Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Make the Most of Your Meals (Part 5)

We're more than halfway through this series on meal planning. Is anyone doing this along with me, or are you enjoying watching me suffer?!?

One very positive aspect of this project is that I'm not running to the store for just one or two ingredients. Plus, I can start working on dinner any time during the day that I have a few minutes to thaw, chop, or mix.

On the other hand, it's becoming tough to find the line between stocking up because of good deals, keeping the spending down, and having a manageable level of food in the house, so none is wasted. I am feeling very humbled looking at the bottom line each week.

On that note, I spent $89.71 on groceries at Target this week. I think this is where I've been having some trouble, because while I get a lot of food at Target, it's also mixed in with other household items like diapers, health and beauty items and other legitimate stuff. I had to open up a spreadsheet to figure out what exactly I spent on food items.My purchases included multiple packages of the following: peanut butter, snacks for the kids, cereal, and coffee, plus OJ, eggs, and frozen salmon filets. My hubby also stocked up on frozen lunches and crackers for the office, for when he's not taking in leftovers for lunch or being treated by vendors.

At the grocery store, I spent $50.22. What you see pictured here is from the first trip; we returned the same day for the absolutely necessary bread, butter, sugar, and $1.88 bottle of Hershey's syrup that didn't make it the first time. I was distracted...big time, but I did stick to the list for the second trip.

The refrigerated biscuits were on sale for $1 apiece and the krimpets were on sale, too, and just had to come home with me :)

The menu this week

Monday: A "hash" of sausage, pepper, onion, tomato and pasta with side salad.
Tuesday: BLT sandwiches and zucchini-corn fritters (you really must try these) to use up more produce and most of a carton of buttermilk
Wednesday: Texas Roadhouse!
Thursday: Salad with chicken
Friday: Homemade pizza and salad
Saturday: Dinner with friends
Sunday: Panini and hand-cut fries

So, let's talk a little bit about freezing. I am still learning this, because it seems that as soon as I have room in there, it gets filled back up. Sometimes we can't find things without a little "discussion" between me and the freezer, or between me and my wonderful hubby.

[Again, not my real house, but fun to dream!]

Here are some items I typically keep on hand:
  • A variety of meats: ground beef, chicken breasts/tenders, venison, hamburgers, bacon, pulled pork, salmon filets, often salmon burgers, fish filets or fish sticks
  • Boxed lunches (e.g. Lean Cuisine) for my husband
  • Bags of shredded cheese purchased on sale
  • Breads: I stock up during buy-one-get-one sales and freeze bread inside a zip-top bag in its original package. I also freeze hamburger buns and hot dog rolls, sometimes bagels and English muffins purchased on sale.
  • Baked goods like banana bread or zucchini bread. It's much easier to make several loaves at once and pull them out of the freezer as needed.
  • Frozen vegetables, including green beans from the garden (ours or my in-laws)
  • Herbs like basil and parsley
  • Yeast purchased in bulk
  • Applesauce that we make each October
  • Ice cream, sometimes popsicles, and dessert ingredients like cool whip, pie crust or puff pastry.
As I'm typing this list, I see a lot of non-essential things, but I also see a lot of common ingredients that are nice to have around. Except for prepped food like the baked goods, I can buy anything at the store anytime, though not necessarily at the best price.

I think this is where I need to focus: buying only at the best price and preferably with coupons. Also, it seems that I need to start treating my freezer a bit more like my counter top and organize it regularly. Part of the problem comes from quickly throwing in groceries after a shopping trip without finding a place for the items. (This usually has something to do with hungry or tired kids, but that's a whole other post.)

I think I'll revise my cleaning schedule to include a regular freezer "straightening" session.

Am I the only one with things falling out of my freezer?

Next week: Leftovers

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Make the Most of Your Meals (Part 4)

Let's start with some accountability, shall we?

This week, I lost a number of produce items: half an apricot, half a red pepper that was generating its own slime pool, and a red onion. I must keep working to have regular turnover in the fridge, and make it a point to look in the fruit and vegetable drawers on a daily basis.

On a high note, going shopping this week gave me an opportunity to use my new produce bags. I am so thrilled to be done with those wispy plastic bags that are questionably recyclable. One small step on my way to less plastic in the house.

I didn't get a photo of my groceries this week because of hungry kids and jumping into evening meal prep right away. It was mostly produce and dairy, but I did some stocking up because of ridiculously good deals. Counting a dozen ears of bicolor corn from a local farm stand, and a beautiful basket of peaches ($18), I paid $60.59 for food this week.

Photo credit Jonathan Alderfer

Using a store coupon, I bought 5 packs of shredded cheese for $1.48 apiece. I don't think I've ever gotten such a good deal. Now that finally realized I can freeze that cheese, look out! I won't pay $3 a bag again.

Also, by combining an ice cream sale with a coupon, I paid $1.38 each for two 1.5qt containers of summery refreshment!

This week's menu:
Monday: Zucchini Deep Dish Pie to use up a huge zucchini from the garden. I'll add more onion next time.
Tuesday: Stuffed Shells to use up my semi-homemade pasta sauce. I set some aside to give away.
Wednesday: Popcorn chicken from the freezer, corn on the cob, and broccoli.
Thursday: Chicken Parmesan using some prepared breaded chicken breasts and salad.
Friday: Pulled pork sandwiches (meat and buns from freezer) with chips and cut up veggies
Saturday: Dijon-Lime chicken, rice, and leftover veggies. Also chocolate zucchini cake!
Sunday: Waffles and peaches, breakfast casserole

This week I want to give you some suggestions for maintaining a well-supplied--yet not overflowing--pantry. And by pantry, I mean wherever you keep unopened packages of non-perishable foods.

(Wow, look at this picture from an earlier post...I really have gotten a bit overzealous because there hasn't been any empty shelf space in my pantry for a long time. Plus the kids food has it's own cabinet now.)

I'm very pleased to present you with this Pantry Inventory list.  I developed this list after looking through my recipes and what's currently in my pantry. It's a great jumping-off point; please feel free to download it and customize to your heart's content.

A few other thoughts:
  • Consult your pantry every time you are planning your menu for the week. If you are getting sick of seeing something in the pantry, or there are more than three containers of the same thing, you need to find a way to use that ingredient. 
  • One exception to the above rule pertains to seasonal items. I stock up on a lot of things around Thanksgiving, like flour, canned green beans, french fried onions, pumpkin, and baking chips (chocolate, cinnamon, etc.), because the price will not be that low again until next Thanksgiving. I am also noticing a lot of good deals on PB&J and other lunch ingredients since we are in back-to-school season.
  • Some items don't have a very long shelf life. Be sure to check the "best by" dates and rotate your inventory by using up the oldest item first.
  • As you review what you have on hand, don't be afraid to admit you overbought. Find a food bank or worthy organization that can use your donations. They will be grateful.
  • A note about condiments: I have become aware of a condiment force field at my house. For two adults, we have about15 bottles of salad dressing, several BBQ and steak sauces, a ridiculous amount of jellies, and enough peanut butter to keep us fed during a month-long power outage. With this type of food, you can anticipate the need to replace the container with several weeks of wiggle room. There really is no reason to fill your pantry with condiments and sauces unless you hit a great sale.
Next week, we'll talk about stocking the freezer.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Make the Most of Your Meals (Part 3)

Mission: Reduce My Grocery Budget

I looked back through my expenses thus far during 2012, and we've been spending an average of $100-150 a week. Less than $100 per week at the grocery store, the rest is mostly from Target. That means some is non-food, like cleaning supplies and toiletries. I definitely can reduce those numbers. 

I'm pretty pleased with week number one of trying to pare down my grocery expenses and reduce food waste. My grocery expenditures this week came in under $30.

The orange pepper and green grapes were not on my list, but when my three-year-old asks for produce, it's really hard to turn him down!

My menu revolved around using up food that was already on hand. We were fortunate to have two very special nights with no cooking :)

Mon: Leftover pork from last week, leftover rice and veggies from a birthday dinner on Saturday
Tue: Mini meatloaves with tater tots (beef, tots and sauce were hanging out in freezer) and green beans
Wed: Salmon from the freezer, more leftover rice, and broccoli that badly needed to be used
Thur: Enchiladas from the freezer, salad
Fri: My Dad brought Dominos!
Sat: Date night at Red Lobster, using a coupon
Sun: Burgers and rolls from the freezer, leftover vegetables

You might wonder why I am working so hard to use up my freezer food.

Well, this is what my freezer looked like about two months ago. Aside from some wiping and an attempt to straighten up the stuff in there, it hasn't looked much different since. We had some frosting issues because there was so much stuff that the drawer couldn't close properly. Not to mention the full chest freezer in the basement...

Incorporating things on hand will help bring costs down for the meantime. And, more freezer space will give me the option of stocking up when food goes on sale. I bought the two blocks of cheese today (2/$4) to experiment and see if I can make my own snack size pieces of cheese for cheap and with less packaging.

I've posted before about some of the pitfalls of grocery shopping and why it's not necessarily bad to be loyal to a specific store.

A few things that I'd like to reinforce:

Plan your trip
Look at the weekly circular and see if there are any bargains. Consider planning your meals around meats or produce that is on sale in a given week. Review any paper coupons that you have before you get to the store, and/or look for online coupons that correspond to needed items and sales.

Make a list and stick to it
If possible, take the time to make the list in the order that you travel through the store. Buy only what you knew you needed at home. It's healthier if you stick to the perimeter of the store.

Don't shop at five different stores
Not only do I view this as a huge hassle and time-waster, I think it becomes a financial mistake. If you frequent one or two stores, you know exactly where to find things. You'll browse less, and you'll remember prices for sake of comparison. How much money do you really save by making a special trip for that really good deal on blueberries?

Don't be ashamed to buy the "house brand"
I find myself doing this all the time recently. Over and over, the price of the store brand comes in lower than the sale price for the name brand. There are so many things that you can buy without the name brand price--crisp rice cereal for those marshmallow treats, frozen spinach, macaroni, baking soda, vegetable oil, salt, etc. Plus, those are things you rarely see coupons for. Take the extra 5-10 seconds to find the house brand instead of grabbing the trademarked packaging that you instantly recognize (because that seems to be the only reason for the higher price).

Try to know your prices, at least on the bigger stuff
I know not everyone is a stay at home mom like me, and time is often more important than money. If you have the luxury of doing some price-comparison shopping, do it. I love shopping at Target and have found that I can get a lot of my dry goods there for a lot less (sugar, coffee, cereal, granola bars). It's very, very rare that I can get a better deal on cereal at the supermarket.

Next week, we'll talk about building a good pantry stash without going overboard.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Make the Most of Your Meals (Part 2)

Meal Planning 101

I love to cook, but I know that's not the case for everyone.

It's easy to find yourself in a rut, uninspired and out of time when dinner rolls around. Even though I love to cook, there's often not enough time, energy, or food available. I stay at home, and still find it challenging to put a nice, reasonably healthy meal on the table each night.

The only thing that works for me is to create a (flexible) meal plan for the week. There are myriad reasons to consider making your own plan:
  • avoid multiple trips to the store for just a handful of items
  • save money you might be tempted to spend on going out to eat or ordering takeout
  • using all the food you buy, versus letting it spoil or throwing it out because you are sick of it
  • attempting to eat a balanced diet

Of course, if you like wasting food, you'll enjoy the tongue-in-cheek suggestions here.

So, how exactly does someone go about making a meal plan or weekly menu? I'm sure there are other ways, but this is what I do.

Step 1: Pick a day
Choose a day (or night) each week that you have time to look around for ingredients and recipes. It's very important to do this when the fridge is getting on the empty side and before you go grocery shopping. For some reason, Sunday afternoons work best for me.

Step 2: Grab a piece of paper and a pen
Or a whiteboard and dry erase marker. Whatever works for you. If it's reused or recycled, even better! You're going to be making a list of what you already have that needs to be used.

Step 3: Open your fridge
List what you have in your fridge that is an ingredient. This includes meats, leftovers not already re-purposed into soup or casserole form, vegetables, starches, cheeses or other dairy items, etc. At the same time, make note (maybe in another column) of the stuff that you are running low on. We always try to have baby carrots, onion, celery and apples around. If something is missing, I am sure to add it to the shopping list.

Step 4: Look on your counter, in your freezer, and in your pantry
See what kind of produce, breads, or desserts might be hanging around and need to be eaten. Even though these things are in plain view (like the three large zucchini I had on the counter the other day), I might end up losing them if they don't make it to the menu. Likewise, see if you over-bought on pasta or have way too many pieces of frozen chicken in the freezer.

Step 5: Generate 5-6 dinner ideas
This is the hardest step, since it's kind of like playing chess. Look at the ingredients you have and consider how they might be arranged into main dishes. It really helps if you can look at all your recipes to generate ideas. It's okay if you don't have every ingredient for every entree; you can add things to your grocery list. Just make sure you are using up everything already on hand when you make your list. If you are motivated, you can plan out lunches and breakfast, too. Make a new list with the meal ideas (and side dishes if you want) and hang that on your fridge or even put it on your calendar somewhere.

Step 6: Stuck? Don't limit yourself.
Remember that cooking is not a "chemically dependent" process like baking. Proportions do not have to be exact and you can swap out ingredients. Stir-frys, soups and casseroles can be made from any combination of things. I recently tweaked a chicken lasagna recipe to use up bowtie pasta, chicken sausage and some turkey lunch meat. It was still delicious!

Step 7: Go shopping
I'll talk more about this next week, but this is where you purchase the additional ingredients that you need for the meals in the coming week, plus your regular staples of milk, eggs, etc.

Step 8: Review the list and Cook
When I first began menu planning, I tried to designate a specific entree for each day, rotating chicken, beef, pork, meatless, etc. I found that only worked if I had a set schedule for the day and could plan the more involved recipes for days with more time. Now I just look at the list and cook what I feel like I have time for.

Yes, there will be days that you still can't stick to the list. I call my husband from time to time and ask him to pick something up on the way home (using coupons, of course!). Also, with it being so hot, I don't always want to bake something for an hour and heat up my kitchen, so I pick the recipe that fits the day, switch to leftovers, or make something from the freezer. (We'll talk more about having quick meals on hand in a future post.)

Next week, we'll talk more about shopping strategically.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Light Bulb Went On!

Sometimes you have an idea so good that you can't stop grinning.

I solved two problems at once attaching my son's bibs to his high chair. I don't have to designate a drawer or counter space for the bibs, and they are right where I need them. Yay for brainstorms!

(Sorry the picture is not as good as the idea...)