How to boss your Christmas food shop

by Justine Pattison

Christmas is going to be more than a little different this year. But one thing hasn’t changed – for lots of us the preparations can be stressful, and all too often forgotten purchases can make Christmas cooking a minefield. Who hasn’t found themselves scouring local shops for potatoes, sausages or some other ‘essential’ on Christmas Eve? Whether this is one of the first years you’ve hosted Christmas, or you want to plan your festive food shop extra carefully so you can hunker down at home to make the most of the holiday, here are the most useful tips I’ve picked up in my years as a cookery writer and food stylist. And the first tip? Rope in someone to help – I’ve asked my daughter Jess.

Where to start

This year you might be particularly keen to avoid unnecessary extra trips to the shops, so think carefully about how many days you need to prepare for and how many people you’ll be feeding. Shop for the Christmas period, not just Christmas Day – you might want to buy for meals up to New Year’s Eve. If you’re shopping online, remember some stores limit the number of certain staples, such as flour or dried pasta, or the total number of items, you can order in a single shop. So you may need to split your order over two to three weeks. Bear in mind traditional Christmas foods such as mince pies, turkeys and pigs in blankets are more likely to run low, so order them in good time. But there should be no need to stockpile – who has the space for that anyway?

Plan your budget

Work out your budget. Think about putting money aside for a takeaway on one of the days – local restaurants might offer takeaways or even meal kits for you to cook at home. And remember to allow budget for alcohol, soft drinks and mixers.

Create a menu

When writing a menu plan, it makes sense to ask your guests what their favourite Christmas foods are. Remember to ask if they’re following a special diet, too. Print off a week-to-view calendar or use a diary to write your menu in.

It’s good to plan for one main meal a day and fit simpler food, such as soups, salads, sandwiches and grazing meals like Mediterranean-style meze or antipasti, around it. Think about what space you have; there’s no point buying masses of chilled food if you have a tiny fridge and little room in your freezer.

Stick to tried-and-tested websites and books, and even recipes – this isn’t the time to try lots of new complicated dishes from an unknown source. And consider supplementing homemade dishes with easy-to-assemble meals that make the most of pre-prepared ingredients.

If your fridge is likely to be maxed out, think about easy desserts you can make using storecupboard ingredients such as canned fruit, jelly, custard and condensed milk. Trifle, banoffee pie, key lime pie and squidgy brownies can be made with mostly larder ingredients and always go down well. For an extra-easy pud, buy jars of fruit compote or boozy fruits to team up with scoops of vanilla ice cream.

You can make meals between Christmas and New Year more exciting by theming them. One idea is to join friends through video communication for themed suppers such as a Mexican fiesta or Italian pasta and pizza night. Match wine or beers to your menu. Marinated chicken and beef strips freeze well for fajitas, and homemade pizzas can be made easily with a simple base of self-raising flour and yoghurt.

Build in cook-free days

There’s no need to cook every day. Plan meals using leftovers, or keep a couple of ready-meals handy. Prepare ahead and freeze too. If you’re making a casserole or curry in the run-up to Christmas, double up your cooking, then serve one and freeze the other.

Think about flexible foods – a big batch of Bolognese sauce can be transformed into a chilli con carne or cottage pie, stuffed into jacket potatoes or made into keema curry. Consider doing some early baking too. Homemade goodies, such as cookies and cakes, freeze well and you can defrost only what you need.

Plan your shop

Once you have your shopping list, check your cupboards to find out what you already have.

If you’re splitting up your shop over a few weeks, it makes sense to buy storecupboard goods early. These include pasta and rice, sugar, long-life milk, tins of soup, biscuits, sweets, Christmas pudding, part-baked bread and frozen veg. Then shop for fresh food closer to Christmas.

Be mindful of where you’re going to store everything. If you’re short of space, only buy what’s needed for your recipes. And remember that a turkey crown or breast joint will fit more easily into most fridges than a whole turkey.

Some fresh veg and salad leaves might only last a few days, so plan to use these first and then make the most of frozen veg. Check the product life promises when ordering and be ready to freeze your food. If shopping in person, check the use-by dates.

Don’t forget breakfast. Stock up on your favourite cereal or porridge, stash some bacon, smoked salmon, bread and/or pastries in the freezer and order eggs.

Remember to add kitchen essentials to your list, such as kitchen roll, baking paper and extra-wide foil to cover your turkey. You may also need foil tins to cook or freeze dishes in, and sturdy reusable freezer bags.

Once you’ve finished your shopping list, check your cupboards to find out what you already have in. If need be, stock up on cooking oil, stock, spices, dried herbs, salt and pepper. What you don’t use now will last for months. Keep updating and confirming your online shop and check when the cut-off date is. Some supermarkets move it forward by a couple of days when it gets busy.

Don’t forget local shops

Remember that local shops might have what you need. Some sell extras too, for instance your butcher might sell homemade pies. Your local greengrocer or farm shop could put together a box of veg, and may sell dried goods and dairy. You can probably collect as late as Christmas Eve, which could save valuable fridge space, and you can put in a separate order for New Year.

Get your storage space ready

If you have veg or fruit that needs to be kept cool but that you don’t have room for, use a lidded plastic or sturdy cardboard box and pop it in the garage, around the side of the house if it’s dry, or on a balcony. If you have a cool box, it’s perfect for Christmas drinks.

In the run-up to Christmas, it’s well worth sorting out your freezer, fridge and cupboards, using up bulky foods, and making the most of foods that are close to their best-before or use-by dates to free up space. If you have time, cook frozen meat into something tasty, such as a lasagne, casserole or curry, and pop it back in the freezer for in-between Christmas and New Year.

Share the load

If you’re expecting family or friends over the holidays, don’t be afraid to suggest they contribute food. This makes things easier and will save space in your fridge and cupboards. You could even ask them to bring dishes, for instance peeled veg, a pudding or a cheeseboard including biscuits, grapes and chutneys.

Rope in someone to help with the Christmas food shop and preparations. I asked my daughter Jess.

Be flexible

Sometimes things don’t turn out as you expect. Your online substitutions might not suit your recipes, or ingredients may not turn up. You might suddenly have to reduce numbers if you or someone in your family needs to self-isolate. Try and relax, this year is unlike any other. We all need to muddle through as best we can and look forward to better times ahead.

Christmas menu ideas

Christmas Eve: A simple meal – a traybake such as one by Rukmini Iyer or filo-topped pie. Gammon cooked in a slow-cooker saves space on the hob and can be reheated in the microwave on Christmas Day to be served cold with salads and sandwiches, or stirred into pasta dishes over the next couple of days.

Christmas Day: Turkey and all the trimmings. Look out for ready-made pigs in blankets, stuffing balls, bread sauces and gravy if you aren’t a confident cook. You can jazz up shop-bought gravy with a slug of wine or Port, and stir extra cream or butter into a packet of bread sauce. But if you have time, these things are easy to make ahead and can be frozen in time for the big day too.

Boxing Day: Cold meats such as leftover turkey, ham and pigs in blankets, plus salads and baked potatoes. Leftover stuffing or nut roast can be reheated or served cold. Make sure your shopping list includes salad ingredients such as cucumber, tomatoes, coleslaw and salad dressings. Compact lettuces such as little gem or romaine last longer than bagged salad leaves and are cheaper too.

27th December: Casserole or curry from the freezer, or made with leftovers from Christmas lunch. Check the cupboard for accompaniments like rice, poppadums, pickles and chutneys.

28th December: A simple lasagne or pasta bake, made with chunks of cheese leftover from the cheese board, can be served with any remaining salad. Frozen garlic bread is a great standby that will help meals go further too.