Guest post by Beth Cranford of Eat Better, Spend Less
The dreaded grocery budget. Oh the things I’ve tried in an effort to lower our food expenses! From using coupons, to making everything from scratch, to growing our own food (or dreaming about it anyway), I feel like I’m always trying to save money on food.
I’ve discovered that for me, the biggest blow to my grocery budget comes from those days that I just didn’t get dinner made, for one reason or another. Just a few meals out in a month can totally wipe out any savings I was able to score by using coupons, catching sales, etc. So I needed to find a way to minimize the number of times we end up eating out by default.
I think I’ve settled on a plan that is working for me, and I wanted to share it with you today. It’s actually a combination of a few strategies I’m using, and it all comes down to capitalizing on those times when I actually want to and have time to cook.
Here’s how it basically goes:
1. I use a seasonal meal plan; for each season I have a list of 30 meals.
We have each meal once for each month in that season (so, three times total). This cuts way back on meal planning time and leaves me without excuse for not getting to the grocery store. That alone can save many dinners out. (It’s amazing what having food in the house does for your food bill!)
2. I do freezer cooking for three months at a time.
Now before you stop reading because you’re thinking “There’s no way I’d cook three month’s worth of food at one time!” let me assure you, neither would I. Oh, I’ve tried many approaches to freezer cooking, including the once-a-month plan. I tried that one once and it was enough for me!
There are very few meals that I prepare in their entirety and then freeze. What I’ve found to be the most helpful is to prepare and freeze particular portions of meals. When I have some of the major elements of a meal all prepared and ready to use, I can quickly pull the rest of the meal together and we end up with a meal that is very fresh and not changed by being frozen.
So what do I make for the freezer if I only do freezer cooking every three months?
My new system intertwines my seasonal meal planning and my freezer cooking. More simply put, I taylor my freezer cooking to what we’re going to be eating over the next three months, instead of randomly cooking this or that for the freezer. For example, for the summer months, I know we’ll be having hamburgers (served in different ways) 3 times per month. That means if I’ll take the time to form the beef into patties for those 9 meals, that’s 9 times I’ll not have to think about getting in the kitchen and patting out hamburgers. (Or thawing the meat in time to do that!)
In light of what we’re eating from my summer menu, here are some things I’ll prepare for the freezer:
Pepper steak; all items chopped and placed in a freezer bag.
Barbecue beef; cooked and frozen in meal-sized portions
Taco filling (add black beans for nutrition and to stretch the meat)
Taking the time to match my freezer cooking to my seasonal menu means that I’m not making items we won’t eat, and I’m getting a pretty substantial head start on the meals I know I’ll make. (Doing this with a plan that changes monthly wouldn’t really be worth the time, which is another reason the seasonal planning is working out so well for us.)
And the best part is, I can do all of this in one day or two shorter days.
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3. I prepare as much of the day’s meal as I possibly can, in the morning.
A few months ago I started noticing that I was much more “in the mood” to cook at the beginning of the day than I was around dinner time. I also noticed that the natural rhythm of my day leaves a nice little spot, right around 10:00, that’s perfect for being in the kitchen. Later in the afternoon I’m usually either working on my blog or I’m outside watching my little boy play (or, I confess, both!). Consequently, we often eat either very late or… out!
So I decided to get a lot more intentional about cooking as much as I can in the morning. I had to look at my meals differently and go beyond “what needs to be thawed or put into the crock pot?” I wanted to catch every opportunity to prepare as much as possible in the morning.
This meal is a great example. Normally I wouldn’t consider that this meal had anything that could be made ahead. But this particular day I did things differently. I knew I wouldn’t be home to put the potatoes in the oven an hour before dinner so I experimented with cooking them in the crock pot. (And let me just say they were the most delicious sweet potatoes I’ve ever cooked.) I also went ahead and mixed up the salmon patties early in the day and kept the mixture in the fridge. At dinner time all I had to do was steam some broccoli and melt some cheese onto it while I browned the salmon patties.
The way my afternoon played out that day, I assure you that had I not done that morning prep, we would have eaten out that night. Instead we had a delicious, healthy, and very inexpensive meal at home.
These two strategies together leave me with almost nothing to do at dinner time.
I can’t tell you how many times this system has already saved us from ordering out.
I love the results I’m getting from having part of the meal in the freezer and doing as much of the meal as possible in the morning. All day peace of mind, smoother afternoons, and so much money saved!
But there are a few more things I do to make sure I’ll stay on track and not cop-out when it comes to getting meals on the table.
4. I allow myself to take a day off; usually Sunday afternoon.
Something about knowing I have a planned “day off” makes it a little easier to cook those other days. And when it’s planned into the budget, I can enjoy my meal and not feel guilty about the money we’re spending. We usually eat lunch out and then “forage” from the fridge for a light dinner.
5. And this year, I’ll be delegating.
I would love to be able to say that my husband does the cooking on the weekends, because he loves it, and he’s good at it. Or whatever.
But, alas, he does not cook.
So it will be up to my daughter to come in and save the day. Part of her education this year (we homeschool), will be to plan for and cook one meal a week and to completely clean up after one meal a week. They can be the same meal or separate meals, as long as she does each.
She is studying to become a dance teacher, which requires her to be at the dance studio most evenings. So, she’ll be learning to utilize the crock pot, as well as cooking in the morning like I’ve begun to do. I think this strategy will serve her well with a career that will keep her out in the evenings. Bonus!
Because you were so gracious as to come and read all about my system, I have a few gifts for you today.
Image by Master isolated images/freedigitalphotos.net
I’d like to offer you:
- A printable monthly meal plan showing my entire summer menu, with links to some meals.
- A template for you to plan your own monthly meals; one for just dinner, and one that includes a line for lunch!
- And a blank “Daily Action Plan” for you to use in your meal planning. Each meal that you enter into your plan will have a space for items you’ll need to defrost and what parts of the meal you can prepare in the morning.
They’re absolutely free! You can download them all by either clicking on the photo of the gift above, or by clicking this link: Claim your gift here.
That’s my basic system for saving a lot of money on food and to ensure that my family is eating healthy meals in the comfort of our own home.
I’ve so enjoyed writing this for you today!
What tips and tricks help you the most when it comes to sticking to your food budget?
Beth Cranford is an ordinary child of God, who knows that it’s only by His abundant and personal grace that she can be what she’s called to be. She is blessed to be married to her best friend, and to be the (homeschooling) mom of their two beautiful children. She’s the author of several e-books, including “Emergency Meals”and “16 Strategies To Eat Better and Spend Less” (That one’s free, so go on over and get your copy). In this season of life, she’s on a mission to help moms experience smoother dinner times, provide healthy and delicious meals for their families, and stick to a food budget! Come on over for some recipes, meal plans, freezer- cooking tips, and more at EatBetterSpendLess.com.
Great article by Beth Cranford!
This is how I like to cook too! I haven’t mastered 3 months at a time yet, though. Isn’t it weird that in the morning cooking seems easy peasy, but at 6 PM it’s just too much? I thought I was the only one who felt like that!
Ha ha Kat! I thought maybe I was the only one too but I bet it’s really quite common. Even small children are fussier at that time!
Heather @ My Overflowing Cup
I do many of the same things and find that it helps tremendously. I really need to start delegating, though. I, too, find that when I start dinner in the morning or around lunchtime, I have much more energy than when I start at dinnertime. Thanks for the great info!
Delegating isn’t as easy as it sounds is it? But I know it will be just as good for my daughter as it is for me. I love it when we’re in the kitchen together (lots of talking and sharing life) but I really need to just let her get in there and produce some meals all on her own!
You had me at the first one! A seasonal meal plan is genius! And 30 meals is plenty variety for one season, especially knowing I would get the urge (craving) to throw in a surprise meal from time to time. These tips are wonderful and I will definitely start incorporating them into my meal planning. Thanks so much for sharing! 🙂
Becka, you touched on something I forgot to mention. I only came up with 30 meals because I knew I’d be sharing my meal plan. But usually I leave some of our least favorites off the menu and I allow space for new recipes, eating other places like church or a friend’s house, etc. or occasions when we planned to eat out, like a birthday, etc. So, yeah, you don’t even need 30 meals and at a rate of once a month it’s lots of variety.
Glad you liked the idea!
I have been planning two weeks ahead for years, but I just may give this seasonal planning thing a try. Great ideas, Beth!
Renee, if you’ve been doing two weeks you’ve already got the basics down. You could take one of your two week plans, triple it, cook what you can for the freezer and you’d have half of your freezer cooking done for the next 3 months!
I have never done it but I knew a single guy who would shop for fresh vegetables once a week. When he got home, he would clean, prep and blanch anything that would later be cooked so that when he got home from work at night he could just throw them in a steamer etc. and finish the cooking process.
Rachel Ray of the Food Network talks about prepping all of your veggies when you get home from the store. It’s a good idea. Somehow my store days always end up later than I had planned and I’m lucky to get the food put away and some kind of dinner made. But it’s a great idea. I think it would especially help at lunch time, I’d eat more salad if I had it partially prepared! ( I need to try that salad in a jar idea, have you seen that?)
This isn’t quite the same thing, but I also prep my vegetables weekly, as soon as we bring them home from out work trade. Then there is only one big food prep day a week, and the rest is more manageable because I have sides and ingredients already prepped for meals throughout the week. I am fortunate to get enough vegetables weekly that I can also freeze some portions for the winter months when fresh veggies aren’t available to me, which also makes my work load much lighter in the winter.
Lydia @ The Thrifty Frugal Mom
These are great tips! I do some freezer cooking already but I’m like you and often just do part of the prep and freeze it that way. I just find it more doable and since some dishes don’t freeze well, this way makes more sense to me.
I really like your idea of doing a lot of the meal prep in the morning. I keep thinking I need to start doing that more but never have gotten it implemented! This post is the kick in the pants that I need. 🙂
Lydia, I was surprised at how much I can really do ahead when I think about it, and what a difference it makes. Normally I would think it doesn’t take much time to mix up salmon patties (going back to the example I used) so just do it at dinner time. But when you do as many of those small steps as possible it just feels so much more doable at dinner time. (Besides, you can’t go out to eat now, you’d waste the partially prepared food that’s waiting for you!) 😉
Nice post, very inspiring!
Having a long term menu plan makes a huge difference. Two other tricks I have up my sleeve are “Dump” Chicken Recipes (just do a web search; I have since invented my own, even some for beef). And whenever I make meal like lasagna I make 2 pans and freeze one (not much more work really). Same with fried boneless skinless chicken breast (saves oil this way too), I make a large batch and then freeze. I use them for chicken parm, Chinese inspired pineapple chicken, BBQ nugget sliders & more.
Every night just before I start cooking, I take from the freezer the next dinner & let it thaw in the refrigerator overnight.
Kristen @ Smithspirations
This looks so smart & efficient, Beth! I’m a bit of a lazy… or maybe “relaxed” menu planner. Your system really impresses me!
Theo @Best Knife sharpener
A great post Beth,
A lot of people spends much on cooking because of inadequate planning. A friend of mine advised me to always plan my day before it starts and, this is so true.
If you form the habit of planning on what to cook for the day every morning, the expenses will be minimized rather than always jumping in on any food that comes to your mind.
Thanks for sharing.
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Elise @ Harvey Ever After
What a great article! I love the seasonal menu idea. We have a few things that are “seasonal” like salads in the summer and soups in the fall and winter, but I’ve never formalized it to this extent. I think I need to, though I’m not sure we have anywhere close to 30 meals that we definitely like and fit our Paleo(ish) journey. And cooking/prepping in the morning is genius! I’m pregnant right now, and I find that around the time I need to start cooking dinner is the same time that I begin to feel absolutely exhausted. I’ve tentatively planned to start prepping everything for the week on Tuesdays. Mondays are my grocery shopping day, but I just don’t have enough time or energy to prep everything that same day! I definitely need to do more of my prep ahead of time! Thanks for the ideas and recipes!
Yes!!! Love the “seasonal” idea. My menu planning definitely looks different in the summer, as nobody wants to eat a heavy meal after working/playing outside. I’m going to try 6-month meal plans (one month at a time, rotating our favorite meals more often (every 2 weeks ) and less-favorite meals less often (more like once in a 3-month period). Thank you for the inspiration!