Recently I added a new category to the blog – Weekly Menu Plan. I realised a few years ago through my involvement with internet forums that I feed my family for a lot less than others can. I’m not a magician, I was just lucky enough to figure out the smartest ways to feed my family a variety of healthy food for as little as possible. Like most good ideas, the discoveries came through necessity. Before we moved into our current house we lived 30 minutes from the nearest supermarket, menu planning was essential as it wasn’t easy to pop to the shop to pick up any forgotten ingredients, so it is through necessity that I originally became a menu planner. I quickly realised that if I bought just what I needed and not a bit more I saved quite a bit of money and threw out a lot less food. I also figured out a few other tips that helped reduce the grocery bill even further and it’s those tips to maximising your menu plan which I’m going to share with you all today.
Weather – this is the number 1 most important part of menu planning, check the 7 day forecast. Weather makes us crave certain foods so it’s important to stock up on suitable ingredients to make those meals, not many of us enjoy cooking roasts in really hot weather or a cold salad mid-winter! I’ve planned a week’s worth of meals without checking the forecast, only to have the weather change dramatically on me, forcing me to run out and buy more suitable things to eat.
Garden – Do you have a vegie patch? A herb garden or even a couple of fruit trees? Perhaps you have a neighbour like ours who is always gifting produce? Check out what you are growing or likely to be handed over the fence and try to incorporate those foods into your menu, the less you have to buy, the more you save! In the beginning we only grew spinach, onions, chives, spring onions and a few herbs in hanging baskets. We had a free range pet rabbit who roamed our garden eating anything and everything else, but even incorporating these few ingredients saved us $, so it’s worth checking out the garden no matter how meagre.
In Season – Much like the garden, your local market, greengrocer or fruit and veg store will have fresh foods which are ripe or ‘in season’. These foods are available in abundance and are therefore cheaper when they are ‘in season’ so you can also get more bang for your buck by choosing seasonal recipes. Once upon a time supermarkets only stocked in season produce, consumers instinctively knew that you could not by stone fruit in the middle of winter but it would be available everywhere in summer. Advances in technology and transportation mean that most produce is available all year round but you WILL pay for it in two ways; 1) The initial cost will be higher as the product has been sourced from a far off place and the cost of storage, chilling/freezing and transport has been added to the price 2) Off season produce has to travel, a local apple in season will be on the shop floor within 24 hours of being picked, off season it may be 3 or 4 days past picking before it enters the store, common sense tells us that an In Season apple will last 3 or 4 days longer in my fruit bowl than it’s off season counterpart.
In Sync – not the band, just the menu! Try to find recipes which use similar ingredients so you can buy in bulk to help save money or at least have less wastage. For example if I make something that uses half a capsicum I’ll plan a meal the next night to use up the other half, doesn’t matter if the produce is bought or from the garden, wastage is wastage, if you’re not eating it, then you’re eating something else. Money in the bin and more money to the grocer equal less in your pocket. By using different herbs, spices and cultural influences you can make a wide variety of food with surprisingly similar ingredients. Capsicum, Carrot, Baby Spinach and mushrooms are equally at home in an asian stir fry as they are in an Italian Pasta, as Pizza topping, in a salad or in a middle eastern spiced wrap. Try searching for recipes ideas based on your non main ingredients for ideas!
Reality – I could have also called this point Honesty, as in be honest – how often do you really cook? What does your family really eat? If you know you always have takeaway after sport practice Thursday nights, or a meal out on payday, don’t plan a meal for that night, save your time and you’re your money. Same goes for fancy recipes that require you to buy a jar of something that you’ll most likely only use a teaspoon of and never touch again. Similarly no point in planning extravagant meals that you know you won’t be bothered cooking when the day comes due to tiredness, or fancy things the kids won’t eat. Experimental recipes are best left to weekends when there is less pressure to quickly whip up an alternative. Everyone needs a break sometimes too, making sure you have an ‘easy meal on ice’ is always a good idea in case you come down sick or just plain can’t be bothered. A favourite in this house is spaghetti as the sauce is always in the freezer so we only need to boil (or microwave) some pasta, which keeps forever in the pantry and reheat some sauce.
Back up & In Bulk – Life happens and you need to be prepared for that meal on the run if someone needs to go to the doctors or a last minute thing comes up at dinner time. An easy meal on the run is one thing but it doesn’t hurt to have a couple of packaged items, tinned beans on toast, 2 minute noodles, cans of soup, something, anything as long as everyone can eat if you can’t ‘cook’. Similarly if certain items you use a lot of are on sale buy up in bulk and freeze in individual portions, we tend to do this a lot with meat. Freezing in portion sizes is key as you will waste food if you have to defrost 6 chicken breasts and only want to use two, either that or you can cook up extra portions of a meal to freeze OR eat the same thing three nights in a row!
Variety – Before menu planning I would never have considered eating vegetarian (I can hear all the carnivores groaning) I know what I do and don’t like and for me vegetarian may include some seafood but most likely it will be an antipasto platter, other options my family are happy to eat include vegetarian wraps, pizzas, pastas or big bulky salads in the hot weather. Take the opportunity to use cuts of meat you wouldn’t normally buy and include fish, pork, chicken, beef, other seafood and lamb or goat as meat ingredients. Perhaps even use the local grocer catalogues to look weekly specials for inspiration.
Feel free to post comments if you have any weekly menu planning tips! I’d love to hear what others do!