Epic Food Week – Welcome to Our Home

Food. For many Australians it accounts for the second or third biggest chunk out of their budget, after housing and/or transport. Poor food choices are also leading to an increase of “lifestyle” diseases, such as Type II diabetes and heart disease. Four Australian personal finance bloggers (Adventures with Poopsie, All About Balance, FIRE By Thirty-Five and yours truly) decided to get together and offer an in-depth look at how we all “do” food in our households. It doesn’t matter whether you like to plan or just wing it, whether you have gourmet tastes or enjoy simple food, or whether you love or hate cooking; we’re sure you’ll find some tips and tricks to eat more healthily and find ways to save.

Mrs. and Mr. ETT’s Food

For many years, Mr. ETT and I did what we could to avoid cooking. We might do it for one or two meals a week, but the rest were takeaway or freezer meals like Lean Cuisine, or frozen pizza. I not sure what prompted the change, but I know that I got sick and tired of eating takeaway all the time. Nothing tasted good, it was expensive and usually high calorie. The first step for us was to try Lite n’ Easy. Yes, it’s expensive, but as far as eating healthy, balanced meals, I liked it. It was super convenient, healthy, and there was more than enough food to fill us up. There was no time spent shopping, no time spent cooking, and minimal time spent cleaning up. I could live on it constantly. Mr. ETT got a bit sick of the dinners. Eventually we decided that maybe we could learn from what we’d been eating, and branch out on our own.

Somewhere around the time we were discovering the world of Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE), I started to meal plan. I used my experience from Lite n’ Easy to design healthy breakfasts for work. Lunch became leftovers because we were cooking meals and could ensure we froze some. We weren’t going to jump from being “not cooks” to turning out gourmet dishes. Some recipes seemed completely overwhelming, with a multitude of ingredients, or exotic ingredients that we would have had to go out of our way to get. We needed to take a basic first step, so we turned to the 4 Ingredients cookbooks to make it easy. There’s only four ingredients – how hard can it be? The answer for us was… not hard at all. And the meals were almost always tasty. Even though we’ve been doing it for a while now, we still turn to those cookbooks regularly.

I don’t think I’m ever going to fall in love with cooking. I’m still not enamoured with the whole “half an hour to cook a meal, and it’s eaten in 10 minutes” equation. What I appreciate, though, is knowing exactly what has gone into our meals. We are gaining experience now, so can tweak recipes to add or remove ingredients we don’t like. Does it always work? No! But it’s never been terrible enough that we’ve wanted to give up. We’re now saving money and eating far more vegetables.

Meal Planning

Every Friday night or Saturday morning we now sit down to meal plan for the week. There’s a few things we need to keep in mind when planning:

  • We look at what fresh vegetables are left from last week and make sure the meals we plan will use them up.
  • We look at what is in the freezer, especially if we’ve picked up half priced meat the week before.
  • We also consider what’s in the cupboard, such as curries, or pasta, or tinned beans.
  • We used to meal plan one vegetarian dish a week, to save money on meat. We recently upped that to two a week after watching the film Okja.

From the opening scenes of Okja, you know what the storyline is about. You know how it will end. And you know that you are about to be emotionally manipulated. The thing is, on this topic, we were ready to be emotionally manipulated. We internalised the consequences of eating meat, even though we aren’t ready to give it up entirely yet. I have high hopes for the Impossible Burger though, so it’s never say never. Thus, we now try to plan 2 vegetarian dishes a week.

Based around these restrictions, we then go to the recipe books or the internet (or the current free Woolworths magazine) to find suitable recipes. Once we’ve decided on some recipes, we determine:

  • How many meals we will get per dish.
  • What nights during the week we are in or out.
  • What nights we are having someone over for tea.
  • How long each dish takes to cook.
  • What meals can have extra frozen for lunches.
  • How long we can leave it before eating the same meal for a second night (we are only feeding 2 people, so a lot of meals can be eaten twice).

We then write out our day-by-day meal plan, along with the recipe book it comes from. This lives on the fridge, so both of us know what we are eating  and what needs to be done in preparation. I love knowing what we are having for dinner each night. Trying to plan what we were eating every single night on the fly was one of the reasons we never used to cook.

Grocery Shopping

We used to do all of our shopping at Coles or Woolworths, because they are close, and we can get everything in the one shop. I do not want to spend the time driving further and visiting a butcher and greengrocer and baker separately. Earlier this year we were lucky enough to have an Aldi open near us, and that has made a huge difference to our grocery shopping. Everything they say about Aldi is true. Our groceries are so cheap compared to when we were shopping at Woolies or Coles. I have noticed that the greengrocer in our local major shopping centre is cheaper than any of the supermarkets. For us, though, having to travel, park and shop there isn’t worth the savings we might realise.

A list of 4 week's worth of meal plans.
Old meal plans. On the bottom right I add items that we need to buy in the next shop.

We meal plan so we only have to go shopping once a week. I might pop in during the week to look for marked down meat at Woolworths, but I’m strong and if there isn’t anything there I can walk out. It’s better if Mr. ETT doesn’t pop in as he tends to come out with a bit more than he went in for!

We can’t get everything we want at Aldi, so having a Woolworths next door makes a huge difference. We buy the Entertainment Book, and use that to get Woolworths eGift cards at 5% off. Now, if this was the only reason we were using it, it wouldn’t be worth it. It costs $65 to purchase the book. To to get our money back from Woolies we’d have to spend $1,300 on groceries. Not impossible, but less so these days when it is an add-on to our main grocery shop. Luckily, we use the book for other discounts as well (such as 5% off our flights to NZ), so we always get our money’s worth.

Preparation

I use a grocery shopping template to record what we need to buy. I realised that we had a whole bunch of standard items we bought regularly. Rather than writing them out each week, I just add them to the template. It’s roughly arranged into sections of the supermarket – meat, cold goods, pantry items and fresh fruit/veg.

A blank template for grocery shopping.
The blank template. If I find I’m writing the same thing, I will add it.

Aldi charges for the use of credit cards, so on the template I have a reminder to myself to get some cash before we go. I also have a reminder to check out the Aldi special buys for the week online before we shop. This has two benefits – firstly, we don’t take as long shopping, because don’t have to look in the middle aisles. Secondly, I won’t impulse buy something. Viewing the items on sale online gives me time to consider whether we really need them, and also to do some price checking. For example, we are really at the point where we need some new sheet sets. There they were on the Special Buys from Aldi. When I checked, though, they weren’t the best price I could buy sheets for. It’s rare, but just because it’s in Aldi doesn’t mean it’s super cheap.

Finally, Adventures with Poopsie told me about OzBargains. Because we have the Woolies next door, I can scan all the half price specials for things we might need or like to stock up on. I then record the price and unit price so I can compare the equivalent in Aldi. Sometimes half price at Woolies still isn’t as good value as full price at Aldi.

Shopping

When we get to the shops, I tear the list in half, and Mr. ETT and I go our separate ways. We always take our own bags, and have done since their introduction way back in 2002. The first few times I forgot to take them into the shop with me, I forced myself to leave and go back to the car to get them. I was so annoyed, I think I only did it about 3 times before I was in the habit of grabbing them. After shopping, the bags are hung on a cupboard handle in our kitchen, until I move them out into the back of the car. That way I’ve always got them. They come in handy for carrying a lot of other things as well. Choice says that “A green bag has to be used more than 23 times before it becomes a better option than single-use bags.”, so it’s really important to make the effort to take them in. If you live in NSW and you aren’t doing it yet, Woolies, Coles and Harris Farm have voluntarily decided to phase out plastic bags by July 2018, while Aldi has never offered them. It’s a good time to begin practicing (and building up your collection) now.

Another advantage of Aldi is that it’s only small, so it’s easy to find each other again. We just keep meeting back at the trolley, discussing anything that needs discussing. This means we halve the time that we actually need to be at the shops, which is fantastic. Neither of us enjoys grocery shopping (does anyone?)

So, here was our shopping for this week:

Aldi and Woolworths receipts side by side.
Big difference between Aldi and Woolworths. Big. Huge.

Aldi: 22 items = $54.95

Woolworths: 8 items = $24.96

This is often the way it goes. We get a lot of items for very little a Aldi, then only a few items from Woolies chews up half as much money!

Breakdown

Looking further at what we bought:

  • Gozleme was an impulse buy for lunch that day. We didn’t have anything planned, $2 each wasn’t bad. It actually tasted really good!
  • 4L milk. Now it is winter, we are having more hot milk drinks at night. We’ve figured out we need to buy 4L one week and 2L the next so we don’t go to the grocery store during the week. In summer, we only need 2L a week.
  • I like to mix juice with fizzy water. Now I’m not drinking while I do Dry July, I mix it in a wine glass. Still #adulting.
  • I buy smoked salmon to eat for breakfast at work. I separate it and freeze individual pieces. This will probably last me a month if I have it 2 mornings a week. This is also why I bought the capers.
  • The small orange juice is for me to take to roleplaying on a Friday night. I used to take a whole lot of delicious junk food and cheeses etc. but now I’m trying to eat less I have dinner before I go and subsist on slowly diluting my juice for the night.
  • Multigrain sourdough – this is the best bread. I totally love this bread. We get a loaf every week, and will eat it with meals, or as a snack with butter when we get home from work, or a weekend breakfast.
  • Chocolate. This was Mr. ETTs “groceries want” purchase for the week.
  • Cafe Raisin Toast. This was my “groceries want”. This will last a long time now, though, because of my goal to eat less. I’ll treat it like the sugar filled product that it is, and will only eat it for a weekend breakfast.
  • After years of buying fruit (because we knew we should eat it) and throwing it away, I now only buy 5 pieces a week for me. This week I still had 2 left over, so I only bought three. I haven’t thrown fruit out for a long time.
  • The rest is pretty much the meat and vegetables we needed for our recipes this week.

The Meal Plan

After saying we plan two vegetarian meals a week, this week there was only officially one! This is because we had planned on cooking the tacos the week before, but didn’t end up needing to. Occasionally we have a full meal already planned that we don’t end up cooking. The other vege meal was going to be leftover potato and leek soup that we have frozen, however that’s a meal for two and Mr. ETT was working and being fed Tuesday night.

Handwritten meal plan on the fridge.
Our meal plan for the week on the fridge.

So what did we eat?

Saturday

Planned: Tacos with street stall corn/Eaten: Tacos with street stall corn

Recipe: Taco packet

This was a packet taco kit we’d previously picked up for half price that had been in the cupboard. The corn recipe was on the bottom of the pack. We love corn, what a great way to get more veges in.

Sunday

Planned: Irish Stew/Eaten: Irish Stew

Recipe: 4 Ingredients One Pot One Bowl

We added mushrooms and carrot to the Four Ingredients recipe so we could add more veges, and bulk it up to make more meals. The recipe called for lamb necks. We couldn’t get any, so substituted stewing pieces instead. HOW EXPENSIVE WERE THEY!? This is one of the lowest quality cuts of lamb you can get, and look at the price. Nearly 12 bucks! I’m either getting old or I’m becoming a total scrooge. Maybe I need to reconsider my decision not to go to a butcher. We had a relative over for dinner to share this. In the end, we got 5 dinners and 3 lunches, so I guess $2 of meat per dinner and $1 per lunch isn’t that bad (she says grudgingly)

Monday

Planned: Thai Chickpea Burgers (Vegetarian)/Eaten: Leftover Tacos.

I didn’t have enough room in the fridge because of all the accoutrement bowls that go with tacos. We had lettuce and tomatoes and refried beans and taco sauce and corn in about 3 bowls. I wanted it gone, so we ate it.

Chopping board with cut vegetables.
Prepping for Thai Chickpea Patties. See the bag of vege scraps ready for freezing?

Tuesday

Planned: Leftovers/Eaten: Cobbled together leftovers (vegetarian)

Mr. ETT was working back. I found some brown rice in the freezer, mixed it with Lebanese garlic sauce and hummus left over from our wedding anniversary takeaway dinner, served with a side of leftover refried beans from the tacos, and some olives/pickles from Lebanese.

*Before I got home tonight I popped in to Woolies and came away with half-price Ingham Dino Chicken Nuggets (with added carrot and corn!) I’m not too proud to eat fake meat for children if it’s half price. (I nearly wrote “fake kids’ meat” but decided not to imply cannibalism was part of our weekly meals.)

Wednesday

Planned: Leftover Tacos/Eaten: Leftover Irish Stew

Mr. ETT was super tired, so heating was all he was interested in. I have to tell you, it feels so good to have backup plans for the nights when we just can’t face cooking. When we feel like this, we don’t even want to go down to the grocery store, so would usually call for takeaway. We’d be looking at $40 on average, if not more. For this, we didn’t even have to bother picking up a phone. I got it out of the fridge, put it in bowls, and put it in the microwave. Done and delicious.

Thursday

Planned: Chinese Dumpling Short Soup/Eaten: Thai Chickpea Burgers (Vegetarian)

Recipe: 4 Ingredients Gluten Free Lactose Free

These were pretty simple, although they didn’t turn out quite like the recipe said they should. I seem to remember cooking them previously and having the same issues. While they took ages to cook, and didn’t look the best, they were really tasty. We would still make them again. We just ate them with lettuce and tomato on the Aldi multigrain sourdough. I froze the extra patties, so there’s a meal planned for next week already!

Bowl of sweet potato and chickpeas ready to be mashed.
We don’t own anything that will easily mash sweet potato and chickpeas, but we made do.

Friday

Planned: Leftover Irish Stew/Eaten: Chinese Dumpling Short Soup

Recipe: Woolworths Magazine June 2017 Issue 132

This recipe was perfect for me to use up two ingredients I had in the freezer. I’d bought half price Chinese dumplings sometime previously. Also, the weekend before, I’d made my first ever batch of stock from leftover vegetable scraps! I got the idea from Mrs. Picky Pincher.

While we don’t usually have so much moving around of our planned meals, it goes to show that even when planning there can be a little flexibility.

Frozen vege scraps in a pot on the stove.
I removed the broccoli stalk. Apparently they make stock bitter.

This Week’s Meals

Aldi and Woolworths receipts Week 2.
This week was more expensive. There were also extra items added to the trolley! (Side-eye at Mr. ETT…)

Our plan for this week is:

Saturday: We went out to dinner for a friend’s birthday. This was paid for last month, hooray! I ate garlic snails. They’re actually pretty boring. Really just a vehicle for the garlic butter. I wouldn’t bother next time, but at least I tried them.

SundayBeetroot Borscht, another recipe from the Woolworths magazine, and one of our vegetarian picks for this week. We made a double batch so we had plenty to freeze. It was tasty (not least because it is served with sour cream. I love any meal that can be served with sour cream.)

Monday: Mr. ETT really wanted some steak, so we splurged on some beef scotch fillet, that he cooked on our cast iron griddle from Aldi. We don’t often have just steak any more, so it’s worth it to us to make sure we buy good cuts of meat. We had it with fresh corn on the cob, carrots and mushrooms.

Tuesday: Mr. ETT is working back again, but he won’t get fed this time. We’ll defrost the Thai Chickpea patties from last week and make our own vege burgers.

Wednesday: We discovered the best Spaghetti Bolognaise recipe. Unfortunately it is by Pete “the human equivalent of a white leather lounge” Evans, but it’s amazing. When we discover recipes that we really love, and think we’ll come back to again and again, I save them in Evernote. This time we are going to do half wholemeal spaghetti and half carrot/zucchini spaghetti, as well as serve it with some garlic bread to bulk out the meal (and because garlic bread is delicious). We are having a family member over for dinner tonight.

Thursday: Leftover Beetroot Borscht

Friday: Leftover Spaghetti Bolognaise

So there it is. Possibly far more detail than you ever wanted to know about the grocery and eating habits of the ETTs. Don’t forget to pop across to the other awesome bloggers who are participating in Epic Food Week:

Adventures with Poopsie Meal Planning and Grocery Shopping
All About Balance How We Eat Around Here
FIRE By Thirty-Five Perpetual Food Plan

How do you “do” food in your house? Any tips to share about saving time or money?

16 thoughts on “Epic Food Week – Welcome to Our Home

  1. Hot damn – no pressure or anything but your food post is amazing 😀 Mine’s going to be so disappointing by comparison. I’m so disorganised.. I blame winter, Mr. FIRE and I organise our lives so much better in summer when there is a decent amount of daylight.

    • Thanks LadyFIRE. Everyone’s different and cool in their own way – there will be nothing wrong with your post! I can’t wait to read about how you guys do it; you seem to spend less than us. I’m always up for new ideas.

      • I’m realising we spend less because Mr. FIRE is lazy, and I’m efficient 😉 I keep making him eat beans. We only eat expensive when he cooks, which isn’t very often.

  2. I do, I do! waves hand in air Mr BKLA and myself love grocery shopping. We actually don’t let ourselves go to the grocery store because once we go in, we will spend way too much time in there marvelling at every new product and wanting to try everything. It’s terrible. We love to cook and everything food related excites us.

    Which means for the longest time, Mr BKLA wouldn’t agree to meal planning. He saw it as a rigid, boring exercise that limited creativity and his eternal excuse was “But I don’t know if I will feel like eating that dish on that particular day.” Thankfully that is a thing of the past now and we meal plan now. I was actually planning to write a post about this soon-ish and you have inspired me!

    Oh and we meal plan leftover days. We always cook more than is necessary as I bring leftovers for lunches but I don’t generally have them hanging around over the weekend. So once I achieve 5 lunches, the rest then become leftover dinners. Especially great because I work such long hours and reach home dead tired. Having the Thermomix has also been a great help to our meal plan / prep / cost saving.

    p/s: I love nuggets. They are my guilty pleasure. They may be fake meat, but hot damn, they are tasty plus they are often on special and much cheaper than Maccas. I’ll take that!

    • Pia, you made me laugh! I go into Woolies now and I’m completely overwhelmed by all of the products in there. I sometimes find myself standing in the middle of an aisle in slack-jawed wonder!

      When you write your post, let me know and I’ll update this article to include a link to yours.

      I went to a Thermomix party once (which is a huge thing for me, because I HATE party plans of all descriptions). I have to admit that I was really tempted, but my final argument to myself was… I still have to buy and prep all of the food to go into it, and plan the meals and so on. For the price, I decided it wasn’t going to make me like cooking enough to justify it. I have a friend who loves it, though. I’d be interested to hear about your experiences.

  3. Wowza! Great job putting this together! Isn’t it funny how frozen meals used to seem like a great idea? I was addicted to Banquet TV dinners for half my life (sooo much sodium, oh lawd). But when you look at the cost per ounce and the quality of that food, frozen food rarely makes sense. Thanks for giving us a really good peek into your grocery habits. I do wish I could make a better effort at shopping different stores for the best deals.

    • Thanks Mrs Picky. I think it’s almost an incremental change. We told ourselves that they had to be a step up from frozen pizza, pies and chips (groan, now I want pie and chips). Surely they had to be healthier. But you’re right – they are expensive, and become bland. I’m glad we managed to pull ourselves up to the next step. We’ll never be gourmet, but I really look forward to coming home to dinner now!

  4. Miss Balance says:

    An epic post indeed! You are far more organised than I am, though good to see some flexibility in there too, I think that is important to sticking to a plan long term.
    Tacos are the best dinner to whip up quickly and you can add any leftover ingredients you may have. They make a regular appearance on my menu too.
    Your Chinese dumpling soup sounds amazing! And making your own stock makes you a champion in my books. I didn’t know broccoli stalks made stock bitter. I usually grate or really finely sliced mine and throw them in anywhere I’d put other veggies; stir fry, pasta sauces, hidden in mash etc.
    Thanks for kicking this one off! I look forward to seeing how everyone else does it too.

    • I used Mrs. Picky as a starter, then googled how to make scrap veggie stock. One of the sites mentioned that all cruciferous vegetables will become bitter if made into stock, so you can’t use cauliflower either. I have been doing the same as you – chopping the broccoli stalk then freezing it. I can use it in place of celery, because Mr. ETT doesn’t eat celery. I’ve tried to sneak it in a couple of times, but he can always pick it (bad wife).

  5. Wow, you are on top of things when it comes to food! I’m impressed with this system. Your journey with cooking sounds a lot like mine. I’ve never enjoyed cooking, and I attribute that to not having enough patience. I regularly burn things in the toaster oven as it is… I have to give all credit to my partner, who loves cooking and experimenting with food. I’d be eating rice for every meal if not for him.

    Lately, I’ve switched to a gluten-free, low-FODMAP diet, which has required a lot of new recipes and ingredients. We shop on the weekend, and he cooks everything on Sunday and packages meals into containers for each day of the week. As a basic rule, I only purchase what’s on sale and make meals from that. But, there’s not a whole lot I can choose from, which sort of makes things easier. So my meal plan for this week was basically chicken, rice, and broccoli for dinner, chia pudding for breakfast or lunch, and cereal or bulletproof coffee for breakfast. Leftovers get worked in randomly. Not super exciting, but it works!

    • Thanks, Erin. And there was plenty of times when I was younger that I would just microwave some rice and add stock powder! Delicious, but not exactly balanced.

      I looked at the low FODMAP diet a while back, just out of interest. I thought the meals all looked healthy and delicious. I hope it is working for you.

      Can I ask how long it takes your partner to do all of the cooking on a Sunday? I know one of the guys from Millennial Money Minutes does this and it takes him about 5 or 6 hours.

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