This is part 2 in a series. Start here: Stretching your Budget Part 1: How to Shop
Now that you’re thinking about the way to shop, let’s talk about what goes in your cart.
When you’re reining in your budget, the things you purchase are dictated by what you are actually planning on eating. We’ve all stood in front of a refrigerator and pantry stuffed full of food and bemoaned that there is “nothing to eat”. And sometimes, if what you have is a haphazard melange of unplanned ingredients, you’re kind of right!
I know that the words “Meal Plan” might make you cringe in horror, but it’s been transformative to our budget, our dining, and our time. Start by making a list of meals for a week…if trying to plan all 21 meals at once feels too overwhelming, begin with just dinners. Seven entrees, sides, and starches (and a few desserts!) are much more manageable, especially if you’re new to planning your meals out ahead of time.
We have three small children who can sometimes be rather picky about what they eat, so here’s a sample of what we might have in our meal plan on any given week: teriyaki chicken & rice with zucchini, spaghetti & meat sauce with peas and homemade rolls, homemade minestrone soup & grilled cheese, leftover day!, grilled chicken & pasta with steamed carrots, chicken burritos (using leftover chicken from the day before) & refried beans and salad, breaded white fish & rice with asparagus. We make sure to pair every meal with some sort of seasonal veggie and if you have everything on hand, you can mix it up throughout the week. Decide you’d rather have chicken tonight and you’re scheduled for soup? No problem! Just swap them in your schedule, but be sure that you stick with your overall plan. The worst thing you can do to your budget is throw away good food that has spoiled because you didn’t get around to eating it.
If time constraints are a problem for you, slow cookers are a godsend. We will often cook a roast in our Crock-Pot and use it for several meals. We’ll have it the first night with homemade gravy and stewed vegetables, then slice some of it for sandwiches the following day for lunch, then finally we cube the leftovers into small pieces and, with the addition of stock and vegetables, we make soup. We’ve also learned to make simple, filling soups like butternut squash or pumpkin soup using sauteed onions, chicken stock, cream and spices. Another time saver is to think about cooking not just one meal at a time but plan for later meals as you prep ingredients. For example, if you have to chop half an onion for tonight’s dinner, chop the whole thing, use what you need and either refrigerate the rest for use later in the week or freeze the rest to use in a soup.
Now that you have a meal plan, it’s time to make a shopping list. I always start by reviewing what I already have in the pantry and fridge so I know if I’m missing ingredients before heading to the store. Since we’ve been using Cozi, we seldom discover that we’re out of main ingredients, but there have been a few times that the kids have polished off something (like all the milk!) without letting us know so it’s just better to check quickly.
Here’s an example of what is usually on My Weekly List:
- Milk – our store has a lower price if you buy two, so we always buy in quantities of two
- Eggs – check the price between 12 and 18…18 is usually cheaper and you can boil them to add as a protein to salads and more. We use a lot of eggs in our house, so we buy the larger box of 5 dozen eggs as the price savings is huge…it works out to around $1.60 a dozen.
- Bread – during the winter, I’ll make it, but definitely not during the summer and it can take quite a lot of time the first few times. Sometimes it’s just worth it to buy it. Be sure to price shop as I’ve found the same gourmet brands of bread at multiple stores in our little town for $1.50 and nearly $6 with the same sell by dates.
- Meat/Fish/Poultry – in season fish is always less expensive and if you have a freezer, take advantage of sales and bulk pricing to freeze extra chicken, ground beef, pork chops, roasts, etc. It will get you through times when cash is tight. Don’t be afraid of a red meat with a little fat. It will be more flavorful, most of the fat will cook out and you’ll actually end up eating less other junk. If you buy things in bulk to freeze, it’s easiest to put portions on a cookie sheet on waxed paper, freeze for a few hours and then put it all in a good ziploc. This keeps it from making one big mass of meat that you have to thaw and use all at once.
- Vegetables – stay in season if possible as in season veggies are cheaper and usually have more flavor. In our house we eat a lot of broccoli, cauliflower, celery, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, lettuce, spinach and squash.
- Fruit – Again, stay in season if possible. Local is even better. We eat a lot of apples, oranges, grapes, melons, bananas, and strawberries. We get a lot of peaches, plums and cherries in the summer from local farm stands.
- Staples – Whatever staples we are low on or have run out of
In Part 3, I’ll give you a rundown on staples you can always find in my pantry as well as an itemized list of what I bought on a recent grocery trip!