Facing a massive store full of food can be daunting. Or you might have to deal with the opposite: a limited selection of ingredients. In both situations you might end up spending more than you planned for or you might end up not buying everything you needed. And in most cases, you will spend more than you wanted and also probably forget things.
You need to go shopping with a game plan in place. You don’t necessarily need an extremely detailed shopping list or even a meal plan, but you do need to have some idea of what you’re going to get.
Before you do anything
We all want to save money and reducing waste is a goal we all should have, and this is what this list is all about. If you use it consistently, you will be able to prioritise ingredients you already have instead of always buying new ones.
First of all, go through your whole kitchen. Really check, don’t just go by memory. And go through the list writing down those things that you already have. You can use an actual piece of paper or your phone, whatever works.
If you have fresh jalapenos, sriracha, tabasco, and chili flakes you don’t really need to buy chili powder. You can buy it if you really want to, of course. But, you don’t need it. And if you’re trying to save money and limit waste, it would be better if you didn’t and just used what you already have.
Once you know what you have, you can complete the list with things that will fill in the gaps. You don’t need to be extremely detailed if you don’t want to, all that you need is to have an idea of what you’re looking for.
Using your shopping list
The list is meant to be for one or two weeks, it could be used for longer, but chances are you will get bored by the limited amount of ingredients. You’ll also want to keep the filled-in list as reference throughout the week to help you remember what ingredients you have.
First, start by getting your basic ingredients. If you’re on a budget, make sure you always get those first. They are the building stones of cooking. Then, move on to the rest of the ingredients on this list.
When the week is finished, start again with a new list, and remember to add whatever leftover ingredients you have to your next list!
Other times when you can use the list
Even though I came up with it as a way to control my spending and limit waste, it has proven a great tool when I want to clean up the kitchen and use whatever I already have. In fact, I usually end up having to do a kitchen ‘spring clean’ whenever I stop using the list!
It’s also a great tool if you want to try a new cuisine but you’re not sure how or where to start. Most of the main ingredients will probably stay the same, with some of the flavour ones changing. The same carrots, chicken, and potatoes can go round the world and make completely different meals just by switching mixed French herbs for a Mexican chilli sauce or for an Indian garam masala blend. I use the list this way with my children regularly as a way of learning about other cultures, and we always end up discovering new favourite ingredients and recipes without spending any more than usual.
Gatherings and celebrations are good time to make use of this list too. It’s not uncommon to overbuy some ingredients and completely forget about others. Using this list could help make a tasty meal, even if some things are missing.
The list explained
This list is divided into main ingredients, flavour ingredients, and textural ingredients. It sounds confusing, but it’s easier than it seems.
- Main ingredients are the stars of the show. Without these you basically can’t cook. Much like basic ingredients, the main ingredients might not sound extremely exciting but they are important.
- Flavour ingredients bring fun to the kitchen. They add variety and interest to meals. You can stick to one country or area, or mix them up for some interesting fusion meals.
- Textural ingredients add a new dimension to cooking that goes beyond just flavours. You won’t use them all the time, but keep them in mind as a way to improve and round-up dishes.
Fruits: get 2 to 4 varieties. Fresh, frozen, canned, or dried. You can use fruit:
- For snacking
- For pudding (dessert)
- In salads
- Added to some savoury dishes (curries, tagines…)
- As cereal or porridge toppings
- For baking
Vegetables: get 4 to 8 varieties, with at least 1 leafy green. Fresh, frozen, or canned. You can use vegetables:
- For snacking: tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, celery, radishes, sweet peppers… all make great snacks
- For salads
- For stir-fries
- To bulk-up sauces
- In soups
- To bulk-up grains
Proteins: get 2 to 4 varieties, with at least one vegetarian and one fish (if you eat fish and meat). Fresh, frozen, canned, or dried. Keep in mind:
- Vegan options include beans, lentils, seitan, tofu, tempeh, and some vegan version of meat products and dairy.
- Vegetarian options include eggs (part of the basic ingredients), high-protein dairy, and some vegetarian versions of meat products.
- You should limit processed proteins (vegan, vegetarian, or omni)
- 2 to 4 varieties can sound limited, but once they are combined with the other ingredients, you will be able to create a large number of dishes.
Starches: get 2 to 4 varieties, with at least one vegetable and one whole grain. Keep in mind:
- Vegetable options include potatoes, corn, sweet potato, winter squash, plantain, parsnips, cassava, and yam
- You should limit processed starches
- I don’t count breakfast starches (bread, oats, cereal…) or snacks (crackers, rice cakes…) within this group, but you might want to. My breakfast and snack ingredients are a small separate list, that somewhat overlaps with this one.
Many of the flavour ingredients could go into several of the sections (especially the umami and salty ones), just divide them around however it suits you best! It’s all about flexibility and using what you’ve got.
I didn’t include any sweet ingredients here, because they are part of my basic ingredient list or breakfast list. More speciality baking items, I buy when needed and they will usually last for a long time.
Herbs, spices and sauces: get 2 to 4 varieties (most will last for a long time, and you can build a nice collection after a while). Fresh, frozen, dried, or shelf-stable. Keep in mind:
- They add interesting flavours to food.
- Growing herbs is easy, cheap, and uses little space.
- Get single herbs and spices instead of mixes for more flexibility.
- For your favourite ones you can buy them in bulk from ethnic stores or online for about 1/5 of their supermarket price.
- Pre-made sauces can be a great way to add a lot of flavour without spending a lot of money. But make sure you only buy sauces that are worth the money and not ones you could make at home in a few minutes.
Acid: Get 1 or 2 varieties. Keep in mind:
- Acids help lift up and freshen flavours. If a food tastes good but it’s missing something, add acidity!
- Acids are usually best used right before serving, if you use them at the beginning of cooking they will often lose their freshness and tang.
- Some options include: citrus fruits or juices, vinegars, pickles, tomatoes, wine, sour cream…
Heat: Get 1 or 2 varieties. Keep in mind:
- They add punch to meals.
- Don’t skip this section just because you don’t like spicy food, instead go for milder options that will also add interesting flavours to your food.
- Some options include: black or white pepper, chilli, hot sauces, pepper sauces, garlic, ginger, radish…
Umami: Get 1 or 2 varieties. Keep in mind:
- Umami ingredients add savouriness and that hard-to-describe moreish quality to foods.
- Some options include: tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon (and most processed meats), soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, MSG, cheese (especially hard cheese), dried meats and fish, ketchup, BBQ sauce, beef and chicken stock, miso paste, seaweed, anchovies, marmite…
Salty: Get 1 or 2 varieties (that are not salt). Keep in mind:
- Salty ingredients add saltiness to meals and help bring out flavours, the same way salt does, so make sure to reduce the salt if you use any of these.
- Some options include: ‘fancy’ flavoured salts, anchovies, soy sauce, salt-dried fish (like cod), some cheese (feta, parmesan…), some deli meats (bacon, parma ham…), fish sauce, miso, capers, olives, some spreads and sauces, salted butter, salted nuts and seeds, brines…
Many times the texture is affected by the method of cooking, so keep in mind how you’re going to be cooking things.
Creamy: Get 1 or 2 varieties. Keep in mind:
- Creamy ingredients add a rich mouthfeel to foods.
- Some options include: cream, mayonnaise, coconut milk or cream, smooth nut or seed butters, soft and cream cheese, avocado, butter, melted cheese, yogurt…
Crunchy: Get 1 or 2 varieties. Keep in mind:
- Crunchy ingredients add a crispy texture to foods.
- Some options include: croutons, nuts, seeds, crunchy nut and seed butters, breadcrumbs, fried batters, some raw fruits and vegetables, crackling…