Sunday, September 30, 2012

Save money on your eats with a little planning

Meal planning is something we've done in this house since before we even got married 10+ years ago.  We started doing it initially to try to eat healthier, less take-out, less frozen meals, more home-cooked deliciousness.  It has since taken on an added purpose in that it saves us some serious coin too.  I've had a few people ask me what I do to meal plan, how I go about it, and if I have any tips.  To be honest, I really had to think about it, we've been doing it so long I'm not sure I know another way.  I figured this is probably a common dilemma that families/moms have.  How to get dinner on the table, and what to serve.  So here's what we do.

First some rules to follow.  Do NOT make more than one trip to each store/place you buy food at per week.  Let's face it, every time you go in the grocery store you come out with more than you went in there for, and if you don't, you may be the freakish exception.  So, don't go in there more than you have to! We buy food at SuperTarget and the farmer's market.  I usually go to Target on Thursday when it's just G and me in the morning so it's easier.  The farmer's market is on Saturday mornings, the hubs usually heads there solo.  I keep a list on our bulletin board for both places, throughout the week as we realize we need something, it gets added to the list.  Before my hubs heads to the market, we do a little meal planning and figure out what we're having for the next week, dinners AND lunches. Don't forget lunches! The ingredients for those plans get added to the list.  STICK.TO.THE.LIST. as much as possible, if they don't have something a quick swap out may be needed.  But don't buy things because they look good or because you think you may eat them.  You're just wasting money and wasting all the time you spent on your awesome planning!
our lovely model Z holds up our plan for the week
Now the meal planning itself.  If you're not already, become okay with leftovers, they can be just as tasty as the first time around, and they really make your life a lot easier.  
For lunches we do a lot of leftovers, I usually make a big batch of something on Sunday, or we get all the fixings ready for salad.  Rice dishes like beans and rice, or pasta dishes work great for lunches to pack.  
Dinners are cooked fresh more often. We tend to make 2-3 things per week for dinners and eat leftovers in alternating patterns.  
Cook Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday have leftovers, cook Friday, and cook either Saturday or Sunday, leftovers the other day.  When you're coming up with what to eat, be creative! Get inspiration from all the fresh foods available at the market!  And think of how to get the most mileage for what you make.  
the first part of a base, I added bitesize chicken breast pieces, one night it was over brown rice with soy sauce and sriracha, the other night it was in a tortilla with salsa verde
One thing that has served me well is making a "base" that can work for multiple, different meals.  For instance, I may cook up some ground beef with minced garlic and onions on Monday, and save half of it in that form for a meal on Wednesday.  On Monday, I'll take that ground beef and make what I call "deconstructed stuffed peppers" by adding some tomato paste and rough chopped peppers.  Pair with some brown rice and top with mozzarella cheese, BOOM, you've got a tasty meal!  On Wednesday I'll use the other half of that ground beef, heat it up with some cumin and chili powder and put it in a tortilla and some taco fixings, easy, tasty, different dinner.  And there are lots of things that work like this too.   Or there are often times where I just make enough of a meal on Monday to feed us the exact same thing on Wednesday, no big deal, because we have found our happy place with leftovers. 
zucchini lasagna made on a Sunday afternoon, make a double batch of sauce and freeze it!
Also, in the winter, we tend to do a lot of soups, stews, baked pasta dishes.  I usually make a HUGE batch of this on Sunday afternoon, and freeze half of it to have on hand for those weeks that cooking just isn't going to happen at all.  It's nice to have good food to fall back on rather than calling for pizza or using a store-bought frozen meal.  
quick meal thrown together, tomatoes, zucchini, onions, garlic, used to top corkscrew pasta
Sometimes the plan doesn't work, don't let this discourage you! There are times when Zach is super hungry and all of the sudden the food won't stretch for 2 days.  That's OK.  That's what your staples are for.  There are things I *always* have on hand and can make a meal out of quick and easy.  
1. Pasta noodles of some sort, corkscrew, macaroni, angel hair, penne, whatever your favorite is.  Always have a box on hand in the pantry.
2.  Every week I ask my husband to get garlic, onions, and tomatoes from the market, I can use those in a pinch and I always use them in my meals anyways.  Throw that together with your pasta and you have a meal!
3.  Eggs, an omelet will feed you in a pinch any day of the week.
4.  Cheese.  Enough said? We LOVE cheese, and we can do so much with it, quesadillas, omelets, grilled cheese, pizzas, the possibilities are endless.
5.  Tortillas, I usually get frozen ones from Costco, you throw them in a dry skillet to cook them and you can do tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas. WAY better than the preservative laden ones next to the bread on the shelf.  Ideally we'd make our own, but that's a different blog post ;).
I'm no Rachel Ray, but nothing I make for dinner takes more than a half hour if I do it day-of.  Something like lasagna or a soup definitely does, it simmers all afternoon on a Sunday but it requires very little attention from me after the initial prep.  
Making only one trip to the store, having a list, and eating in will definitely save you money, especially if you have a budget you stick to for food.  It's also healthier to eat your fresh homemade food instead of eating out, getting take-out, or eating frozen store-bought meals.  AND you're being green and supporting your local economy by eating fresh from the farmer's market.  Win, win, win!
I love to get new ideas! What are your favorite meals and ways to save money?

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