‘I cook more than 800 meals a year. Here’s how I save on groceries’

Between developing recipes at taste.com.au, feeding my own family and entertaining friends, I cook more than 800 meals a year.

You read that right.

For the past 30 years (yep, three decades now!) I’ve been developing recipes professionally, so I spend a lot of the time in supermarket aisles seeking out budget-friendly ingredient swaps.

Clearly, I love a cooking challenge, but this year the team and I have taken on one of our biggest projects to date: we’ve partnered with Coles to redesign taste.com.au’s most searched-for family dinners to make them cheaper and even easier to make. (No pressure! Right?)

We’ve been on a mission to create a 4-week dinner meal plan filled with budget-friendly, time-efficient, substantial meals that we know our taste.com.au community loves.

Introducing our Savvy Dinner Plan

I’ve bundled all of our best money-saving supermarket finds and cooking solutions into our 4-week dinner meal plan – and it really does tick all the boxes. Budget friendly? Check. Easy? Check. Speedy? You betcha. And I’m thrilled to share what we’ve come up with.

Try the Savvy Dinner Plan

In creating the 4-week meal plan, I wanted the shopping list for the whole 28 days to come in at no more than $560 (that’s the total you’d need to cook a different meal for four people every night, including all the ingredients except salt and pepper).

When I crunched the numbers on my Coles online shopping list, I couldn’t believe it was right on budget: I got my costs down to $557.29 for everything. I used many of the ingredients across multiple meals, but you’ll still end up with long-life staples like tomato paste left over for use in another dish.

My top 6 key tips for saving money on your grocery shop:

1. Look at the full month

Rather than shopping sporadically, taking time to plan your dinners over a longer period means you can make sure you’re using up ingredients across many meals (while still getting great variety in your weeks). With our plan, we’ve done this for you, ensuring fewer ingredients are put to work across the month.

Better yet, we’ve organised the meal plan so you use up the perishable ingredients that expire the fastest first (no more mystery items in the crisper!). We’ve also provided tips for preparing meals ahead of time and freezing. Your future self will thank you after a busy day.

2. Choose ingredients that help inject flavour

Reduce the number of ingredients you need by choosing ingredients that give your dish a flavour boost. Simple, cost-effective ingredients like soup mixes, baked beans and garlic bread can all be reinvented as clever recipe enhancements. For example, we’ve used instant gravy powder to not only make gravy, but also to add an umami-rich beef flavour to other dishes and help thicken sauces. (The proof is in our meal plan!).

3. Rethink what you throw down the sink

Pasta water, tuna oil and even the sauce in a can of baked beans can have a major impact on the simplest of recipes. If you drain your oil from your tuna can you’re pouring flavour down the sink. Instead, use the oil to saute onions and boost the dish. You’ll never look at the oil in a jar from marinated feta or sun-dried tomatoes the same again! They’re a wonderful way to add extra flavour to salad dressings – I always find a use for them.

4. Make your protein go further

Meat doesn’t have to be the hero of every dish. Using grated vegies and legumes (like lentils or chickpeas) can make almost any meal stretch a lot further for less. We reduced the meat across some of our Savvy Dinner Plan recipes and tested them out on our hungry, carnivorous families. Guess what? No-one noticed the difference. Each meal on our plan is substantial and flavourful (no compromising necessary, I promise!).

5. Get savvy about your shopping

There’s a lot to be said for comparing prices and doing a little research when you shop. But don’t worry, we’ve taken that job off your hands. While putting together our plan, we found that a few simple ingredient swaps made a big difference to the total cost of our shop.

For example, grating your own block of cheddar cheese is cheaper than buying pre-grated cheddar. However, buying pre-grated parmesan cheese is cheaper than buying a block. It pays to check! Another handy trick is to buy smaller packets of spice mixes, which can work out much better for your budget than buying lots of individual spices – especially if you don’t use many or you find they expire before you get to use them up.

Buying frozen peas, corn (or other frozen vegetables) separately – rather than in combined bags – means you can have specific vegies on hand to bulk up meals in future (think corn fritters, pea soups, broccoli pastas and so many other dishes). Plus, you can mix them as needed.

6. Go all in!

We love one-pot wonders and speedy tray bakes, and our Savvy Dinner Plan includes plenty of dishes that you can bring to life in a single cooking pot or tray. For example, our satay chicken rice tray bake and our butter chicken pilaf sees rice and meat cooked together at the same time. This saves time, but also adds extra flavour without adding a long list of ingredients. All you need to do is some surprisingly simple prep and pop it all in the oven.

Our savvy ‘dump and bake’ chicken pasta (below) is made in one pan from start to finish, which is so easy the dish almost cooks itself.

What’s the taste + Coles Savvy Dinner Plan?

Our free, four-week meal plan is designed to stretch your grocery budget further. By making savvy ingredient swaps and switching up how you plan and cook, the Savvy Dinner Plan can help shave dollars off your favourite dinners, without compromising on flavour.

How did we pull it off? We began by identifying taste.com.au’s top recipes (the ones everyone searches for on our site), then we brainstormed how we could make them cheaper and simpler. It was no mean feat, but we’ve done it!

Our goal? To help you plan ahead, waste less food and save more money (all with minimal effort, of course!). We’ve done the heavy lifting, so you don’t have to think about a thing.

The results? Four weeks of delicious, simple, substantial and budget-savvy dinners. Hooray!

Once you’ve cooked your way through this plan, at the end of the month the whole ingredient products you bought (a bottle of sauce, for example) will yield leftovers, which can cut down on next month’s shopping budget and set you up for next month’s meal plan. Winner, winner, budget-friendly dinner.

*I costed my shopping list at Coles, Burwood East, Vic, on 23/01/2023. Prices and savings may vary store to store.

This article originally appeared on Taste.com.au and was reproduced with permission.

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