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Once I’ve created a menu plan, not only has this made mealtime easier, but the task of shopping for groceries has now been simplified too. The menu plan allows me to easily collate a shopping list to take to the supermarket.

Shopping lists

Shopping lists are the key to efficient shopping for our family. I have two options for creating a shopping list: I can manually scan the meals I’ve chosen into the menu plan and write up a list; or, I can use a free menu planner tool such as the one provided on the blog. This menu planner has a simple, five-step procedure:

1 Select the date for the beginning of the week.

2 Choose your meals.

3 Choose the number of serves required for each meal.

4 Tick the boxes of the recipes you wish to print out.

5 Print out the menu plan, recipes and shopping list.

The shopping list is arranged by food type, making the task of finding the items you need when you’re at the supermarket quicker and easier. As the menu planner only looks at the evening meals, our shopping list is still a work in progress and needs to have other groceries and household items added to it. To help build a comprehensive shopping list that ensures no last-minute rushed trips to the supermarket, there are a couple of other lists I refer to:

Pantry checklists. I have checklists stuck to the inside of the pantry cupboards. As I run out of items or items are close to running out, I place a tick next to them on the checklists. When it comes time to write my shopping list, I simply add the ticked items to it.

lunchbox items. Fresh fruit and vegetables are the easiest way to fill the kids’ lunchboxes. To retain some variety, I refer to lists of seasonal fruit and vegetables that I know the kids will eat.

Where to shop

Living in a capital city, I’m lucky to have several options when it comes to shopping for our family groceries. My shopping routine over the past few years has consisted of a monthly online grocery shop, a monthly visit to the butcher and a weekly trip to a fresh fruit and vegetable market. Not all of these may be available where you live, but it’s worth considering them if they are.

Online shopping

The first time I shopped online it took me ages, and I thought it was a very time-consuming process. However, it’s really only slow the first couple of times you do it — after that it’s a super-efficient way to shop because:

all your previous orders are listed and you can quickly tick the items you wish to add to your trolley the next time you shop

you can buy in bulk because the goods are delivered to your door

you can see exactly how much you’re spending and either remove or add discretionary items so you stay within your budget

you can easily compare prices as products can be listed by unit price

you can do it on your own!

Markets

We shop weekly at a nearby market, and have found that buying fruit and vegetables at markets is significantly cheaper than purchasing them from the supermarket. In addition, the quality is far superior. If you haven’t tried a market, consider these tips for your first visit.

Take with you a list of prices for the items you buy regularly from the supermarket so you can compare.

Allow yourself plenty of time to walk around the market first to note the varying prices and quality of the produce. Even at markets you’ll find stallholders who don’t offer value for money.

Go back and make your purchases, noting how much you pay and the location of the stall that you bought them from. If you know the location of the stalls you like, this will make the process quicker next time.

When you get home, do some quick calculations to see how much you saved. It can be more of an effort to go to a market than to the local shops, so having a concrete dollar amount can be a great incentive to keep up the habit. Table 1 illustrates how much you could save on your grocery bill by going to the market.

This is just a sample of the savings we made on five of about 15 items. Even if you deduct the extra petrol it costs us (about $3.00) to drive to the market, we still save significantly.

Table 1: market savings

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Butcher

For a number of years I worked on the false assumption that because supermarkets have chains they should be able to deliver cheaper prices on meat. I was very much mistaken. Meat is often very expensive at the main supermarkets in Australia. From my experience, I’ve also found the quality of meat superior at a local butcher shop. Not all butchers are cheap, so I spent some time comparing prices and quality and have found a local butcher shop that provides great meat at a great price. When looking for a local butcher, think about whether:

they offer discounts for bulk purchases. For example, chicken breasts are $3.00 per kilogram cheaper if I buy more than 2 kilograms at a time

you can ring in your order and pick it up later — a great convenience when you’re shopping with little ones

they have regular specials you can take advantage of (not all of them do)

there’s a market near you that sells meat. Big markets such as the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne — and (increasingly) farmers markets throughout the country — are selling local meat at great prices.

Discount retailers and warehouse clubs

In recent years, Australia has seen the introduction of a number of international stores such as Aldi and Costco. They can help you save significant amounts of money, but you should keep the following in mind:

Buy only what you need. Cheap is tempting, but remember to stick to your list.

Buy in bulk. I love buying items in bulk as this offers great value (when I know we’ll use everything). To make the most of bulk buying, consider teaming up with a friend and sharing the goods if the discounts only apply for large volumes.

Be prepared to try new brands. Don’t expect to see all your familiar brands at these stores. I’ve tried different brands for products such as tomato paste, pasta sauces, plastic wrap, chocolate and nappies and have found the quality comparable.

Factor in the extra fees. Some of these stores have surcharges for credit cards. There can also be costs for purchasing bags, as well as membership and parking fees that you might have avoided elsewhere.

Add up the transport costs. Did you have to pay tolls to get there, and how much petrol did it cost?

Tip: Enjoying your mealtimes

With our meals selected and ingredients bought, we’re halfway towards enjoying a family meal. Most evenings (life is never perfect!) we sit down together to eat our dinner and enjoy each other’s company. As we eat early in the evening from Monday to Friday, only I eat with the kids. Then, on the weekends, my husband is around to eat with us.

Here are some tips on how to make mealtimes more enjoyable for everyone, based on my past experience.

Involve the kids in menu planning

Allowing the kids to help me with menu planning makes them feel included, so they’re happier to eat whatever I serve.

Have a set time range for evening meals

It’s easy for my toddler and preschooler to be past their hungry time and not eat a proper meal because it’s too late. Having an early time range (ours is from 5.00 pm to 5.30 pm) means the younger children will actually eat their dinner more often.

Eat at the table

I find it’s much easier to get my children to focus on their meal if they’re sitting up at a table. It’s less tempting for small children to wander off and play with toys mid meal, and it also provides the best scenario for teaching children the social etiquette of eating a meal with others.

Get the children to help you

It’s important for children to understand the work that goes into preparing the family meal. If they each have a small job to do, they become more involved and aware of the process.

Serve age-appropriate portions

About eleven years ago I went to a parenting seminar on eating and toilet training for toddlers, run by Tweddle Child and Family

Health Services. They suggested when you serve up meals for a toddler, halve what you originally put on their plate and then halve it again. This is more likely to be an age-appropriate serve for a toddler. This was fantastic advice and has worked well for us. Toddlers who are hungry will ask for more, but they can be overwhelmed by large amounts of food on their plate. It also makes me feel better when I see an empty bowl.

Turn off distractions

I love having music on around the house, but even that must go off at mealtimes as it can easily distract the children. I also let any phonecalls go through to message bank so I’m not distracted by leaving the table. On occasion, when I’m tempted to answer a call, I always end up regretting it. The younger kids lose focus on the meal and it’s impossible to get them to regain it.

Model appropriate behaviour

Children will follow the example set for them, so I always try to model the behaviour that I would like them to replicate. I’m not crazy about a number of vegetables, but setting the right example means eating those vegetables without complaint!

Encourage conversation

Mealtime is my greatest source of information about what’s going on at school and kinder. The kids have had time to unwind and have relaxed a bit, so I find open-ended questions such as ‘What did you play at lunchtime?’, or ‘Who did you play with at kinder?’ encourage the kids to start telling me interesting stories about their day.

Remove the battlelines

Just as you can’t make a baby sleep, I don’t think you can make a child eat either. I’ve learned that getting kids to eat a meal can be a real battle. Spending time and money cooking a healthy meal only for it to be rejected and uneaten is incredibly frustrating. To make mealtimes enjoyable in our house, no-one is forced to eat their dinner; however, there’s no substitute meal if they don’t like what’s been served: they’ll have to wait until breakfast for something to eat.

Only focus on the big issues

To keep the tone of the evening meal light, I try not to comment on every single thing each child does that’s not ideal. If I did, some nights that would be the only talking going on. I have core behaviours that I expect the children to meet and I monitor those, but if they accidentally slurp their spaghetti, or if the younger ones use their hands occasionally when trying to cut up their food, I let these go. Too much negativity can bring the mood down and close off conversation.

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