My friend described her mother’s meal-planning approach: every day she’d browse through Bon Apetit, choose a recipe, and shop for the ingredients. My mom, who was feeding a family of seven, would scan the grocery circular and build meals around the sale items. Not everyone has the time or inclination peruse food magazines or even grocery ads, yet planning ahead for meals is one of the best ways to stay within your food budget.
When we were first married I planned meals a month in advance! Now I spend less than ten minutes per week meal-planning, and my family eats healthfully on half the USDA’s “low-cost” food plan. Check out these simple speed-strategies that may be quite different from your parent’s approach to meal planning.
- Create a rotation of familiar favorites.
What are your favorite meals to cook and eat? List five to seven ideas, or however often you make dinner at home. Next, write a “master” grocery list including all the items you need for these meals. Save it digitally and check which items you need to replenish before grocery shopping. If you’re a diehard creature of habit, you might like to assign each dish to a certain night of the week. It takes all the guesswork out and is a great way to get in the habit of cooking at home.
- Schedule themed days.
Maybe you can’t stand the thought of eating the same meals week after week. Instead, create a schedule of themed days that allow for more flexible. For example, Taco Tuesdays could involve different proteins or toppings, while still offering some structure to speed meal planning. Other themes ideas include main ingredients like Pasta Night, Meatness Monday; your favorite ethnic cuisine; or a go-to dish, such as pizza or curry. (My all-time favorite is Leftover Night)
- Batch cooking tailored to your schedule.
Is one part of your week busier than another? On less hectic days I like to cook larger, more involved meals that will provide leftovers later in the week. I also might cook a lot of one protein, to be used into two or more dishes. For example, shredded chicken or ground beef can be incorporated into a wide variety of recipes. Or grilled or baked proteins can later be served with different sauces. You can batch cook more than one meal at once, or simply prep a protein to streamline meal prep later in the week.
- Planning around protein sales.
If you want to shop sales but feel overwhelmed by grocery ads or remembering prices, focus on purchasing your proteins on sale, since this is often the most expensive ingredient in a recipe. See what’s on sale—ahead of time if possible—and brainstorm two or three meals using that same main ingredient as the basis for your recipe. Pinterest, Yumly, or other recipe curating web sites might help if you need ideas. But if you find those sites overwhelming, it’s better to stick with your favorite cookbook.
- Planning by cooking method.
For the busiest days, I plan ahead for quick recipes using the grill or pressure cooker. If I’ll have time at home but want a hands-off dish, the oven is my friend. Sometimes I want to unwind through culinary therapy and choose a hands-on, stove-top recipe. Of course the slow cooker is a stand-by for long busy days. Connecting these cooking methods to your scheduling needs can help set you up for meal planning success.
- Mix & match.
I use a combination of the ideas above to power meal planning. Practice has helped me become flexible and fast about making our menu, but I continue to think in categories: meatless dishes, 2 dishes from a large package of chicken, Thai, Indian, Mexican, etc. I enjoy trying one new recipe some weeks. This keeps things interesting and allows us to discover new favorite while keeping home cooking manageable throughout the week.
- Subscription services that plan meals for you.
If none of the ideas above appeal to you or meal-planning is just not your thing, you might try one of the subscription services that do the work for you. Many allow you to specify dietary restrictions, food preferences, and even tailor menus to weekly sales at various grocery chains. An affordable menu service could actually help you lower foods costs by reducing over-spending, food waste, and last minute dining out. I’ve never used one, but if you could recommend one, we’d appreciate your comments!
For more tips for cutting back your grocery budget without sacrificing nutrition, check out:
Do you find meal planning saves you money? How do you plan meals?
Happy Memorial Day! It’s time to plant the garden. Gardening is an ultimate pretend-to-be-poor pastime: it’s fun, gets you into the sunshine and fresh air, and produces something useful and healthy that you would’ve otherwise had to buy. Unlike hobbies that require lots of expensive equipment or fees and may take time away from the family and friends, gardening is inexpensive, easier than you might think, and a great way to bond with your kids. They love playing in dirt, watering plants, and eating straight from the garden. Growing our own food has made us a richer, healthier, and happier family, and in this post we’ll share some of our tips and tricks for inexpensive organic gardening.
Gardening isn’t all about the return on investment, though. If you run a cost-benefit analysis of gardening, don’t compare your harvest to the industrialized farming products you buy at the grocery store, where the tomatoes taste like red nothing. Compare it to the cost of organic, local, responsibly-raised vegetables that taste amazing. Because everything tastes better from the garden!
Yes, gardening is fun, frugal, and relatively easy. But gardening also teaches you a skill, and knowing how to grow your own food is quite valuable. Working the soil also connects you with nature, the past, and how people have always obtained food. When you grow heirloom tomatoes, for example, you’re linking yourself with hundreds of years of history. How nostalgic to think I can enjoy the same type of tomato my grandmother ate.
Neil would add that gardening is a very manly activity. Producing something by the labor of your own muscles, while securing food for your family the good old-fashioned way, is the essence of masculinity in his book. He also enjoys trouble-shooting the many mini-engineering problems that arise from the endeavor.
I’d found gardening has made me a better grocery shopper. Not only do I save money on produce in the summer, I have a richer appreciation for buying fruits and vegetables in-season, locally when possible, and understanding why organic foods and certain vegetables cost more. Knowing all it takes to get from seed to store helps me make better, healthier choices as a consumer.
Lastly, remember that any hobby can become expensive if you make it that way. Take biking, for example. You could buy a used bike, an basic helmet, and maybe a reflector or two and gain an inexpensive and even money-saving hobby. Or you could go all out on special biking clothes, accessories, a bike that costs more than our car. Gardening is similar; you can go overboard buying fancy extra’s, but you don’t need to make a huge investment. Here’s what you need to get started:
Save on soil by making your own instead of buying expensive bags of dirt. Look for someone who is having a pool put in & get their dirt. For fertilizer, go to a horse farm and get their poo. Seriously, just call around, they are glad to get rid of it.
Don’t have a truck? No problem. If you’re driving that old frugal-mobile, you’ll have no qualms about putting down a tarp & loading up the back of it with dirt & manure. We’ve hauled lots of both, multiple times, all without a truck. It’s one more reason not to drive a new vehicle.
No yard? No worries. We began gardening in pots on our apartment balcony and expanded to a plot rented at the community garden for $8/summer, which included access to water. When we bought a house we found the soil was too full of clay so we built raised beds. We’d recommend these as they solve lots of problems, including soil composition, drainage, tilling, etc. The most economical shape to build is an 8′ x 4′ rectangle. Purchase 3, 8′ boards and cut one in half. It’s the perfect shape to plant 3 rows of vegetables in each bed. Here’s a picture of one of ours full of lettuce, onions and a few tomatoes.
We also compost in a bin built out of old (free) pallets. Put your plant-matter waste, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags, grass clippings and old leaves in there, stir periodically, and let the magic happen. Make two, and alternate each year.
Go to a small garden center and buy plants by the flat instead of individual pots at the big box store. If you know what you’re doing, starting from seed is even more economical. Some plants, like cucumbers, sugar snaps, and lettuce, are easy to grow from seed directly sowed into the ground.
What should you grow? Naturally growing what you like and buy anyway is a good value. Our garden hobby was born from our penchant for fresh salsa. But some plants require more time or care than others. We’ve found the best-value vegetables to be lettuce, sugar snaps (peas), tomatoes, cucumbers, hot peppers, green beans, and herbs. These are fairly easy to grow. Zucchini is notoriously easy as well. Other foods, like asparagus, are a little more difficult or take longer to grow, but are expensive to buy, making them a good value. We also grow raspberries, strawberries, horseradish, and fruit trees (apple, pear, plum, and peach).
In our opinion the worst value is carrots. They take up space all summer, don’t produce much, and are inexpensive to buy (though, like everything, they taste better from the garden). Bad values also include anything you don’t like or don’t have success growing (for us the latter includes watermelon & corn).
This is not a huge expense, but we use a rain barrel & save about $20 per month in the summer on water & sewer bills. A soaker hose is a good investment, too. It’s full of little holes and lays on the grown right next to the plants so more water gets right to the soil, rather than evaporating off the leaves.
Keep it simple. We get by with an inexpensive trowel (which doubles as a sandbox shovel), a shovel, a pitchfork for compost, and a couple hoses (some free from the garbage). Neil also received a wheelbarrow as a birthday present from me. He makes tomato stakes out of free wood & gardening twine, and finds similar DIY hacks instead of buying the garden equivalent of bike shorts.
Why do you like gardening? Or what prevents you from gardening? Feel free to shoot Neil a gardening question here. He’ll do his best to answer.