Grant Allen: Budget nights (+recipe)

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Affordable meals don’t have to be bland, writes Grant Allen.

Jas McPhee, Grant Allen and Vance McPhee. Photo / Michael Craig
Jas McPhee, Grant Allen and Vance McPhee. Photo / Michael Craig

Cooking for a family of six seems a challenge enough in itself but to do so on a restricted budget would send me into a spin.

I have watched aghast as families' supermarket spends total into the hundreds for a trolley of groceries.

I don't know how parents can afford to spend so much on food and the reality is many struggle to provide food for their families.

That's where Jasmine McPhee and her husband Vance, who have a blended family of five, are helping families with tight budgets.

When tough times forced them to find ways of feeding their family for $20 a meal, they never anticipated where it would lead them.

Jas turned her experience into a Facebook story, sharing her shopping strategy, cooking hints and recipes online.

She struck a chord with the masses and now has thousands of followers and has published a book.

In their latest venture, the couple have been working with grocery clearance group, Reduced to Clear.

These stores are outlets for best-before stock, bulk buys and over-runs. Whatever is in the shop that week becomes the inspiration for the family's next seven dinners.

Of course this requires experience, imagination and creativity in the kitchen. Many of Jas' readers are still learning to cook so her online posts give them tips about how to cook, what's on special for the store cupboard and ideas for nutritious food on a budget.

She focuses on the main course before thinking about the sweet stuff so there's not always a pudding every night. But she understands treats are important and offers suggestions that can be whipped up by keeping back $5 from your available spend that week.

I was challenged to go shopping with Jas and Vance. We then took those ingredients to see what we could cook with them, meeting the next day to compare notes.

I spent a total of $53.97. This included a litre of oil ($9.99), 10kg of canned cannellini beans ($10), honey ($5.99) plus a few other ingredients. I managed to produce two courses for $20.53 and had leftovers to snack on the next day or to turn into something else.

I also had chicken stock (add some white beans, the rest of the spinach, half a pumpkin) to simmer and puree for a soup.

I had honey poached fruit left for breakfast or a crumble, as well as bananas, onions and cashews. Taking Jas' philosophy to heart, I served the food I had made, plus Jas' pasta dish that she left after the photo shoot, to nine people that night. All I added was a salad and the meal received accolades.

Meeting Jas and Vance has made me re-think my shopping habits. And I admire how, instead of regarding balancing the family budget as a burden, they have met the challenge in an enterprising way. It says a lot about their attitude.

After publishing the book and making a bit of money, they decided to "give back" by supplying food for eight families who are struggling. Vance said these people come from a range of social strata and backgrounds. It's hard to fathom in this "land of milk and honey".

Jasmine's recipes

"These recipes were chosen for their easy preparation, affordability and popularity with families of all ages.

They can easily be adapted to your family's taste by adding more veges and replacing the cream with tinned tomatoes. All extras such as fresh herbs are fresh from the garden."

Creamy bacon and spinach penne
Marbled chocolate pavlova

Grant's recipes

I noted Jas' comments that many people are novice cooks. Providing quick and afforable meals is not just about saving time. Speedy food can be expensive to make and often depends on prime cuts and ready-made products. It's also about trying to maximise the use of power; try to bake two things at the same time. If you're cooking up on the stove top, make a bigger batch.

Think how leftovers can be remade into something different. A lot of ethnic cuisines are great sources for alternative dishes; they often use less meat and more beans, rice, pasta, couscous, etc.

Move away from the meat and three vege formula and avoid shopping in expensive areas. Make the most of farmers' markets, orchards and vegetable growers. And try to grow your own food and swap with your neighbours.

Chicken, pumpkin, spinach and white bean bake
Banana bread and poached apples

- Herald on Sunday

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