Monday, 2 March 2015

The Neverending Meal Plan

My magnetic meal planner solved the time sensitive problem of "What's for dinner?" Now it's time to plan even further ahead and bring down that weekly grocery bill!

We have recently been away in Japan for 2 months (sorry for the lack of blogging!) and, as an added surprise, my parents sold the house where we were living while we were away. So not only did we come home and unpack suitcases, we had to unpack everything else as well!

Fortunately, my parents and parents-in-law had done all the hard work for us, but it still took me two weeks to unpack and organise. By the time we finished eating random packets of leftover noodles and throwing out expired boxes of muffin bars, we had a very bare looking pantry. I thought it would be a great time to reassess our shopping and meal planning strategy.

The weekly meal planner really has been a blessing, and I was starting to wonder if planning ever further in advance could help with others problems, like grocery shopping. On average, the Marvellous Mr M and I budget $50 a week on shopping, which includes hygiene and cleaning products, as well as our general groceries. 

Last year, at any given time our pantry and fridge was stocked with frozen pizza, party pies, 2 minute noodles, instant pasta packets, bolognese sauce jars and every weird and inevitably inedible snack that caught our fancy. Of course, the standard meat and veggies were always present too, but it sounds pretty bad when you say it all together like that. Just looking at this photo now makes me want to cover my face with embarrassment. What is that? Four different types of frozen breads!

While we were in Japan, we discovered that the norm there is to eat out or buy a pre-packed lunch or "obento" from a convenience shop. Even if you were lucky enough to have a decent sized kitchen, the ingredients were so expensive and pre-packed food was so cheap that cooking at home was not always the cheapest option. We really struggled to find affordable ingredients that weren't octopus tentacles or tempura batter (so glad that tentacle photo finally came in handy).

When we came back, I realised what a blessing it is to buy cheap, Australian produce and have a well equipped kitchen, even if it is set up in the middle of the back patio.

With a new found appreciation for fresh, Australian produce and cheap ingredients, I was caught up in a whirlwind of cooking from scratch and eating healthy. It wasn't even really on purpose! But check out this amazing roast chicken I cooked in the slow cooker (my new best friend). Admittedly I did put it in the oven to grill for all of 5 minutes at the end, but it doesn't change the fact that the slow cooker is an absolute wonder.

And while I'm on the topic of being grateful for real kitchen appliances, I also baked the Marvellous Mr M some cupcakes, iced with home-prepared icing sugar. I had so much icing left I attempted to make icing dots (a rip off of yoghurt dots which I have yet to try). And, if you're wondering, no they did not work. After a week in the freezer, they were still just blobs of icing.

Okay, so maybe saying we are eating healthy is a little bit of a stretch when you look at last week as an example, but it was a birthday week. That's my excuse anyway...

The point is, the neverending meal planner is working. We are 1.5 weeks into our first fortnight, and have only made 2 minor and very strict trips for milk and cupcake ingredients. 

So, here it is, the meal plan that never ends!

It is sort of a monthly meal plan, but it is filled with all our favourites and a few generic dishes which mean it never needs to be re-written (which is not to say I won't re-write it; Mr M tells me I have quite a habit of reorganising things that don't need reorganising). 

It is based around a fortnightly shopping cycle. Fortnight 1 starts with shopping on the Saturday, ideally at the local markets where fresh produce is reasonably priced and the atmosphere makes it much more fun than the supermarket.

Shopping day is basic: bread rolls for lunch and spaghetti bolognese for dinner where as much mince as possible is pre-cooked and frozen for later.

The next few days are full of fresh fruit, root vegetables and salads. This is also the best time for me to do a slow cooker chicken and bake some snacks.

The pattern starts again at the beginning of fortnight one with a few changes: lamb chops instead of boerewors (this is where Mr M gets to satisfy his luxury meat craving for the fortnight), Thai stir fry swaps with Asian stir fry and saucy Asian chicken swaps with saucy Indian chicken, which is what I'm cooking tonight: YUM!

Note that the names are often generic. "Saucy chicken", "Chicken stir fry", "Special treat" and "OPEN" leave room for buying according to what's on special or trying a new recipe.

An added bonus of this meal planner over the paper version is that is has plenty of room for breakfast and I can edit it whenever I want. I currently have a different version on my iPad which I use daily to keep track of what we're eating and what to defrost or prepare ahead of time. 

Mr M has constantly been amazed about how well organised I am (considering the norm used to be having nothing for lunch and him skipping meals or eating out). So glad that isn't the norm any more! Thankyou neverending meal plan!

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