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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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!
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.
So what did we eat?
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.
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)
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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.
This Week’s Meals
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.
Sunday: Beetroot 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:
How do you “do” food in your house? Any tips to share about saving time or money?