Thursday, July 10, 2014

Frugal Mama Meal Planning

When I think back to the first couple years of our marriage, I want to laugh at my utter ineptitude when it came to meal planning. Wanting to be the perfect little wife, I painstakingly would plan new, exciting, and frequently pricey dinners to serve Will every night of the week. Even though it was just the two of us. Even though I had a full-time job. I somehow had it in my mind that the fancier the meal, the more Will would know the depth of my love for him. There were a few problems with this mindset. First and foremost, my logic was flawed. Will was grateful for any home-cooked meal I served him, whether it was a casserole or a dish that took me hours to prepare. Second, I don't even want to think about how much food was thrown in the trash, and how many times the produce or meat in the fridge went bad. There were nights when I would come home from work after a long day of people being nasty to me, and dealing with horrible traffic on the route back, and the absolute last thing I wanted to do was cook. Not to mention,what was I thinking, trying to serve a 3-course dinner multiple times a week to one person? Will was always good about bringing leftovers to work for lunch the next day, but I'm not kidding when I tell you there was a ridiculous amount of food in the fridge. And finally, our grocery bill was out of control. There was no reason to spend over $175 every single week when it was just the two of us. Over the years, I've discovered (and, I'm happy to report, mastered) the art of sensible meal planning and budgeting for a family of four. Pinterest has been a huge help in this area, and I've found that lurking on forums on Catholic Answers can be helpful as well. Trust me, when it comes to budgeting and feeding an exceptionally large family, Catholics know what they're talking about.

Since we've become part of the Army life again, Will and I have been making an effort to not only build up our savings account again, but to become debt-free as soon as possible. We have a lot of big decisions to make in the next few years (including but not limited to Catholic school for our kids, hopefully having another baby, buying a home, growing our emergency fund, planning vacations, etc), and we've decided one of the best ways to meet our goals is to get rid of the debt we have right now. We're not drowning in debt; we have Will's student loan and our car loan, and both are very manageable. That being said, we cut corners where we can to throw extra money at the monthly payments, and one of the ways I do that is by coming up with a monthly meal plan. Yes, monthly. I received quite a few incredulous looks when I've mentioned that in the past, but trust me, it really does work. I'll share our current monthly meal plan in a minute, but first I need to clarify a few things.

1. I only plan dinners. I keep breakfast items on hand all the time (yogurt, fruit, oatmeal, cereal), and I will occasionally make pancakes, French toast, or an impressive egg dish, but I would lose my mind if I tried to plan more than one meal per day. Same goes for lunch. I buy lunch meat, cheese, peanut butter and jelly, baby carrots and celery sticks, and make bread, tuna fish, and hummus. That's enough variety for the kids, and it's all healthy and filling so I'm not having a panic attack over sugars and overly-processed food. 

2. When possible, I buy local. The quality of the food is amazing, and it's frequently cheaper than anything I could find at the grocery store. We have a farmer's market here in Columbus, and this morning I'll be picking up some local honey from a lady in a neighboring town. (Side note-if you have horrific seasonal allergies like me, local honey can be a lifesaver). 

3. Just because we eat on a budget does NOT mean we eat junk. I think there's a common misconception that inexpensive=poor quality. Nope. Not in my house. If you looked through my refrigerator and pantry today, you won't find ramen noodles, Hamburger Helper, jarred pasta sauce, etc. No way, no how. I make almost everything from scratch, and it's not nearly as time consuming or stressful as people make it out to be. 

4. I've mentioned this before, but if you don't own a crockpot, go purchase one right now. One thing I love about the crockpot is that I can buy cheaper cuts of meat, and after simmering all day you can't tell the difference between an expensive piece of meat vs one that's several dollars cheaper. Not to mention, crockpot meals equal quality AND quantity, which equals leftovers. Yup, we eat leftovers now. 

5. I tend to follow a pattern most weeks; I still do big Italian Sunday dinners, and we always have leftovers on Mondays. Tuesday-Thursday are the "easy" meals, and Fridays I usually make pizza or calzones. It's just a fun little tradition for us, plus the kids love it.

6. At least once a month, I'll plan for a night of ordering takeout or going out to eat. Why? Because something ALWAYS comes up. I may not have to deal with nasty customers or heavy traffic at the end of the day anymore, but there are days when my back pain is overwhelming, or the kids have been running me ragged since 6am, or the dog got sick and threw up or pooped on everything for hours on end...you get the picture. Better to just plan ahead and assume something will go wrong at least once a month.

Okay, time for me to work my magic! This is our meal plan for the month of July.

Since it's kind of hard to see the individual meals in this photo, I'll type it out for you.

Week 1
S: salad, garlic bread, spaghetti and meatballs
M: leftovers
T: lemon chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, escarole
W: Mole pulled pork with guacamole
T: leftovers
F: homemade pizza
S: salad with grilled chicken

Week 2
S: salad, spaghetti alla carbonara
M: chicken cashew casserole
T: Spanish rice bake
W: pork chops alla savlio, sliced zucchini
T: red beans and rice
F: leftovers
S: Latin spicy chicken stew (freeze leftovers)

Week 3
S: salad, garlic bread, baked ziti with meatballs
M: leftovers
T: leftover Latin spicy chicken stew (defrost in fridge the night before)
W: Nana's rosemary chicken, roasted red potatoes and veggies
T: MaPo Tofu
F: calzones
S: Date night! Celebrating our 8-year anniversary a few weeks late...because that's how we roll. We're getting a babysitter and going out to eat at one of our favorite restaurants.

Week 4
S: salad, garlic bread, braciole, spaghetti alla carbonara
M: leftovers
T: pesto, avocado, sun-dried tomato and mozzarella panini
W: salad with grilled chicken
T: Asian lettuce wraps
F: homemade pizza
S: chicken taco stew

There you have it. Many of these recipes can be found on my blog from previous years, and I promise, one of these days I'll actually add another recipe post. I would also like to add that I read Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover a few months ago, and we've been incorporating his practices into our monthly budget. One thing that Dave strongly advocates for is the cash-only system, and I've been doing that with the grocery store. When the money's gone, it's gone. This has helped me-immensely-stay within a strict budget while serving healthy meals to my family. Oh, and the grocery budget I mentioned before? At least $175/week for two people? I've managed to cut back to $150/week feeding a family of four. It might not seem like a huge difference, but knowing that I'm saving our family money in the long run while providing my husband and children with nutritious meals has been such a blessing for us.

One more thing before this blog post comes to a merciful end. Will and I feel strongly that we need "our" time, and that includes a bi-monthly date night for us. However, date night hardly ever means going out to eat at a restaurant. By the time we pay the babysitter and pay the restaurant bill, well, let's just say the end result can be a little scary. That's not to say we NEVER go out to eat (our anniversary is obviously a special occasion), but more often than not a perfect date night for us is me preparing one of our favorite dishes, eating by candlelight at our dining room table, and watching a movie together. All after the kids have gone to bed, obviously.

Go forth and meal plan, readers! Let me know what your own meal planning looks like, and as always I'm open to suggestions. 

1 comment:

  1. I've been trying to center my meal planning around using up pantry odds & ends for one meal a week (particularly NOT buying a lot of new ingredients just to use up old ones), using seasonal recipes (I try out a couple new recipes every week), and making a big Sunday roast in order to have leftovers which I'll completely revamp for another meal or two that week or the week following. A week's meals generally includes a new recipe or two, a roast, some leftovers (because I try to cook double what I'll need since cooking from scratch each night with two babies is ridiculous), and homemade pizza night on Friday. And I like to keep a good quality "ready meal" in the freezer for nights that any form of cooking is too much.

    My next goal is to better utilize my energy use in the kitchen -- ie baking cakes at the same time I'm roasting some meat. I also want to try to make meals using the sell-by date stuff that goes super cheap at the grocery store. I bought a 21p bag of parsnips in the winter and made an awesome soup with it and I think I could use more challenges like that!

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