Thursday, November 12, 2015

War on TV Chefs #2..Menu planning....back to basics...

I used to think menu planning meant leafing through my library of cookbooks, my favourite magazines and recipes scribbled down when watching TV, to decide what to cook, then buying what I needed to do that. We ate well, but it cost me a fortune, and I could never figure out why I had so much stuff left going off in the fridge by the end of the week. Of course it was the tub of sour cream used once, the punnet of herbs that I only needed a tablespoon of, the avocado that I only used half of, and so on. Madness.
Menu planning for a family on a budget is very different to that idea.
There are three essentially elements to family menu planning, and these are the ones I teach to the young families I currently work with.
They are:
Nutritional requirements and food preferences
That's it. No big secret.
It means making food that can be easily cooked and served in a timely fashion, that your family likes to eat, and is within your budget constraints.
For so many young families though, this is a really difficult thing. Everyone is so busy, incomes can be unpredictable for all kinds of reasons, kids can be picky, food allergies are often involved (far more so than a decade or two ago) and often the thing that fits the Budget-Schedule-Food Preferences framework, is either frozen meal, purchased pre-prepared components, or takeaway. Marketeers know this and are happy to relieve you of your hard earned money for the convenience they provide.
What I've been aiming to do in my sessions with families, is to show that real food, wholesome, fresh food, is within their reach and can be so much cheaper than any processed, pre-packaged or ready prepared food. They're always astounded at what they can afford once they eliminate the not-so-good choices from their shopping list and pantry.
Accept too, that if you do this properly once, you may not have to revise it for years, if ever. Most families tend to eat the same thing over and over, so we plan around that, allowing for a bit of adventurous eating now and again, for variety.
1. The very first thing you need, before you start any lists or plans, is containers for storage, and a clean out and stocktake of the refrigerator and pantry. In doing that, you'll see what you still have that can be turned into a meal, you won't double up on purchases, and you'll make room for the lovely meals you're going to prepare to make busy nights easier.
In the interests of starting small for storage, I suggest a packet each of medium and large freezer bags, and a dozen takeaway style containers. These are available in discount stores for about $2 for 6. So that's an investment of around $5 to save about $35-$50. Add those to your shopping list now.
2. Now get out your family's schedule for the next week. That would be your diary, calendar, phone or computer...whatever you use to remind you of what's coming up. We're going to plan around what's happening and where everyone has to be for the week.
Just as an example, looking at breakfasts first, on work and school days you'd need a quick, easy, nutritious breakfast. On Saturdays perhaps, when many people play a sport, you'll need something quick but a bit more substantial or even something everyone can eat in the car. Sundays are always a great day for a cooked breakfast and having that luxury to look forward to is a good thing when on a budget. A lavish cooked breakfast is much less expensive than a luxury lunch or dinner for entertaining too. If like many, you have church services to attend on a Sunday, then perhaps it's a quick breakfast, and a lovely home cooked brunch upon return.
Lunches might differ according to whether you have children, and what age they are. Lunches for adults in the family need to be planned for as well. There is no reason whatsoever, to be buying lunches if you are on a budget. That's crazy stuff.
Dinners are always the most challenging, and the planning and ingredients for dinners tend to take up the most substantial part of your time and budget, so this requires plenty of thought. So in pencil, just note down, 'family home', 'quick',  'get your own' or 'treat', and we'll change that shortly. This is just for inspiration.
3. Next is to write down your family's favourite meals and snacks. That can be takeaway too, because we're going to try to modify those favourites for home preparation. Maybe they love McDonalds bacon and egg McMuffins on the way to school once a week, perhaps it's Kentucky Fried Chicken with mashed potato and gravy on the way home from sport at 8pm, or a particular type of pizza. Maybe their most favourite thing in the world is sausages and chips. That's okay too. This list is going to become your rotating dinner menu plan, so write down as many things as you can. Even ask the family for their input. They can't complain if it's their idea.
Now you're ready to start your menu plan.
I like to use this template...
...because it's a seven day plan, with all meals and snacks listed, and there's even room for your prep.
Print one out, grab your pen and a cuppa, and let's get started.
What did find when you did your fridge and pantry stocktake? Maybe some rice or pasta, some frozen vegetables or limp veges in the crisper? A bit of bacon? The end of a packet of cheese? This is where you start to get creative. Odds and ends of pasta, some egg and a bit of bacon and cheese easily becomes a treat when the pasta is cooked and cooled, the egg, cheese and diced bacon added, and the mixture baked till firm, in lightly oiled muffin pans, as a savoury afternoon tea or light meal. Sad veges always get baked into a crustless quiche or made into soup or vegetable ragout, in our house. The dog gets his share mixed into his food too. He particularly loves grated apple and carrot.
Soft fruit is either frozen to use in smoothies, or made into jam for gifting to friends and family. You can make any quantity of jam by simmering equal amounts by weight, of sugar and fruit, with a squeeze of lemon added. Annabel over at The Bluebirds are Nesting swears by the lemon, and she's the queen of jam making! I've often made it even without the lemon though, if you don't have it. If it doesn't set, it's used as a fruit puree to flavour home made yoghurt or simply simmered for a little longer till it thickens and sets when cooled. On average, I find enough odds and ends in my pre-planning stocktake to generate two afternoons of snacks, and at least one meal, if not two. If you're not the kitchen creative type, just type your random leftover ingredients into Google, and all kinds of things come up no matter what!
These two little jars of Strawberry and Vanilla Bean jam were made from the saddest ever looking bottoms of two punnets of strawberries, that were buried at the back of the fridge. The colour and aroma is mouthwatering!
Write those meals or snacks from your stocktake, plus any extras like the jam, into your menu planner in appropriate spots like Afternoon Tea or whatever.
Now add your breakfasts, according to your schedule. My family get a 'choice' of one cereal. Any more than that, and in a month, I'm throwing out half packets of seven different things. If you're on a budget, one type of cereal is enough, and the least expensive option is always Oats. Not the pre-packaged ones either....although I'll show you how to make your own version of those too. Just plain old generic brand Oats. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that because Uncle Tobys put their Oats in a red box, that they're better. They're just Oats. If your family just won't eat Oats, either as porridge or Bircher Muesli, then something like Weet Bix is the next best option. For health and wellbeing, and for your budget, stay away from the sugary stuff. If they don't like Weet Bix or Oats, find a way to help them like Weet Bix and Oats, honestly. As kids we used to eat Weet Bix topped with peanut butter and honey in Summer, and heated with milk and topped with banana and a drizzle (and I do mean a drizzle) of cream in Winter. These days I like Weet Bix with warmed skim milk, a dollop of home made Greek yoghurt and a drizzle of local honey....scrumptious. You sometimes just have to use your imagination. Oats can be porridge, muesli muffins, muesli breakfast biscuits, Bircher muesli, muesli yoghurt balls, muesli yoghurt parfaits, and so on. All of those are easy to prepare, yummy to eat, and still healthier than most of the breakfast cereals labelled 'healthy'.
My family menu for the week looks like this....
...each day has three meals and snack/s, plus the prep required for tomorrow. If you prep tomorrows meals today, you're always ahead, there's never a rush, and I practically promise that panic and takeaways will become a thing of your past. We eat takeaway maybe twice a year because we love the local Japanese Bento Boxes-to-go. Otherwise, a meal other than home cooked, is more likely to be at a friends home, or a nice restaurant. We can afford nice restaurants if we're not eating takeaway and frozen convenience food....the budget thieves!
I try hard to fulfil the Healthy Food Pyramid requirements, we eat gluten free, I don't buy supermarket snacks or junk food or soft drink or juice. We prefer to eat whole fruit and drink plain water or tea and I bake our treats. It's a strategy that works for us in every way. Nobody feels deprived, and once you lose the taste for McDonalds or takeaway Pizza, you'll wonder what you ever saw in them....a bit like any bad!

The main thing is, that we are eating what we enjoy, every single day. NO deprivation and NO budget blowout. You can do the same.
Put one of each of your family's favourite meals into the dinner or weekend lunches column. Try not to have two heavy meals in one day. If you're going to have a lavish lunch or brunch, then have a light dinner. Eat fruit and yoghurt for snacks, adding rice crackers or rice cakes with a bit of dip or cheese if you're hungry. Try also to have a balance of red meat, chicken, fish and vegetable based meals. Not only is it better for your hips, it's better for your hip pocket!
Fill the breakfast columns next, ensuring that you're taking crazy mornings into consideration, and that it's as varied as possible. Nobody will complain too much if there's variety and interest. My family look forward to Muffin morning or Breakfast Parfait morning, as much as their favourite evening meals.
Lastly do lunches because some of you work full time, or part time, or volunteer or have other pressures on your time, so you know best what will work. Remember though that school lunches still have to be prepped and packed so include them too.
Our snacks rely heavily on seasonal fruit, fresh cheese, healthy crisp crackers, and the occasional treat of home baking or icecream. You're the best judge of what will work for your family, but if the fruit bowl is full, and there's some other delectable treats available, you really can do without salty nuts, potato chips and junk food.
Try to wean everyone off sodas and flavoured coffees too. They're calorie heavy and nutritionally devoid. Try drinking water with flavoured ice, strawberry, lemon or lime slivers suspended in ice, not only looks pretty but tastes great. Why would you pay for 'flavoured' water for goodness sakes! You could also try cordial instead of sodas and soft drinks and gradually diminish the amount of cordial you use. That's how we did it.
Plain coffee, if it's quality coffee, is worth the extra money if it saves you on syrups and prepackaged or takeaway coffees. Try to appreciate 'good' brewed coffee without all the additives. Otherwise, what's the point of the coffee? You may as well have flavoured milk.
Take those ideas into consideration in your menu plan too. Add things like 'good brewed coffee' to the breakfast menu, and 'iced water with mint' to the snacks. Being prepared is the key. If you know what you're doing next, you won't be as tempted to waver from the good!
That's where we'll leave it for today. That's probably information overload as it is!
You now have your menu plan ready to go. On Monday, we'll take the next step and I'll share my prep and shopping strategies, which I hope will help you. Go about this slowly and methodically and it will work for you. It's not worth rushing.
Let me know how you go!


  1. Thanks for the link Mimi. Yes strawberries fading fast make the best jam! Instant transformation!
    I love not wasting things. Food is money. A lot of money. The old way you mentioned where you end up with half a container of sour cream etc... I think we have all done that. I try to plan to use these things up now and am much better at it. I also wrote the date I open things on top. Somehow this helps me know I need to use it and think about what to make with it.
    I agree what not to buy is a big factor. We dont buy fruit juice or soft drink or takes way. This does give you money to buy loads of vegies and salad ingredients and I look for great meat bargains. I really think what we buy food wise has a huge impact. Health wise and money wise. It is worth spending time on to organise and figure it out. It I didnt plan it would be a mess!
    Thanks for such helpful information. With love,

    1. Hi Annabel. I love what you say about food being money. Of course it is! The young families I'm helping, cannot believe how much they've been spending on convenience and snack food until you actually add it up for them. Nobody says you can't have an occasional treat, and as you know, I'm big on factoring some fun food and treats into the weekly shop to prevent a blow-out on takeaway, but shouldn't be an every day thing. I spent $185 today for 3 of us for all meals, including lunches, and all snacks, and that will last at least a week, with our Barramundi and Salmon portions carrying over to another week for sure. That's all good quality, healthy food that we love to eat, with not a processed package in sight. We have loads and loads of pink lady apples, white peaches, blueberries, lady finger bananas, and mandarins to feast upon too. I actually buy two serves of fruit for each of us per day, so for three of us, that's an astounding 42 serves of fruit! Most people don't even think to count the number of serves of berries or the number of apples or bananas, meaning that there really probably isn't enough in their trolley to fulfil nutritional guidelines. Time and time again, I see the trolley of a young, struggling family, filled with Coca-Cola, potato chips, individual juices, individual yoghurts, and so on. All well and good in moderation, but when they then say they can't afford fruit, and that blueberries are too expensive at $4 a punnet, it's time for a little chat-ette! We talk about how to portion out a bit of yoghurt in a container or bowl (and put stickers of characters on it if the kids are into that) and pour a drink into a little cup with a straw, so that it's still fun and portable. Sometimes, it just takes a bit of lateral thinking. Love, Mimi xxx

  2. Mimi this is such a good series you've started, I think so many people could benefit from it. TV chefs and cooking shows in general really do give the impression that every meal needs to be restaurant quality. My kids love shepherds pie, devilled sausages, pasta bake, spaghetti bolognese, and are actually quite happy with beans on toast when mum can't be bothered lol. I make them all from scratch, we have several food allergies to contend with so I need to be sure of what's in our food, and with anything like shepherds pie that takes multiple dishes to prepare I always make at least double. Something I think is helpful is to have a couple of 'get out of jail free' meals up your sleeve, the kind that can be whipped up quickly, everyone will eat, and you almost always have the ingredients for. In our house my go-to is chilli con carne, it seriously takes 15 minutes, if we have nacho chips everyone is super happy, but rice is fine if not. Everyone is happy to eat lettuce, carrot and tomato with it too so long as there's plenty of grated cheese. I don't know how many times I've made this instead of grabbing a quick alternative.

    I think a back to basics approach is so sensible and actually takes a lot of pressure off. I'm really looking forward to your next posts on this topic. Now off to do one thing, and then another...!

    1. Hi Jen. That's a great observation about the TV chefs. I couldn't agree more. Kids love the simple things, and in reality, so do we adults. I'm as much of a gourmand as the next person, but I love my vegemite on toast with a bit of cheese on top, and a bit of Shepherds Pie too. Doubling things like Shepherds Pie and Spag Bol is just such good common sense as well. Instant meal for another night...why wouldn't you do that! Love your idea of the Chilli con Carne and rice or corn chips for a quick meal. What kid (or adult for that matter) wouldn't be happy with that? Thrilled to hear you're off to do one thing, then one thing more...Mum would be proud as punch. Love, Mimi xxx

  3. Mimi I love this series you are working on.

    We eat basics due to my allergies, good quality mince is used for a variety of things like my husbands loaded rissoles (lots of vegetables in them). It also cooks quickly so it is easy to whip up a bolognaise sauce or a savoury mince which then can be changed to suit what we feel like.

    The TV chefs want to sell their books and that is why they do a show as well - drumming up interest in their books.


    1. Dear Lynette, yes basics are good when allergies are involved too. Loaded rissoles sound mouthwatering. Everything tastes better with veg I reckon. I do my spag bol with grated zucchini and carrot and it just adds another little dimension to the texture and flavour. Very astute of you to note that it's all about promoting self for the TV chefs. Absolutely. Mimi xxx

  4. Hi Mimi
    In our house I don't even purchase sour cream anymore as we all enjoy Greek yogurt instead and that is used in more ways. Thanks for another great post . Love to read about your kitchen organisation
    Julie D - Pilbara WA

    1. Hi Julie. That's a brilliant idea. Somewhere in the depths of my memory bank, I know I've done that too. Harder now when I make a sweet version of the Greek yoghurt, but can't hurt to make a separate savoury one! We love savoury yoghurt on baked potatoes. Yum. Mimi xxx

  5. Mimi, such good advice particularly for young mums trying to stick to a budget when feeling the family. I am still catching up on the posts I missed when at the beach. I will catch up eventually :-)

    1. Hi Chel. Yes, it's young Mums I'm working with, so this is really aimed at people less experienced with the idea of menu planning and shopping. I've been gratified at the response I've had. Clearly there's a need out there. I hope you enjoyed your little sabbatical. Mimi xxx

  6. I have only just started planning prep work and doing what I could ahead and it's been a huge bonus in time and money. If it's already prepped, I'm more likely to use it which means I won't lose it! I love your chart and shall make my own like this.
    I noted too the 'good coffee is worth it if you can skip syrups...I noted while in hospital that unsweetened iced tea was really tasty and the sugar absolutely unnecessary. I put this down quickly to the fact that it was well made good tea. It's made me more careful of brands and how I make tea overall.

    1. Hi Terri. Yes, it really is incredible what a difference it makes for a very small investment of time. When you consider how much you run around when you don't plan, it's a small price to pay. What's that saying 'fail to plan, and you plan to fail'? That applies to the household as much as anything else in life! I love what you say about the iced tea, and my coffee comment. I don't drink coffee these days, but before I eliminated it for health reasons, I was drinking straight black coffee, no sugar, milk or flavours. I learned to appreciate it's dark earthy flavour, it's smooth feel on the palate, and it's gorgeous unadulterated aroma. Drinking good coffee without the additives is a true treat for the senses :) Mimi xxx

  7. I'm loving this series Mimi, and it all makes perfect sense to me. However, after sitting down with my 3 children (age 5, 8 and 12), I quickly became stumped when trying to follow your lead in writing a menu plan up for healthy snacks and lunches. My children (and husband!!) all have very different tastes and whilst I would LOVE to be able to serve them all the same thing for lunches and snacks, the reality is that if I did that, so much food would end up being wasted as I can guarantee that there will be one or two who will refuse to eat it. How do you manage to meal plan for so many meals and keep everyone happy?

    1. Hi Kelly. I know. This is a curly one for sure. I think we all have this issue these days, whether it's fragmented meal times due to after school and work commitments, food allergies, or as you've said, just food preferences. When you say they won't all eat the same thing, can I ask how that's come about? Have you always made something different for everyone? Are there any foods that everyone likes? Maybe it's worth having a family meeting to figure out what 'likes' they have in common. There must be a few. And then base snacks and lunches around those. Nachos, fried rice, Chicken Caesar Salad, sausage rolls, spring rolls, toasties, and muffins spring to mind as perennials for many families these days. If they all like different things, is there a possibility of making several lunches and snacks of those things at once. For example, when my disabled son was still living at home, part of my prep was to make a dozen ham and cheese sandwiches, butter the top side of them, and slide them into ziplock bags, so they were ready to pop into the sandwich press. We all loved sushi, but he didn't, so that was my solution. I still make gigantic batches of spring rolls and always have a batch of crepe or hotcake batter in the fridge ready to go at short notice (so easy to do...who needs plastic bottles and boxes of mix!) for anyone who is a bit picky on the day. The spring rolls can be heated as required, and the crepe/hotcake batter lasts days in the refrigerator. We all eat gluten free here too now, but prior to that change, I would make a bulk batch of gluten free spaghetti bolognaise, let's say, for my daughter (who is gluten intolerant), and freeze it in portion sizes. Then I'd cook normal Spag Bol for the rest of us and just reheat a gluten free one for her. I do two different no bake slices twice a week, by making up the crumb base and pressing it into foil BBQ trays, and varying the toppings. That caters for everyone here. Muffin mix can be done the same way, with half being berries, and half banana choc chip for example. Flavoured drinks can be solved with syrups and cordials added to drink bases like coffee and soda water, which are far less expensive than sodas and bought latte's. Investing in a Soda Stream or Smoothie Blender can be a wise decision when you consider how much that will save you in the long term. Without knowing the specifics, it's hard for me to elaborate further. If you pop back and give me a few examples, I can try to advise from there. But really, that has been my solution. Ask each person to choose two favourites, and prepare those in bulk and freeze. Or make them get their! Love, Mimi xxx


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