Do away with the daily dinner dilemma
WHAT'S FOR dinner? Three little words that can often evoke all the fear and dread of a Hitchcock thriller, with even the most organised among us far too frequently battling the evening dilemma.
But answering the call no longer has to be an anxiety-inducing nightly stress, say Melbourne mums Gaby Chapman and Jen Petrovic.
The clever culinary duo has come up with what they believe is the ultimate fail-safe concept to feed the family healthy and delicious meals, quickly and easily while saving money, meaning you'll never have to use another food delivery app again.
In their new book, The Plan Buy Cook book ($29.99, Hardie Grant), qualified chef Petrovic and writer Chapman employ the 4+2+1 rule: Cook four dinners - double the amount on two of the meals and freeze half of each, then make two other fast and fresh meals. Take two meals from your freezer stash, and have one super simple meal like an omelette, toastie or leftovers. That's seven nights of the week sorted.
It all comes together with a little planning, some smart shopping and maximum efficiency in the kitchen.
WHY IT WORKS
"We all know that meal planning is going to save us time and money and reduce our waste, but having a formula and going, 'I'm just going to pull two meals out of the freezer every week and I'm only really cooking four meals', is just really life changing," says Chapman, a busy mum of three.
"It's just a habit you form rather than thinking about it as a chore, which is what it was for me and for so many people."
It all starts with a schedule, Chapman says.
"You want to match your cooking time to the time you have available," she says.
The book includes a seven-day schedule template where you simply enter what nights you are home, and what activities you or the kids have on, such as sport or music rehearsals or meetings, and you decide what days you only have time to whip out a freezer meal and when you have the time to cook something from scratch.
"I do the double up meals on a Sunday and I always cook a freezable snack during school time for lunches as well, like a homemade muesli bar, banana bread, a slice like a simple apple slice that I just take out a portion for each of the lunch boxes. That's something that makes the weekdays easy too," says Chapman.
The planning also includes deciding what you want to cook that week. The ladies recommend taking suggestions from the family so they're happy with what's served, and seeing what you already have in the fridge and pantry before making a detailed shopping list.
The other key to the 4+2+1 concept is to only shop once a week.
"Go to the shop with a good list and only buy what you need and what's on the list," says Petrovic.
It's an idea Chapman says was "life changing" for her.
"The average Australian goes to the supermarket three times a week and we talk about the idea that people are sometimes spending more time shopping than they are cooking, whereas all that time you could be putting into easy, healthy, tasty meals," she says.
It's also a habit that will save you serious money from reduced food waste and help save the planet, says Chapman.
"We really do think your average family of four will well and truly save at least $2500 a year by planning their meals and shopping once a week and sticking to a formula that isn't overtaxing in terms of cooking huge meals every night from scratch," she says.
In addition to shopping once a week, Petrovic also suggest shopping in advance to take advantage of buying cheaper cuts of meat that take longer to cook.
"I think a lot of people go to the supermarket right before dinner and they're forced to buy expensive cuts of meat (that can cook quickly) because they haven't planned to cook something in advance," Petrovic says.
"Taking the time to buy cheaper cuts of meat is a really good way of saving at the supermarket."
The chef recommends buying cuts like beef shin, which is often labelled gravy beef, or pork neck, which is labelled pork scotch, that require longer cooking and using them for everything from braises to slow cooker meals.
Her other tip for keeping more dollars in your pocket is to stay away from pre-packaged foods. That means no pre-chopped carrots, topped and tailed beans or ready side dishes, and buying cheese by the block and yoghurt in the biggest tub.
"Cheese is very expensive to buy in a slice form and a grated form," Petrovic says. "If you're putting it in lunch boxes for kids, just dice it up. It doesn't need to be in all that packaging."
As for yoghurt, she recommends buying a large tub of the plain Greek variety and flavouring it yourself with things like apple and cinnamon, frozen berries or simply vanilla and icing sugar.
"Often you buy those individual yoghurts and there's often one flavour no one likes anyway, so you might as well buy a big tub," she says.
Choosing homebrand legumes and tinned tomatoes is another good way to save, but when it comes to taking advantage of specials, Petrovic says be careful to only buy what you know you will use or simply keep it to non-perishables.
Perhaps the biggest way to cut costs, however, is to incorporate more vegetarian meals into your week using the likes of lentils, chickpeas, red kidney beans or noodles.
"It also means if you have that meal once a fortnight that's lamb or fish, the cost doesn't blow out over the two weeks," says Petrovic.
GETTING STARTED IN THE KITCHEN
Obviously the first week you won't have any meals in the freezer, or the "food bank" as the ladies call it, so you'll need to make a couple of meals the week before you technically start and pop them in the freezer with clear labels of what they are.
The book outlines the best recipes to freeze and the best to make fresh and fast, with Petrovic tending to avoid freezing things like rice, potatoes, fish and noodles.
"I just find that when they defrost they sort of retain a lot of moisture and they can be really watery," she says.
Meat stews, dahl and tinned bean mixes are great to freeze, as are marinated meats.
"You marinate them when you get home from the shops, they're marinating while they're freezing and they're marinating while they're defrosting and you just have to barbecue or cook it and put simple sides with it like a salad," Petrovic says.
HERB YOUR ENTHUSIASM
If you've ever bought herbs from the shops you'll know that most of them end up a wilted, rotting mess in the bottom of the crisper.
But not anymore. Petrovic says you can ensure the garden greens make it into more than one dish by picking off the leaves, washing and drying them either in a salad spinner or with a tea towel, and popping them in a lidded container with paper towel on the top and bottom.
"That way you can get two or three meals using coriander as opposed to if you leave it in the plastic sleeve and you only get one meal," she says.
GET THE KIDS INVOLVED
"We outline tasks that grow as the kids grow in the book. Some are just clearing the table or unpacking the dishwasher, but giving them life skills like how to steam rice and cook pasta and cook their own eggs and then you can build on that," Chapman says.
YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE A MASTERCHEF
"It's very hard being a parent and producing a meal that someone doesn't eat and putting a whole lot of effort into something and that's what used to really get me down," says Chapman.
"When cooking became a mainstream TV event … I think it became very alienating for your average home cook because you sort of felt that if I'm not producing an Ottolenghi meal every night, what am I doing? Actually it doesn't need to be hard, it doesn't need to be stressful. It needs to be tasty and healthy."
PUSH THE FLAVOUR BOUNDARIES
Dealing with a fussy eater is a nightmare Chapman knows only too well, with one of her three kids refusing to try new things from the age of four. However, she says Petrovic's recipes are helping change all that, making things like tofu and the ever-troublesome eggplant appealing in exotic new ways.
"They're not overly challenging but they are introducing all those flavours and textures as well," she says.
The ladies other tip to encourage finicky offspring to try something new or eat their vegetables is to serve the food family-style on the table for people to help themselves.
"Without putting food onto children's plates and forcing them to eat it, you want them to come to good food naturally," Petrovic says. "Putting it in the middle of the table they get to have maybe just one bit of lettuce and as they get older they might put more on."
Pre-preparing parts of a meal when you have five minutes can be a great way to save time down the track.
Petrovic says if you have to dice onions, carrot and celery for the base of stews or braises, just do it all at once and portion it out, storing the remainder in a container in the fridge for when you need it.
She also recommends roasting vegetables for side dishes or snacks at the beginning of the week and simply reheating them as required.
"Having vegetables cooked in the fridge is great when children come home from school," she says, saying the likes of roasted sweet potato is a great afternoon snack for kids.
* The Plan, Buy, Cook Book by Jen Petrovic and Gaby Chapman published by Hardie Grant Books $29.99 and is available where all good books are sold.