Food shopping in an uncertain world

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Like many people, I have been shocked at the problems created by panic buying of food supplies.  But I’ll also confess I have perhaps followed it more than others because my brother (Prof Richard Wilding) is a supply chain specialist and is being interviewed and quoted on the problems.

Whilst there are the really extreme cases that we see of people buying up (sometimes with a view to sell on) huge volumes of in-demand products, I suspect that everyone is putting a little bit more in their shopping baskets.  All these small changes do add up – they add up to empty shelves and less supplies for those who can only shop weekly due to finances and/or ability to carry or store large volumes of food.

So what should I do?  Should I adapt my food shopping for an uncertain world, and if so what is reasonable and ethical?

I’ve realised that I can’t adapt unless I examine what I do now – how do I go about managing the larder (including fridge and freezer)? Or, what do I do when I do what I do?

It’s actually something that I was considering writing about before the COVID-19 breakout because in the last year or so I have completely transformed what I do.  In fact, prior to October 2018 we had no interlinkages at all between shopping for food and what we needed to eat in the subsequent week.  My husband, as main shopper, kept general track of things we had eaten, things he had spotted were running out, went to the shops, bought those things, bought things he thought we would like and brought them home.  I, as main cook, stared in cupboard when hungry, wondered what we could have, created a meal, or, on too many occasions felt uninspired and said ‘let’s get a takeaway’ or ‘let’s pop out to….’.  This whole scenario got exacerbated when we were both working from home.  We needed to shop for 21 meals a week (20 really as sunday tends to be late brunch and one other main meal).  We didn’t do well, we both put on weight and our food bills were larger than they needed to be.

So I introduced changes – practices that can be labelled as meal planning and meal prepping.  When I look at other blogs on meal planning and meal prepping, even I get a little freaked out at how organised they sound.  I suspect I will sound that way too but the changes were gradual, I started one thing and that then had a knock on effect and I started another.  My aim here is to reflect on that journey and see whether I can learn about where I can make reasonable and ethical adjustments for these uncertain times.  Please note though – the headings below aren’t discreet phases in that journey just purposeful actions that I can pick out of that journey.

[The context is a household of two adults, both home-based for work.  Fortunate enough position to be able to buy food without being cost-conscious.  Grow some of our food at an allotment.  Buy organic when available.  Use small local stores where we can.  More recently, also working on reducing plastic.  We’re pesce-tarian and additionally I can’t eat milk and wheat. Competent in a kitchen but would never win masterchef!]

Introducing meal planning

The first stage of the transformation was to introduce meal planning.  This is standard advice in any diet book or diet makeover programmes like “Eat well for less” and those by Tom Kerridge.  I know this is normal to other people.  I’d never done it before and neither had I been in a household where I had seen anyone else doing it.

The main decision was how to go about it.  I did wonder whether to use pen and paper and a weekly timetable plan but in the end chose to create a ‘meals’ electronic calendar that sits alongside all our other commitments.  This has the advantage that I can easily see if one or both of us will be out or away.  I started ensuring that we had a weeks plan in place and that when we went shopping we had a list of the ingredients that we needed for that plan.

Staring at a blank meal plan felt a little scary at first – if I take out the routine breakfasts (Monday – Saturday), there were 14 gaps to fill.  Over time, however, I have developed an overall structure – weekday lunches, weekday evenings, Saturday lunch, Sunday brunch, Saturday & Sunday evening – each have their own ‘type’ of dish.  For example, during the week we prefer our larger meal at lunchtime but dishes have to be quick to do and quick to clear up then we have soup in the evenings accompaned by oatcakes and small amounts of protein such as cheese, smoked salmon or prawns.  For us, the other variable is the seasons – thinking about what is ready at the allotment and shifting with what is available means that ‘structure’ doesn’t mean the same thing each week.

Over time, my planning pushed further ahead than one week.  If I think about a meal that we haven’t had for a while or see a new recipe on the internet or TV, I now put it in the meal plan so that I don’t have to try and remember it.  After all, I can always move it if necessary and have noticed that if I keep putting off a recipe, perhaps because it feels too time consuming, I do end up deleting it.  This, I guess, is another advantage of using an electronic calendar.

I do however still consolidate the meal plan, write the shopping list and shop weekly.  I can’t say I enjoy the writing the list bit – flipping backwards and forwards between the meal plan, the recipes and having to check cupboards.  It’s all quite tedious, but the knock-on effects elsewhere are worth this effort.

In uncertain times:

Current UK guidance asks citizens to remain isolated for 14 days when any member of the household displays COVID-19 symptoms.  So I have found myself asking the question – if one of us got the symptoms tomorrow, would we be able to eat for 14 days?

As a meal planner the way I can answer that question is to start planning meals three weeks ahead, making sure the non-perishable items are in the house and therefore only relying on others to get us fresh, perishable goods.

This would mean we have a small increase in our weekly shop initially but thereafter we just work on a rolling basis.  Having said that, I do need to think of ways where I can minimise my initial additional demand and need for perishable food to be delivered.  Hopefully writing this blog will help me to do so.

Turning to recipes

As soon as I started meal planning, I realised that my off-the-top-of-my head repertoire of meals was very limited.  Perhaps this is why I used to run out of inspiration, you can only have so much tuna and pasta or Thai prawn curry.  So I started to turn to recipes.

Now, I do have quite a few recipe books but they are in the kitchen and I usually meal plan when half-watching TV in the evening, so I predominantly (but not exclusively) use the Good Food app for this purpose.  Over time, I have used the app to save many recipes and create my own collections that I dip into according to ‘meal type’.  When the collections don’t inspire me I search the app for more – as yet it hasn’t failed me.

In uncertain times:

Don’t think there are any changes needed here.

Re-framing ‘leftovers’ as multiple meals prepared in one go

Previously, we made dishes for a meal, ate as much as we wanted, and put the rest in the fridge. The leftovers were never enough for a whole additional meal.  Some soups and stews I deliberately made in large quantities but by the third day we were really bored of eating them.

The knock on effect of using recipes is that I started to realise the vast majority of them are for 4 or 6 portions.  Whilst not every dish can be kept in fridge or freezer, many of them can whether as a fully prepared dish or partly prepared.  This means that when I cook a recipe for 4, I am actually cooking 2 meals at once.  I started portioning it out straight away into containers for the fridge or freezer (depending on the meal plan).  Not only did this reduce/eliminate cooking time for the subsequent meal, it means that we manage our portion sizes – a great contribution to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

The presence of ready made meals (or partially made meals, such as home-made ‘cook-in’ sauces or the base of a vegan shepherd’s pie) in our freezer means that in any one week, I may only cook from scratch on two weekdays and at weekends.  The meals I do cook add into the freezer whilst other days we take from the freezer.

In uncertain times:

Definitely need to continue doing this, and if freezer capacity allows do more of it.  It could really help if we are both feeling poorly to have meals that need very little effort.  Plus this is one way of reducing the need for new perishable goods.

Preparing ahead (meal prepping)

It was only then a small step to thinking that I didn’t have to make a recipe on the day that we were going to it eat (some of) it.  I started to allocate a time at weekends to (partially) prepare some of the upcoming meals, such as sauces, stews or batches of soup, using the fridge or the freezer to keep them until their allocated day. This had the benefit of cooking fresh produce quite soon after we have bought it as well as saving time on busier work days.

I also started to batch cook things that were not on the meal plan.  This particularly works well for the larger vegetables that I bring back from the allotment – rather than leave a red cabbage in the fridge, I make it all into braised red cabbage (large cabbages make up to 16 portions) and put it in the freezer.  Pumpkins are another vegetable that I need to break into and produce multiple portions of different recipes so that it doesn’t go off.

This is when keeping a list of frozen homemade dishes became really important.  I use the same app that I had started using for shopping and pantry list in general (Out of milk).  So when I meal plan I can think about what is in the freezer – even plan a meal around a side vegetable that I have already made.

A slightly different practice that goes under the idea of preparing ahead is the use of the timer on my oven or slow cooker.  If, for example, we are having jacket potato or something that requires oven time I get it all ready in the morning and use the oven timer.  This saves multiple trips from the office to the kitchen with the accompanying breaks in concentration.

In uncertain times:

Sadly it is the hungry gap at the allotment so there isn’t much there, but do need to carry on planning based on what there is.

Plus, as above, prepare ahead as much as freezer capacity allows.

This will also help reduce need for delivery of perishable fruit and vegetables

Using up the larder

After a short period of working in this way, I realised there were some ingredients in our cupboards (including fridge & freezer) that were not being used because they were associated with our ‘old’ diet.  I hated the thought that they would go out of date and we’d end up wasting them. I decided to make sure that I planned meals around them until they were used up.  The Good Food app really helped here as you can search for recipes by ingredient.  I set the challenge of having one or two meals a week that used up these ingredients.  Slowly we got through them – the funniest meals being the invented ‘porridges’ I made with unusual grains for Saturday breakfast.  Plus, we took over a year to use up no-longer-drinkable wine in our cooking!

In uncertain times:

I think I thought this was a one-off – just something to do as part of the switch from old way to new way.  But, looking in the cupboards now, there are ingredients (particularly partial packets of dried beans) that we bought for a particular recipe or special occasion and have had hanging around the cupboards for a while.  Unless I pro-actively use them up, they could go out of date.

So this is a way in which I can minimise my increased demand as I switch to plan for three rather than one week.  I need to plan around what we do have.

Rearranging food storage space

Obviously once the cupboards were empty of what I then saw as the ‘old’ stuff, we could start working out how to use the storage space to make cooking an easy and pleasant task.  This coincided with a push for reducing plastic and the availability of packaging free shops in our neighbourhood giving us the opportunity to decide for ourselves how much of a product to buy at once.

I didn’t do this all at once, it was more shelf by shelf or food type by food type depending on what annoyed me most or when we managed to clear space from those ‘old’ products.  Incidentally, herbs and spices were first – the minute I started using recipes I realised how much I hated scrabbling around in the cupboard to find out if I had 1/4 teaspoon of something on the list.

This part of the change required a bit of capital expenditure – although I did re-purpose some jars, I had to purchase containers to store food.  It was suprisingly tricky to think through questions such as the size of container that would ensure we have the ‘right’ amount of rice in the house.  Even where we didn’t need to buy containers, we did have to think about how much space to allocate for the ‘right’ amount of things like soya milk or cereals.

This, of course, took us to the difficult question about how much stock we should maintain in our larder (including fridge and freezer).  The answer is different for different products.  I haven’t yet really worked it all out in my head and had to google and look at inventory management jargon to help me think about this some more.  But there are differences between….

  • perishable produce – mostly fruit and veg but also includes fish – things that are in the house and consumed (or cooked as part of meal prep) within one week.  Important to buy only what is needed, when it is needed so no food waste.  In my meal planning, I try to think about shelf life for these goods – as an example, fish does not last a whole week so it has to be in the meal plan soon after our shopping day.
  • one off goods – things bought and used up on a particular recipe, then not replaced until the meal plan says we need it again.
  • leftover goods – I didn’t really think of this category until writing the above section on ‘using up the larder’.  They are the ingredients that ideally would be one off but we can only buy in larger quantities so need to make an effort to use them up until they are gone.
  • goods always in stock – there are things we use really regularly and don’t want to be without.  I guess we have tolerance levels for each of these items.  Depending on the product, the tolerance ranges from enough for the next 7 days of meals (e.g. rice) to enough for the next 2/3 weeks (e.g. soya milk).  The items go on the list when we drop below the minimum tolerance.  These tolerance levels have to be less than the storage life of the product and we always store them with use-by dates displayed so that oldest gets eaten first.
  • bulk purchases – these are also things that we use regularly but we can get cheaper if we buy in larger quantities.  An example is cans of chopped tomatoes which we get through a lot of.  The number of products we can treat this way is limited by storage space and the shock of the initial financial outlay.

In uncertain times:

It’s a tricky one this.  We probably do need to make sure we are happy with those tolerance levels.

In addition to the possibility of planning for 14 days home isolation, we have the added problem of having to consider whether products will be on the shelves or not when we do need them.

This is the area where we have the potential to be least rational – to buy ‘just in case’.  And if we do do that, we reduce what is available for others.

Taking stock of the meals we missed

After we’d been doing this for a while, we realised that we weren’t having takeaways. In fact, we stopped having takeaways and restaurant meals-out-for-two completely – the only times we ate out was with friends or when away from home (for work or holiday).  Plus, in my enthusiasm for ‘proper’ meals, I had even been overlooking yummy light meals like baked beans on toast or hummus with pitta.

It seemed a little odd to plan to have a takeaway, so I started building in ‘fakeaway’ nights looking to recipe blogs as well as trusty sources.  Ironically, this meant that I found recipes for takeway dishes that I hadn’t eaten for years because of intolerance to wheat and dairy.  Plus, of course, home re-creations are healthier.

As for the yummy light meals, I started making batches of baked beans in the slow cooker (500g of dried beans makes 8 portions) which then went in the freezer for those light lunches.  I did the same with mushy peas to go with our fish and chips; with hummus; and, even amazing felafel.

In uncertain times:

Given the advice to stay away from restaurants, we may miss even more types of meal (as well as our friends but that’s another matter).  Need to keep an eye on this and try and have some nice ‘occasion’ meals.

Important too to make sure the freezer includes those light meals as they may be vital if we get symptoms and don’t feel like much.

Wonder if we can get through this without buying a tin of baked beans?

Overhauling snacks and sweet treats

In one blog I read, the blogger included snacks and sweet treats as part of the meal plan.  I don’t.

But I have created a way of us minimising the amount we consume when we snack – when you are at home it can be very easy to get carried away! So at the weekend, I portion up fake-graze boxes using mixes of nuts and dried fruits – enough for one each on each work day. We also have agreements on when we offer each other biscuits and how much to bring.

In uncertain times:

Good routine to maintain

If home isolation results in reduced exercise may need to adjust snacks to reduce possibility of weight gain.

Negotiating responsibilities with other household occupants

I know I have said a lot of ‘I’ in this blog so far although there has been the occasional ‘we’.  As I said earlier, my husband used to be the main shopper, although I often accompanied him, he was in charge.  He has also always done 99.99999% of the washing up and continues to do so (even on the days when I prep ahead, I just leave it all and it gets done).  And finally, he has always been Sunday brunch chef – a master at scrambled egg, but with hindsight quite a limited repertoire.

When I started making changes I had this ambitious thought that we’d do the meal plan together but I found I was doing it at a time that he was paying attention to other things.  So the planning side is predominantly an “I”, as is writing the shopping list.  As he was previously main shopper, he had a weird time adjusting to trusting the shopping list – he kept saying “shouldn’t we be getting….” and can still be quite uncomfortable if the shopping basket looks light.  As we walk to the shops, it is good for us both to go to carry things – it’s something we do together as much for the chat we have and the fresh air.

As for the Sunday brunch, I have started to plan in a wide variety of different dishes and present him with the recipe.  After I explained that a recipe is just a set of instructions, he seemed to get the hang of it.  His new confidence in the kitchen is great and he now usually cooks one weekday lunch and helps out on other dishes.

In uncertain times:

Doesn’t matter which one of us is ill – or more ill than the other – we will still be able to cook something.



So that’s pretty much it.  There are benefits all round.  Since October 2018, we have reduced our food bills.  The savings have been because we don’t buy takeaways and now eat out less, but we have not seen an accompanying increase in the grocery shopping costs now that more meals at eaten at home.  I lost weight and have had the longest period ever without the trend heading upwards.  Husband has consistently lost weight though ideally has a little further to go.  The downside is time but I can’t really assess whether it is more time – it’s just time spent doing things differently.  I am proud about the time I invest in physical activity (running, walking, yoga etc) so have learned to be equally proud of the time we invest in healthy diet.

And in terms of uncertainty, I should be able to trust how we do it and adapt to ensure we are always prepared for home isolation.  That requires a few tweaks and no panic-buying.  I can’t imagine what I would be like if we still had our old practices.




Share what you think...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.