Meal plan: 29 January 2012

It might have taken a day to prepare, but our Chinese new year meal was fantastic

I’m very happy to say it’s been a good week for meals in our house. Lots of old favourites and some new experiments too.

Highs

The outstanding highlight of our culinary week has to be the Chinese new year feast on Saturday.

Food is a great way to bring families together, and for me this was true despite my family being scattered across the world.

I’d sent out a plea to aunts and cousins and not only recipes came back, but a whole host of wonderful food memories.

It was quite special to know that both my cousin in Sweden and I were preparing the same soup for our families, and still eating leftovers several days later!

Jerusalem artichokes with bacon, leeks and sage

Another highlight were the Jerusalem artichokes for supper on Tuesday.

I cooked them with bacon, leeks and sage using a Riverford recipe and served them simply with big hunks of buttered bread. Truly gorgeous and very satisfying.

On Friday night we had a family favourite: beef stew and parsley dumplings, a perfect winter warmer, which went down well with my husband after an exhausting game of squash.

Lows

I’m feeling quite smug in being able to say there were no kitchen disasters this week. The only downside to our week’s eating was the morning-after windiness following the delicious artichokes!

It doesn’t really constitute a low but I wasn’t totally happy with my pizza muffins for the children’s lunch boxes. I think that recipe will need a little work before I publish it.

Monday 23 January
Lunch: healthy green soup and sandwiches
Dinner: spaghetti bolognese

Tuesday 24 January
Lunch: healthy green soup and sandwiches
Dinner: mutton curry F

Wednesday 25 January
Lunch: pizza muffins
Dinner: Jerusalem artichokes with bacon, leeks and sage

Thursday 26 January
Lunch: cheese and pickle rolls
Dinner (kids): minestrone soup F (adults): stuffed chicken breasts with beetroot and potato dauphinoise

Friday 27 January
Lunch: rice salad
Dinner: beef stew and parsley dumplings

Saturday 28 January
Lunch: bread, cheese and salad
Dinner: Chinese New Year meal

Sunday 29 January
Lunch: Chinese leftovers
Dinner: Hummus, bread and salad

F = from freezer

Beef stew and parsley dumplings

I could never live permanently in a hot country. OK, so I have been known to moan about the cold weather from time to time. But if it were always hot, we’d never be able to eat warming winter grub like sticky sponge puddings, hearty meat pies or rich, slow-cooked casseroles. We need the seasons in order to eat well I reckon.

Stew and dumplings, a proper winter warmer

This beef stew with rib-sticking parsley dumplings is one of my favourite winter warmers. It’s a proper old-fashioned kind of meal, like your gran would make.

I like to include sweet potatoes in the stew to give it a lovely sweet, creamy flavour, but the real beauty of stews and casseroles is that you can use whatever root vegetables you happen to have in. It’s cooked nice and slowly so the meat and the vegetables are gorgeously tender. If your children aren’t big fans of veggies, this is a great recipe for sneaking a few past them.

Beef stew and parsley dumplings

Serves 4

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
500g stewing steak, diced
2 carrots, sliced
1 parsnip, diced
1 sweet potato, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp corn flour
25o ml hot beef stock
2 400g tins chopped tomatoes
small bunch rosemary, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste

For the dumplings

110g self-raising flour
salt and pepper
1 tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
50g shredded suet

Preheat the oven to 150°C/Gas Mark 2.

In a large casserole heat the oil and fry the onion until golden. Add the beef quickly and fry until browned.

Next add the root vegetables and garlic and cook together for another few minutes. Sprinkle over the corn flour and mix in to cover the meat and vegetables.

Pour in the beef stock, tomatoes and add the rosemary and a little salt and pepper to taste – depending on how well seasoned your stock is. Bring to a gentle simmer, then cover and put in the oven for around four hours.

When the stew is almost finished cooking, make up the dumplings. Mix the flour, a pinch of salt and pepper and parsley in a bowl. Add the suet and quickly combine but don’t rub in. Mix in cold water, a little at a time, until you can pull the ingredients together to make a stiff dough that leaves the bowl cleanly. Shape into eight dumplings.

When the stew is ready, that is when the meat is tender and falls apart easily, place the dumplings carefully on top of the stew and spoon over some of the liquid. Cover again and put back in the oven, increasing the temperature to 220°C/Gas Mark 7, for about 20 minutes until the dumplings are cooked through.

A feast fit for a dragon

Photograph of embroidered Chinese dragon by Erin Calaway

This year I got it into my head that I was going to cook my family a proper feast to celebrate Chinese New Year and welcome in the year of the dragon.

I don’t normally celebrate Chinese New Year, despite being part Chinese. My mother grew up on the Malaysian island of Penang and is half Chinese and half Dutch. So you see I’m only a little bit Chinese. But mum has always talked about Penang as home, so I do feel a strong connection and I adore the food.

There’s been lots of talk about Chinese New Year amongst the foodie Twitter and blogging community, which really spurred me on. Trouble is I don’t have the first clue how to cook Chinese food.

And so I called in help from the Chinese members of my family who happen to be scattered around the world. Facebook is a fantastic tool for this kind of thing. I asked them what should I cook for a Malaysian Chinese feast and, more importantly, how do I do it?

Kian chai – I think!

The menu and recipes below come from my Aunty Lorene in the US, Aunty Kim in Canada, cousin Edhish in Sweden, cousin Jezalina in Australia and mother Cheryl in Spain.

All agreed I had to cook Kian Chai Teng, a soup made from Chinese salted vegetables, pork ribs and sour plums, served with chopped chilli and steamed white rice. I’m not 100% sure I got the right vegetables in the Chinese supermarket, although the lady who worked there insisted they were the thing to use.So I’m not sure if I made an authentic Kian Chai Teng, but it sure tasted good. The children gobbled it down enthusiastically and enjoyed picking the beautifully tender meat from the bones.

Penang Char Kway Teow

Next was Char Kway Teow, a Penang fried noodle dish. You should use shrimps and squid but as my husband can’t eat seafood I swapped these for chicken and Chinese sausage. Again not totally authentic but absolutely gorgeous nonetheless.

My mum suggested Chinese spare ribs and gave me her Aunty Seck’s recipe and I also came up with my own recipe for Chinese roast chicken drumsticks. Plus a big bowl of  pak choi steamed with ginger.

It was a fine, fine feast. As is my tendency, I cooked way too much food, so we ate the leftovers for Sunday lunch. The spare ribs in particular tasted even better second time around.

I have to say a heartfelt thank you to my relatives for their advice and supportive words. One day it would be wonderful if we could all get together to celebrate new year somehow. Oh, and of course, gung hay fat choy everyone!

Kian Chai Teng – soup with pork ribs and salted vegetables

Serves 6-8

Salted plums

1 onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp vegetable oil
500g pork spare ribs
4 cloves of garlic, crushed 3 slices of ginger, finely chopped
2 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp Shaoxing (Chinese rice wine)
2 potatoes
1 packet kian chai (Chinese salted vegetables)
3 salted plums

In a large pan, gently fry the onion in the oil until golden.

Place the pork ribs, garlic and ginger into the pan and enough water to cover. Bring to the boil, then add the soy sauce and rice wine. Turn down the heat so that the soup is on a very low simmer and cook for at least an hour, until the meat is starting to fall off the bone.

Taste your salted vegetables. If they are very salty, you may need to give them a thorough rinse so they don’t make your soup too salty.

Add the potatoes and salted vegetables. Put the lid back on and simmer for another 30-40 minutes.

Serve the soup with a saucer of soy sauce and cut chilli and a plate of steamed white rice.

My Char Kway Teow

Serves 6-8

2 tbsp dark soy sauce
3 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp water
4 tbsp peanut or vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 chicken breasts, chopped into small pieces
1 lap cheong (Chinese pork sausage), cut diagonally into thin slices
500g flat rice noodles
2 eggs (duck eggs if you can get them – I used hen eggs)
4 large handfuls bean sprouts
salt and white pepper

In a small bowl, mix the dark and light soy sauces with the water, and put to one side.

Heat the oil in a wok on a high heat and stir fry the garlic for a few seconds before adding the chicken. Cook until the chicken turns white, then add the sausage and stir fry for another minute.

Add the noodles and sprinkle with the soy sauce mixture, and add salt and pepper to taste. Gently stir fry for three to four minutes.

Make a space in the middle of the work and break the eggs into the hole with a little pinch of salt. Roughly scramble the eggs and then combine with the noodles. Stir fry for another five minutes.

Finally add the bean sprouts, fry for another minute and then serve.

Spare ribs

Chinese spare ribs

Serves 4

550g pork spare ribs
4 cloves garlic, crushed
½ tsp light soy sauce
½ tsp dark soy sauce
½ tsp Shaoxing (Chinese rice wine)
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp tomato sauce
1 tbsp Worcester sauce
½ tbsp sesame oil
½ tbsp sugar
3 tbsp tapioca flour
3 tbsp vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.

In a small bowl mix together the garlic, soy sauces, rice wine, salt and pepper. Pour over the spare ribs, make sure thorougly coated and leave to marinade for at least an hour.

Prepare the sauce. In another bowl, combine the tomato sauce, Worcester sauce, sesame oil, sugar and 3 tbsp water.

Coat the spare ribs in tapioca flour and fry in hot oil over a medium heat for around five minutes. You may need to do this in batches. Remove, drain on absorbent paper and place on a baking tray. Roast in the oven for 10 minutes.

Heat the sauce until it thickens. Take the ribs out of the oven, place in a serving dish and pour over the sauce.

My Chinese chicken

4 chicken drumsticks
4 chicken thighs

For the marinade:

2 tbsp runny honey
4cm ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tsp Chinese five spice
2 tsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp red currant jelly
1 tbsp sesame oil

Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.

Slash the drumsticks with a sharp knife and place in a bowl with the thighs.

Mix together all of the marinade ingredients and pour over the chicken, making sure they are well coated. Leave to marinade for at least two hours or overnight.

Put the chicken pieces on a roasting tray with a few spoonfuls of the marinade and place in the oven for 40-45 minutes, turning occasionally and spooning over more marinade if it looks like it is drying out.

Also great served cold as part of a picnic or in a packed lunch.

Miss Mash tucks into the pork ribs in her soup

Miss Banger’s favourite was rice with soup spooned over

The baking sisterhood (or motherhood)

Before Nigella, baking didn’t factor in my life.

As a 20-something career girl, I loved entertaining and experimenting with new dishes. But cakes and puddings were always the elements of a meal I would buy in ready-made.

With baking you had to be so precise and careful. So patient. So WI.

I liked cooking because you could throw in whatever ingredients you had to hand, try out new combinations, not worry too much about exact measurements. Jamie Oliver, as I’m sure you can tell, was a big influence.

But baking, well, that was different. It was more of an art to be mastered, a skill, an exact science. It was something you had to learn.

Like many women of my generation, my mother didn’t teach me how to cook, and certainly not how to bake. My only memory of cooking with mum as a child was being shown how to whisk up Angel’s Delight.

Working women, like my mum, didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the kitchen. And she certainly didn’t want to glamourise the kitchen to me in any way. Mum wanted her daughters to study hard and become successful doctors or lawyers. Showing her girls the basics in the kitchen was not high on her agenda.

So while I’ve always loved eating cakes and puddings, back then I had no interest in or desire to create them myself. That was for women of my grandmother’s generation.

Then Nigella sashayed onto the scene and baking was suddenly sexy and fun. Women wanting to spend time again in the kitchen somehow became legitamised. We could surround ourselves in pretty retro accessories and Cath Kidston cake stands. Baking was a way of showing our creativity to delight and impress friends and family. We were allowed to feel feminine, rather than subservient, in the kitchen.

Nigella’s appearance on my radar coincided with social, and probably hormonal, changes in my own life. It was when I was pregnant with our first daughter Jessie that I truly began to embrace and enjoy baking. Was Nigella aiding and abetting my biological need to nest build?

A real turning point in my attitude to baking was when I joined my local NCT group in Bristol and got to know other mums-to-be. Whenever we met up, both before and after our babies were born, we’d all contribute dishes of food, much of which would be baked confection. There was probably a competitive element to this; who could bake the best while coping with sleep deprivation and mastitis? But I didn’t care. It was a lovely distraction from the sometime mundanity of life with a newborn and something to look forward to each week.

Chocolate-cherry cupcakes

I remember when the lovely Jenny appeared with a large plate of Nigella’s decadent chocolate-cherry cupcakes at one of our NCT sessions to celebrate my 30th birthday. No-one had ever baked especially for me before. I was so moved. It was then I realised then the power and the beauty of the homemade cake.

I’ve been hooked on baking ever since.

Now I’m not saying a master baker. Baking hasn’t come naturally to me. But practice makes perfect as they say and I’m having fun trying.

While I’m not restricted to Nigella’s recipes, I do find myself returning to her books again and again, in particular How to be a Domestic Goddess. I love her banana bread, brownies, madeira cake (or rather her mother-in-laws), rocky road and chocolate loaf cake. And of course those gorgeous chocolate-cherry cupcakes.

But probably the recipe I come back to most often is Nigella’s dolly mixture fairy cakes. She says that all children love them and never a truer word was said. Although I’d only agree with her on them being “curiously therapeutic to make” if the children aren’t actually around. I do enjoy baking with the kids. But when I make these little treats with them, they always demand to do the decorating and won’t let me get a look in!

Dolly mixture fairy cakes for Jessie's fifth birthday

These beautiful fairy cakes have become a staple ingredient of my girls’ birthday parties. A stack of little cakes looks magical on the birthday tea table. And so much easier to send home with the guests in their doggy bags.

So, in case you don’t happen have a copy of How to be a Domestic Goddess, here’s the recipe…

Nigella’s Dolly Mixture Fairy Cakes

Makes 12

125g softened butter
125g caster sugar
2 eggs
125 self-raising flour
½ tsp vanilla extract
2-3 tbsp milk

For the icing:

250g instant royal icing
Food colouring – the choice is yours
250g dolly mixtures (or really any little sweeties that take your fancy and look appealing)

Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.

Simply put all the ingredients, bar the milk, into a food processor and whizz until smooth. Then pulse while you add the milk a little at a time through the funnel, until you have a lovely dropping consistency.

Fairy cake therapy

Line a 12-bun muffin tin with 12 paper muffin cases and spoon in the mixture.

Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until the cakes are golden on top. Leave to cool for a couple of minutes in the tin, then transfer to a wire rack.

Cut the peak off each cake to give it a flat top. Make up the icing according to the packet instructions and blend in your chosen colouring. Obviously divide the icing into more than one bowl if you are using more than one colour.

Ice each cake and use the back of a spoon to achieve a smooth finish. After a minute or two, once the icing has set slightly but is still tacky, decorate with the sweets. There, couldn’t be easier.

I am entering this recipe into the Forever Nigella Recipe Challenge over at Maison Cupcake. There have already been lots of great entries – you can see the others by clicking on the picture link below.

Homemade pizza

As you can see, Mia is into basil on her pizza

Pizza has to be one of the best things to cook with children, and homemade pizzas always taste so much better than the ready-made variety. Children, well mine anyway, seem more inclined to eat something if they’ve been involved in the making of it.

OK, so it might turn into a slightly messy affair. I used to come close to panic attacks when I first started cooking with the kids and ingredients would go flying everywhere.

But I’ve learned to just go with the flow; it can all be cleaned up afterwards.

It really is worth it to get your children used to helping make meals and forming a positive relationship with food.

I much prefer to make my own dough but I am not too proud to admit to cheating now and again. I generally keep some shop-bought pizza bases in the freezer too; perfect for when little friends stay for tea unexpectedly. My daughters think it’s great to make pizzas with their friends and having some frozen bases on standby means we can always rustle some up at a few moments’ notice.

If you have a little more time though (pizza dough takes an hour to rise), I would strongly recommend making your own dough from scratch. It is so incredibly easy and I’ll never get over the magical feeling of seeing the dough increase to double its size. It’s like a science experiment in the kitchen.

What ingredients you put on top of your pizza is very much down to personal taste and, of course, what your children like to eat. If you make a little pizza each, everyone can choose their own favourite toppings.

And don’t forget, cold pizza is great the following day in a packed lunch, so always a good idea to make a bit extra.

We like a lot of topping in our house!

Homemade pizza

Makes four pizzas

For the dough:

400g strong white bread flour
1 tsp salt
1 7g sachet fast action dried yeast
1 tsp dried oregano
250ml luke warm water
1 tbsp olive oil

Passata, about half a jar

Jessie and Mia’s favourite toppings:

Cherry tomatoes, halved
Small red, green or yellow pepper, chopped small
Fresh basil, torn
Pitted black olives
Ham or salami, chopped
Capers
Artichoke hearts, quartered
Mozzarella (a couple of balls, around 250g each, should be enough for four pizzas)

To make the dough, put the flour, salt, dried yeast and oregano into a large mixing bowl and mix well.

Make a well in the  middle and pour in the lukewarm water and oil. Gradually work the flour into the liquid, making a soft dough. If it’s too dry, add a drop more water. If it’s too sticky, add a little more flour.

Flour your surface before tipping the dough onto it. Knead the dough by stretching it away from you, then pulling back into a ball. Do this for five minutes or so, until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Return the dough to the mixing bowl, cover loosely with cling film and put in a warm place for about an hour, until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.

Jessie demonstrates how to eat pizza

Uncover the risen dough and punch it back down. Flour the surface again and divide the dough into four balls. Stretch or roll out each ball until you have a thin circle about 22cm across. Place the pizzas onto slightly oiled baking sheets.

Pour a couple of tablespoons of passata onto each pizza, smooth out with the back of the spoon, and then let the artist in you run free while you apply your choice of toppings, leaving the mozzarella until the end.

Bake your pizzas for 15-20 minutes and leave to cool for a couple of minutes before devouring.

Tasty chicken rice

Jessie aged one - she's always loved her food, just like her mum

I’ve been making this meal for my girls since my oldest, Jessie, was about a year old. It’s incredibly easy to make and is good for getting little ones used to different textures.

When they’re very little, you’ll need to chop up the chicken and vegetables quite small, but as they get older you can leave the ingredients more chunky.

It’s a firm favourite with both my daughters and I often cook up a big pot and freeze portions for easy midweek meals. Jessie is now six and Mia is three and their eyes still light up when I tell them they’re having it for tea.

Feel free to play around with the vegetables you include. I often swap the courgette for peas or sweetcorn. I also used to use mushrooms until Jessie decided one day they were the devil’s food!

Tasty chicken rice

200g basmati rice
2 tbsp sunflower oil
1 onion, chopped
1 green or red pepper, chopped
1 courgette, diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tbsp chopped parsley
1 skinless chicken breast, chopped
450ml passata
100ml chicken or vegetable stock
salt and pepper

Cook the rice following the instructions on the packet.

Heat the oil in a large pan and gently fry the onion, pepper and courgette for about five minutes. Add the garlic and parsley, fry for another minute or so before adding the chicken.

Cook until the chicken turns white, then add the passata and stock. Simmer gently for 15 minutes.

Drain the rice and combine with the chicken sauce. Taste and add seasoning if needed.

Meal plan: 22 January 2012

I talk a lot on this blog about the merits of meal planning, so it makes sense to let you see my weekly meal plans.

I’ve only been planning meals for the last six months or so but it has completely transformed how my family eats and how I shop for food. We’re now eating tastier, more varied meals, we’re eating more seasonally, we’re wasting much less food and our food bills have been slashed.

Each week I’ll publish my meal plan from the previous week including recipes for many of the dishes listed. I’ll also offer notes on what worked as well as what didn’t; my two daughters (six and three) are harsh critics and I’ll pass on their verdicts of any new dishes we’ve tried out.

Highlights

My macaroni cheese with a rosemary and garlic topping

Macaroni cheese on Monday was a big hit. I like to add a little smoked bacon to the Cheddar cheese sauce and I top the dish with sliced tomatoes, breadcrumbs, garlic, rosemary and parmesan. Gorgeous.

I love my husband’s chilli con carne, not simply because I get a night off but because he’s spent years perfecting the recipe and it really is very good, although very hot. (The girls both ate at friends that day.) I’ll get him to write down his recipe one day so I can post it on the blog. On Tuesday we took a batch out of the freezer – he always makes a huge pot and freezes a few tubs – so a really easy meal after our busy days at work.

Lowlights

I had really been looking forward to our breakfast cookies on Sunday morning and felt like a bit of a supermum as I prepared the cookie mixture on Saturday evening. But unfortunately they got a thumbs down all round because they were just too “healthy” and stodgy. I like the concept though, so I’ll need to work on these a little more. The banana smoothies were delicious though.

Monday 16 January
Lunch: ham and cheese rolls
Dinner: macaroni cheese (with bacon and rosemary & garlic topping)

Tuesday 17 January
Lunch: hummus and cucumber rolls
Dinner: chilli con carne F

Wednesday 18 January
Lunch: pasta salad
Dinner (kids): Irish stew F (adults): salad and hummus wraps (with beetroot, carrot and apple salad)

Thursday 19 January
Lunch (kids): ham and tomato rolls (adults): bacon and cream cheese bagels
Dinner (kids): tasty chicken rice F (adults): Thai chicken curry with aubergine

Friday 20 January
Lunch: ham, tomato and sweetcorn muffins
Dinner (kids): fish fingers, chips, peas and sweetcorn (adults): Indian takeaway

Saturday 21 January
Lunch: grilled pork chops, mashed potatoes and vegetables
Dinner: cheese & ham omelette and salad

Sunday 22 January
Breakfast: healthy breakfast cookies and banana smoothies
Lunch: homemade pizzas
Dinner: healthy green soup (made from spinach and curly kale)

F = from freezer

My macaroni cheese

Everyone has their own way of making macaroni cheese. It’s the kind of dish that lends itself to variation.

Here I offer up my version, which has smoked bacon in the Cheddar cheese sauce and is topped with sliced tomatoes, garlic breadcrumbs, rosemary and parmesan.

I use penne instead of macaroni because I prefer my pasta on the chunkier side. And I usually make extra and freeze a couple of portions for quick, midweek suppers. That is, if my other half doesn’t get to it first.

Macaroni cheese

Serves 4 – 6

350g penne pasta
100g butter
80g plain flour
850ml milk
100g mature Cheddar cheese, grated
salt and pepper
5 rashers smoked back bacon, chopped
knob of butter
4 medium tomatoes
75g white breadcrumbs
2 cloves garlic, crushed
small bunch fresh rosemary, finely chopped
50g parmesan cheese, grated

Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.

Cook the penne in boiling, salted water according to the instructions on the packet.

Make up the cheese sauce by placing the butter, flour and milk in a saucepan and whisking over a medium heat until it thickens. Stir in the cheese and season with salt and pepper. Fry the bacon pieces in a little butter and when crispy, stir into the sauce.

Mix the drained pasta with the cheese sauce and pour into a large ovenproof dish. Slice the tomatoes and lay over the pasta.

In a bowl combine the breadcrumbs, garlic, rosemary and parmesan and then sprinkle over the pasta and tomatoes.

Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes until the sauce is bubbling and the breadcrumb topping is golden and crispy.

The art of shopping

How do you shop? Until recently I’d never given the way I shop for food and groceries a second thought. I never thought there might be different ways to shop, or any skill involved.

Shopping had always simply been one of those necessary chores I had to do on a frequent albeit ad hoc basis, whenever the fridge and cupboards started looking a bit empty.

Ever since leaving home at the age of 18 for university, I’ve shopped when I thought I needed to and bought what I thought I needed, generally the same items every time.

Perhaps it’s because I’d never been shown how to cook or shop. I rarely went food shopping with my parents and I never showed much interest in what was happening in the kitchen. Do we need to be shown? Did your parents teach you these things? Or I am simply trying to blame others for my inadequacies? Is shopping really a matter of common sense?

Well, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, my husband and I had to cut our budgets last year. Analysing our bank statements, we realised that this ‘finger in the air’ approach had resulted in massive over-spending, a hideous amount of food waste, and – what probably upsets me most – fairly mediocre meals.

When it finally dawned on me that a little simple planning each week would make life easier, it felt like a huge revelation. Silly isn’t it? I’m feeling quite foolish as I write this. It’s all so blindingly obvious when you think about it.

But when you’re rushing around in your twenties balancing work and a hectic social life, and then in your thirties balancing work and an even more hectic family life (with a bit of social life squeezed in when you can), you don’t really step back and think about how you do things. You just do. Or at least that was my problem anyway.

So the glaringly simple solution is to work out first what you’re going to eat and then you shop only for what you need. Easy, eh? Well maybe not. So many of my friends have been fascinated by my meal plans, curious about how I create them and intrigued about how long I’ll be able to keep it up for. Although I’ve come across many people out in the webisphere who make meal plans, I’m the only one out of all the people I actually know who does this.

The meal plan takes pride of place on our fridge

I don’t want to be teaching grandmothers to suck eggs. So if all this is too basic, I really won’t be offended if you quit here. But in case you are interested here is what I do…

My Sunday night ritual

Every Sunday evening, once the children are in bed, I sit down at my computer with a glass of wine and work out our family meals for the week ahead. I found it quite hard work at first. I’d much rather be sat on the sofa watching telly but I now rather enjoy surrounding myself with recipe books and checking out different blogs and websites to get ideas.

Supermarkets

I order the bulk of my week’s groceries online from one of the big supermarket chains. While of course I’d prefer to buy all our food from local shops and markets, the simple truth is that a) as a working mum I don’t have the time and b) I wouldn’t be able to afford it.

The beauty of shopping online is that I avoid actually having to step foot into a supermarket. They are not my favourite places. Although the real advantage of shopping online is avoiding temptation. Whenever I go into a supermarket, I always come out with more than I intended.

Veg boxes and butchers

But I don’t buy everything from the supermarket. I also get a weekly organic vegetable box delivered the same day as my supermarket shop and I buy most of our meat from the local butcher or farm shop, while fish comes from the Saturday market.

I might not have a massive budget but I like to eat good food. In my opinion organic vegetables taste so much better and are worth paying a bit more for, while meat from supermarkets very rarely compares with the local meat your butcher can supply. When you plan your meals carefully, you find you can afford to use good ingredients because you are wasting so much less.  And it’s worth eating meat less often in order to be able to eat better, tastier meat. Since shopping this way, I have succeeded in halving the amount I spend on groceries.

So on a Sunday evening, I’ll check to see what veggies will be included in our veg box and I’ll look at the family calendar to see when we’re busy and need easy meals and when we’re home so can spend more time in the kitchen. And our menu materializes magically from there.

Some days will see us feasting like kings on big roast dinners, while on others we’re eating beans on toast like paupers. It’s all about balance and moderation.

Once I’ve worked out our meal plan, I then get online and do the supermarket shop, highlighting in the diary what meat or fish I need to pick up during the week, preferably on days when I’m already out and about.

All in all, this will probably take me about two hours each Sunday evening. This might sound like quite a long a time but it really saves so much time and hassle later in the week.

There you have it. That’s how I shop. Now back to my original question. How do you shop? I’d love to compare notes.

PS I’m about to start posting my weekly meal plans – so watch this space!

What’s in my fridge?

This blog is in response to the question posed by Charlotte in her Kitchen Diary earlier in the week.

Just like Charlotte I’m always fascinated by what other people have in their fridges and cupboards. What luxuries do people enjoy? When do people buy own brand? What are their guilty pleasures?

And visitors to my home always seem to like a peak in ours too. So here are the contents of our fridge as of this morning:

It’s looking pretty well stocked at the moment. On Tuesdays we get our weekly veg box and supermarket delivery so there are still lots of goodies in there. By next Monday it’ll be looking rather more sparse. And come the weekend there will rather more alcohol in there too.

But in general, you’ll always find in our fridge:

  • eggs
  • milk
  • cheese (lots and lots)
  • fruit juice (the children get through gallons of the stuff)
  • salad and vegetables
  • pickles and chutnies
  • ham
  • olives
  • hummus
  • leftovers

So there you have it. And now I’ll pass the question on. What’s in your fridge?