Menu planning

Don't get stuck in a rut

Ken Hom book

Last year my husband watched a James Martin Saturday Morning with the American (Chinese) chef Ken Hom, and declared that we should start making stir fry for dinner. It was just before dear husbands birthday so I added the Ken Hom 100 quick stir fry recipe's book to his gift and set about clearing a bit of kitchen cupboard space for him to store his ingredients.

There are a few standard store cupboard ingredients that you need for most recipes, like sesame oil, nut oil, corn flour, Chinese rice wine and soy sauce (both light and dark). And then others that add flavour like black bean sause, satay sauce and fish oil, these have a once opened fridge life so we were careful not to buy huge jars to begin with!

We do at least 2 stir frys a week that need more fresh veg ingredients which meant updating our menu planning regime. At first I thought it would be a faff and didn't relish the idea of in store shopping again. But like with most things in life, if you plan carefully and think about where you need to go and what you need ahead of time, you can get it done relatively pain free.

The fresh veg that we use in our stir fry last about two weeks (and I have a small bag of frozen stir fry veg for emergencies). We've found a Chinese supermarket not far from home which happens to be in close proximity (ie next door) to a supermarket and outdoor fruit and veg market. This means fresh stir fry ingredients and any other shopping needs (like soap and cat food) are done in one stop!

We use mostly chicken and pork in stir fry and have found a local butcher that does excellent deals on chicken breasts. I cut them into strips and portion off to freeze. The packs are quite big so again it's a fortnightly visit.

This is a very different way of shopping to how I started doing things 18 months ago, but we're really enjoying the stir fry and it's so quick and easy. We cook more meals together, with me preping and giving instructions (from the book!) and dear husband doing the 'woking'. Eating and shopping like this has brought our food bill down further which in my book is a huge bonus!

My meal planning isn't 'this is what we're eating on these days', more of a shop for certain meals and then decide what to have on the day.

Happy days

Ciao xx

Menu planning - week three, lets shop

Do you shop online? I have found online shopping works best for me. I do the shop on the Sainsburys app on my phone using my usuals list so everything I need is in one place and I am in my home so I can check the cupboards if I need to.

Going into the grocery store holds too many distractions and if you want to use this menu planning tool to keep costs down you don't need any distractions. But if you are going to the store make sure your shopping list is accurate. And don't forget it at home!

So, lets get on with the next step. Lets do the shop.

Taking into account any nights out and take away nights and if like me you super size some meals (macc cheese, lasagne, pork casserole) for a left overs dinner night you don't need to shop for 30 or 31 meals. Using your full meal list, make a smaller list of 20 to 25 meals. They don't need to be in any order, just pick the meals you want to eat for the next month.

And now from that monthly meal list you can prepare your shopping list. Don't forget to check your store cupboard for oil, spices, herbs etc. breakfast cereals, sandwich spreads, tea and coffee. I keep a magnetic note pad to write down these non meal specific essentials as they finish.

I don't like to have a surplus of food as I only have a small kitchen and space is limited. At this point I would usually check what I already have in the cupboard. Although my kitchen is small I still like to take advantage of specials so I will often have left over rice or pasta from the month before. Simply cross any items you don't need off your shopping list.

I buy fresh and frozen veg and cook meals with the fresh veg at the beginning of the month and use the frozen veg towards the end.
In the summer we go to Hitchin fruit and veg market on a Saturday so I won't buy fresh from the grocery store and keep a small bag of frozen for emergencies.

Now you are ready to shop :)

**If you are standing in front of the meat counter and there is an amazing special on chicken but you have only added one chicken dish to your monthly meal plan, don't dispair. Just add more and take something else off. You will get into a rhythm of adjusting your list to get the most out of your money. Don't forget to update your monthly meal list with the changes you've made.**

I keep my monthly meal list on a small magnetic board in the kitchen. Each morning I check the list and decide what's for dinner, taking any meat products out of the freezer. Once the meal is cooked I tick it off the list.

Kitchen notice board

All my menu planning notes are pinned with a bulldog clip and hang on the inside of my pantry cupboard door. Once a month I take it all to the dining room table with a cup of tea and it takes an hour to prepare my monthly meal list and do the grocery shop and that hour once a month has saved me loads of time and unnecessary trips to the shops.

MP Keep it simple

^^Please excuse the state of my pantry door. I would love to replace it with a nice wooden door that I can paint and distress. Maybe in the summer^^

I have been using this menu planning tool for 6 months now and only ever stop at the shops for bread and treats and I coincide these with my fuel stops.

If you decided to use this menu planning tool, please let me know how it works out for you and if you have any tips to share please leave me a comment.

Ciao xx

Menu planning - week two, gathering recipes and lists of ingredients

Welcome to week two of menu planning. Have you got your meals lists? Good, lets start step two.

This week you're going to familiarise yourself with the ingredients you need to make each of your meals. At this point I went into dither mode. Should I write all the recipes out on index cards? Did I need a new recipe book/folder? Should I spend another few (hundred) hours on pinterest researching this? NO! All you need to do is get a few sheets of A4 paper, a pen, your receipe books and access to your pinned recipes.

I worked through my meal list and wrote all the ingredients down for each one.
I wrote out my ingredients on two lists, one for the raw ingredients, like potatoes, meat, tinned tomatoes, eggs etc, and one list for the flavourings, like olive oil, harissa paste, vinegar, basil, and paprika.
I found this bit challenging. Not because it was time consuming but because there were some meals that I made without thinking, and out of my head, and now I really had to try hard to remember every ingredient that goes into it. And when I say every, I mean right down to the sprinkle of paprika that goes on the top before popping it in the oven.

MP Shopping list

^^look at my spelling of chorizo^^ It's one of those words I just can't remember.
(If two meals use sausages, just write a x2 next to sausages, you don't need to repeat yourself.)

Just a note about my 'flavouring' list: I decided to put all of these ingredients on a seperate list because I wanted to have a reference of all the things that I won't necessarily buy every month but I need to check that I have enough of it to get through the next month. These are the essentials that you would always have in your store cupboard, and can include things like olives and pickles too.

You will now have a shopping list to cook every meal on your meal list! It's huge right?

You may wonder what the benefit of writing a full shopping list is. Well, there are two:
1) Getting into a midset of writing a shopping list. Write it all down and you won't forget anything!
2) Highlighting any unusual ingredients. Maybe your recipe comes from the US and you need to find an alternative for your country (this happens a lot!), or perhaps it's a specialist food item and you need to check that your usual grocery store stocks it.

I still have my original ingredient list and even though my meal list has grown and evolved it reminds me of how well i've done.

See you next week for week three and happy list writing.

Ciao C xx

Menu planning - week one, getting started

I've decided to document the process of menu planning that I used at the end of last year to help ensure I had the right ingredients in my kitchen to cook meals for a full month.

MP list of meals

When I worked at John Lewis head office in Stevenage I passed Sainsburys on my way home and more often then not I had to stop to pick up something that was missing for that night's dinner. It felt like a waste of time. And it was.
I needed and wanted to be more organised but the idea of meal planning always seemed like such a huge task to me. I had been looking on the internet at these super organised woman who have planners and folders and recipe cards and I didn't know where to start!

Now I will admit that it took me 4 years of contemplation and research to actually get around to doing this. Moving jobs where I finished work at 4 and have a relatively short commute meant that being able to stop at the shops on my way home was a serious posibility and I was not going to get into that bad habit again! I had other plans for my time.

It doesn't matter if you work or don't work, have kids or don't have kids, we all want a little extra time in our day or week to indulge in a hobby, or meet up with friends, or simply have nothing to do. So I figured that if I can save even an hour a week it would be a bonus.

I'm going to post a step each Friday for the next few weeks and if you would like to join in please do so. By the end of February you will have a menu and shopping list ready for the month of March. And a new way of thinking about the dreaded grocery shop.

Getting started:
Step one is to list all the meals you eat. I simply grabbed a piece of A4 paper and wrote them down. Here are a few of mine:
Macaroni cheese
Chickpea chicken
Roast veg and cous cous
Pork chops, veg and rice
Sweet and sour chicken with rice
Pasta bake
Mushroom and onion stifado
Toad in the hole
Mediterranean wraps
Prawn pilaf

I also spent a few (a hundred at least) hours on Pinterest looking for new recipes to add to my growing list. You want at least 40 meals and some dishes that can be made in a larger portion to either freeze half or have enough for a leftovers dinner. It took about 4 or 5 days until I was happy that I had a varied list.
Then split your list into groups: vegetarian, meat, pasta, fish etc. I found that this helped when planning the meals for the month as I make sure I get some from each 'category'.

Your meal list isn't set in stone, and this is what we're eating from now to forever. Our list has evolved over the months where I have tried something new and loved it so it's been added and a meal has even been crossed off as it sounded better than it was, or maybe I just did it wrong!
We're also doing this in February (I did mine in September so the same factors apply) and for us in the northern hemisphere it's winter and the meals we're thinking about are meant to warm us. So as the weather warms you will look for something different and you'll want to add more outdoorsy meals.

I made sure that I have some real easy meals on the list. The type of meal that you just put everything (raw) in one pot and leave to cook. Take a look at my pinterest for ideas.
I have three food and drink boards. The first Food And Drinks is where I pin ideas to, Cocktails Made And Loved is for drinks we have tried and liked loved, and Tried And Tasted is for recipes that I have used and trust. These are good for those days when you just don't feel like slaving over a hot stove.
I also like to have an 'in case of emergency' meal on the list, which is usually something that is cooked from frozen for that day when I forget to take dinner out the freezer!!

So get those lists written up and don't forget to come back for week two next Friday :)

Ciao C xx

Edited to add a link to week two and week three