I love to eat and because of this I have learned to love to cook. I have tried meal planning and keeping only what we need in the house for that week’s meals. That system drove me batty, there were always changes in what the family wanted to eat, what I had time to cook and then last minute plans would come up and then the system crashed and burned.
These are a few tips that I have learned and they mostly work in my home. I believe that they save us money in the long run, but you’d have to ask my husband for full numbers. We like to eat good food and these are some tips and recipes that are easy and help me to feed my family, make sure food tastes good and (I hope) saves a few bucks off the top.
These tips are aside from the usual: shop in season, plan your meals, and make things stretch a bit further.
Make what you can yourself
My family loves baked goods. We enjoy cookies, brownies, granola, and muffins every morning. Most of these involve flour and chocolate chips, a few nuts, eggs and and butter. Before I started baking these things I had these ingredients sitting in my kitchen waiting to become something. Making these in my home saves me money because they are freshly made and healthier for my family than store bought or swinging through Starbucks. These are a couple of recipes that I consistently make:
Granola: yes, you can make granola. It takes very few ingredients and is way better for you than store bought. This recipe is a staple in my house. It’s pretty fool proof and will stay fresh for a couple of weeks.
Muffins: Super easy. I have officially memorized this recipe. My kids inhale them most mornings for breakfast. I substitute the nuts for chocolate chips and add a dash of vanilla extract. Delicious.
For protein options:
Make meatballs! Find your favorite meatball recipe that you bake in the oven, and when you bring home the ground beef or turkey immediately make meatballs. You can freeze them and use them for an easy add in for spaghetti, serve them with rice and gravy, make sandwiches with them… the options are endless.
I’ll be honest I haven’t done this in a while but I need to get back to it. Try making a whole chicken. Chicken breast near me costs about $8ish a pound right now. But I can buy a whole chicken and roast it myself (or put it in the crock pot all day with S&P, a lemon in the cavity, so good!) for about $3-5 total. Use that chicken then for salads, soup, a meal in itself, sandwiches, etc.
Shop your kitchen
Instead of making a strict weekly meal plan I find that I can make most things as long as I have a small variety of ingredients that can be used in a variety of ways. If this seems crazy, let me explain:
Pick an ingredient to use as your jumping off point and then work from there. Rather than picking a recipe everytime and cooking from there, I find it easier to start with the ingredients I have and plan from there. It’s a bit of a different way of thinking about things but it usually turns out better in terms of budget (for me) than the other way around.
ProTip: shop in bulk so you can save some money by not buying things individually. I do a lot of my grocery shopping at Costco. I portion out my meat and freeze them in meal sizes for our family. A package of 7 pounds of ground beef might cost $30 up front but when I portion it to 6 different meal sizes each will cost about $5 in meat a meal. I buy onions (because you need them in everything), flour and rice there too. Always have these things on hand and you can make so many things.
Google what you don’t have for an easy replacement
This is something that has saved me many times, and with the exception of substituting plain unsweetened yogurt for sour cream, have been successful. Here are a couple of suggestions:
Substitute for buttermilk: 1 cup of milk + 1 Tablespoon of white vinegar = buttermilk! That easy.
Need tomato sauce but only have fresh or diced canned tomatoes? Put them in the blender and pulse until you get the desired consistency. You can also drain or cook off some of the extra liquid if it looks too watery before using.
If a recipe calls for a spice that you don’t have, and it’s not the key ingredient to the meal, google a replacement. Maybe you have that one. It probably won’t kill the meal and you might just like it better.
This one can be a bit testy for some people but bear with me. The pediatrician told me that if we could afford organic then we should buy it. I tried my darndest to stick to that. But with the way prices are going and house much milk and fruit my kids eat we had to make a compromise and bagan buying regular. And guess what? The kids are still growing, they are healthy and, for some unknown reason, the fruit stays fresh longer.
Maybe this tip isn’t for you. And that’s fine. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Maybe you can compromise on some items? Buy store brand until name brand? You can skip drinks when you eat out. Or not have an appetizer and dessert with your meal. Pick one. Or take the meal home (with kids I’ve become a fan of this). It saves a bit (drinks, larger tip, headache from having toddlers or teens in a restaurant), but you do miss the ambiance and being served. But it’s about what you can do and not what you can’t.
Quality vs quantity
This might seem in contrast to my last point about compromise. But this is a legitimate tip. Somethings are worth spending the money on in the kitchen because it will save you in the long run.
In my opinion, I spend more on paper towels, napkins, and toilet paper when I try to buy cheaper brands instead of the brands that I know work well but might be a bit more expensive. The Kirkland (Costco) brand is the best for paper products in my opinion.
Buying cheaper meats can backfire. Cheaper ground beef has a higher content of fat and that cooks away, leaving you with less meat. So then you need more. Cheaper cuts of meat are perfect for stews and meals that are cooked long. But not idea for a quick meal. Buying dried beans instead of canned saves a bit too, but you have to remember to soak them before using.
Make it work for you
Overall. No matter what you do or try. It has to work for you and your family. If it doesn’t work or come easily within a couple of weeks then it’s not for you. And that’s ok. Things have to be sustainable for you for them to work.
Yes, I am a bit of a nutty cook. I enjoy it. This is what works for my family. And it works for us. We have seen an increase in the cost of groceries lately, especially meat. I have been trying out more vegetarian or bean based meals. (Tofu is a no go with my husband and kids.)
To sum things up. Here is an example of a meal that came together quickly and cheaply.
Case in point. While pondering what to have for dinner tonight I asked my husband what he would like. All he said was red meat. Not a bad jumping off point. Rather than running to the store for some steaks, which sounded great but would be a bit much for a Monday night, I went to the freezer where I had some stew meat ($5 for about a pound that I had bought in bulk, portioned and froze). I take that along with some bell peppers and onions (bought in bulk about probably cost about $4) I had, add a bit of Italian seasoning, garlic, salt and pepper (we’ll say that was about $1) with rice (also bought in bulk about $1 or less). I can now use leftovers for lunch tomorrow. All told, the meal cost about $11 and I was able to feed my family of two adults and three young ones with things that were sitting right under my nose.
If you need a quick reference guide and budget meal ideas, I’ve created a chart for your use.