If you’ve been following along for a while, you know that I left my full time job last year to spend most of my time home with Jack. And even though my new part-time job pays much more per hour we are not exactly rolling in the dough these days. Breastfeeding (free) and cloth diapering (cheap) have saved us a ton of money in the baby department, but our budget was still not where we’d like it to be. Nick and I took a look at our spending and realized that one of our favorite things–eating out–was robbing us blind. As much as I love a delicious, completely indulgent restaurant meal, I’d rather eat at home than put Jack in full time childcare. Some rearranging of our priorities was in order.
Nick has been pretty much in charge of grocery shopping and cooking for the last few years. There were a lot of beans and rice involved–and a lot of eating out. Late last year I put on my grown up face and decided to start cooking again. But you know I don’t do anything without a plan, right? I spent several days that I should have been getting ready for Christmas pouring over recipes, meal plans, and tips for trimming the grocery budget. And in the end I came out with a four-week rotation of meals that are sure to please my picky husband and use roughly the same inexpensive ingredients. Behold:
Red beans and rice
Burgers, sweet potatoes, broccoli
Shrimp stir fry with mushrooms and veggies over pasta
Steaks or pork chops with red potatoes and veggie
White beans and rice
Pasta, meat sauce, veggie
Salmon or other fish, sweet potatoes, veggie
Baked chicken with mushrooms, sweet potatoes, veggie
Red beans and rice
Beef stroganoff, veggie
Salmon or other fish on skewers with smashed potatoes and veggie
Stir fry beef with veggies and rice
White beans and rice
Seafood, mushrooms, veggie
Roast chicken or beef with sweet potatoes and veggies
Grilled cheese and tomato soup
Breakfast for dinner
It’s been going pretty well so far. So well, in fact, that we haven’t even made it to Week Four because Nick keeps requesting repeats of what we had the week before. And there are enough cheap meals mixed in that if I need to cut the budget one week, say if I spent too much the week before, I can cobble a couple of them together along with one or two of our “backup” meals that we always have stuff on hand for to make for a really inexpensive trip to the grocery store. My goal is to spend $60/week, but I went over week before last so on my last trip I only spent $28.
To help me stay organized, I got an app for my phone that is basically the digital equivalent of a spiral notebook. I usually use the standard Notes app to jot down lists and reminders, but I wanted to keep all my grocery stuff together so a free app dedicated solely to food endeavors seemed like the way to go.
In it I’ve got an easy recipe for white sauce to use in recipes that call for “cream of _____” soup (it’s just butter, flour, and milk), a list of which veggies are best to buy organic and which are just as good grown the conventional way, a very much still in progress index of how much stuff typically costs so I can judge whether a “sale” is really a good deal, a running list of what I plan to buy on my next trip, my four week meal rotation, a quick reference of what extra ingredients might be needed for specific meals (buns for burgers, sour cream for stroganoff, etc), a basic list of stuff I buy almost every week, and a list of items we only buy every few weeks but definitely need to keep in stock, like pet food, toilet paper, and bread. That last list on its own has been a total life changer! Now I quickly run around the house, phone in hand, checking to see if we’re out of anything before walking out the door and bam–no more mid-week runs to the store because we’ve run out of something essential.
Another thing that has really helped is having a specific day that I go shopping every week. I googled it and found that Wednesdays are typically the best day to buy groceries, and in fact that is the day that the new sale ad takes effect at my local store, but I’ve found my store is not so organized and lots of stuff marked for sale is not yet out on Wednesdays. So Thursday is the sweet spot of already stocked but not yet sold out.
Which brings me to my next point–I check the sale ad online before I go! My meal plan is flexible enough to buy whatever meat, seafood, or produce is the best value that week. And if something is buy one, get one free, I buy an extra and freeze it.
The only thing that’s not working out so well is the seafood. It’s expensive, even in a coastal state like Louisiana. What I need to do is find some guy on the side of the road selling shrimp and buy a bunch and freeze it. But I haven’t yet. I tried to talk Nick into taking up fishing (free food!) but he was horrified. He said he wouldn’t be able to kill a living creature, even a fish. I think it’s safe to say that if we had to live off the land he would learn to embrace a vegetarian diet pretty quickly.
And have I mentioned that I don’t exactly shop at the cheapest grocery store? I have a bit of an issue with Walmart and choose not to shop there, so for now I get my groceries at Albertson’s instead. We are supposed to be getting a Trader Joe’s right down the street from our house (the first one in Louisiana), so I’m excited about checking out their store brand selection, but I’ve heard their produce selection is not so great. Guess I need to start getting my lazy butt out of the house on Saturday mornings to visit the farmer’s market!
So that’s what we’ve been doing to cut back on our food budget. Eating out is somewhat of an addiction and we still fall into the temptation now and then, but at least now it’s never for lack of good stuff to eat at home. My new thing I’m thinking about is to cut my shopping trips in half by only going every two weeks, but I can’t figure out how people keep produce fresh that long! Are you a bi-monthly shopper? Spill your fresh veggie secrets! And of course any other cheap-eating tips are welcome, too. I’m hungry for knowledge, pun intended.