Thanks to some recent TV exposure, there are a lot of people reading my blog for the first time and wondering how on earth it’s possible to feed a family for $120 for a week of meals.
It’s not easy. It’s precisely why it’s called The Challenge.
It’s impossible to keep your spending to a minimum if you don’t have a shopping list. It’s impossible to create a shopping list unless you plan some meals first. Here is a step-by-step guide to how I go about it, every week…
1. Do an Inventory of the Pantry, Fridge and Freezer
Do you know exactly what’s in your pantry and fridge right now? If so, you’re in a very small minority. Most people have a lot more in their cupboards than they perhaps realise. There’s probably at least one item that you have doubled upon, or even have three of. There may even be items in there that have become lost at the back of the cupboard, out of sight, that you don’t even know are there.
It’s a big job, but to get things started, you MUST take everything out of your cupboard and have a look at what you’ve got. Check use-by dates. Bring to the front any items that you have a lot of, or are approaching their use-by dates and need using up soon, so you don’t forget about them. Some people, better organised than me, actually list everything down on a spreadsheet and pin it to the back of the cupboard door, so they can tick things off that need replacing. Make sure you do the same thing in your fridge and freezer.
2. Plan a menu
Once you know what you’ve got in your pantry, fridge and freezer, you can begin to see where the gaps are and what needs purchasing. To narrow it down a little, you will need to plan a menu.
If possible, plan and buy for a fortnight rather than each week – economies of scale means you will make your dollar go further. You can do it each week if you want, but I encourage you to at least try it for a fortnight and see if it makes a difference.
Throughout this blog, you will see recipes listed Day 1, Day 2, up to Day 14. They give you some suggestions to get you started. You can follow it strictly, or it can be as flexible as you want it to be.
The simplest way to plan your menu is to scroll backwards through the recipes on the home page until you reach the start of the previous fortnight of menus. Follow it through to give you two weeks of main meals and a few sweet treats or dessert ideas. Please note it’s just a guide or a starting point.
Most of you will see items in that fortnight that you don’t like or won’t agree with fussy eaters, or won’t include your favourite meals. Feel free to adapt it. Begin by including some meals that will use up some of those pantry and fridge items that need to be consumed first and put them at the start of your week’s menu.
To help you with recipe ideas, go to the ‘Search Box’ on the right hand side of this page and type in the ingredient that you want to include, for example, ‘potatoes’, ‘mince’ or ‘spinach’. Up will come all the recipes and posts that include those ingredients.
- It’s important to include as many meal suggestions from family members as possible. It’s especially helpful to do this if you have fussy children. If their requests are included, they are more likely to eat what’s put in front of them.
- Include as much variety as you can. For example, I try to have a red meat meal, followed by a chicken meal, then a pasta or rice meal, then a meat-free meal. It’s not precise but at least it includes some variety.
I also add one or two recipe ideas that can be used as a back up. I call these ‘Plan B meals’. Plan B meals are used when you get to the shops and realise that last week’s specials are now very expensive and won’t fit into your budget for the meal you had planned to make. Plan B meals are often pasta or rice meals and can be flexible and done with a minimum of fuss. They usually can be made with whatever you’ve already got in the pantry, or are meals that don’t have too many ingredients.
Once you’ve written down your ideas for meals, add in some ideas for lunch and one or two sweet treats. To help with lunch ideas, click on the following posts:
- You can find lots of great ideas for Cakes, Chocolate and Biscuits and Slices by clicking on the categories to the right of this post. There’s a wealth of ideas. Again, use the search box if you have an ingredient that you want to use, such as ‘condensed milk’, ‘anzac biscuits’, ‘lemons’ and so on.
3. Write your shopping list.
Use your menu plan and look at the recipes for each meal. Write down your list from the ingredients listed that you don’t already have in your pantry or freezer.
- Be precise wherever you can. If you need a total of 3 tins of tomatoes for that fortnight, write down 3 tins, not ‘some tins of tomatoes’.
- When writing your list think about the gaps in your pantry items and the sort of items you may want to add so you end up with a well-stocked pantry. As a guide, the post on Stocking a Pantry gives you ideas for buying one or two useful and practical items at a time.
4. Go shopping.
We all know that supermarkets are put on this earth to part you with as much of your money as possible. Treat it as a game. It’s not personal. Go in with the expectation that you will spend as little money as possible. Here are a few suggestions for maximising your shopping dollar:
- Don’t go when you are hungry.
- When you are looking for bargains, look UP and DOWN.
Cheaper items are placed above or below eye level. Be prepared to bend or stand on tiptoe.
- Go when supermarkets are discounting.
A little detective work in your local supermarket will pay dividends. Generally, pricres are discounted just before the next delivery of meat or fruit or veg, so you might find that meat is discounted on a Monday and Tuesday nights. fruit and vegetables are discounted late on a Sunday afternoon and so forth. Shopping is often cheaper on a Friday evening than it is on a Saturday morning.
Buy generic foods wherever possible.
Baking items such as flour and sugar, dairy items such as butter and milk, and basic tinned items such as vegetables are all good value for money with no discernible difference in taste. Aldi is your best friend, but Coles are also making significant changes to their pricing structures and are worth a second look. I would like to tell you that I can budget at Woolworths/Safeway or at IGA but unfortunately I can’t endorse them at this time. They are the most expensive options of all.
- Shop around the outsides of the supermarket.
Think about it – the layout of most supermarkets are scientifically designed to encourage you to put as many unnecessary items in your trolley as possible. When you are on a budget you have to get as much nutritional value out of your food dollar as you can. Start by going around the outsides of the supermarket. Buy fruit and vegetables first, then meat, then dairy, bread and deli items. Fill up with groceries and tinned goods only with the dollars you have left over. Many of us do it the other way around. Try it and see the difference it makes.
Buy wholesale where possible.
Not everyone has access to wholesale items and not everyone has the need for bulk lots of coconut cream, or 5 litre bottles of barbecue sauce but the one notable exception is when you are buying meat. Most people will have a meat wholesaler in their area, even if it’s a 20 minute drive away. Spending $100 there will get you more for your money and is worth the longer drive. Bring it home, portion it out using freezer bags, mark everything with an indelible marker and use it up over the next month or two. If you can’t afford to spend $100, go with a friend and share the costs.
Finally, buy seasonal, locally grown and produced foods.
If it is in season, it is cheap. It really is as simple as that. It’s not just fruit and vegetables that have a season – meat and fish does as well. Winter is NOT the time to be eating cherries. Summer is not the time to be using ling or chestnuts. Remember also that if you commit yourself to buying only what is in season, you will truly have a greater variety in your diet than by simply sticking to the same small variety of vegetables and fruit you probably eat now. You may even try something new and really like it!
To help you better with seasonal ideas, go to the In Season category to the right of this page. Take a note of the MONTH it is listed and then click on the recipe that appeals to you.
5. Consider one or two meat-free options each week.
As a nation we love our meat, but it adds a significant amount to our food bill. The easiest way to reduce your food bills is to have two meat-free meals a week. You will save a minimum of $30 or even more, every week, by doing so. Meat-free meals do not have to be boring, or worse, unfilling. There are a large number of suggestions throughout the blog for filling, tasty, genuinely satisfying meals, ranging from lasagnas to curries to stir-fries to baked dinners. I encourage you to give it some consideration.
For loads of meat-free ideas, follow the Vegetarian meal ideas category to the right of this page.
6. Learn what to do with Leftovers.
Here’s some very bleak news: Australian households throw out a staggering 20% of all their food every week. That’s an average of $40 a week or more, every week. How many dollars are you throwing away every week?
You have two choices: Either don’t cook as much to begin with and get better at calculating portion sizes or learn to use up leftovers.
Cooking with leftovers should never be a repeat of last night’s meal: The trick to leftovers is to re-create something quite different from the first time it was served. If you are lucky enough to have some leftovers from the previous night’s baked dinner, serving slices of meat with more gravy won’t work. Instead, learn to mince up meat and put it into pasta sauces; cooked vegetables can be hidden in frittatas or roasted for pasta sauces or thrown in at the end of cooking for your next stir-fry.
Throughout the recipes, you will find countless ideas for using up leftovers or for adapting recipes to suit what you have to hand. Feel free to experiment with leftovers as well. Without experimentation, we would never have discovered cauliflower cheese souffles, potato croquettes, frittatas, meat pies or risotto or that spectacular curry you make.
Don’t forget that you can always take a serving of last night’s meal to work for your lunch, or you can freeze individual serves of a meal and store them. Many a night has been spent when I’m too tired to cook and the kids help themselves to a container of a meal for one, requiring only a few minutes to de-frost in the microwave. It beats ordering a pizza.
Please note I am not available to prepare individual menu plans or shopping lists or answer emails regarding specific shopping advice or meal ideas. Thank you for your understanding on this issue.