Looking at ourselves and the world through the lens of the 21st century.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Meal Planning on a Budget


Hi again, Christen here…a long time sufferer of eating cheap. No, for real, eating cheap isn't always healthy and can also be lacking in flavor.  To make matters worse, I used to not plan or meal prep either.  All of that eating on the fly took a big bite out of my budget due to last minute purchases, and there was always some excess of wasted food.

I can’t eat a bowl of cereal for dinner out of convenience anymore now that I am married and have a child. Dinner needs to be prepared in a timely manner, and there are special considerations for our dietary needs. Travis, my husband, has to be extra careful due to the fact that he is diabetic.

A couple of weeks ago when discussing S.M.A.R.T. goals, I mentioned that Travis is now the primary cook in our household. I thought I would delve into the process that we have in place now that allows us to create delicious homemade food from scratch that is simple, filling, healthy and affordable.

There are several things that Travis and I do to ensure that we are on the same page throughout the week when it comes to dinners and getting the household fed. I am currently working 5 nights a week during the dinner hours. Luckily, I am able to have dinner with my family, but I cannot be in the kitchen preparing the meals; Travis really has to manage the kitchen as much as possible. Since I am an avid planner and he is still learning, we connect weekly to put our ideas together, and to plan and execute the shopping to ensure that there are no hiccups. Each meal that is prepared has an associated recipe. Having specific directions ensures that all the ingredients are purchased and used properly. Planning ahead also keeps us from choosing too many unhealthy options. When you give yourself enough time to consider your meals, you are more likely to make healthy choices. Don’t forget to plan for breakfast, lunch, and snacks as well. Having a plan for these meals will keep you within your budget, but also keep you from going back to the store, or ordering take out.

We connect on Thursdays, and Travis brings his recipe suggestions with him along with his day planner. We determine what meals we will be making for the following Monday - Sunday. We consider activities on our calendar and make alterations if certain activities require a quick dinner. Once we have the weekly menu planned out, we post it on the fridge and then go through each recipe to get a shopping list started. The key to this is consistency, you will manage this task more effectively over time, whether doing it solo or as a couple.

Travis and I do not go to the grocery store to shop for our main weekly purchases. We do however visit the Vietnamese market for specialty items, and we use the flyers to purchase meats at specific stores if the price is worth the special trip, all other groceries are ordered through grocery pick up. This strategy limits impulse shopping. We have lowered our grocery bill considerably by not picking up those one-off snacks that catch our eye while going up and down the isles. Our grocery pick up order consists of just the items we need, and we are able to have more restraint and buying power. I can take my time and really shop by reading the labels and determining which product will give me the best value. I also like the fact that I can quickly click on the past purchases that are in my shopping cart on a weekly basis.

I can tell you that grocery pickup and online shopping is handy for lowering your grocery cost, however the most important factor in all of this is the budget. Your finances cannot be controlled unless you have the reins on them. If you wander around the grocery store without a clear plan, and without a budget, your cost will surely go up. Random items picked up in the store add to the cost of your cart, but you don’t see the impact until you are at the register. Determine the maximum you want to spend on your grocery trip, this is your budget for that trip. Also knowing the exact dates you are shopping for is essential. I recommend purchasing groceries once a week so that you can buy fresh produce, meats and bread frequently. Many fresh vegetables and fruits do not have a shelf life beyond a few days, so shopping more frequently ensures you are eating the freshest of foods. Sure, you can buy canned vegetables that last longer, but they are not as healthy, and not always as appetizing. So, to recap your budget strategy, ensure you know what days you are needing to purchase food for, how many meals, number of people being fed, and what you can afford to buy for that time frame. Use the meal plan to keep your shopping list within your budget. Know what you can spend, so that you don’t overspend. If your groceries for the week are exceeding your budget, consider either going meatless for a meal, swapping out a recipe, or doubling up on a recipe that can make enough for leftovers.

If you are  going to be buying in bulk, you will want to have storage that will last. I can’t stand freezer burn or freezer flavor. In the past I would freeze things with good intentions, but oftentimes throw things away after a month or so due to the ice crystals! Travis and I now have a Food Saver,  Here and we love how well our food is preserved. This allows me to purchase the larger pack of chicken, and split the contents up instead of buying two smaller packs of chicken at a higher cost per pound. I also recommend some baskets or storage bins to keep your pantry and refrigerator organized. This helps keep things in order. When food items are stored willy-nilly, they get lost on the shelves and you may end up over purchasing or having items go bad before you get to use them. 

We keep our pantry sorted out into food categories and keep the most relevant items at eye level. 

  • Breakfast items - like cereal and oatmeal
  • Lunch/snack items - these are the free-for-all items that were purchased for lunches such as ramen noodles and soup
  • Dinner items - these are kept separate so that someone doesn’t accidentally eat the can of tuna if it is meant for dinner
  • Baking goods
  • Excess condiments etc. - we go through certain ingredients more rapidly than others, for example olive oil. I have my opened olive oil out where I can reach it, but my backup is in a specific spot - so I know where to grab it when the other one runs out, or I can quickly identify what I have extras of or might need to stock up. This really helps when making the grocery list. 

When it comes to fridge organization, I can be a real stickler. I am the type of person that puts the condiments in the exact same spot every time, and I expect my family to do the same. This can be a challenge, but getting your household involved in the meal planning, preparation and the goings on in the kitchen is important. Once they are onboard and can see the importance of a neatly organized kitchen, they will be more willing to follow your lead. If you are condiment connoisseurs like my family, you probably have more food on your fridge door than anywhere else in your house. We have a sauce for everything, and it can get out of hand really quick. I limit the number of jellies and salad dressing that we open at any given time, I keep all the mustard, mayos (yes, we have more than one mayo), and ketchup in the same general place so they are all together, and I keep all pickled items in a spot together. It seems trivial, but I can guarantee you, if you go through your condiments, give them a good wipe down and take some inventory, you will find something that is about to expire, or is almost run out. Use that time to plan out ways to use that condiment, and get your money's worth.

Fresh is Best
We all know that junk food is cheap and healthy food is more costly. Here is a quick list of everyday essentials that are dirt cheap and as close to unprocessed as you can get. You can make countless meals with these few items. Another great thing about them is that their shelf life is long enough that you can keep plenty on hand.

  • Green onions
  • Yellow onions
  • Garlic
  • Celery
  • Carrots
  • Green bell peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggs
  • Dried Beans
  • Apples
  • Acorn and Butternut squash
  • Old Fashioned Oatmeal
  • Milk
  • Butter
  • Shredded cheese
  • Jalapenos
  • Cilantro
  • Ginger
  • Uncooked Brown Rice
  • Potatoes

Let’s talk about the taboo topic of Left-overs. I am sure there are a lot of you that just don’t do leftovers - and there are just as many reasons why you might not like to eat them. I am not going to harp on anyone for not liking leftover or reheated food,  but consider the amount of money saved if you did not throw your food away, and ate what remained at another time. I will give you some suggestions as to how to overcome it if you are interested in giving it a try. 

  • Some foods can get gross when reheated like lettuce, guacamole, coleslaw, and breading to name a few. So consider leaving those items out when wrapping up the leftovers.
  • Reheated sauces like marinara hold up their consistency in the microwave, whereas sauces like alfredo break down when reheated, changing the flavor and texture.
  • Overcooked vegetables get mushy when reheated. If making extra veggies to pack up, consider cooking the veggies on the firmer side knowing that they will get cooked further the second time around.
  • Reheat your leftovers in the oven when possible to crisp up and prevent sogginess.
  • Leave off dressings, sauces, and fresh garnishes when serving large batches, which can be added after reheating.

I know I have presented a lot of tips all at once. If I had to give just one piece of advice above all, it would be to plan ahead. All of the tips I provided today are actions that require thinking one step ahead and keeping control of what you already have (money and inventory) on hand. I hope that these tips are useful to you and are things that you would consider in order to help you improve your healthy meals on a budget. I know that I focused mostly on the budget versus the healthy, and I did that on purpose – if you can plan ahead, you can make healthy choices.

I would love to hear what you think! Leave me a message in the comments, if there is anything you want  to know more about, please reach out!

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