I didn’t really like to cook until the last couple of years. I only did it out of necessity. We didn’t have the money to eat out but maybe 3 times a year. So most of my recipes came from asking for them at church dinners or friends houses, finding copy cat recipes on the internet, asking for family recipes, and changing them all to suit my tastes. Don’t pass up a recipe just because it may have something you don’t like in it. Just eliminate the offensive ingredient. It could end up being one of your favorites! Check out my recipes blog. All the recipes posted are tried and true. My family likes them or they don’t make it on the blog.
I was having a discussion with my friend today about eating on a budget. It occurred to me that I have a system for eating on a budget, but don’t have it organized on paper. So, here’s my attempt to get all my thoughts and habits down…for my benefit and yours. Don’t get overwhelmed reading it. Its much easier to do than it was to write. Start with the first step and work into it. You’ll find your own niche with it….things that work for you all while eating healthier and cheaper.
1. Make a menu. This is the most important step. Get out your cookbook and weekly grocery ads. Scan the ads for sale items for the menu. Jot down 5 or 6 main dishes and sides on an index card. Eat from your freezer for 1 or 2 meals.
2. Make a shopping list. Using the menu card think about each dish and decide what ingredients you need to make it. Write everything out in a notebook…noting which items are on sale at which store. Then organize the list onto another index card. Start with the first place you need to go…usually the bank for me. Note everything you need to get at that location. Don’t forget about the library, dry cleaners, thrift store…etc. Put each stop in order so you aren’t criss crossing all over town. As you make the list, categorize the items by where they’ll be in the store. Produce should all be listed together, dairy should be together, etc…so you aren’t wasting time criss crossing the store. NOTE: In warm weather, freeze a clean half gallon jug 3/4 full of water. Keep a cooler in the trunk and stash the frozen water in it when going out for groceries. Frozen and perishable foods will stay fresh that way. You’ll also have water on hand to drink when its hot out…so you’re not paying $2 or more for a soda at the drive-thru which makes you more dehydrated anyway.
3. Pay cash. Estimate how much cash you’ll need to purchase everything on the list. I add about $5 to the total to buy marked down meats for the freezer. Paying cash keeps you from overspending. Take a calculator with you if you’re worried about running out of money at the register.
4. Shop alone when you’re not hungry. I always spend at least $10 more than I plan to when I have any member of my family with me shopping. So I try to go alone when I can. When the kids were smaller I usually had to take them. I learned early on that its better to train children to be patient in the check out line than it is to bribe them with goodies or money. I got them involved getting the food off the shelves and looking for the next item. I always tried to have something on the grocery list they would like. Sometimes it was cookies but mostly cereal or crackers. Then, when they’re begging for candy in the check out line I could remind them of the good food we could eat when we got home.
Scientific studies show that shopping when you’re hungry causes you to buy more junk food.
5. Only shop once a week. Scientific studies showed that walking into a store more than once a week would cause you to spend 10-20% more than you budgeted for.
6. Prep everything when you get home. This is where a little self discipline will save you gads of time later in the week. Plan on putting away groceries and prepping food for about 30 minutes after you get home. Wash and cut veggies. Store them in bowls or baggies in the fridge. (Don’t cut cucumbers, tomatoes, or avocados until right before using.) Lettuce can be cut for salads and mexican food. Celery and carrots will stay crisp when stored in water in a covered bowl. Onions can be pre-chopped and stored in tightly wrapped tin foil until needed. Broccoli and cauliflower will keep well in baggies too. Invest in a food processor with grating and chopping blades. A 5lb block of cheese can be grated in a food processor in about 3 minutes. Add a little cornstarch to keep it from clumping up and store in a baggie in the fridge or freezer. I mix my cheeses in the bag too. Cheddar, provolone, mozzarella, parmesan…etc. We eat salads at dinner every week just by pulling out all the prepped veggies and letting everyone create their own salad straight from the bags. Divide up meat to be used in different dishes. Cut chicken breasts into tenders for faster cooking. Place a meal’s worth of meat in each baggie and add marinade or other seasonings. Make and season hamburger patties with a bit of waxed paper in between each patty in a baggie. Keep in the fridge until time to cook.
7. Cook “big” once a week…preferably the day of or day after shopping. I cook big once a week. This means I cook or combine all the meat and veges for all the meals for the week. I can start most meals and have them on the table in 10 to 15 minutes during the week by doing this step. Most foods will stay fresh for a week or more if kept at the proper temperature in the fridge. Plan on working in the kitchen for 1-2 hours when cooking “big”. Some of that time will be waiting for things to cook or cool. I find that cooking around lunch time works best for me. Its pretty quiet and I have the time to get everything done. If you work during the week, do this step on a Saturday or Sunday. I’ll make meatloaf, sloppy joes, meatballs, taco meat, baked potatoes, banana bread or muffins, broccoli or potato salad, etc. Any convenience foods you’d normally buy in the frozen or deli sections can be made ahead at home…without the food colorings and additives….and a lot cheaper too. Some things I plan for later in the week can be cooked and frozen so they’re still super fresh and soft….like baked goods.
8. Freeze foods for future use. When I can get something on sale I’ll buy it in bulk and freeze it. I do this a lot with meats and milk. I’ll buy 15# of hamburger to divide up for future use. Here’s an example…For meatloaf..using 1# of meat, line a bread pan with foil. Spray it with pan spray. Season the meat, place in the foil and freeze in the pan. Remove the foiled meatloaf from the pan and wrap tightly. Label and date. Thaw and bake as usual. For meatballs, using 5# of meat…place meatballs on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes or until barely done. Cool and freeze on a baking sheet. Move to a baggie, label and date. For tacos, enchiladas, beef quesadillas, beef burritos, taco salad, etc…using 5# of meat…cook hamburger with 2 onions until done. Drain off fat and add taco seasoning. Cool and divide into meal size baggies. Label and date. Using the remaining 4# of burger…for sloppy joes, hamburger gravy and biscuits, hamburger macaroni and cheese, chili, etc, place enough raw burger for a meal in a baggie. Label and date.
Poultry can be frozen in a brine to make it more tender and juicy. All meats can be frozen in marinade too.
9. Plan portable or quick foods for busy evenings. We have 3 evenings a week where we’re in the car during the dinner hour. Most of the time I pack wraps or sandwiches. I can make these ahead of time and put in a cooler in the fridge. I add a couple of refillable water bottles and a bag of chips or veggies and dip. Then I put a note on my purse to remember to take it with me. When you’re going to be home right around dinner time the crock pot and microwave are your friends! Its super easy to throw a roast or chicken on the crock pot in the morning. Then you aren’t tempted to grab fast food because there’s food already done at home. So many foods reheat well in the microwave too. Cook lasagna, enchiladas, slimies, or any type of casserole dish during your big cooking day and reheat when needed.
10.Find recipes for your favorite restaurant foods. I found that when I craved dishes from my favorite restaurants I’d spend more money eating out. Instead I’ve found suitable and much cheaper alternatives to make at home. For example, I can make General Tso’s chicken using chicken breasts, veggies, and a bottle of General Tso’s sauce. The sauce costs about $3.00 on sale…so, the whole dish costs about $6.00. Considerably cheaper than the Chinese place. The same is true of all Mexican and American foods, & most Chinese and Italian foods. Look for name brand sauces from some restaurants too. Taco Bell sells their sauce and refried beans in the grocery store. I used to buy my sweet and sour sauce from my favorite Chinese restaurant. They would sell me a pint of it for $3.00. Then, I could buy frozen egg rolls at Costco or Sam’s Club, and make the rest of the dishes. We could have 4 or 5 full Chinese dinners at home for the cost of one dinner at the restaurant. Google in something like…”Olive Garden fettuccine alfredo copycat recipe” and see what you come up with. Then, don’t be afraid to try a few recipes.