Saturday, 4 February 2012

Sensible Menu Planning

This is a picture of my "Daily Treasures" box. I made it myself, and it is my version of a "home management binder". I will be writing more about how I created my treasures box, and how I use it, in a future post, but for now, I am going to concentrate on how having a treasures box helps me to plan our menu, and therefore, our food shopping and spending. I've just got back from a trip to the supermarket, and it feels like a good idea to be writing about it today! God was good to us this week - not only did we have a money off voucher clipped from the newspaper (Papa Bear insists on a daily newspaper) but also, several of the items on our list were reduced when we arrived at the store - so we were able to save quite a lot of money! Thank you once again dear Father God, for blessing us so abundantly!

My daily treasures box sits on a shelf in my kitchen, and is my information centre for everything that I need to do or remember. One of the dividers in it, is for shopping lists and menus. The 2 are kept together, because of course they are closely linked! Probably the biggest shopping expense in our home (oftentimes the ONLY shopping expense each week) is our supermarket shop. But with God's grace, I have thought up some tricks for keeping this as low as possible!

The first, and most important trick, is to have a weekly menu. It is a far, far better way to budget for your meals if you know beforehand, what you will be eating. Your menu can be as straightforward or as complicated as you like, but the point of having one that you plan in advance, is that it allows you to not only ensure that you are able to prepare meals knowing that you will have all the ingredients you need, but also, that these meals are nutritious, economical, and fit around your family's needs. There are all sorts of ways to create a menu. Some people like to do it online, and indeed if you do your food shopping online (as many people do nowadays) then you can link your menu into your online shopping list. Other people have a rolling menu that is repeated over 2 or 3 or 4 weeks. Still others like to plan further ahead, and have bulk meals prepared and frozen or stored months in advance, so that minimal work is involved in day to day preparation. This works well for very large families, where the daily food preparation is already going to be quite time consuming. Your menu doesn't have to be too rigid - for example, it may be easier just to think of certain themes, rather than actual recipes, and just shop with these in mind. You can then get creative, during the week, using what you have bought. And if you live close enough, and have enough time, to shop for food more often than weekly, you don't necessarily need to think of a whole week's menu at once.

We like to use a bit of a mixture of methods. First of all, certainly in England where our 4 seasons and the weather they bring do vary quite a lot, it is worth planning your menu on a fairly frequent basis so that you can make use of locally produced food at times of the year when it will be cheaper, and also plan for the sort of weather you will be having. Just now it is very cold here, so you will find lots of bakes, casseroles, roasts and stews on our menus in the winter and early spring.

Secondly, as Papa Bear prefers not to have me occupied in the kitchen for too many hours a week, I try to plan some meals that are fairly simple to prepare or that can be prepared in advance and either reheated or finished off later or that can be slow cooked, freeing me up to spend more time with him when he is around. I love my slow cookers! I have two - a large one for main meals, and a smaller one for desserts and granolas (I always make my own granola - recipe later!). Sometimes they are both running at once! Although slow cookers are very convenient and allow you to prepare food many hours in advance, do check before you buy. Some are not as economical to run as you might think, I have heard, and if this is a major consideration, it might be worth looking at a pressure cooker instead, especially if you plan to use it mainly for preparing main dishes such as casseroles and stews. We don't have one of these at the moment but I know people who do and who think they are brilliant. I also try to have the odd meal that can be easily doubled and frozen, although as we only have a tiny freezer, I'm not able to do this as often as I'd like just now.

I like to plan my shopping list a week in advance, and this is where the treasures box comes in very handy. We shop for our food early on a Saturday, as this means we can go together, and so for me my shopping lists run from one Saturday to the following one. Within the menus and shopping list section in my treasures box, I keep some pages of scrap paper, and every Saturday I start a new sheet on which I write items that will need to be purchased when we do our supermarket shop the following Saturday, as I think of them, or as we run out of them. At this stage, it's just a rough list, so I don't worry about what order I write them in. I just scribble them down as I think of them (and this will include non food items also, as they will be purchased when we buy our food).

At the same time, I start thinking about what we might want to eat for the following week (having got the menu for the week we are actually in, already planned from the week before). I will research my recipe books and magazines, with a view to using things I know I already have such as items in the freezer, cupboards or in the fridge which will need using up. I keep an eye on what is on offer, or cheap just currently, at the supermarket, and I also think of any occasions when I know certain types of dish will be better for us to have, and listen for any hints or suggestions that Papa Bear might make too! He often comments on something he's enjoyed and then I'll make a note to cook it for him. (In general though, as with certain other areas of my homekeeping, I do not trouble him with many questions over our menus and food. Papa Bear is the sort of husband who does not like to be bothered too often with "women's things"! It's worth remembering this, if you are a new wife, and a little unsure. Before you dive in with lots of questions and suggestions about meals, ask your dear husband first if he really wants you to seek his guidance about this issue, so that you can be sure he wants to be consulted. If he does, that's fine, but check first - remember most men are use to just eating what is put in front of them!) Papa Bear is happy to leave me to plan our meals without much guidance from him, but I sure do seek guidance from Him! More about that in a minute.

As I plan my recipes, I make notes of any items I'll need to buy in the supermarket, and try to work the menus around this (for example, last week I knew I would be making ice cream, so I would need a carton of heavy cream. It was more economical to think of several dishes that would use the cream, rather than waste what was left after the ice cream making, so that is why we had the chicken in creamy sauce). I find some ready made menu plans don't seem to take this into account which is one reason why I started making my own. Meat in particular, can be stretched to go for more than 1 meal (especially if you take note of my frugal hints from yesterday, and use mushrooms or pulses to increase the dish!).

On Fridays, I sit down and spend some time actually putting the menu together. We do have a certain pattern to our meals even though I do not use a rotational menu as Papa Bear prefers more variety than this would allow for. Each week we will always have a day or two that is vegetarian. We also always have a fish dish on Fridays (in keeping with the traditions of our faith) and always a roast meal on a Sunday evening (we prefer this to a lunchtime roast, as it would necessitate eating rather late, as we do not usually get home from Church until after 1 pm). In addition, I try to make sure we have one or two very frugal meals such as a bean dish or taties (jacket potatoes) and also, at least one dish that is made in the slow cooker. Sometimes our meals will use left overs from previous evening's meals, although more often, the left overs form the lunches for the next day. The warm lentil and rice salad we are having this coming week is a great example of that - with some extra salad leaves and a bit more dressing, it becomes a great salad to take to work or eat with a tatie.

Having decided roughly what we want to eat based on the above considerations I then take a new sheet from the menu and shopping section of my treasures box, and write out the week's menu on that, adding notes such as where the recipes can be found, whether I need to do anything the day before, and what sort of timescale the recipe will take. This allows me to plan my week with the meals and preparation taken into account. Now, I am also adding the menu to the blog! You'll see I am going to post up recipes of some of the dishes each week too. I'd love to post them all, but that would be very time consuming and would turn the blog into only a cookery blog, which while good to read, isn't what Papa Bear and I had planned for when we started this blog. But maybe one day ...

Having done this, I then write out a draft shopping list, itemising all the ingredients that I will need to buy, plus all the other items that I've listed during the week (which will include non food items). The list will usually be longer, than the amount of money I've got to spend at the supermarket, so then comes a paring-down session. Using a calculator (Papa Bear gave me a cute pink heart shaped one for a Valentine's gift a couple or so years ago) I total up how much the list comes to as it is. If it is more than I've got, I priorise as follows:-

There are some items that are always on our shopping list, such as animal related items (we have several pets) and things for the bathroom, basics such as bread (Papa Bear doesn't care so much for home baked bread though he will try it now and then), fruit and vegetables, so these stay on each week. Then come the ingredients needed for the meals we will be eating (including breakfasts and lunches). After that, come items that we could do with having, but could live without or are not needed urgently, such as certain toiletries, things for the home, items that I know are on sale. And if there is any money left after this, well, then we have the odd treat! I also leave a small amount to purchase savings stamps with. These go towards the expense of Christmas, and are a great way to plan ahead and save, as they cannot be spent during the year on anything else! The supermarket we use adds to what you have saved, if you manage to save a certain amount, and this makes it well worth doing. We never go over budget when we food shop, and one way of ensuring that it is impossible to impluse buy in the supermarket, is to pay with cash. That way, if we don't have enough money to pay for what we want, we can't buy it. Fortunately, we have only 3 weeks to go using our current budget - Papa Bear has just increased it by HALF so after February we will be able to buy better quality, more nutritious food, and perhaps eat fresh items more often. However, there is no reason for us to actually have to spend the extra money if we don't need to! I am so proud of my precious huggy bear, for being so clever with our finances, and I am sure he will have ideas for how the left over money can be spent each week, if we don't need it all. Papa Bear allows himself a separate budget every week just to buy his own treats with, such as his favourite sweet snack, Jaffa Cakes. He LOVES Jaffa Cakes (and I can't replicate them at home), so he buys them every single week from his treat budget. The treat budget often gets spent on a certain someone else though ... me! Aren't I lucky?

Phew! The last stage to my menu planning, is to get that shopping list finalised. To make it a little bit more fun, I love using cute shopping list templates, like these ones, on Graphic Garden. You can download them and save them to your computer to print out whenever you like for your own personal use. I like to save time in the supermarket, by writing my list in the order that the items will appear in the store. This saves having to hunt about for them too which in turn minimises the chances of finding things to add to the trolley that aren't on the list. We shop very early in the morning, often arriving at the supermarket before it opens, as we find it easier to get round the store and find what we want, if it isn't busy. It's one of the nicest parts of the week, enjoying our supermarket shop, and we always look forward to it.

It's really important to trust in God's guidance for every stage of your menu planning and food shopping. I love the book by Dan L. White, "Devotionals With Laura", which is essentially a Bible study book focussing on the handwritten notes of the famous writer of the "Little House" series, Laura Ingalls Wilder. She lived a God centred life too, and used passages of scripture that she had learned by heart throughout her life to apply to all kinds of situations, including, in chapter 4 of this book, planning a budget! The passage that she referred to is in Luke 19 - the "parable of the pounds" in which Jesus tells us to use wisely what we have, without waste or sloth. It's a good starting point, but I also always pray over our shopping. I pray over my menu, that it may be wholesome, economical and enjoyable to all who share in it, and I thank God for making the provision for us to be able to have so many good things. And I also pray to Him to help me spend our money wisely, and not be led into temptation, and buy things we don't need, or that aren't good value. I am still learning and growing, but I know that trusting in our Heavenly Father and asking Him for guidance is the most important factor of all, in ensuring that I try to do my duties as well as I can each day.

I'll write more about bugeting and how my box of daily treasures helps me to stay organised and plan ahead. But if you haven't had a go at menu planning before, why not try it? As a start, if it seems like too big a task, why not just plan a couple of nights when you know what you will be eating beforehand? But take care not to tell your husband, so that you can surprise him with your specially chosen dishes! Before you know it, you'll find that it makes your cooking and shopping time much more organised, and you'll probably save money too, so it is well worth investing in a bit of forward planning in this area of homekeeping, if you possibly can. I'm so glad I do!