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.