My young adult family appears to have abandoned the subtle art of food shopping for the seemingly easier and hugely successful option of Meal Kits, much to my chagrin. For those of you not familiar with this notion, it involves ordering meals online from a vast range, to serve either 2 or 4 people. The ingredients arrive already measured out and ready to use, leaving the user to complete the process of actually cooking the dishes, following the most basic of instructions. To my mind, this is just one step up from ordering a takeaway although equally as lazy and self-indulgent, and as a parent and chef, who has proudly taught her offspring to love and respect cooking and eating since their babyhood, I’m left asking myself: where on earth did I go wrong?
We’ve discussed their option, me keeping calm because it is absolutely their choice and it’s not for me to impose upon them. I’m just trying to understand. In my day, with a young family and many work commitments to fulfil, I planned my menus week by week and created shopping lists from which to shop accordingly within my set budget. Even now, alone and cooking for myself, I do the same, albeit on a smaller scale.
Describing the process to my kids, they smile and tell me (slightly indulgently) that “nobody does that anymore”, and anyway, though they accept that in principle my way is sensible and probably would be more budget-controlled, the Meal Kit option allows them a far wider range of food choices than the 10 to 15 dishes that most households revolve around – food that to my way of thinking guarantees everyone in the household will enjoy and brings a degree of reassuring familiarity to the table on a regular basis, of course with occasional experimentation.
Meal Kits present me with further issues that make me uncomfortable. Each ingredient is individually wrapped – even eggs are delivered singly in a cute little cardboard box. Spices and other small ingredients are all in their own little plastic bag or sachet – surely this must present an environmental problem in terms of the rubbish generated by each meal? Also, I am astounded by the paltry amounts supplied; my kids have to order the 4 portion kits to feed just the two of them plus one toddler so as not to go hungry.
Furthermore, if Meal Kits are the way forward, where does that leave recipe books and food magazines? Surely these become redundant, or at best simply a form of entertainment, like watching a sport rather than playing it?
So, in an effort to present an alternative, in these strange COVID-ruled days, when many people are not working or going to eat out regularly and therefore bring home cooking into sharper focus, I thought I’d outline how I approach food shopping, just as I always have.
Shop and eat seasonally
At the time of writing, we are in full-on summer; the sun is shining hot and bright. So seasonality is one of the first things to consider – this is not, in my opinion, time for comfort food such as, for example, sausages and mash. Fresh produce is abundant, and many items are at their absolute peak, so this is the time to celebrate them.
The same basic principle applies to all the other seasons of the year, the most difficult being the “hunger months” – the in-between season when winter ends and spring has yet to give us the new season produce. In the UK this is usually between March and mid-April.
Where to Shop – support your local shops if possible
I recognise that I’m very lucky when it comes to my shopping habits, as I live in a small village community that boasts a wonderful farm shop and a proper old-fashioned greengrocer. Having said that, online food shopping is time-saving and a safe method of shopping, although I don’t think there is anything that can replace the pleasure of seeing before you buy locally, if and when you can. Taking young people with you and explaining how to choose products that look fresh and appealing as opposed to stale and tired is part of an important educational process. And don’t forget the basic principle about interpreting “fresh fish” – most boats don’t go to sea on a Sunday, so Monday is never a good day to buy fish (or order the “fish special” in a restaurant) if you really want it fresh!
Set a budget and make a plan
Many friends tell me rather worriedly that they are spending more on food shopping these days than they ever did pre-COVID, which stands to reason considering how much more time one is spending at home these days, with more mouths to feed on a regular basis than usual. Setting a weekly or monthly food budget is essential if you want to maintain some kind of control over this spending and especially if you shop online it is easy to work out what things cost. Plan your weekly shop accordingly, but base it around your chosen meals first, then secondly all the extras, (which will include household items like cleaning products and loo rolls), and then some treats! Planning a week’s menu can be a task that involves the entire household so that everyone’s preferences and needs are taken into consideration. But under no circumstances should the cook ever end up feeling she or he is running some kind of busy cafeteria by cooking too many different meals for fussy eaters!
Don’t shop hungry
Having created your menus and made your lists – I always divide the lists up into fresh produce/greengrocer; meat/butcher; fishmonger; dairy and frozen so I know exactly what I need – never set off on a shopping expedition, either in person or online on an empty stomach! If you are hungry you will inevitably give in to temptation and it will be harder to stick to the plan.
Leftovers and making the ingredients stretch
My mother was a wizard when it came to recycling leftovers – she called it “L’art d’accommoder les restes” and I was always filled with admiration, as she seemed to achieve such dizzy heights of culinary joy out of apparently very little. This requires imagination and basic knowledge of cooking as a whole but is something anyone can learn simply by practising. The concept of not wasting food should be just as relevant today as it was for her generation and is an art that needs to be widely taught. A simple roast chicken on Sunday, for example, can yield enough to be served cold with salad or in a simple curry the following day, and then the carcass and trimmings can be made into soup or risotto or both, yielding up to four meals.
We are encouraged to eat less meat for health reasons and to follow a more plant-based diet, so stretch a 500 g packet of minced meat into at least 2 meals – once in a tasty sauce for pasta, with the addition of finely chopped onion, carrot and celery and maybe an extra can of tomatoes; transforming the rest into tasty stuffing for roasted vegetables or an old fashioned meatloaf by adding some soft breadcrumbs – a trick long used by the canny cooks of southern Italy to increase the volume – and adding flavourings like grated nutmeg, lemon zest and finely chopped herbs along with a good handful of grated Parmesan.
My way might seem onerous and long-winded, but I firmly believe that sometimes the old fashioned ways really do work best. As for my own young adults, I am left wondering.