food and adult food, ‘kid’s food’ is just processed rubbish – really don’t go there. One meal for the whole family, one stint in the kitchen, one set of clearing up. If you want to wait for your partner to come home to eat together – perfect. Plate it up, clear up and then heat it up. Work all done and dusted. All you have to do is put your plates in the dishwasher and relax!

Problem 3. I don’t mind cooking but I HATE the clearing up!

This is me all over, once I’ve eaten I just can’t stand to go back into the kitchen. I solve this in two ways, after dinner I work hard at getting the other people in my house to clear up (it’s an ongoing project!) and I accept that I leave the rest until the morning. It’s not perfect but it is a plan, it doesn’t stop me producing great meals and it does get done… eventually. If this sounds like you, give yourself a break – no one died in the night because the dishwasher wasn’t packed and turned on! For other meals try and tidy as you go and don’t be afraid to use your dishwasher more than once a day. It’s not great for the environment but if it means your family eat brilliantly then I think it’s worth it – you can turn off more lights or take less baths if you want to balance things out.

Problem 4. I really hate cooking!

Ok so this is a tough one. I would start by asking yourself if you hate cooking or if it’s partly lack of knowledge/skills, the stresses and pressure around the constant grind of providing for others or not knowing what to cook? If it might be partly one of the above, we’re tackling those issues in the rest of the article, so once you’ve looked at those consider how much you dislike the actual process after. If it still feels like the actual process of cooking, can you; 1. Share some of it? Can someone else in your household take on a couple of meals a week? 2. Try using a slow cooker so you spread the prep into two shorter sessions rather than one longer one? 3. Aim for simple recipes that don’t have you in the kitchen for hours. 4. If your kids are old enough get them to join in – can it be a game? Maybe sometimes if you aren’t too tired! 5. Plan into your schedule at least one evening off. I have Friday nights off and if the kids throw a pizza in the oven then my mental health has benefitted more than their health has suffered, so it’s all good!

Problem 5. Fast!

There are loads of fast and healthy meals you can make – the key is to have them planned and the ingredients to hand. This takes me onto the key to all success – planning!

Planning is key.

If you are thinking about what to eat or cook half an hour before you start to prep it, the chances are things aren’t going to go so well. An hour set aside at a convenient time to plan and shop will save you hours of stress, unscheduled trips to the supermarket and of course shed loads of cash!! The woman in the TV show saved £600 a month! That’s one heck of a holiday at the end of the year.

Online shopping and planning are best friends. Sit down at your computer close to your fridge. Think about the meals you need to buy and plan for. I plan five main meals a week leaving flexibility for my Friday night off and an evening for  spontaneity. I always make extra of the evening meal for packed lunches and my own lunch, and I have about five breakfasts that I use regularly and know if I need to top up on these ingredients. I therefore have five recipes that I need to source and shop for (keeping in mind I need a little extra for lunches), breakfast ingredients and general additional snacks and treats and packed lunches. Simple but effective.

Before starting to shop firstly you need to plan what you are going to buy FOR and THEN you need to work out what you need to buy. I start by creating a weekly dinner menu by sourcing recipes that I want to cook. I have my own criteria, the top one is nutrition and the second is speed. Identify what your criteria are and go searching for recipes – do they meet your criteria? If so give them a go.

Online shopping can also help you get everything you need. ‘Regulars’ are saved in a list automatically so you can scroll through and just add items you often buy without you having to look for them – it also acts as a prompt, you may not have put ‘washing up liquid’ on your list but once you see it in your regulars it may remind you that you have nearly run out.

Keep a magnetic shopping list on the fridge and a pen with it, everytime you run out of something add it to the list. Once you have done the shopping from your regulars and your recipes, check the list. This way you should be buying everything you need and nothing you don’t!

With these steps I hope your shopping hell can become manageable at worst and maybe even a pleasure at best.