What it takes to deliver family meals on a budget
This is the third article in the CooksClub series on family meal plan budgeting. In the first article What is the true cost of a healthy family meal, we discovered it was possible to feed a family of four for around $10, you just wouldn’t want to do it every night. The second piece How to design your own family meal plan budget, set out a template example for family meal planning. In this article, we look at the skills required to deliver the plan and stick to your budget.
The main things you must do to deliver your meal plan on budget are:
- Know why you buy what you buy
- Eat everything that you buy
- Don’t buy extra things that are not on your weekly menu
- Beware of the seventh night
Know why you buy what you buy
If you are serious about your food budget, do a taste test between the brands you buy and the base store-brand product. Sometimes there is a definite difference, but otherwise, if you can’t taste it, don’t pay for it. There is a lot of comment around what we “should always use” when it comes to food ingredients. We know that branding is a key element of marketing. There are also items of superior quality and taste. We would all like to drink Dom Perignon and always grate Parmigiano Reggiano on our pasta, but there are plenty of occasions when no one knows or cares. Search out what tastes great, know when it is important to you, and then just pay for that.
Also, be aware of your habits around shopping and food planning. Food is something we do by reflex. We put off deciding what to have for dinner, we just pop into the supermarket for ideas, we go on autopilot when browsing supermarket isles. We buy vegetables or meat in packages without knowing how much they weigh, or grab fresh produce without having a definite recipe in mind or knowing how much we will use.
Eat everything that you buy
Provisioning for the household is a serious skill. The core challenge is that while vegetables do have size variations, most recipes don’t use the full amount that you pay for. One third of a bunch of basil, one quarter of a cabbage, one cup of bean sprouts, a few lettuce leaves, half a lemon, half a capsicum etc.
Vegetable sizes won’t always match your recipe and supermarket package weights are averaged to serve popular demand. You therefore need to carefully monitor the weight you are purchasing to ensure that the amount that you buy, matches your final serving sizes. You also need a plan to use all that is left over.
Research shows that the average household throws out 13% to 20% of the food they buy every week. If every car leaked that much fuel, people would be screaming in the streets. For most families it means we pay $30 to $50 extra every week for food we just throw away. (note to self – save this $50)
Think about it. At least a third of the food in your freezer has probably been there for 6 months. Half of the fresh vegetables that have been in your fridge for more than 36 hours will stay there until garbage night. The best before date on some things in your pantry expired in the last decade.
The solution is, don’t provision for individual recipes. All the TV shows, and celebrity chefs will present a delicious new dish in a twenty-minute segment where all the ingredients are pre-measured in little ramekins or bowls. In their restaurants however, the chefs all provision for three or four days, where the produce that arrives is used across a carefully coordinated menu of dishes, or it’s otherwise serving more than 50 meals.
If we can’t get vegetables and meat cuts to fit our recipes, we need to combine recipes to match our produce. In order to efficiently use the package or vegetable sizes across the fresh ingredients for each recipe, you will need to coordinate the recipes into a menu that uses all the ingredients. To use the volume, you might also make two nights’ meals from one dish. You probably already do this so you get four days meals, from just 3 days cooking.
For the wet dishes, bolognese, chilli con carne, casseroles, stews, and curries; cook once, eat twice. These dishes will freeze well, or enhance their flavour with a day or two in the fridge. So, plan your menu, use all the ingredients.
The final rule is, when plans change, check the fridge and change your plan. By the third day you must be eating whatever is in the fridge. It should already be planned in your menu, but we all know stuff happens. Always think of the food items in the fridge as dollars. Check what is there and create or find a recipe to use that. Become good at it.
Don’t buy extra things that are not on your menu!
While you probably haven’t studied Kitchen Management, you can be absolutely certain that the person who designed this weeks’ supermarket merchandising promotions has a degree in marketing, probably majoring in consumer psychology. If you are on a budget, go to the supermarket only when you have to. Plan what you need to buy, have a list and have something to eat before you go. Better still, design your menu, shop online, and pay the delivery fee. It is convenient and will save you money – DIY meal plan!
A gondola is a monster lurking at the end of every isle in the supermarket. They are mostly filled with discretionary items such as biscuits, drinks, chips, and chocolate. Most of these items have highly elastic consumption. This means, you need one, but buy two and you will consume two. Better still, “save more money” buy four! (all four will be gone before the end of the week)
Of course, buying food when it is on special is good for the budget. This is especially important when you can find discounts on fresh vegetables and meat proteins, or dried staples and tinned goods. But, be really aware of your own tendencies around discretionary snacks. Just think of this. You need to walk briskly for 37 minutes to burn off the 134 calories in just 4 squares (25gms) from a block of Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate. If they are on special at 2 for $7, you will be walking for 9 hours and 52 minutes to pay off that $7.00.
Beware of the seventh night
It has been a long week. You plan to shop on the weekend and the fridge is a little bare. Your budget might stretch to cover takeaway once a fortnight, but the grief and the pressure is getting to you. Here is the budget number you need to know. 50%. At this point you are 6 days into your weekly budget. You have balanced your menus, used all your ingredients, avoided the gondola monster. Your food spend is at $120 which includes a sensational Steak Diane with pan potatoes and Dutch carrots.
Friday night, you could just have cheese on toast or even grilled Turkish Bread Pizza Melts (which is the same thing with a little planning and finesse). What you do next might cost you $60 for perhaps a delicious Rogan Josh, Chicken Tika Masala, Cheese Naan, Paneer Pakora and a large rice. That represents three nights’ food budget or 50% of what you have spent so far this week.
Here is your dinner budget choice in numbers:
No Takeaway | Weekly Budget: $140
7 nights meals for 4 people at $5 per meal.
Fortnightly Takeaway | Weekly Budget: $160
$140 one week and $180 the next. $320 for 14 nights; $5.72 per meal
Weekly Takeaway | Weekly Budget $180
$120 for six nights plus $60 for just one; $6.42 per person per meal
Weekly takeaway is a lifestyle choice. It can be tasty and convenient. As a choice it is neither good nor bad, it is simply part of the budget choice that you can make.
Now the above budgets assume that you have managed your kitchen efficiently and have close to zero waste. It also assumes zero spend on non-food snacks (lollies & chocolates). While both these assumptions may not be realistic for your family. These numbers give you an idea of the cost of lifestyle choices. The $5 per meal is also a fair comparison to the pricing of meal plan services. Once you use the sign-up specials, these typically cost around $7.50 to $9.90 per meal.
Adding back a realistic budget for a small amount of food waste and some discretionary snacks, and including takeaway, you might allow $200 per week for a family of four. That equates to about $7.00 per meal as a target to work back from. From experience, to add in (mostly) home-prepared breakfasts and lunches, I would suggest that 50% of your budget would go on dinner and 50% on breakfast and lunch.
Based on the above, your total food budget is now close to $14.00 per person per day, $100 per person per week or approximately $400 per week for a family of four.
Next, we cover the impact of food lifestyle choices and what we are really getting from our food budget. We also compare national food budget benchmarks to let you know exactly where you stand.