We've been discussing how to feed your family well on a budget, and how TV chefs have sort of messed that up for us all.
My thoughts are that family meals do NOT have to be restaurant worthy, and that families are stressing themselves out, trying to either imitate TV chefs and reality TV programmes, or alternatively, not even trying, and resorting to convenience food because they don't think they can measure up. It's a terrible side effect of reality TV, honestly.
I'm working with young families to get them back to basics. Back to the way our Nans cooked. Back to growing a little, baking a little, and just being organised.
I thought I'd share that here with you.
In Part 1, we talked about finding healthier and less expensive options to feed our family, that don't entail buying unhealthy or overpriced convenience food and takeaway. I shared a case history of a young family I am currently mentoring, and how we jointly came up with some budget slashing meal ideas and recipes. That post is here.
In Part 2, we started a basic menu plan, which takes into consideration not just what you want to eat, but what day of the week to eat it according to your family's schedule, and how to allow time to have much of it partially prepared the day before, so that meals are on the table quickly and easily. We also looked at doing a pre-shopping stocktake of the refrigerator and pantry, and how to use leftovers efficiently. That post is here.
Part 3 shared looking at our menu plan, checking it against our pre-shopping stocktake, and then devising our shopping list, dividing the list into organised categories like Chilled, Meat, Fruit and Veg and Dry Goods, to make the shopping experience easier and faster. I shared some of my strategies for tallying your spend before you shop, and culling the list if necessary to fit your budget for the week, and how that doesn't mean changing the meal, but perhaps just substituting the ingredients used. This post also discussed using leftovers in delicious ways, reducing waste, and ensuring there are grab and go healthy and home made snacks so the family don't feel deprived. Read it here.
So today, I'm going to tell you how I go about my prep, not just on shopping day, but every day.
Here's my big secret.
Prepare tomorrows menu, today.
That's it. Not much of a secret really. But you will simply not believe how much difference this makes to the way your household runs. If you have menu planned according to your schedule, and prep tomorrows breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks today, you will never go back to buying takeaway or expensive convenience foods again.
Not only that but in my posts on living with depression and disorganisation here and here, it was generally agreed, that making a list, having a plan, and spending some time today preparing for tomorrow is a great strategy.
If your feet can hit the floor tomorrow, knowing that whatever lies ahead, your family will eat well, and that there will not be any mad last minute dashes to the supermarket where you'll overspend, you can start the day calm and confident.
So here's my menu again...
Note that I plan all meals and snacks because last time I looked, we don't just eat dinner. People who plan for dinner only are still ahead for sure, but if you're going to do it, why not include all meals and snacks and really do it well?
And here's a close up of my Daily Prep column. The link for this menu planner is in Part 2.
Looking at that list, you can see that I include making yoghurt, which alone saves me a minimum of $1000 a year because we use it in place of sour cream, as a replacement for butter in baking, as a side for desserts, and in parfaits for breakfast as well as just for snacks and breakfasts on the run. I'm also preparing salad mix, baking, boiling eggs for Chefs Salad for lunches, clearing out the fridge and ensuring things are used up in a timely fashion half way through the week, and making things like crepe batter and steamed rice. I would usually spend less than half an hour a day on tomorrows prep, but it saves so much time and money.
Now I know you're thinking 'but if I'm prepping anyway, why wouldn't I just prep for today?'. Well, you can of course. But as I've said before, this is a mental strategy as much as a financial one. You want your cute breakfast parfaits sitting in the fridge ready to go, just as if you were buying them from your favourite café`, you want goodies for your kids or your own lunch sitting there all ready to enjoy, you want dinner for tonight marinating or sliced and diced, so that if the day goes pear shaped, that at least is done and dusted. By the time you get up in the morning, it's too late to make parfaits for breakfast and freeze mashed fruit and yoghurt into cubes for smoothies. The kids will grab their own lunch and it won't be what you want them to have, and because you've started the day on the wrong foot, you're not going to be motivated to do too much at all, let alone make a healthy lunch for yourself or a lovely dinner for the family. Does that make sense?
Shopping day usually involves a bit more prep for me. That's a choice I make. In fact, it starts the day before shopping day, which given what I've just said about being 24 hours ahead, is a no-brainer. I already know that if I don't have my home made Greek Yoghurt done (both savoury and sweet), the fridge cleaned out, my stocktake done, my schedule in front of me and my shopping list finalised, it's going to get ugly.
Some people scour the weekly specials, and occasionally I do that too. However if I shop in the same places consistently, I get to know the specials cycle for things that I buy. It's about 6 weeks for some things, and 12 weeks for others. So I can plan around that anyway. That's up to you.
So, armed with my list, I shop quickly and efficiently, and head straight home. Grocery shopping day is not a social outing for me. I just want to get it done.
Once home, with a refrigerator and pantry cleared and ready to be packed with this weeks food, the unpacking is accomplished without fuss or bother. I have a little strategy where I peel off tamper proof packaging as I go, so things are ready to use. If things need decanting for use tonight or tomorrow, I do that too. Anything I'm about to use for baking or prep, is left out on the bench, lined up ready to go. Packet items are opened and canisters refilled. Extras bought to stock my 'shop' as I call my stockpile, are packed on shelves in our internal stairwell. I try to add one or two things a week to the 'shop', which also saves on last minute dashes to the supermarket. I include shampoo and conditioner, sanitary products, shaving cream and razors, toothbrushes and toothpaste, dishwasher tablets, rice, sugar, teabags, coffee, dehydrated vegetables for the dogs food, and a few tins of things we use a lot like peeled diced tomatoes, coconut milk, and baked beans. As an item is removed from the 'shop', it's written on the shopping list to be replaced. So I am restocking my 'shop' not my pantry, and theoretically, we should never have a situation that requires a mercy dash to the supermarket. We could easily eat for several days on what is in my 'shop', and I frequently use those items to fill Care baskets for friends or family in need or in crisis.
These again, are all things to do that make the routine run smoothly and seamlessly. I can only share what works for me, and what I advise my young families to do. Some of this may work for you, and some may not, but you will find your own rhythm for sure, once you get going.
I now look at my Daily Prep column and tackle what needs doing. I always try to bake something, make a chilled treat, get ahead on the meal prep, and do tomorrows prep today, so there's up to an hour and a half there. But I actually really enjoy it and look forward to it, so it's no imposition.
Mostly once a week on shopping day, I will, in this order:
Make fruit jellies (2 minutes)
Make a no bake slice (10 minutes for the base, 10 more for the topping after the base has chilled)
Bake muffins or a loaf cake in silicone pans so no greasing, lining or cupcake papers involved (5 minutes to mix while slice is chilling, 20 to bake)
Peel and slice veg or salad according to the next days menu (10 minutes. Done while muffins are baking)
Prepare any other items like marinades, stir fry sauce or salad dressing (10 minutes. Done while muffins are cooling)
Make a dip or spread (5 minutes. Eggs or veges are cooking on stovetop while muffins are in oven and after veg prep, and whizzed in my mini food processor in mere seconds)
Make a lush dessert (15 minutes maximum)
That's an hour of work, to be several days ahead and to have lots of things we love to eat, close at hand and ready to go.
The thing is too, that because I make the same things over and over, I really get the routine down to a fine art. Even the best restaurants only change their menu 3 or 4 times a year for the very same reason, and takeways and cafe's never change their menu for that reason too. Think about it. It's an interesting idea isn't it.
I don't even look at recipes or measure any more, because I know the ingredients off by heart, and trust my eye to know what 'looks' like a cup of flour or half a cup of butter. No disasters so far! You can be the same with practice.
That's all based on what my family likes to eat of course too. What does your family like? Because that again is the key. If there's plenty of what they enjoy eating, that's freshly made, to grab and go, you will all eat well and bought treats will be a thing of the past. Your waistline will love you (all things in moderation though, remember!) and so will your bank manager :)
Here's a list of common treat foods and some suggestions for pretty decent substitutes:
Smoothies and Frappe`s: Mash fruit and mix with yoghurt, and freeze in ice cube trays. Empty frozen cubes into ziplock bags and add 2-3 cubes to a cup of chilled milk in a food processor or blender.
Sodas: Add cordial or syrup (homemade if possible) to unflavoured soda water. Better still learn to enjoy unflavoured soda or chilled water, with sliced fruit, fresh or suspended in ice cubes, to infuse it with flavour.
Salty snacks: Roast and spice chick peas or pumpkin seeds. Enjoy the 'crunch' of celery or carrot sticks. Roast chunks of potato or sweet potato and season well with salt and herbs or add frozen chips to your shopping list, encouraging family to eat those instead of the packet crisps. Make huge batches of your favourite dips and have them with rice crackers. Dips are ridiculously easy to make. Roast tiny cubes of pumpkin and keep them in a container in the fridge for a hand to mouth snack. Pan fry chicken breast slivers or use chunks of leftover roast meat, put them in a ziplock bag with iceberg lettuce leaves and a lemon wedge, using the lemon to season it all before you eat with fingers straight from the bag, just like chips (it's a mental war too remember!).
Flavoured coffees and teas: Make your own syrups if you must have these. They are so ridiculously easy, and always simply consist of sugar, water and some sort of flavouring which you can usually buy as an essence. Better still, learn to enjoy the real flavour of the tea of coffee unadulterated.
Chocolates and confectionery: Substitute these with convincing home made replacements. No bake slices are so easy, and once you've had a home made Peanut Butter Slice or Ferrero Rocher Slice, the real deal will be relegated to the once-a-year-on-birthdays basket! Recipes for those, and ideas to invent your own slice recipes, to follow tomorrow. Microwave fudge and brownies are another great quick and easy DIY idea for the sweet tooth of the family.
Favourite takeaways: Sushi, Pizza, KFC, McDonalds burgers, you name it, there's a copycat recipe for it out there somewhere. Google is your friend, and if you follow my 'prep 24 hours ahead' rule, you'll have your favourite on the table in less time than it would take to drive there and buy it. And it will be cheaper, healthier, and better for you.
Does your family have a favourite not listed? Let me know and I'll add it along with some ideas for replacements.
Now I'm not saying this will be smooth sailing from Day One. I've been revising and refining my prep routine for years, and it may take you a while to get the hang of it too. But don't give up. The rewards are there for your health and your budget, I promise.
Tomorrow, I'll share my Invent-your-own-no-bake-slice ideas, and that will be at the top of my Five Star Frou-Frou post. It's such an easy idea, and you'll never look at a TV chef the same way again ;-)