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Friday, 28 July 2017

Epic Food Week: Perpetual Food Plan

Food. For many Australians it accounts for the second or third biggest chunk out of their budget, after housing and/or transport. Poor food choices are also leading to an increase of “lifestyle” diseases, such as Type II diabetes and heart disease. Four Australian personal finance bloggers (Adventures with Poopsie, All About Balance, Enough Time To... and yours truly) decided to get together and offer an in-depth look at how we all “do” food in our households. It doesn’t matter whether you like to plan or just wing it, whether you have gourmet tastes or enjoy simple food, or whether you love or hate cooking; we’re sure you’ll find some tips and tricks to eat healthier and find ways to save.

Food in the FIRE household

This was actually chilli
cheese fries, very heavy
on the cheese!
Eating well on the cheap is always a problem for Mr. FIRE and I because, well... he's difficult. Mr. FIRE refuses to eat vegetarian, he's not a fan of beans, and he can't be trusted not to bring home chocolate, chips, expensive cheese... you get the idea. He also has a tendency to order pizza if I leave him home alone, or eat the wrong leftovers.

Surprisingly though, food isn't a sore point in our house. We are happy to eat pretty simple foods, we don't stress too much about variety, and we've figured out how to eat some tasty comfort food on the cheap. 

The biggest challenges we hit are preventing food waste, and making sure we have enough easy meals for lunches and roller derby nights. We tend to cook bulk meals, and take leftovers for lunches and roller derby nights when I don't have time to cook before running out of the house.

Perpetual Meal 'Planning'

Firstly, we don't meal plan in this house. Setting specific rules for what we eat Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday always leads to us getting to Friday and really not wanting what we have planned. Instead we do what I am coining as 'perpetual meal planning' which is an ingredient based planning system.

Mr FIRE makes pizza!
This is why I love him
For ingredient based planning we rely heavily on Evernote as a recipe book. Mr. FIRE and I look up recipes whenever we want to try something new and save them to an Evernote notebook. This makes them easy to find later, but also gives us the ability to search by ingredient - which is the cornerstone of ingredient based planning.

The best way to explain this is with an example - Celery. Can we all take a moment to agree that celery is the most annoying food item out there. Every recipe I have calls for two or three sticks of celery, but you can't buy less than half a celery which way more than I actually need.

One of my favourite cheap easy dishes is Cajun Chicken Jambalaya (I'll put the recipe at the end of this post). Depending on your serving size and ingredients it comes down to $1.00 - $1.50 per serve and it's super tasty. However, it only calls for two sticks of celery, which means I end up with half a celery in my fridge going to waste unless I follow a perpetual meal plan.

With Evernote this becomes super simple, because I type in 'Celery' as a search item and recieve a list of recipes so I can use up my celery.

This becomes the list of what I am making this week. I'm a huge fan of this method because it reduces waste, gives me an easy list of meals to cook and saves me from actually thinking. Lazy meal planning is the best.

This becomes a perpetual meal plan for two reasons. Firstly, there will be something left over after I make all these recipes - for example Chicken Soup is on the list, and it requires one leek. Everywhere I shop for leeks they are sold in pairs so leek becomes the next ingredient. Secondly, we stock our Evernote recipe list with things that result in lots of leftovers. One celery normally results in four recipes, which results in twenty to thirty meals. By cooking four times, I feed us for two weeks of lunches and dinners.

Tracking leftovers

Managing leftovers is an important part of meal not-planning. When Mr. FIRE and I first moved out together we would often dig something out the back of the freezer and have no idea what it was or how long it had been there. The chickens ate well those days.

Hawaiian Chicken
Delicious! but not a cheap meal
Saturdays I do a leftovers check and work out what we'll be eating the next week. Generally we need fourteen things to get through the week - five lunches each, plus dinners on the nights I have roller derby. If we are running short we have a few tricks before we panic.

Firstly, lunches are an easy change. If we're short of leftovers then I don't take leftovers for lunches and simply buy sandwich supplies instead.

On the (very rare) occasions that we have more leftover than we need, I turn again to my trusty ingredient based, perpetual meal plan. If I have a leftover leek, then I can use it to make Irish Stew or Potato and Leek soup. The stew is great for also using up leftover carrots, but the soup is easy because it contains very few ingredients. If I'm in a place where I have too many leftovers, I pick the recipe that will use up my ingredients and leave me with as few perishable items as possible.

While I call it the perpetual meal plan, it's important for it to stop at some point otherwise you end up with far, far too many left overs and not enough time to eat them all. Admittedly, this is great because it gives us a week off cooking and still plenty of options to choose from.

Sometimes we will be very very short of leftovers. Generally after having too many and taking time off cooking, oops. If we are very short of leftovers, then I plan to cook something big the next night, which leads in to the next important consideration for food - shopping.

How we shop

Here's a trick that keeps our food costs down. Mr. FIRE and I hate shopping. We make snarky comments about sales items, laugh behind our hands at people buying bottled water and we hate slow walkers. We're those people. We get in, we get out and we don't meander or get distracted by shiny things.

Unless choc mint biscuits are two-for-one. We all have our Achilles heel, that one is mine.

To keep track of what we need, we use Evernote (are you sensing a pattern here?). Evernote is a shared document system, so we can update it on our phones are any time, and if once of us goes and buys bread we can take it off the list before the other person buys a second loaf.

Our list is split into three sections - Markets, Butcher and Supermarket. Mr. FIRE is responsible for the butcher and goes once or twice a week. I go to the markets 2-3 times a week for fruit and vegetables. We both swing by the supermarket as needed, generally after visiting the butcher or the market. We have no set shopping routine, we just head out to the shops whenever we need something.

Unlike Mrs. ETT and Adventures With Poopsie we don't shop at Aldi, we watch for specials at Coles and Woolworths, but generally we just head to the closer store. There are two reasons for this - firstly we don't do a bulk weekly shop and secondly we don't have an Aldi nearby. We pick our supermarket by convenience.

Homemade beef and black bean
burgers. I made the buns myself
so these were pretty cheap.
After investigating Mrs. ETT's shopping list I don't feel like we would benefit greatly by switching to Aldi. Shopping at the markets means that my fruit and vegetables are significantly cheaper than shopping at supermarkets, especially because I buy the ugly fruit and vegetables, which is often heavily marked down. The prices I pay are similar or better than those Mrs. ETT is paying at Aldi. Yay for markets!

While conventional wisdom is to do a big weekly shop to avoid impulse buying we have a different method. As I mentioned, we both hate shopping, but on top of that Mr. FIRE has minimal cooking skills (past making brilliant pizza) so he doesn't bring home anything he doesn't understand. I occasionally impulse buy vegetables, but I ride a bicycle to the shops. While I'm tempted to buy things, I always have to weigh up (literally!) if I could get it home on the back of my bike.

Managing costs

Finally the question becomes how do we keep our costs down week to week with such a haphazard system? No prizes for guessing this one, we use Evernote (and google docs). I track our spending through google docs and when our spending is low we eat whatever we want. When our spending starts to creep up, I pull out Evernote and I search recipes by cost.

I have tagged a bunch of our cheaper recipes with prices per serve - if our spending is looks like it will go over for the month then I search by price and pick out a recipe that we already have ingredients for around the house. Unsurprisingly, the 'Under One Dollar' search turns up a lot of soups.

We have one magic recipe that doesn't sit in our recipe book called 'Pasta Bake'. Pasta Bake is made from:

  • 500g of pasta ($1.80)
  • 1 tin of diced tomatoes ($1.60)
  • a jar of pasta sauce ($1.50, always stock up when they're on special)
  • 500g of beef mince ($4), or 500g of diced chicken ($5)
  • 500g of pureed beans ($1)
  • whatever veg you have lying around the house or can buy on super special - I recommend zuchinnis, onion, carrot, eggplant - ($3 - $4)
  • Top everything with a massive handful of cheese - ($2.50)
Cook the pasta in one pot, and everything else (except cheese) in another. When the pasta is done pour it into your biggest baking dish. Top with sauce, stirring as needed. Then top with cheese. Bake in the over for 20 minutes. Enjoy for days.

Pasta bake works out to less than $2 a serve and uses up all the sad leftover vegetables. It also seems to turn into a perpetual pasta sauce situation where I make far more sauce than I could ever possibly use. That sauce gets tossed in the freezer and next time I make pasta sauce I use the old sauce as a base for the new one.

Getting even cheaper - meatless lunches for me. 

Remember how I said Mr. FIRE won't eat vegetarian meals? Yepp, it's super annoying. I bulk out mince with grated carrot, zucchini and beans, but he gives me the stink eye when he sees me doing it. 

Sweet potato nacho
bake thingy... delicious, but
very weird.
One on hand, my kitchen my rules. On the other hand, I like Mr. FIRE and I try not to deliberately antagonise him. To balance out my desire for a super cheap grocery bill with Mr. FIRE's desire for meat, I occasionally cook us separate meals for our work lunches. 

Mr. FIRE has a very simple go-to meal - 2 chicken breasts, rice and frozen vegetables. I flavour the chicken in whatever seems like a good idea at the time (Lemon Herb, Honey Soy, Sweet Chilli, etc.) and split it out to five meals. Mr FIRE's lunches are under $10 for a week, but he says they don't entirely fill him up so we round it out with some baked treats.

This means I can cook myself my absolute favourite vegan lunch with mushrooms! Mr. FIRE is allergic so I have to cook this while he's out of the house. I got the recipe from the Frugalwoods, a simple delicious beans and rice recipe that is really filling and under $1 a serve.

The take away

This has been a big post, so let me do a quick wrap up.

Meal 'planning' tricks

- Cook things that create leftovers
- Plan based around an ingredient
- Keep track of what leftovers you have available

Shopping tricks

- Shop as quickly as possible
- Always have a list
- Don't take the car, the less you can carry the less you can buy

Keeping costs down

- Categorise your recipes so you can find the cheap ones easily
- Have some cheap go-to options
- Eat the occasional vegetarian meal. You'll survive, it might be delicious.

More Food!

Want to know how other Aussies are eating cheap while chasing the financial independence dream? As part of Epic Food week there are three other excellent posts your can peruse in case the Perpetual Food Plan doesn't tickle your fancy.
  • Enough Time To... is a solid meal planner, and she provides a list of all her plans for this week, plus a copy of the receipt so you know exactly what it cost.
  • Adventures with Poopsie also makes solid meal plans. She kept track of their household eating and shopping for for a month in preparation for her post. You've got to admire that dedication!
  • All About Balance is even more relaxed than me about planning. As a foodie she knows how to mix flavours and get a healthy balanced of meats, veggies and grains. Check out her post for a balanced approach to food.

Cajun Jambalaya Recipe


  • 1 chicken breast (approx 300g)
  • 2 ham steaks
  • 1 brown onion
  • 2 celery sticks
  • 1 green capsicum
  • 2 cups rice (uncooked)
  • 1-2 tablespoons cajun spice mix
  • 3 cups of chicken stock (hot)
  • 1/3 cup of tomato paste
  • Cooking oil


  1. Preheat oven to 180degrees. 
  2. Dice chicken and ham steaks, then brown in frying pan with cooking oil of your choice.
  3. Dice celery, capsicum and onion.
  4. Place all ingredients in a large baking tray and cover with alfoil
  5. Bake until rice is cooked through (approx 45minutes)
Done - it's super easy and super tasty. You can serve with fresh tomato and sour cream if you want but I've never bothered because I'm lazy.

Use up the rest of the celery with a basic chicken noodle soup, minestrone soup and a chicken chow mein. Aim to end up with six servings of each recipe so you can take advantage of delicious leftovers.


  1. Brilliant! I've never used Evernote but one of the main reason I 'wing it' is because I would never have all the ingredients to make a recipe or need to use up more than a standard recipe would ask for.
    One of my favourite ways to use up celery is to put peanut butter inside the curve and munch - delicious!
    Some cool new recipes and foods to try here, that Cajun chicken sounds delicious, though in my head I've already substituted ingredients I won't eat and filed it under 'to try'.
    P.s If I can't get away with beans I use red lentils to bulk out mince dishes for fussy eaters

    1. We shop every second day because we never have enough on hand :p

      I find that celery goes limp far too quickly for that. Although google said wrap it in alfoil in the fridge and it will last longer - worked a bit, but not enough to eat by itself.

      Substitute away! That's how you make food that suits you

      and I just toss the beans through the blender and put them in pasta sauce. No one complains :p

  2. Sounds like Mr. FIRE and Mr. ETT have some things in common when it comes to grocery shopping. Even yesterday he went up to "buy some milk" and came back with icecream, chips, donuts and alcohol...

    Also "eat the wrong leftovers" Haha! I'm totally on board with that, but Mr. ETT just gives me a disgusted look, as in "how on earth can there be such a thing as 'wrong' leftovers?"

    Seriously, your Evernote use has been a revelation to me. All I do is save our favourite recipes, then go looking for that specific recipe. I've never thought to harness the amazing search power of Evernote to bring up ingredients. Also pricing each meal so you can look for cheap ones at end of budget... brilliant.

    I guess in a way we do a mini-perpetual meal plan, in that if there are ingredients left from the last week I make sure I plan recipes to use them. Early on in our lives we used to waste so much food. I'm ashamed to look back.

    Your description of grocery shopping is so on-point! That's totally us. Just get out of our way and let us grab what we need and go. Stop faffing around!

    I think it's brilliant that you have markets available all week. We have a farmers' marker once a month, or markets on a Wednesday when I'm at work. Other than that, it's the big three or a greengrocer that takes effort to get to. I bet your market fruit and veg are much fresher and more local than the Aldi ones for a similar price.

    Where do you get 500g of beans for $1?

  3. Look, okay there are totally the 'wrong' leftovers! I had plans for those leftovers, now what the heck are we going to eat tomorrow :p I'm so glad you understand, Mr. FIRE treats me like I'm nuts!

    We have the Central Markets in the middle of town - a whole range of quality and pricing. Sometimes it's terrible stuff sold expensive, other times there is delicious stuff sold cheap. My preferred stall has a low quality section that I shop from - it's all fine and generally $2 a kilo less. I once bought a YELLOW capsicum for $2 a kilo!!

    Also, coles tinned beans are 75cents for 400g - I may have used some artistic license to say 500g for a $1 :p I can also buy dried beans from the markets for $4 - $6 (depending on the type) which tend to triple in size and double in weight when cooked - so $1 for 500g is about right.

  4. Great post! You should make your 'wrap-up' a printable! I'm sure it will be a handy guide/reminder for many.

    My boyfriend is such a picky eater too. A different kind of picky eater - he only likes Asian food. If I want to have pasta or salad, we'd have to cook something else for him.

    We also don't shop at Aldi. We prefer the markets for our meats and some vegetables. We haven't had much luck with fruits in the markets though, we always manage to get the bad ones, so we usually buy them from Coles/Woolie's.

    I also feel your celery pain! Supermarkets sell packed stems but they cost a fortune! I buy a bunch and freeze what I don't end up using.

    1. I never thought of freezing celery :D Maybe I should try it. Although I love my bulk cooking plans, and I've found wrapping it in alfoil keeps it crisper for longer.


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