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As the nights draw in and the weather becomes increasingly inhospitable, evening meals might start to take on more importance than perhaps they did over the summer. Obviously we all need to eat every day, but when it gets dark so early and there's less to do outside, it's logical to think that families might spend more time together, inside.
However, feeding a family can be expensive, so it's useful to have a few hints and tips in mind when you're planning your menus, and subsequent food shopping, each week. Therefore, we've listed some ways in which you can come up with cheap and easy family meals that will make each winter evening a real event, without breaking the bank.
It may seem counter-intuitive to advise that you make a purchase like this in order to save yourself money. However, slow cookers can be bought for a relatively modest sum (this one is just under £20 on Amazon) and will definitely save you money over the years in which you will use it.
A slow cooker basically allows you to prepare the ingredients for a meal many hours before you plan to eat that meal. They are then cooked slowly, hence the name, and evenly until later on. Due to the extended cooking time it is possible to use cheaper cuts of meat, because they will be cooking for so long that they will naturally become very tender. You will also find that food becomes very flavoursome after being cooked in this way.
Another advantage of slow cookers is their capacity, meaning that - depending on the size of your family - you could cook enough for a couple of days' meals in one go. Planning any kind of meal that provides leftovers, whether or not you use the slow cooker, is always a good way to save money. For example, you could use up meat from a roast dinner in a risotto (see below) or use up the remains of a casserole sauce as a topping for a baked potato.
Soup might not sound like the most exciting dinner option in the world, but it is actually surprisingly versatile as a dish and can be so easily adapted to suit a range of tastes. There are many great ideas on the internet, or you could use a cook book such as this one to provide some inspiration (you can pick up a used copy for a couple of pounds).
The good thing about making soup during the autumn and winter months is that root vegetables, such as parsnips and potatoes are in season in the UK and are readily available for less than at other times of year. Root vegetables can form a substantial base for many different types of soup, so that you will feel properly satisfied after a bowlful!
This rice-based dish has been included because it's so easy to make and, as with the soup, can be so easily changed and tweaked to make different dishes.
The following Jamie Oliver recipe details a great starting point for a risotto, though I usually leave out the alcohol and use whatever stock we have around.
One you've got this base sorted, you're only limited by your imagination and your family's tastebuds when it comes to what you add. You could even just wait and see what's been reduced in your local supermarket that day and let that form the rest of your recipe? You don't always need meat or fish (which tend to be the most expensive ingredients) as we've made a gorgeous cauliflower risotto in the past. All you really need with risotto is the ability to keep stirring the dish for about 20 minutes and everything else will fall into place.
Baked potatoes are a cheap and easy way to create the foundation of a good, solid meal. They are very cheap, can be cooked in the oven or the microwave and you can get as creative as you like when it comes to the fillings. One idea might be to have a range of different fillings available at one mealtime, with very little hassle in terms of preparation. Some grated cheese, a bowl of baked beans, some broccoli fried with garlic, some mushrooms - the list goes on. You could also use up leftover sauce from other meals if you fancied it!
It may not be everyone's preferred option, but you can save a lot of money by using beans and pulses - such as lentils - instead of meat. They are a hearty part of any stew, casserole or soup and they are so easy to prepare. Doing a quick internet search will throw up many recipe ideas, so why not give one a try?