I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan on dying of some kind of vitamin or mineral deficiency in the next week. Sure, I could complete The $35 Challenge on nothing but mee goreng, oranges and beer, but that’s not really a sensible way to play it, and I’m nothing if not sensible. Below are my top ten tips for menu planning, your money and sanity saver. And not just during The $35 Challenge.

1. Take stock of your pantry
I just did and there is waaaaaaaaaaaay more stuff in there than I realized. 4 kinds of rice, three shapes of pasta, tins of tomatos, legumes, beetroot, pineapple, tahini, enough condiments and sauces to open a deli, at least 18 different spices and various baking ingredients – sugars, flours, cocoa, almond meal, rosewater, vanilla pods…the list goes on. Any and all of these things can form the starting point for a menu, so take a quick look in your cupboards.

2. Take stock of your fridge/freezer
Before I write a menu, I so often make the mistake of not checking what’s in the fridge or freezer. More condiments. A dozen eggs. Half a kilo of greek yogurt. Five kinds of cheese? All that’s really needed is a shitload of veggies and some meat and I should be able to sort out at least 5 main meals.

3. A menu is just a list
Here’s how you do it: write down every meal you’re going to eat. Then write down every ingredient you don’t already have which is in that meal. Then add anything else to your list that’s not technically part of a meal – snacks, fruit, cleaning products etc.

In fact, why not just write down everything you ate last week as a starting point? Maybe you eat all your lunches out and have toast for breakfast every day. In that case, a menu would just cover dinners. Maybe you order takeaway once a week? This doesn’t have to change, just pencil it in.Suddenly, your shopping list is done.

4. Plan regularly – about as often as you shop
I prefer to shop once a week, so I write a menu once a week. This is a trick I learned from my mum and it’s what has always worked for me. I find fortnightly shops mean I end up with stuff going off or getting forgotten about, and shopping every few days means I end up making a lot more impulse purchases. Find what works for you and stick to it.

5. Be realistic
This is key. You need to be realistic about what you’ll cook, how often you’ll cook and what you’ll actually eat. There are a few dishes that crop up again and again on my menus but never get made because they’re either too boring (chick pea stew anyone?) or too much effort come 6:00pm on a Thursday evening (yes, I will stuff and roast an entire chicken on a week night, without a recipe). Make it easy on yourself.

6. Consider what’s in season
Taste.com.au publishes a monthly list of all the fruit and veg in season. It’s often a good idea to have a look at something like this before you decide what to cook as it will give you some idea of what will be available, tasty and cheap.

7. Be flexible
Maybe you thought you’d serve grilled fish with mashed potato and green beans today – that’s what’s on your menu. But when you get to the supermarket, asparagus and pumpkin are on special, so you change your plans accordingly. Flexibility should also apply to when you want to serve something- just because your menu says taco Tuesday doesn’t mean you can’t switch it to Wednesday ‘cause your plans have changed. In my case, I don’t allocate specific days on my menu – my menu is just a list of meals in no particular order.

8. Throw in a few wildcards
Try and prepare one new dish a week or, failing that, try one new ingredient. Or, use an ingredient in a new way. This will stop your taste buds getting bored. Until recently I’d never really cooked steak or fish (I was vego for 10 years). A few weeks ago I finally tried pineapple as a savoury ingredient when I made this pineapple salsa. Try new things whenever there’s time or the mood takes you.

9. Stop asking yourself ‘what do I feel like eating today’?
If your menu is realistic, flexible and varied, you won’t need to ask yourself this question each day or for each new meal. By taking choice out of the equation on a case-by case basis, you’ve also taken out the work. Once menu planning is a habit, you’ll never look back.

10. Make your final weekly meal ‘odds ‘n ends’
Chances are no matter how meticulous your planning, you’re going to have a few things left at the end of the week. Maybe you didn’t make one of your meals or maybe you just ended up with too much of something. Either way, you can probably whip something up with what you’ve got. Then you’re all ready for your next menu.

It’s not too late to support the $35 Challenge. During Anti-Poverty Week, from October 16-22, participants have $5 a day to spend on food. By experiencing poverty for just 7 days, we come to a better understanding of the realities and stresses of those living in poverty. By blogging or tweeting this experience, we can raise awareness of an issue so often swept under the rug. And by donating the remainder of the money we would usually spend on food to OzHarvest, we can make a real difference.

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When we first viewed our pokey little townhouse in Alexandria 4 years ago, Senhor R was doubtful. ‘But we can’t cook in that kitchen!’ He said. But since I do the cooking, we took the house, and I took on the Corridor Kitchen as my personal challenge, determined to conquer it.

As we move out now, I can’t say I haven’t bitched about the kitchen constantly; the lack of exhaust fan, the florescent lighting, the lack of bench space, the damp, the mould, the lino, oh yes, AND THE FACT THAT IT FLOODS EVERY TIME IT RAINS. Or did, until last month. But the fact is, I’m a much better cook than I was 4 years ago, and the kitchen is why. What follows are the top 5 lessons I learned from cooking in my Corridor Kitchen.

Lesson One: Neccesity really is the mother of invention.
If you have an ok kitchen with only a few irritating aspects, chances are you can let them slide – not quite enough cupboard space? Get rid of some stuff. Small sink? Grin and bear it. But if your kitchen is very basic, you will be making improvements. Constantly. And your creativity will know no bounds.

When it came to ideas for our kitchen, there were literally no wrong answers. And as an added bonus, the kitchen was so ugly that it didn’t matter what we did to it. We were free to focus completely on utility and throw aesthetics out the window. This was actually incredibly liberating and…

  • We came up with an ingenious combination of hanging rails, hooks and magnetic strips to hold our knives and most used utensils.
  • We bought a massive bookshelf from a law firm that went into liquidation to use as our pantry.
  • Friends donated us a kitchen island made out of an old artist’s trolley.
  • Senhor R rigged up a complex system of extension cords and powerboards so that we could have more than just two appliances in our kitchen. So what if I could never use the microwave at the same time as the kettle. *

Lesson Two: lack of storage can actually be a good thing.
It sounds completely crazy, but as I move into my new kitchen which seemed initially to have so much storage, it has become very apparent that the important thing is not how much storage you have, but the quality of that storage.

In a ramshackle custom-altered kitchen like the Corridor, we were forced to create our own storage, thus that storage was custom designed for us. The kitchen became a work-in-progress (as much as it could in a rental property) and was user friendly precisely because it was user designed. Commonsense aspects of this design included;

  • Eye-level storage
  • A combination of visible and hidden storage.
  • Prioritising items based on frequency of use.

I found this post over at Small Notebook invaluable in our old house.

Lesson Three: The bench tops are always shinier in the kitchen next door.
When I viewed the apartment we’re moving into now, I was blown away by the kitchen. But now that we’re unpacking our stuff, there are aspects of the Corridor Kitchen I’ve really come to appreciate. The massive pantry made of bookshelves, for example, or space for a bin.

Although I know that not everything in the new kitchen can be perfect, I guess when I was working within the ridiculously rigid constraints of the old one, I figured that every kitchen out there was better than mine, in every way. But of course there are things about the new kitchen I don’t like. I’d rather have more cupboards than a dishwasher, for example. I crave more shelves inside the cabinets.

Lesson four – I love shelves!!
Shallow, open shelving makes everything visible and you always know what you have. I never really appreciated this until now. In our last place, most of our belongings were stored on shelves because there was no built in storage except for the kitchen cabinets.

Turns out we can’t just throw all these shelves away and what’s more, in some ways they are actually better than ‘real’ storage. This is especially true in the case of food, where they make everything accessible and visible. Who cares if the outside of your olive oil bottle gets dust on it?

Lesson five: ‘Useful’ items aren’t always that useful.
Too many of a useful thing is still too many things! I’m looking around at our one million plastic containers and our one million pyrex containers thinking…what the hell do we need all these for again? Why do I have 4 frypans? What’s the logic behind out two sets of cutlery?

I guess I assumed that because we had limited space in our old kitchen, everything in there must have been necessary. But of course that’s not the case. When there’s space we tend to fill it – you never find an empty kitchen drawer.

What about you? What lessons have you learned from your kitchen?

* When my Dad came to stay he was pretty worried we’d end up electrocuting ourselves.

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1. The Presentation of all things Food
Crisp white tablecloths without paper covers. The old-world charm of BA restaurants. And more recently, the beautifully arranged fruit and vegetable stands in every neighbourhood. Although the aesthetic can be homogeneous, there is something lovely about the Porteños’ eye for detail when it comes to food.

BA fruit and veg

2. Cake is sold by weight
In panaderias, smaller cakes, pastries and biscuits from medialunas (small croissants or ‘half moons’) factures to alfajores are often sold by weight rather than quantity. There’s something very decadent about ordering half a kilo of a combination of meringue, dulce de leche and sponge cake to take away.

cakes by weight

3. Fresh OJ
Fresh Orange juice is like running water here and not, in the words of Basil Fawlty, ‘rather sticky’. Cafés, restaurants and confiterias all make and serve it, as do some convenience stores and market stalls. It makes that breakfast of coffee and pastry seem a tad more balanced.

4. Garapiñadas
These sugar-coated nuts, usually peanuts or almonds, are cooked and sold by the side of the road in autumn and winter. In the mornings you can see the vendors wheeling their carts to their allocated spots for the day. It’s the kind of snack that is considered gourmet and is expensive where I come from, but here in Buenos Aires a small packet of garapiñadas costs only 2 or 3 pesos (about 50 Aussie cents). Freshly made and with fresh peanuts, they are more addictive than peanut butter. And since peanut butter doesn’t really exist here, they make a tasty substitute.

5. Delivery
One of the most fantastic things about this city, besides most restaurants being open until around 2:00 am is that practically anything you want can be delivered. You want empanadas at midnight? Done. A coffee and a medialuna at 10:00 am? No worries. Most shopfronts have their phone number displayed so that customer can ring up and order what they like. It’s not uncommon to see waiters with a covered tray in hand dodging traffic as they try not to spill coffee for someone a few doors down. There’s no minimum delivery and no delivery charge.

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