Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Penny Pinching Healthy-Money Saving Meal Planning

Welcome back, I'm serving up part 1 of a 3 part series in healthy eating on a tight budget or a tight clock. This week is money saving meal planning. Let's dive right in, it's a doozie.

Step 1: Inventory

Before you start actually meal planning, take a look in your fridge, your freezer, and your cabinets. If you happen to have any food in there that isn't dedicated for another meal, find a way to use it. There's no point in having food sit around to possibly go bad while you're buying more food.  Things you should be looking out for...

  • Stuff that comes in 2's, like onion soup packets, 
  • Bulk produce like bags of carrots, potatoes or celery.
  • Toppings and dairy, such as sour cream, yogurts, milk, salad dressings and marinades.
  • Canned goods, such as tuna or soups

The goal is to first plan meals that will use any of these extra's.  Once that's done, you should realistically only be buying what you need for the week, and perhaps stocking up on items that are on sale that you use frequently, such as ingredients for your fail safe dish (more on that later on).

The only ingredients you shouldn't be planning to eat up are the ones for your fail safe dish, those stay on reserve.

Step 2: Sales and Coupons

Next up I suggest that you either look online or stop by your grocery store and get a circular. Find out what is on sale that week. If meat happens to be on sale, and it's so that you can afford it, I suggest stocking up. In this house we use chicken breast and ground beef in almost everything. Occasionally we do steak or pork, but not enough that I can justify stocking up. If you know of meals you can plan that include some of the other sale items, go for it!  Otherwise, you can also use a free site such as Recipe Matcher or My Fridge Food (and you can use either there quick kitchen or their detailed kitchen to find the ingredients that you have on hand or are considering using).  Both of these sites will take the ingredients that you tell it you want to use and give you recipes that incorporate some or all of them.

Whole chickens/turkey's are another great thing.  If you will eat both dark and light meat, and you don't mind getting your hands a little dirty, learn how to debone a bird and use it ALL.  Take all your left over bits and pieces and bones and boil them with a mirepoix for some home made chicken stock which you can either use in a soup that week or freeze/can to use later!  NOTHING is wasted.

Also, if the circular doesn't say it, go chat with the butcher behind the meat counter. They can usually give you a good idea what days, or weeks of the month they mark meats down or on sale so you know what days to shop. Even if it means you just stop by to stock up on that.  Meat and produce are the 2 areas that most of our money goes to from our grocery budget.

You can also check any coupons you may get in the mail, in your weekend newspaper, or even online!

Step 3: Plan

Now on to the actual meal planning. If you don't meal plan, everything else is seemingly useless. Meal planning was a foreign concept to me until recently and even still, there are some parts that I haven't perfected (mainly because to do so for me just yet would be more time consuming than I'm ready to make it). I have purchased this pretty great family planner by Mead that is completely not necessary in order to meal plan, but since I buy a planner for our house every year anyway and this one had meal planning included, it was a no brainer for me.  I snagged mine at Target, and I think it was $10.99 or so (minus 5% because if you don't already, you should rock the no charge, not a credit card Target red card).  There is a printable version here that is pretty darn close if you want just this layout without the whole notebook.  If you're not in the market for a planner or a printable, just take whatever paper you set out to meal plan on and write out Monday-Sunday down the side vertically (this should be the longer side of your paper). Across the top divide it one of two ways. Either into 3rds (breakfast, lunch and dinner) or in to 2 columns (lunch and dinner).

Meal planning is pretty simple when you break it down. At our home my husband and my daughter eat eggs in the morning for breakfast and I do a smoothie.  So, I know at any point in time there needs to be eggs in the basket, cheese, and smoothie ingredients.  For us that means we plan lunches and dinners, 1 week at a time.

Before you fill in your recipes you need to make a decision regarding left overs so you know exactly how much to fill in. You can do one of two things.

        A.) Eat left overs for lunch for the week.  If you're going to do this fill in 1-2 "must go's," nights at most for any left overs that don't get eaten for lunch. One of our must go's nights is ALWAYS the day that we buy groceries and meal prep. It makes it easy to just reheat something rather than worry about finding the counter space in the midst of all that's going on in the kitchen. Since that's Sunday for us, the other must goes night is usually sometime mid week. If for some reason you don't have enough food to do must goes for the amount of times you planned, that's where you fail safe meal comes into play if you don't have anything else you can cook.

        B.) Your other option is to plan lunches additionally and anticipate left overs 2-3 nights that week.

Now, here's the part I don't do that seems too time consuming for me right off hand (because I'm a super visual person). Someone more skilled at this would take into account the ingredients they would have left over's of (say carrots from a bag of carrots, or celery) and plan another dish that week to use them up. I, however, am just not that skilled. But, it's something you can consider doing if you can do it in your brain. I still use them, just in a different manner. This is where step 1 comes in each week, look to see what you may possibly have left over from the previous week. Also, remember that some things you can freeze before they go bad if you don't have use for them very often such as scallions!

I would hope this part goes without saying, but the reason you do inventory and look over sales is to plan recipes that use the ingredients you may already have on hand, or that are on sale that week.

Pay attention to the number of servings your dishes make.  If your dish makes 5 servings, and you're only feeding 3 people the night its made, then you can anticipate getting 2 lunches out of it, or feeding 2 of your 3 people on must goes night with those left overs.  Calculating your left overs will help you be more accurate in how much food you actually need to buy or make that week.

Go ahead and fill in your week according to how you're doing your lunches.  If you're already making a recipe that uses certain ingredients that come in bulk (such as milk, broccoli and other veggies, call for 1lb of ground beef) then it's easy to either account for those left overs or to double the batch using ingredients that you ALREADY HAVE TO BUY ANYWAY to make twice as much instead of something different, and plan for left overs to use.  So, for example, if on Monday you intend to make a taco ring, since it calls for your usual taco toppings such as lettuce, shredded cheddar, tomatoes, sour cream and taco sauce, you might as well make a ring twice as big since it's only going to cost you 1 extra container of croissant rolls and perhaps an additional half pound of ground beef.  Your vine tomatoes already come in a handful of them, same with shredded lettuce or a head of lettuce, and the rest of your toppings.  You now have lunch for the next day or two, or must goes for dinner, it was the same dish with all the same prep work at the same time (not making the dish twice in one week) and you might only be out an additional $3 bucks for another 4-6 meals and perhaps an extra 3 minutes in prep to assemble a larger taco ring instead of a 1 size ring.  It's all about working smarter, not harder :)

Step 4: Your Fail Safe

Your fail safe is a meal that is easy to keep all the ingredients on hand without them going bad in a short span of time.  Why is this important you may ask?  Well, several reasons.  First is you never know what your week is going to bring, or your following week.  If you can't make it to the grocery store the day your meal plan runs up then you'll need some meals to get you by until you can get there.  If your kids bring over friends and eat up some left overs quicker than you were planning for, or you need a quick dinner on the table to feed more than what you planned on your menu that night?  This is your answer.  If you miscalculate your left over amounts, or dinner was such a hit the kids and your hubby had a second helping and now your lunch for the next 3 days is gone?  You have a fail safe.

For us, it's a dish called Crockpot Chicken Taco Chili that I found over at Photo A Day and it is perfect.  All the ingredients are canned or frozen, and some spices.  The most you have to worry about is your frozen stuff getting freezer burn.  If you simply rotate the chicken or veggies when you buy them, then you should be able to avoid any freezer burn.  So, make sure you have your ingredients on hand for your fail safe, ALWAYS!  This dish has saved us more times than I can count, and if for some reason we do go too long without eating it my 2 year old walks around the house saying "beans, beans, beans, matoes (tomatoes), beans."  It's a hit for the whole family, which is also an important part of your fail safe.

So, recap because, let's face it, this post was almost painfully long.

Step 1, take inventory.
Step 2, check out your circulars, sales adds, or coupons!
Step 3, meal plan
Step 4, have a fail safe for any miscalculations or weekly surprises, and make sure you replace the ingredients once you make it!

Absorb it all in guys, you've got a week to sit on this before part 2 comes out!
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