Welcome to Week 1 in the Eat Well, Spend Less series. This week I’m focusing on how meal and menu planning can save you money, including where to start and what to think about as you’re planning for the most financial benefit.
Food prices seem to be soaring. When I look back and think of the early days of my family’s grocery budgeting, I’m amazed at how much we could do with so very little. The dollars stretched on forever, and the sale prices were just that much lower. This seems incredibly true of just the last few months, too.
It’s the grocery receipts in those last months that brought a group of us together to discuss how we all make the budget come together while still eating real food and providing our families with healthy options. Whether you want to change the types of food you eat now still sticking to your budget or you’re looking for ways to make eating whole foods work for you, I hope you’ll join us for the Eat Well, Spend Less series the next three weeks.
The Way We Eat
It’s no secret that organic foods cost more. A stroll through any grocery store aisle can confirm that. It really is common sense when you break it down. Not only do you get smaller yields when you aren’t pumping plants full of pesticides, but you also have to pay to be licensed as organic and to label the food as organic.
Add to that this increasing culture where suddenly eating whole foods is elitist, and you have a perfect opportunity to jack up the price of foods that are less processed. Less processed, meaning there is less manpower needed to get those foods out to consumers. Suddenly, organic whole foods are a commodity that you’ll pay a pretty penny for.
If you’re a regular reader, then you’ve seen the menu go up every week, and perhaps you even view it as the most boring post I do each week. Boring as it may seem, those menus are integral to how I feed my family and make it work for us. They allow us the ability to eat well and still have money to allow us to celebrate now and then with pricier cuts of meat and a good bottle of wine.
Basic Meal Planning
Make a list of what you have.
Start with what is already in your house. Are there carrots left from last week or some celery that went unused but is still in good shape? Those are the things that should be noted first. Plus, life gets busy sometimes, and you may have full meals that didn’t get made. List those as your starting points for the upcoming week. It also helps to have a well-stocked pantry to pull from.
Choose one food for many meals.
When you plan to eat meals that incorporate the same ingredients, you’re going to be purchasing less food. Then, by repurposing those “leftovers” you’re bound to have anyway, you’ll save on the number of meals you’re buying. How often do you pack up the leftover rice, pasta, vegetables and proteins in your fridge, where they get shoved to the back only to be unearthed a week or two later and then tossed into the trash? Planning those leftovers into meals of their own will cut down on the waste and the cost.
Some of our favorite “starter” foods and the many meals they can make:
- Whole chicken (or turkey): chicken dinner, chicken salad, chicken wraps, sandwiches, fried rice, stock and soups, casseroles, curry.
- Rice: side dishes, casserole bases, fried rice, added to soups, rice balls.
- Pasta: main dishes, pasta salads, casserole bases.
- Bread: alongside soup, croutons, French toast, breakfast bakes, as pizza crust.
- Beef: as steak or roast, stir fry, sandwich toppings.
- Seafood: grilled or pan-fried as dinner, fish tacos, pastas, stirred into mac and cheese.
Make lunch when you make dinner.
In addition to planning to use the same foods in multiple meals, we also plan on cooking with actual leftovers in mind. Making an extra portion isn’t going to take extra time, but it will give my husband lunch for the next day. This way, we aren’t spending all of our money on dedicated lunch items, as it’s often cheaper to buy in bulk and to buy an extra couple ounces of meat than it is to buy bread, lunchmeat and all the condiments for sandwiches for a family of 6, 7 days a week.
Start from scratch.
When you’re planning your menu and meals, don’t be afraid to negate the cost of breads and other convenience foods and opt to make your own. Start making bread at home for different purposes. Flatbreads and pizza crusts take no time at all, and you can even do things ahead of time with methods like Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. The dough rests in the fridge and only comes out to play when you’re ready to use it. It’s a timesaver and a frugal way to cook.
Plan a catchall meal at the end of the week.
The best way to use up all the vegetable odds and ends and leftover scraps that weren’t accounted for is to plan a meal out of it. Some of our favorite catchall meals are:
- Fried rice: not only can you use up leftover rice, but you can add any leftover vegetables and meat as well for a quick and easy meal.
- Pizza and calzones: Chop up leftover vegetables and cooked meats and set them out for your family to top their own personal pizzas with.
- Casseroles: The classic catchall bakes together and becomes a meal. Add in a few herbs, a stock and you have yourself a meal.
- Soups: Leftover rice, vegetables, pasta and meat can easily become a hearty dinner.
Purchase produce seasonally.
Produce that’s in season costs less. Shopping at the farmers’ market is a great way to ensure that you’re buying seasonally, since the farmers there will be carrying what is already in season. Other options include a CSA box, where you purchase a share of a local farm and then get weekly or biweekly allotments of what is being harvested throughout the growing months. These are great ways to save, and seasonal items should be taken into account when planning your meals, and that goes for what is growing in your backyard as well.
While growing your own food may not be a viable option for everyone, most of us can at least have a small container of herbs. If you have the space for a garden, it’s a great way to eat whole food for cheap. A small packet of seeds costs a couple dollars, and with some time and watering, you can easily grow more tomatoes than you can possibly eat in one sitting, making canning and freezing a great way to get you through winter months when seasonal produce is limited.
Next week we’ll be sharing some of our favorite meals and how they work together as well as budgeting, but in the meantime, do visit the other lovely ladies who are a part of the Eat Well, Spend Less series and see what they have offered for you today:
- Aimee from Simple Bites
- Alyssa from Kingdom First Mom
- Carrie from Denver Bargains
- Jessica from LifeasMOM
- Katie from Good Life Eats
- Katie from Kitchen Stewardship
- Mandi from Life Your Way
- Tammy from Tammy’s Recipes