Monday, July 15, 2013

Meal Planning: How we eat well on a $75 weekly budget

As a total foodie and someone who loves planning (the word spontaneous is not in my vocabulary, much to my husband's chagrin) I'm not sure what took me so long to put two and two together, but suffice it to say that when I discovered the concept of meal planning my life was forever changed.

Yes, seriously. And whether or not you are also a type A personality, I bet it will change your life - or at least the way you eat - too.

It wasn't until our son was born and we slashed our grocery budget to $75 a week ($300 a month) that the thought of planning our family's meals even occurred to me. Until then I thought that it was normal to go to the grocery store and ask the aisles for inspiration. Or to find new tasty recipes and buy every "necessary" ingredient. Or to not have a monthly grocery budget at all (though that's a topic for another post).

In all honesty, this was not a lightning bolt idea that hit me one day. It was inspired by reading the cookbook Dinner: A love story (one of my all-time favorite books). The author writes of keeping a diary of her family's meals to get organized for each week and to remember favorite recipes. I immediately knew I had to start my own dinner diary and upped the ante - planning our meals to make the most of each ingredient and cut our expenses.

Let me tell you, it works. Not only are we able to stick to our grocery budget, but it's so nice to come home from work and know what I'm making for dinner that night. It also helps me maximize resources - our food, our money, and perhaps most importantly, our time together at dinner as a family.

Here are some tips on how to get started with your own meal planning.

1. Create a record: Buy a small notebook to keep track of your meals. On each line, write the date and what you had (or will have) for dinner that night. So simple to do and so nice to revisit to get inspiration for future meal plans.

2. Plan: Set aside 20 minutes each week (I do this on Saturdays) to brainstorm meals for the week. I pull out my favorite cookbooks, my binder of recipes from magazines, and my computer so that I can look up recipes online. Start by making note of any nights that you will not need to make dinner (going out, off to a friend's house, etc.), and then fill in the blanks based on the tips below.

3. Shop first from your pantry, fridge, garden and freezer: The first thing you want to know is what you already have on hand. I begin by going through the fridge to see what is leftover from the previous week - especially perishable items -  that can still be used. For example, left over sausage and spinach can be transformed into a delicious pizza. Do the same for your garden (what is fresh that needs to be picked?), freezer and pantry. I find this especially helpful when, sometimes at the end of the month, we need to stretch our budget and keep grocery shopping to a minimum.

4. Pick one protein: Meat is expensive and, though my husband and I are a far cry from vegetarians, we try to limit it in our diet from both a health and a cost-conscious perspective. On a typical week we pick one protein - for example, chicken - and cook with that ingredient throughout the week. Night one might be a roast chicken, night two is an Asian chicken salad (with leftovers), night three is chicken and arugula pitas (again with leftovers), and night four is a butternut squash soup made with chicken broth from the carcass. 

5. Pick recipes that reuse ingredients: As with protein, make the most of everything you buy by finding recipes that reuse leftover food throughout the week. If you're buying arugula for chicken pitas, plan an arugula salad the following night or make an arugula pesto pasta.

6. Substitute in recipes: Have a recipe that calls for parsley or basil but all you have is cilantro? Use the cilantro. Need sour cream for your tacos? How about the plain yogurt already in the fridge. You'd be surprised just how much you can chop your shopping list by thinking ahead and substituting ingredients and trust me - your dinner will be just as delicious.

7. Stay away from prepared/processed foods: We've all heard the old adage to shop the perimeter of the grocery store - produce, proteins, and dairy - and stay away from the aisles upon aisles of processed foods in the middle. This practice is good for your waistline and your pocketbook. The average number of items in a supermarket now tops 50,000 (90% of them, I bet, made from corn). Wow. Something tells me that the goal isn't to offer you more selection, but to get you to buy more stuff.

8. Make your shopping list: I start my shopping list as I begin the planning process so I can see what ingredients I'll need to work into multiple meals.  

9. Do a final check: Go through your list and double-check to make sure you don't already have ingredients on hand. 

10. Shop around:
Especially when it comes to staples, it pays to find the stores in your town with the best deal. For example, we buy our oats from Target, almonds from Trader Joe's, and coconut oil from Whole Foods (yep, they have the best price). Though it takes extra time, check weekly sales flyers for specials - this is a great way to get inspiration for your weekly meal plan.

11. Stick to the list and don't shop mid-week: When you go to the store only buy items on your list. Obvious? Yes. Hard? Oh my, yes. But at this point you don't want to sabotage your hard work by putting that frozen pizza they're sampling at Trader Joe's in your cart. Also, if you find mid-week that you need to run to the store, first ask yourself if you really need that ingredient. Is your soup begging for bread or would a quesadilla made with items you already have suffice? More often that not, you'll find you can make due.

To get you started, below is one of our recent meal plans. When putting this together I took stock of what was already in our fridge/pantry/freezer, which allowed me to keep within our $75 a week grocery budget.

Saturday: Yogurt Marinated Grilled Chicken & Salad
Sunday: Chicken BLTs
Monday: Pesto (from the freezer) Pasta  & Salad
Tuesday: Chicken, Apple and Black Bean Salad
Wednesday: Sweet Potato & Black Bean Burritos
Thursday: Spiced Red Lentils with Onions and Spinach & Brussel Sprouts
Friday: Homemade Margarita Pizza & Brussel Sprouts

In the spirit of sharing meal plan inspiration with fellow frugal mamas (and dads), every few weeks I will post one up to the blog.

How do you organize your family's meals - do you have any favorite tips/meal plans/recipes? Please share in the comments!



You might also like...

1. How my slow cooker got her groove back 
2. Eating Well on the Cheap: Keeping a stocked freezer 
3. Cutting Back - Part Two (aka. my ode to