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Meal Planning to Save Time and Money
I have heard of the wonderful idea called meal planning many times over the past few years and every time I read a post about it I love the idea of having all of our meals planned out at the start of the month but quickly come to the realization that we are not that great at planning out our meals. We are very last minute dinner makers and our only “planning” is to decide what meat and vegetables we want during our weekly Costco trip and then cobble together a meal based on what else we have lying around. And let me tell you, that is after years of making a serious effort at not just going to the store the day of to buy whatever we want for dinner. I will confess that we used to go to Costco multiple times during the week, sometimes daily, to pick up one or two items (at least we were good at only getting what we needed right?) and make dinner that night. There was no planning involved. It was all very haphazard and as you can guess we ended up throwing out a bunch of food because we would forget what we actually had at home.
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I went back to work a couple of weeks ago so I thought we would try a little bit of meal planning to reduce the stress of trying to figure dinner out every night. I got a full-time job which I am really excited about but I have not worked full-time since my oldest daughter was a preteen so needless to say it will be a huge adjustment for our family. I worked very part-time before and after our 4 year old was born and quit when she was about a year to stay home and I am really appreciative of my time as a stay at home mom but it is time for me to go back to work. I did not have my act together enough to have all of the meal planning ready for all of April but we are going to try it out for a couple of weeks and see how it goes.
Planning Out Grocery Trips
We have made a genuine effort to cut back on our Costco trips and most of the time we are really good at going once a week now. I am still going to the store more than I would like but we have discovered that certain items are cheapest at a particular store and many of the dairy-free items we buy are not at the same store so it leads to multiple outings. Generally throughout the month I go to Target, Whole Foods, and Fred Meyer once or twice each depending on how much dairy-free milk and cheese we go through. Target has the cheapest price on the milk our kids like, Whole Foods has the best price on their yogurt and cheese and Fred Meyer has the best price on soy milk for the adults, the dairy-free yogurt I like and on Luna bars which have become a great source of protein and calcium for our kids and sometimes the only thing I eat for breakfast. The morning rush out the door for us is no joke and many times I do not have time to eat so I always keep a couple of Luna bars in the car to munch on during my morning drive. They are also great for those morning when the kids sleep in and are too tired to eat before we leave. Hands down the family’s favorite flavor is the Chocolate Peppermint flavor. They go super fast in our house!
Once every few months I make a trip to our local Franz Bakery outlet to purchase massive quantities of bread. This particular run netted me so much bread I had to do quite a bit of rearranging to fit everything in the freezer and it only cost us $19.98. It would have been $10.00 but I bought two loaves of gluten-free raisin bread for my peanut butter toast in the morning and they are sadly $5.00 each but they are way more in the regular grocery store and I was able to get an extra pack of hot dog buns out of it so it saved us an extra couple of dollars that way too. Most of it goes in the freezer as soon as we get home and we slowly work through it over a couple of months. My kids love bagels and sandwiches on hot dog buns and at 4 for $5.00 and a free loaf of bread for every $10.00 you spend it is a bargain you can’t beat. Having a freezer full of bread is also a great way to always have a meal on hand. You just need a few extras stored away and you are set for a week even if you have a week where grocery shopping is not in your budget. For this reason we always have peanut butter, sun butter, jam, frozen hamburger patties and some sort of meat for sandwiches on hand. Bagels can also be made easily into breakfast sandwiches with an egg and a little mayo or of course with cream cheese (we buy this brand for our dairy-free people in the house). Since I have a freezer full of bread I also have no qualms about gifting it when requests for food due to financial stress come up in our Buy Nothing group. Sadly this has become a frequent occurrence in our group and 95% of the cases are a genuine need from families that have come upon rough times with no emergency funds.
Meal Planning Motivation
After participating in the Uber Frugal Month Challenge this past January I was amazed at how we were cooking way too much food on a weekly basis. We still have not adjusted to having one less adult in the house and having our daughter home for an extended Christmas break threw off our cooking schedule. In January we also ate less meat and for some reason we just didn’t need to cook more. Our fridge was emptier but we still had plenty to eat. We only had to cook every few days and we still had extras for lunch.
Then came February and we hit a few bumps in the reducing our food waste bandwagon. We hosted a large group of people, threw a birthday party, attended several friend’s birthdays (free lunch!), had major illness in the family and our oldest daughter was in and out for a couple of weekends and we ended up buying a lot of food we didn’t end up needing (I am looking at you lettuce I found in the back of the fridge). I am not even sure if we made our grocery budget because I have not had a chance to look at it. Needless to say we need to make some changes and make more of an effort to reduce our food waste and stay on track with our budget. Cleaning out the fridge this week and finding tons of little containers with a mouthful of food or two was a huge motivator to be more conscious of the food we are buying.
Meal Planning How-to
The basic idea of meal planning is to sit down at the start of the week or month and write out a plan of what you want to eat every day. Some people get very involved and write out breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks so that they know exactly what they will eat for every meal. There are a bunch of different ways to write out your meals and you should probably use which ever one makes the most sense to you. Some people make a spreadsheet, use a printed calendar, use a digital calendar, us a planner or even just write it out on a piece of paper and tape it to the fridge. The important thing is to look ahead and see exactly how much food you need to buy without wasting any. A lot of people do this by buying one item that can be used many different ways. For instance, we buy chicken in bulk from Costco and that is our meat for the week. One day we might have fried chicken, another teriyaki chicken, another “basic chicken” and then we would use leftovers on a salad, in soup or even as chicken salad so that the one jumbo pack of chicken lasts the whole week (or even two if you incorporate vegetarian meals as well).
This past month we did this with a ham we bought. My husband found it at Safeway with a 50% off sign and the entire 20lb ham ended up costing us about $7.50. It was a steal! Mr. Oscoey heated it up with the sous vide so it would not dry out and then sliced a large chunk of it. We then ate it over rice with steamed vegetables, in sandwiches and also cold straight from the bag (our kids’ favorite method of consumption). He also made a delicious ham broth out of the bone and used that to make a lentil soup that also used up some carrots in our fridge. We still have a lot left that we sliced and put into the freezer.
Getting Started with Meal Planning
We are going to start our mini-meal plan adventure next week. This week we have a wonky schedule due to the flu going through our house and nobody is eating their normal meals. Next week is Spring Break but neither my husband or I can take any time off since we were home so much with the kids this past week. On Friday I am going to sit down and finalize a plan for just our dinners for the week. We have sandwich stuff for lunches and I will just need to buy some fresh fruit this weekend and breakfast is usually toast, oatmeal or cereal with eggs. Baby steps are the key to making any change in our household!
Our plan will be something like:
Sunday: chicken, rice, roasted Brussels sprouts
Monday: leftover chicken, steamed peas/salad, rice
Wednesday: chicken nuggets, steamed green beans, carb (Dance Night so we have to eat quickly and early)
Thursday: chicken cooked a new way, Beans, salad/corn
Friday: My husband usually comes home early enough on Fridays to cook dinner so I will have to see what he is thinking but I have a feeling we will be having more chicken
Saturday: Grocery shopping day! We will see what new meat we buy for the week and go from there!
It will be interesting to see how the week plays out and how well we stick to our plan! Have you tried meal planning with any success?
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A little while ago I wrote about how we have been working on our budget and how I use Quicken to track our finances. I love the Savings Goals category and it has helped us tremendously the last few months to keep track of how much we have available for our bigger expenses that happen a few times a year. Another way we have been trying to wrangle our budget is by cutting back on our food spending. We rarely eat out. We stopped many years ago when we first started looking at our budget and now that we have food allergies it is nearly impossible to find something that works for everyone. Mr. Oscoey is also an excellent cook and usually when we eat out we are left with the feeling that the money was not worth eating food that we could have made better at home so now we just eat out maybe 5 or six times a year for special occasions.
When we first started looking at our expenses many years ago about the time of the recession of 2008 we did what most people were typically doing around that time. All of our focus went towards paying down debt and getting ahead in our careers. We cut out many things. All of our remodeling plans were on indefinite hold, vacations had to be done on the cheap and we brought our own food for lunch, new clothing was something that required great discussion and personal reflection as to whether it was necessary and we rarely spent money on family activities. We kept our grocery budget tight and managed to spend about $400 for three people and two small dogs. Our food got a little predictable but we got really good at making meals out of whatever was in the fridge. We followed these simple rules to keep our grocery budget in check.
Frugal Food Spending Basics
- Eating out should be saved for a few special occasions a year. (Birthdays do not necessarily count)
- Shop sales and buy frequently used items in bulk.
- Plan you meals around what you have in the house.
- Buy produce that is in season and buy a lot of it to can, freeze or dehydrate.
- Buy meat that has not been cut into convenience sized pieces and cut it yourself. (whole pork loin, pork shoulder, bone-in/skin on chicken thighs)
- Spend a limited amount of money on junk food and cook/bake the rest.
- Going out for coffee counts as one of your rare “eating out” times and should be avoided if at all possible.
- Learn how to cook your own food, believe me it is worth it!
- Keep portion sizes under control.
- Pack your lunch every day.
- Planned leftover dinner nights help prevent food waste.
I look back on that time with my husband with fondness. We really worked together as a family to make things work. Our oldest daughter swam competitively and we spent our family time in the cheapest hotel room we could find wherever her competitions were located. The three of us spent a lot of time hanging out at home and going on walks with the dogs. Life was pretty simple and even though we didn’t have a lot of wiggle room with our finances we still had a bunch of fun.
Everything changed when we had our second daughter. Our grocery budget doubled when she started solid foods and we were still buying whatever was on sale, mostly non-organic foods that were not processed. Slowly our super tight budget began to slip as our expenses grew. We moved a couple of years ago and then promptly had our son who was super high needs as a baby. Let me tell you when you are up all night with a screaming child and then trying to stay awake all day with kids that do not nap (even your six month old) it is really easy to give in and buy whatever you can microwave for the kids to eat. By the time dinner rolled around I was too exhausted to cook and since our kids needed to eat before Mr. Oscoey came home from work he could not cook dinner either. Needless to say our grocery budget went out the window and one day after the one year old started sleeping through the night I looked over our budget and was shocked by how much we were spending.
The first thing I did was to focus on what we were eating and when we were buying our food. It turned out that we were not really paying attention at all to what we actually needed but buying things willy-nilly when we were in the mood for them which resulted in a lot of uneaten food and things being buried in the back of the pantry. We were going to the grocery store almost every day to pick up one or two items and ending up with a basket of food. This my friends is not a good way to keep your grocery budget in check!
Once I figured out why we were spending so much I started to try and figure out how to fix it. I spent some time on Pinterest building up my Frugal Living board where I got some great tips, started paying attention to prices when I went to the store and started working on a grocery list every week. We buy most of our groceries at Costco so I when I pre-entered my scheduled transactions every month in Quicken I started adding my weekly grocery budget in there as well. This way I had a rough idea of how much we could spend every week and I definitely adjust it based on the previous week. Some weeks we only buy meat and a starch and others we stock up on most of our basics so it really varies but it is ok as long as we stay within our monthly budget.
What has worked for us so far is to have a rough idea of what we are eating for dinner that week and I try to buy as little as possible and make it work. If something is on sale I will stock up and most of our grocery money will go towards that item. We are mostly dairy and gluten free and the kids can’t have nuts packed in their school lunches so it gets a little tricky when I am trying to figure out what to send. I am required to send milk with the littlest one and he will only drink chocolate soy milk so I have been watching the prices on the individual Silk Soy Milk cartons and when they are below $1.00 each I buy as many as possible. Fred Meyers had them on sale a few weeks ago for $4.49 for a pack of 6 when you bought four so I bought four of them and got an excellent deal! I would have bought another four but I bought the last four they had. We also base what we are going to eat off of what is on sale. This week we bought a whole pork loin at Costco because they had them on coupon. It is much cheaper to buy the whole loin and cut it up yourself than to buy the pre-cut pieces. We have done this for many years and it is a great way to save money on meat!
Once I figured where our money was going I spent a couple of more months slowly building up our pantry so that we had items on hand when we could not go to the store due to either time constraints or when we had reached the end of our budget. This readily available stash of basics also serves as our emergency food supply. Everyone should have a couple of weeks worth of necessities stocked up! Here in the Pacific Northwest we worry about earthquakes and windstorms primarily but your emergency food supply can also be used in times of financial stress such as if you lose your job or are injured and paying large amounts of money for medical care. I buy one or two items a week to add to the pantry for leaner times. This week we bought some pre-made Spanish rice packets on clearance at Target. They were about $1.50 each and we bought three of them so our total was about $5.00. We also bought some sardines on sale at Costco which my husband and kids love to eat for lunch with avocados. To stock up we just bought two packs instead of one. They should last until the next sale and we can use them if the power ever goes out for a quick meal. It is really important that you stock your emergency food supply with items you will actually eat in every day life otherwise you will end up with a lot of food you will never eat. If we happen to buy something that we don’t end up eating I usually donate it to the local food bank or to someone in need on our Buy Nothing group.
When figuring out our monthly food budget I also looked at what type of things we were eating and tried to add more cheap carbs such as potatoes, cereal, beans and rice to make our dollar stretch farther. We now do a vegetarian/low meat meal at least once a week and usually it consists of a soup (lentil, bean, or noodle based) with vegetables that are needing to be eaten and home made chicken broth from leftover chicken bones, spaghetti with leftover meat and extra veggies added to the sauce or burritos made with rice, beans and leftover meat. I try and have the kids eat cereal or oatmeal a few times a week and they eat eggs almost every day for breakfast as well. We stopped buying junk food and are all eating healthier as a result.
Another way we tried to save money on our grocery bill was to grow a garden. This year was our first year so we had to buy a lot of gardening supplies such as plant boxes, soil, trellises and hoses so we definitely spent more than we saved but I think over time our costs will go down and we may begin to save a little money. It was well worth it for us to see the magic in our kids eyes when they eat the food they helped grow and we are eating more organic foods because we do not use pesticides. Every day my kids ask to pick ground cherries and that is their afternoon snack. All of our ground cherry plants are freeloaders that sprouted from last year’s $3.00 plant sale find so that was definitely money well spent! We haven’t really had to buy vegetables for a few weeks and we are overrun with tomatoes at the moment so I have really been enjoying the savings on our grocery bill! I would recommend starting out small if you haven’t ever grown a garden before and be mindful of how much water you will be using since that is a hidden cost of gardening.
Overall our quest to reduce our groceries has mostly been about awareness and working on not overspending. Every time we go to the store we ask ourselves if we really need whatever item or if we could just use something on hand. We are really working hard at not wasting our food and building our weekly shopping trip off of what we already have, not what we would fancy at the moment. Our bill has gone down a little and we still need to work on that but we are headed in the right direction and now that we are more aware it is becoming so much easier to keep track! My focus over the next few months is to reduce our grocery bill by about 25% which is a lot going though the holiday season. We host Thanksgiving, birthdays and events for our friends over the next few months so not going overboard with the cooking will be a welcomed challenge.
How are you cutting back on your grocery bill?
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Banana bread was one of those things I always meant to make but never got around to. We would put bananas in the freezer and inevitably forget about them. I have tossed so many bananas into the yard waste I can’t even remember. Part of our plan to be more frugal is to waste less food. Food waste is a huge problem, especially in America with up to 40% of all food produced wasted according to the National Resources Defense Council. Many people buy more than they need and a lot of it gets tossed out. We have always gone through the pantry a couple of times a year and donated what we are not eating but that is harder to do with the lettuce you fully intended to eat but has now formed a mushy mess in the bottom of the vegetable drawer. I have been really working hard at lowering our produce waste lately and only buying enough fruits and vegetables for us to actually eat.
Our efforts have been working and we no longer have several bananas in the freezer or mushy lettuce in the fridge but we do run out of fresh fruit and vegetables sometimes but you know what? It is completely fine. I keep frozen fruit and vegetables in the freezer and when we run out I make sure to go to the store the next possible day. We have gotten much better about buying only what we need and now that our berries and squash are beginning to ripen I don’t really have to worry about running out. We just head out to the garden and see what we can find. Right now we have blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and huckleberries ripe and my kids have been out there daily munching away.
Finding a good banana bread recipe was a difficult task. We don’t like it very sweet and it needed to be easy enough for me to put together with the kids running around. I found this one at Mr.Breakfast.com several months ago that I absolutely love. We have since gone gluten and diary-free and I have been able to adapt it easily with pre-made gluten-free flour and coconut oil. I also cut the sugar in half because we are trying to reduce our sugar intake in our house.
I found some gluten-free flour at Costco that I thought I would try it with this banana bread and so far I have been really pleased with it. I can’t taste any garbanzo beans and unsuspecting family members haven’t been able to tell the difference so I may branch out to something else. I have been hearing about this butter flavored coconut oil for months in my mom’s group and I used it with the banana bread. I am not sure if it is worth the extra cost yet. The container is not very big and using 8 tablespoons for the banana bread recipe made a huge dent in it so I might just reserve it for recipes where it really matters. Ha ha don’t look at the salt I used. We have been out of Kosher salt the last couple of weeks and my husband and I kept forgetting to buy it. He is a huge salt lover though so we have many different kinds stashed away in the cupboard and the sea salt made the cut as our temporary substitute. Do you guys ever do that? A box of Kosher salt lasts us many months and we never remember to buy it when we are out. Somehow since we rarely need salt it slips our minds every time we are at the store. I should probably start buying two so we have an extra for our emergency kit.
First things first measure out your coconut oil and your sugar.
Cream them in a bowl. I am fond of the hand mixer for smaller jobs but you could use a stand mixer as well.
Beat 2 eggs into a bowl.
Mash up your bananas. I did them one by one in the egg bowl to save on dishes.
Add your flour slowly. I split it into 2 1/2 cups and 1/4 cup and slowly mixed them in.
Yum! If you like nuts or chocolate chips in your banana bread you can add them here. My son is too young for nuts so I leave them out. We also don’t eat a lot of sugar so I leave out the chocolate chips.
Pour your mixture into a greased loaf pan and tamp it down. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
There you have it! Yummy banana bread fresh out of the oven. The hardest part is waiting for it to cool!
Gluten-free Dairy-free Banana Bread
Quick and easy banana bread easily made gluten and dairy-free.
- 8 Tablespoons Coconut oil (or butter)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 beaten eggs
- 3 bananas
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 and 1/4 cups All Purpose Gluten-Free Flour mix
- Optional 1/3 cups Walnuts
- Step 1 Grease a standard loaf pan and set oven temperature to 350 degrees.
- Step 2 Cream the coconut oil and sugar together in a large bowl.
- Step 3 Beat two eggs together and add them as well as three mashed bananas to the bowl.
- Step 4 Mix in salt and baking soda. Add flour, mixing slowly.
- Step 5 Bake for 40-50 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean in the center of the loaf.