Meal plan: 5 February 2012

It’s been a rather good week for food in our house. Plenty of pies, bakes, soups and stews to keep us warm. Plus there was the added bonus of some rather tasty meals at my sister-in-law’s at the weekend whom we visited to help celebrate her 50th birthday.

Highs

The award for my food highlight of the week has to go to braised pig cheeks.

Braised pig cheeks with celeriac mash

Most people I’ve mentioned this dish to have given the same rather squeamish response but it is truly an amazing meal. You’ve got to try it. And it’s so cheap too. I got six pig cheeks from my butcher for just £4 and that’s enough to feed four people.

You slow cook the cheeks in red wine and vegetables until they are sumptuously tender and practically melt in your mouth. Pure heaven on a plate. I’ll post the recipe on the blog very soon. I promise.

Another food highlight, a regular in our house during the winter months, was the sausage and cabbage bake. Savoy cabbage is particularly good this time of year and so I entered my bake into the In Season Challenge over at Bake It, Make It, where you’ll find more recipes using this marvellous vegetable.

Lows

It’s been a tricky task coming up with what I’d call a low this week. So I’m plumping for what was more of a disappointment. Not in the dish itself but in my daughters’ reaction to it. I baked Lorraine Pascale’s pumpkin and rosemary muffins. My husband and I thought they were delicious but the kids weren’t convinced.

So here’s what we ate last week:

Monday 30 January
Lunch: pasta salad
Dinner: sausage and cabbage bake

Tuesday 31 January
Lunch: carrot, coriander and ginger soup
Dinner: cottage pie

Wednesday 1 February
Lunch: pumpkin and rosemary muffins 
Dinner: braised pig cheeks with celeriac mash

Thursday 2 February
Lunch: butternut squash soup, ham salad rolls
Dinner (kids): spaghetti bolognese F (adults): beef stew and parsley dumplings F

Friday 3 February
Lunch: rice salad
Dinner: baked potatoes, garlic mushrooms and salad

Saturday 4 February
Lunch: stir fried spring greens and noodles
Dinner: AWAY

Sunday 5 February
Lunch: AWAY
Dinner: butternut squash soup and bread rolls

F = from freezer

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

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

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!

Why another food blog?

Earlier this year I realised I had to make some serious changes to how I shop for food and cook for my family.

My husband had changed jobs and starting a new career in a primary school, while I was in the process of cutting my work hours to spend more time with our children. Our monthly income had taken a severe nosedive.

One evening we sat down to work out where we could reduce our outgoings. We were shocked, nay disgusted, at how much we’d been spending on groceries. I’d always thought I was pretty organised with our food shopping, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. What made it worse was how blissfully ignorant we were of what a hash we’d been making of things.

On top of the fortnightly deliveries from Sainsbury’s Online, our bank statements told a sorry tale of frequent pops to the local corner shop to top up on things we’d run out of (and of course those emergency bottles of wine required after stressful days) and buying impulse items at markets and farm shops, doing our bit to support local producers naturally.

Despite spending an astronomic amount on food and drink, it occurred to us that we hadn’t really been eating well for our money. All too often we’d go to our (full) fridge but be lost for what to cook for supper. None of the lovely ingredients would quite add up to a meal. So we’d end up resorting to a basic staple (like spaghetti with sauce) or, I’m sorry to say, ordering a takeaway.

Then there’s the food waste. The amount going in the food bin each week as a result of this haphazard approach to food shopping was shameful.

Now I know it’s not rocket science but when the idea of a weekly meal plan occurred to me it felt like a major revelation. My Nana and mother-in-law think I’m hilarious because this is how they always cooked for their families; simply sitting down once a week to decide on meals for the coming week and then shopping accordingly.

These days it’s not how most of us shop or eat. Not the people I know anyway. We decide what we fancy on the day, which means eating out lots, shopping every day or having a fridge full of ‘just in case’ ingredients that end up rotting to a squishy pulp somewhere at the back.

Because life is hectic we think we don’t have time to plan ahead. But I’ve learned over the last few months that spending an hour or so on a Sunday evening planning meals saves so much time later in the week. There are far fewer trips to the corner shop and I love having the freezer stocked with meals for those days when I know I’m going to be too busy to cook, never mind even think about food.

As well as massively reducing the amount of food getting chucked out and slashing our food bills by about half, the simple act of planning our meals has also led to us eating a much more varied, interesting and health diet.

Because I’ve been raving about the benefits of meal planning to anyone who’ll listen, friends have suggested I start a blog to share my experiences. So here it is. Notes from my kitchen for anyone like me trying to feed their family good, tasty, wholesome food on a limited budget, without compromising on quality of ingredients.

So watch this space for recipe suggestions, weekly meal plans and ways to save money as well as details of my culinary successes and failures. I just want to share what works for me and my family in case any of it’s useful, and I’d love to hear from you on what works for you and yours!