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HOW TO: Stretch Your Groceries and Plan Family Meals

I don’t claim to be an expert who has “the” answers, as I recognize that there are many people out there with lots of great ideas.  Just check Pinterest to see all the crafty moms out there with beautifully decorated homes who still find time to make ornate food that looks like it should be on display somewhere versus being eaten by their families.  I am not that mom/wife.  Our baby’s room is a hodgepodge of themes, wall hangings, and furniture – all of them very practical, but not worthy of being posted on Pinterest.  The food I prepare tastes good (or so I am told), but is not Top Chef worthy, nor am I crafty enough to make cute displays that look like little animals or my daughter’s favorite Bubble Guppy.

What I can offer, however, is practicality and frugality.  My forte is organization that makes sense in a world that is busy.  I don’t have the time or energy to comb over coupons or sale ads for hours on end, nor am I crafty enough to make cute charts that look like that belong in a teacher’s elementary school classroom.  My husband and I are pretty simple people.  What I bring to you are tips from our simple, frugal life that I hope you will find helpful.

Today, I bring you tips on stretching your dollars in your family meals.  I do “big” grocery shopping twice per month, with some smaller trips in between to get fresh produce or other small items that may pop up.  We do have a monthly allotment budgeted for our grocery items, and I work very hard to stick to that.  If I happen to have coupons (and remember to take them), I will use them, but most of the time I do NOT have coupons.  If you have time and enjoy sifting through coupons, more power to you – extra savings, woohoo!  My version of couponing is checking my local grocer’s ad for the meat and produce specials and planning my meals around those.  I then get my other goods – boxed items, household goods, etc – from WalMart or Sam’s Club.  I know the average prices of my regular items, and I watch for them to be on sale.  When they are on a good special, I stock up.

Here are some of my little tricks for stretching our groceries:

1.  Based on the meat specials at the grocery store, make a list of what meals you will make with those meats.
I list out first which meats I will buy, and then think of what I can do with those meats.  For example, this week I may plan to get a roast, cubed steak, chicken breasts, ground beef, and pork chops.  From there, I may decide to do a roast with potatoes and carrots, cubed steak with mashed potatoes, chicken casserole with the chicken breasts, sloppy joes with tater tots with the ground beef, and BBQ baked pork chops with some veggies.

2.  Complete the grocery list with sides, other needed ingredients, snacks, and lunch and breakfast items.
It should be noted here that I keep a running grocery list on my fridge, where I list items that are running low (or in some cases, have run out) as I discover them.  I HATE to run completely out of anything, so I usually add it to my list when it gets low.  If it is an item that goes quickly, I add it when it gets about halfway used, but if it’s an item that goes more slowly, I wait until there is maybe a quarter of it left.  So when I get ready to do my grocery shopping, I already have a list started.  I add the meats on special, then the sides to go with those, and then any special ingredients I may need (e.g. cream of chicken soup, BBQ sauce, tortillas, etc).  I finish off my list with snacks, lunch items (e.g. lunch meat, cheese, bread, Hot Pockets, soups, salad stuff, etc), and breakfast items (we eat cereal or oatmeal most mornings during the week, but I prepare a big breakfast on the weekends).  The most important takeaway here is that EVERYTHING goes on the list.  Sure, there may be an item or two that you forgot about and remember it when you get to the store, but otherwise stick to the list.  NO IMPULSE PURCHASES.
SIDE NOTE:  Plan for the unexpected.  Have 2 or 3 meal options that are easy but flexible for those “just in case” nights.  One of our go-to meals is tuna salad with mac and cheese.  It’s quick and easy, but also keeps on the shelf, so we pull it out if we need something fast, or if other meals have run out.  It’s also a good go-to if you have a night where you maybe have plans to go out the next night, and therefore will not be eating leftovers (you can make just enough for that night’s dinner, or eat any leftover tuna for the next day’s lunch).

3.  Learn to love leftovers.
I love to cook, but I don’t love to cook everyday.  Our rules for meals are as follows: each meal lasts for two dinners, and after two days, you may then – and only then – eat those leftovers for a lunch.  When planning my meals, I keep this in mind, so I buy enough ingredients to make a large meal to last two days.  Sometimes that means doubling or even tripling a recipe.  It also means observing portion control (which will also be good for your waistline).  I always remember my mom saying things like, “It’s a shame that I spend all this time in the kitchen for everyone to eat and be done in 20 minutes”.  I guess I don’t feel it has to be that way.  If you really enjoy a meal, why not enjoy it two or three times?  To me, it makes it more worth my effort to be able to enjoy a meal for longer than 20 minutes.  It also gives me two or three nights a week where I don’t have to stress about cooking – winning!  Extra bonus: it’s typically cheaper to make a larger batch of one meal than to make two separate meals.

4.  Make a meals list, and cross them off as you make/use them.     015
Once home from the store, I make a list of all the meals I’ve acquired.  I don’t like to assign them to specific days.  I know some people do meal assignments for the week or even the month, and that’s cool.  I just personally prefer to have more flexibility in my choices.  Sometimes things come up and I need a quicker meal.  Other times I feel like being a gourmet chef and spending a couple of hours in the kitchen.  I like options.  So I make a list of what all I have – just go down and say “#1 – Roast with potatoes & carrots, #2 – Sloppy joes with tater tots” and so on.  At the bottom, I make another small list of all of the sides I have on hand – corn, broccoli, salad stuff, mixed vegetables, etc.  Again, I like options, so this allows me to see what all I have – at a glance, and without digging through the freezer – and I can just pick which sides/veggies I want to have with each meal.  I buy a variety of veggies when I do my grocery shopping – both fresh and frozen – and I try to have at least one vegetable with each meal, sometimes two.
RULE OF THUMB – When choosing which meal to make, choose the ones with fresher ingredients FIRST, so that you don’t get stuck with produce and such that is going bad.  Once you have worked through all the ones requiring fresh produce/ingredients, you can move onto your frozen or boxed options.

Using the tips above, I am usually able to make our groceries last for about 2-2 1/2 weeks.  Again, I may have to make a weekly quick run to refresh produce or grab an ingredient I forgot, but the bulk of our groceries lasts from major trip to major trip.  Not only does it save time not having to go to the store all the time, but it saves money because I am sticking to a plan versus making impulse purchases.

What tips/tricks have you found to help make your groceries stretch?

Just “Start”

Like 99% of the American population, I’m sure you’ve got a long mental “to do” list when it comes to improving your life.

“I need to get more organized.”

“I need to start exercising.”

“I need to start eating healthier.”

“I need to start spending more time with my family.”

And the list goes on…..

The problem is that we TALK about these things ALL THE TIME.  We always have that mental list of things we “need to do”- and yet, we’re not getting it done.

For most, it’s because it seems like SO MUCH that even just the THOUGHT of doing makes us tired.  You ever watch “Hoarders” and think “How in the world did these people get to this point?”  The truth is, it wasn’t what they DID, it’s what they DIDN’T do.  If you are a regular watcher, like I am, you know that most of these people had some life situation that was sort of the pivotal point – and things went downhill from there.  A loved one died, the person lost his/her job, a divorce occurred – SOMETHING happened that caused that person to shut down, and he/she just stopped doing.  The “stuff” he/she has accumulated  – as crazy as it sounds – was a comfort. When something very dear to you is ripped away, you try to hold onto anything – and everything – you can, because that’s the only thing you CAN control.

Fortunately, most of us are not in the “hoarders” category, but we still feel like we live in a world of chaos.  We feel overwhelmed by trying to balance work and home, and somehow we’ve let things get away from us – little by little – until the “to do” list has become a mile long.  But the mere thought of even attempting to tackle that list seems too much to wrap our minds around, and so we just DON’T DO.

You know that old phrase “one step at a time”?  As crazy as it sounds, that is honestly all it takes – ONE STEP.  Pick a place – any place – and just START.  I know you’re probably sitting there saying “that’s easier said than done”.  But honestly, it’s not as hard as you think it is.  Maybe today you choose that pile of mail that’s been piling up on the table.  Chances are half of it need to be thrown out, but you just haven’t taken the time to do so.  Maybe tomorrow you choose the coffee table.  I know you think that one thing can’t make that much of a difference, but amazingly, it does. It adds up over time, and after a couple of weeks, maybe that entire living room is done…and you can move on to the next room.

I didn’t say it would be easy.  You will have to muster up courage, patience, and a little focus and determination.  But just like starting a new exercise routine, it will become easier as time goes on – and you will be amazed at the results you are starting to see.  I think of clutter like the “fat” of your house – you got a little lazy and complacent and your house put on a few pounds!  But ignoring those pounds won’t make them go away; they will only continue to accrue if you don’t take action.

So as you try to decide where to start on your list of things to improve in your life, don’t get overwhelmed with how many things you need to work on.  Just pick ONE.  My suggestion is pick the ONE thing that has the greatest effect on your life right now, and start making daily time for that one thing everyday.  Maybe you choose to start exercising – so make 20 minutes everyday to start walking.  Maybe you choose to start eating healthy, but before you overhaul your entire kitchen, just choose one area to focus on – such as taking a multivitamin, cutting down on your potato chip habit, or eating one fruit a day more than what you currently eat (which, sadly, might mean eating ONE fruit a day for many people – but again, it’s a start).  The bottom line is: JUST START.  And take it one step at a time.