Monday, November 2, 2015

Build a menu plan that's uniquely you or War on TV Chefs part 1...

I'm on the warpath.
The target of my angst, is TV chefs.
Honestly. Who are these people?
Since when did a family have to eat gourmet meals every night...whether they're ready in 30 minutes or not?
Since when did the normal suburban family have to have dessert every night?
Since when did we have to feel like we're eating in a high street bistro, instead of at our own dining table?
Why are one young couple I know, arguing almost every night because she wants to cook the aforementioned gourmet meals every night, but as in many households nowadays, he is the designated clean up and wash up person, and he has to face a sink full of dishes and a bench chock-a-block with saucepans and mixing bowls every night. Not to mention the fridge full of leftovers from the previous three nights, because the amounts the TV chefs recommend, are to feed a small army, not a newlywed couple...but she hasn't worked that out yet.
It drives me bonkers.
I can't tell you how many young families I see, with a pantry full of ingredients they've used once, a fridge overflowing with leftovers, and a budget in crisis. It's a whole new insanity.
All credit to Jamie, Nigella, and the dozens of TV chefs making a killing out of enticing us to buy up big at the supermarket. Thanks to them, the supermarkets are making a killing too.
Stop. Just don't.
My advice is to turn off the TV chefs, and tune in to your family's needs.
How can you have a slow cooked brisket on a night when half the family is out playing sport and the other half are at the P&C meeting? That's the night you want to make use of the leftovers of the slow cooked brisket you've already cooked on the weekend. That's the night when each person slaps a bit of leftover slow cooked whatever, between two slices of good grainy bread, throws a bit of salad on there too, and follows it with some seasonal fruit and a yoghurt tub. No dishes to clean up either.
Friday night for your family, might mean a use it up kinda soup night to empty the crisper of all those sad looking veg...of if it's Summer maybe the soup becomes a Chefs Salad. Or maybe at your place it's a baked beans on toast kinda night. Mind you, just because it beans on toast, doesn't mean you skip setting the table or making an effort. Maybe you top those beans with a bit of Onion Confit, and nestle a spoonful of made ahead potato salad next to them. Maybe you have home made lemonade made last weekend with leftover lemons, and float ice cubes with mint leaves from the garden in the glasses. That I can live with. That's making an effort in a good way, without succumbing to nonsense.
Me? I don't need Raspberry Friands with the tears of a newborn fairy atop them for dessert on a Wednesday. I just want a big, fat, juicy apple.
Simplify your life, people. Truly.
Menu planning that is uniquely you, takes into consideration what your family actually like to eat, what your food budget is, and what your week looks like.
It also means making the most healthful choices according to your budget. Not necessarily the easiest ones....or at least not every night of the week. Some investment of time and energy on your less busy days and evenings, to make things like Lemon cordial or potato salad, will see you eating well all week.
It means a good mix of quality protein (and by that I don't mean 'expensive') lots of fruit and veg, and fibre, and less of the things that we all know should really fall into the category of treats.
I've been working with young families, teaching them how to menu plan sensibly and sustainably...with not a TV chef in sight. Here's what a family I was helping recently, had as their menu plan for the week:
Breakfasts....Cornflakes, toast, individual tubs yoghurt
Lunches...Nutella or Cheese sandwiches, bought muesli bars, individual packets of chips and sultanas
Dinners...Sausages, Rissoles, Frozen Pies, Fish Fingers, Frozen Spring Rolls, bought Sushi, bought Roast Chicken
This is a little family with 4 children under 5, a stay at home Mum, and a Dad who is currently only working 25 hours a week. They get some government relief, but not enough to spend up big on groceries. So it's a challenge.
I have to say too, that this is a fairly representative menu in the family circles in which I'm working, and these are lovely young people who are really doing their best. They're not irresponsibly feeding their kids McDonalds every night, but they are trying to balance what is affordable, accessible and convenient, which isn't easy if someone hasn't shown you how.
We looked at breakfasts first.
Nothing too awful there, but I encouraged them to swap the individual tubs of name brand yoghurt, for family sized containers of generic brand, or even home made yoghurt. I gave them one of my Easi-Yo flasks and an insert and taught them how to make economical sweet Greek yoghurt. Here's the recipe...
Economical Sweet Greek Yoghurt
1 cup water
1 1/3 cups dry powdered milk
2 tablespoons Easiyo Greek Yoghurt starter
1 tablespoon sugar
Put these ingredients in the insert, shake well, top with tepid water to recommended level. Sit in the thermos outer, and leave undisturbed for 9-14 hours. Refrigerate and use as usual.
This makes one litre of sweet Greek style yoghurt for under $1. You can add fruit, fruit puree' or any other flavouring you prefer.
I also suggested Rolled Oats or Weet-Bix as a healthier alternative to the Cornflakes.
Then the lunches.
Nutella is fun, but not the best thing for littlies under 4. The cheese is better, but they were using that plastic stuff that's wrapped individually. Colby cheese is just as mild, and a block of Colby will last far longer than plastic wrapped slices, and be better for them. I showed them how to slice a block of cheese, with a thin, sharp knife to yield up to 75 slices, for less than a family sized tub of plastic wrapped cheese.
Using the oats we'd bought for breakfasts, I showed them how to make an easy muesli slice, using a cooking pack of sultanas (which the kids already like), and eliminating the need for the bought muesli bars AND the little packets of sultanas. The Mum will decant sultanas into little containers as the kids ask for them.
Healthy Kids Muesli Slice

 1 cup plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup rolled oats
2/3 cup shredded coconut
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup sultanas or any other dried fruit that the kids like eg. cranberries, apricot, ginger
 125gms butter, melted and cooled
1 egg, lightly whisked

Preheat oven to 180C. Brush a 20 x 20 cm pan with melted butter, and line the base allowing an overhang on 2 sides to lift out later.

Sift the flour into a bowl. Add the oats, coconut, sugar, dried fruit and sultanas, stirring to combine.
Make a well in the centre and add the melted butter and egg. Stir well. Scoop mixture into pan and smooth the surface.

 Bake in a preheated oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown and firm to touch. Set aside to cool.

When cool, cut into squares.
This costs one third the amount that the family were spending on bought muesli bars, is healthier, tastier and when made up in double batches, lasts all week.
We ditched the individual chips, or any chips actually, replacing them with carrot sticks, rice cakes thinly spread with sandwich spread of choice, fresh fruit, cheese cubes, sultanas, yoghurt or cherry tomatoes, which they are now going to grow in a pot.
Now the dinners were more of a challenge. Everyone in this little family is exhausted by 6pm. Hence the temptation to resort to convenience food and takeaway. They are trying to make healthy choices, but it's costing them a fortune.
We replaced the sausages and rissoles with veal 'schnitzel' steaks, which we crumbed with home made breadcrumbs to make them more substantial. We mixed the breadcrumbs with a little very finely grated cheese. Everyone loved these, and it was no more expensive than the rissoles and sausages. They had them plain one night, then topped them with tomato paste and a slice of cheese to make Parmigiana another night. A good lesson in turning a basic into something more exciting. This worked well, as they had their own parents visiting for dinner that night. They were suitably impressed. Veal Schnitzel is sliced thin, and you can pound it even thinner, meaning that a relatively small amount goes a long way and still looks generous.
We swapped the frozen pies for savoury mince in little ramekins with rounds cut from frozen puff pastry, baked in a hot oven, to sit on top of them. This gives a similar 'treat' style fast meal, without having to resort to awful frozen convenience foods. Better still, the savoury mince can be made ahead of time, and simply reheated. This cost no more than the 'gourmet' frozen pies they'd been buying that had barely a spoonful of meat. The protein is better quality and these are no more trouble to make, especially if the mince is prepared ahead of time.
We bought two single fish fillets, and I showed them how to make their own fish 'fingers' with packet coating, and quick baking in the oven. Again, no more expensive, better quality protein, and much tastier. I thought the packet mix was a fair compromise in this situation.
We discussed what was actually in the frozen spring rolls, and they couldn't believe it was primarily cabbage, which they claim to hate. So the Mum and I spent just one hour, making no less than 50 spring rolls, for the price of one packet of 12. She couldn't believe it! Frankly, I was surprised too!
The sushi was more challenging as she simply doesn't have time to make sushi with little ones around. Instead I showed her how to make sushi bowls. That's basically the sushi rice mixture, topped with whatever you'd use as fillings normally, and garnished with shredded Nori, and toasted sesame seeds. Very yummy indeed and just as nice, and sometimes even better!
The roast chicken was replaced with chicken breast which we poached. I wouldn't normally advocate chicken pieces over a whole chicken, but as this was a family where they fought over the breast meat, and threw away the legs, I thought this made sense. The poaching method is so easy, and gave them 2 meals and 3 lunches for the price of one roasted chicken. You can of course, use a whole chicken or chicken thigh fillets too. If using a whole chicken, simmer for 15-20 minutes first.
Easy Poached Chicken
Bring a medium saucepan filled with water to the boil. Add a bay leaf, 5 peppercorns, 2 chicken or vegetable stock cubes, and return to boil. Add chicken breasts, return to boil, cover with a tight fitting lid, and then either:

If you have electric hotplates, switch off, but leave pot on retained heat of hotplate.


If using gas, simmer slowly for 2-3 minutes and switch off.


Store in fridge in own cooking liquid. To use, simply remove and slice, dice or shred for your recipe.

Asian variation:

To boiling water add 1/2 tin coconut milk, 2 kaffir lime leaves, 1/2 stalk lemongrass, 1 teaspoon minced coriander, and 2 tablespoons bottled lime juice. Continue as directed above.

This achieves the most moist and succulent chicken breast ever.

You can even slice them lengthwise, crumb and flash fry for succulent and fast schnitzels.
This menu suits this family and their budget, their normal eating habits, their routine and their busy schedule. It's working well for them, and costs them less than their previous menu which relied heavily on convenience food.
One two hour session on the weekend, takes care of the baking, the prep of the spring rolls and savoury mince, the precooking of the sushi rice, the poaching of the chicken, the crumbing of the veal, and the yoghurt prep.
So now, they have their very own 'convenience' food and best of all, it costs them LESS than their previous menu.
If you'd like help with your menu, send me an email, and I'll do my best. Meanwhile I'll be posting more on building a great menu plan next week. I have lots of worthwhile tips and recipes to share that will reduce your grocery budget, and see you eating lots of fresh, healthy, unprocessed food that will make you look and feel great.
See No. 2 in this series,Menu Planning Back-to-Basics here.
No. 3 The Shopping List here.
No. 4 Prep Day here.
No. 5 Invent your own Recipes here.
Have a lovely week.


  1. Thank God for common sense which you seem to have in abundance. It's nice to hear that people can still dance to their own tune. I enjoy your blog very much and always look forward to reading it. Ronnie (London, England)

    1. Dear Ronnie, thankyou for your encouraging comment. I really appreciate it. This post was born of a fortnight of seeing where young families are going wrong with their food budget and menu planning. I'm so frustrated I could wail, honestly! I wish the TV chefs would take a! Mimi xxx

  2. Mimi, good for you! It is wonderful you are teaching practicle skills to young famlies. Love it, That is a subject near to my heart. have a wonderful week Lynn

    1. Dear Lynn,'s a subject that's always been close to my heart too. I don't know where 'budgeting' and 'deprivation' became inexplicably entwined, but I'm aiming to put a stop to it. Who wouldn't eat Veal Parmigiana over sausages when it costs the same? It's just that most people don't realise that it costs no more to eat clean, healthy, unprocessed food. Sigh. I hope your week is wonderful too. Mimi xxx

  3. Replies
    1. Amen Jo! Can I hear a turn-off-the-telly-and-plant-a fruit tree, Momma! Mimi xxx

  4. That's brilliant, Mimi.
    Totally endorse this.
    Big job running a household kitchen effectively and nutritionally. :D xx

    1. Dear Flora, it's so long since we met and exchanged holiday! I'm big on this. Why is it okay for five star restaurants to use up stuff, trim the budget, shop for the best price, and find new ways to serve old favourites, but not us? And why does everyone think that if it comes from the freezer section of a posh supermarket, it must be better than what we can cook ourselves? Sigh. I'm working on it. Mimi xxx

  5. Dear Mimi,
    Bravo! Every person who has ever struggled with meal planning needs this post! Brilliant and yes yes and yes...I'm sick of the chefs, too. Over the weekend I took a page from you, planning and prepping for MY family's needs. We are anticipating some busy dates on the calendar coming up so I froze several meals ahead for those as well. God bless you greatly for helping those families. I needed real-life help and looked online...I never imagined the help would come from around the globe from Mimi, Annabel, Wendy, Tania, etc., but I'm so thankful it did! :).
    Much love, Colette xxx

    1. Dear Colette, I'm so pleased you stopped by! How lovely to see you. I'm so glad to have had an input into your life, and I'm truly honoured that my posts have helped you. Keep up the good work! Love, Mimi xxx

  6. Oh yes yes! This is my type of menu making. And I thought I was the only one... Thanks for another dose of common sense! :)

    1. Thanks it's not just you. Nor me, I suspect. We all need to just take a breath and go back to basics I think. Thanks for the support! Mimi xxx

  7. Hi Mimi,
    Thanks for sharing these healthy recipes and eating tips with us at Cooking & Crafting with J & J.
    Have a nice week and we hope to see you again.
    Julie xo

    1. Hi Julie. It's always a pleasure to pop in and see whats happening there. Love, Mimi xxx

  8. A great post Mimi and a god send to young families that have no idea how to make things and not buy ready made meals and snacks. It will save them a fortune and they will be eating better.
    Looking forward to further posts as you have great ideas. Debbie xx

    1. Hi Debbie. I'm saddened a bit actually, by how little they know. I'm sure their parents did their best, as did the education system, but we're still failing our young adults in so many ways. I'm hoping to remedy that a little in my own small way. Mimi xxx

  9. Haha...very interesting post. :)

    Thanks for joining Cooking and Crafting with J & J!

  10. Let them have it Mimi, with all their fancy ingredients that can be found only in fancy gourmet shops! I say simple and nutritious. And btw I love apples!!

    1. Thanks for the thumbs up Mary. I'm on a! Mimi xxx


I love hearing from you! I always respond to comments, so don't be shy! Mimi xxx