Hi friends! I’m happy to report that we are (almost) settled in our new home, meaning I should now have the time and energy to do regular posts and coupon matchups! Yay!! I’m also happy to report that my new kitchen affords me A LOT more room to maneuver and whip up some tasty dinners.
Alas, a new house means we are putting out more money every month on bills, housing costs, utilities etc., so I’ve been thinking extra hard about how to cook up a week’s worth of delicious dinners (and pack a big enough lunch for Mike and myself), while spending even less money on groceries than we usually do. I guess my gratuitous shopping trip to Pier 1 Imports for new (upholstered) dining chairs and a hand-carved trunk from India to serve as a new coffee table (with storage space!) didn’t help financial matters much either, but a girl has to shop sometime (especially when decorating a new house), and FYI I got everything I wanted for half off or more, thanks to a few barely noticeable scratches and stains. Don’t be afraid to point out imperfections when shopping the more expensive stores, or to purchase floor models, it can save you a butt-load of dough!
If you read this blog, you know that I spend around $20 each week…that includes food, personal care items, laundry detergent, cat food, and everything else in between.
If you are smart (and short on time, as I have been this past month!), you can still accomplish this goal without clipping a single coupon. Don’t get me wrong, I loooove the coupon game. But at certain hectic times in our lives, all the researching, sorting and clipping may not be possible.
Buying grocery store loss leaders, cooking from scratch, utilizing items that you have already stockpiled, and carefully planning meals will be your greatest ally if you need to go “coupon free” for a week (or a month).
Anyway, I thought I’d share next week’s shopping and cooking plan to illustrate how easy it is to have a weeks worth of tasty home-cooked dinners, and simple, filling lunches without breaking the new budget!
Here are my steps in accomplishing this goal:
- Take stock of your pantry/stockpile. This will let you see what you have on hand, and you’ll probably see that you already have the ingredients for quite a few meals before you even have to open your wallet. Can of beans and a bag of onions? You’re halfway there towards a huge pot of chili. Tuna pouches galore? (guilty!) Try tuna croquettes, a tuna-based pasta sauce, or good old fashioned tuna noodle casserole (or even Tuna Helper…thanks to some awesome sales on Tuna Helper, my pantry probably contains about 40 boxes of the stuff for lazy, hassle-free dinners.
- Read your grocery store ads, and make note of the best deals (loss leaders). These are usually on meat, lunchmeat and veggies. When I see a great deal, I stock up in bulk, portion it out, and freeze it. For example, this week’s ads are compelling me to buy ground chuck (at $1.89 per lb), whole chickens (at .98 cents per pound), and seedless grapes (at .99 cents per pound). Combined with the deals I got in the past week or two (chipped ham for sandwiches at $1.98 per pound, a 10 lb bag of potatoes for $2.25, etc., I should be able to come up with some fantastically tasty (and super-cheap) dinners for the week.
- Plan your dinner menu for the week. This saves time, money and, most importantly, your sanity. Remember those chickens for 99 cents/lb I told you about?? Well, with careful planning, a 5 lb bird will easily feed us for 3 days, and the meals will be so different, it won’t get boring. I’ll show you my meal plan shortly.
- Keep lunches simple. And breakfast too. Here’s my answer to lunch: I stock up on lunch meat when it’s cheap ( like last week) and freeze it into pound-sized portions. Mike usually gets sandwiches made with said cheap meat and homemade/on-sale/bakery outlet bread. On the side I pack him brownies and cupcakes I make at home from mixes I bought for a quarter or less (sale+coupons), hopefully some fresh fruit (like those grapes for 99 cents/lb), and often some leftovers. Sometimes I’ll make a huge pot of chili or soup early in the week for dinner one night, and use the leftovers to put in his thermos for the rest of the week. It costs me around 50 to 75 cents a day to send him to work with a manly-man sized lunch. Breakfast is usually some cereal or scrambled eggs and toast.
- Try doing one meatless dinner per week. A simple pasta, some pierogies with fried onions and sour cream, filling bean burritos, or some black beans ‘n rice are just as satisfying as a hunk of cow. I know the man in your life might protest at first, but sweeten the deal with some homemade, fresh-from-the-oven brownies or cupcakes after dinner. This works especially well if you’re not the Betty Crocker type.
- When following a recipe, use slightly less than the called-for amount of meat. As I’ve said before, I portion my ground meat into 3/4 lb portions instead of 1 lb portions, which is what a typical recipe calls for (meat loaf or burritos or tacos or a casserole). No one is ever the wiser, and that 3 lb package of ground chuck just became 4 meals instead of 3 thanks to your craftiness. Good for your heart, great for your wallet!
- When it comes to meat, start big and work your way down. I call this method of cooking my 3-Day Plan. By this, I mean it’s usually much cheaper (and tastier) to purchase a whole chicken than boneless, skinless breasts, and you are able to stretch that bird into 3 nights of mouth-watering, unique dinners. Ditto for a roast as opposed to those pre-cut hunks of stew meat that cost about a billion dollars per pound. Don’t pay for small conveniences! You can buy a pork-butt roast and cook it up whole the first night, with some mashed potatoes and veggies on the side, and then re-purpose the leftovers the next night by whipping up some Carnita Quesadillas with the leftover shredded pork, some sauteed onions and green peppers, and a little leftover shredded cheese. Slap it on some flour tortillas, and grill it up on the stove-top grilled-cheese style. Serve some cheap -as -dirt rice on the side, with some mexican seasonings and maybe a can of kidney beans. The next night use the rest of the leftover meat in a stew or soup. If you’re stumped for ideas, the internet is a wealth of information. Some sites, like allrecipes.com, allow you to search for recipes based on ingredients. Be creative! I’ll show you my 3-day plan using the 98 cent/lb chicken below.
- Know which stores have the lowest prices for staple items you regularly buy! Especially if you are too busy to do the coupon dance. For example, I know Aldi’s has loaves of whole wheat bread for 69 cents. Dollar General has the cheapest olive oil if I need it. And so on and so on. Don’t get stuck paying a gazillion dollars at the grocery store on a jar of cajun seasoning you need for a recipe. I can tell you from experience: walk away from the overpriced, teeny-tiny spice jar that costs $4.99!! Go next door to your local dollar store and get it for 50 cents. Put it in a cute spice jar. I won’t tell. Trust me, the difference isn’t that noticeable.
- Be on the lookout for great sales that you can combine with coupons (especially double coupons!), and when you find them, STOCK UP!! This is how I came to have a pantry/freezer that is full of commonly used staples like frozen vegetables, shredded cheese, cream soups and butter that I got for pennies. While I wanted to do this post to show you can still get a TON of food without coupons, never underestimate the power of a great sale combined with a high-value double coupon!!
- Make your own snacks! I plunder the discount produce rack for overripe bananas and make some amazing banana bread or muffins. I also use all those cake/brownie mixes I scored for under 25 cents each to bake up some treats to have on hand. On the healthy side, veggies or crackers dipped in some homemade hummus are amazing! And frozen grapes are a sweet treat that’s right in my price range this week! Don’t pay for pre-portioned, pre-packaged snacks!! If you are getting store-bought chips or cookies, buy the whole bag, not the cutesy, individually packaged mini-bags! You’ll pay over double for the “convenience”.
My Shopping List for The Week
(Notice that I usually buy more than what I need for the week when the prices are right, freeze it, and save it for later. So, in actuality, I’m spending less than $20 for the week. Cherry-picking the best-0f-the-best deals each week and buying as much as you can afford or store can add up to tons of $$$ saved. Each week I use a combination of what I’ve newly purchased, and items I’ve stockpiled previously in my pantry or freezer.)
- 4 lbs of ground chuck at $1.89/lb (which can be divided into 5-6 portion sizes for dinners) On sale at Shop ‘n Save this week (and at Giant Eagle until Thursday as well)
- 2 4 lb whole chickens at 98 cents/lb (one for this week, one to freeze for later!) On sale at Shop ‘n Save this week, but you can usually find whole chickens anywhere for not much more! Giant Eagle also has fresh boneless chicken breasts on sale for $1.98/lb this week if you’d rather go that route.
- 3 lbs of seedless grapes at 98 cents/lb (you can freeze grapes too!) On sale at Shop ‘n Save this week
- 2 loaves of wheat bread (69 cents each at Aldi’s)
- 1 pint of milk (we don’t drink milk, just use it in cooking) $1.19
- Flour tortillas (99 cents at Aldi’s)
- 1 package of generic American cheese for Mike’s lunch sandwiches (99 cents)
- Beans for chili (I usually use black, kidney and great northern beans) $1.50 for all at Aldi’s. Note: buying dry beans is waaaaay cheaper. I love beans, and plan on starting to use the dry version, which requires an overnight soak. MUCH cheaper, MUCH healthier….slightly less convenient.
- Red or yellow peppers (in the summer, I’d get this from a friend’s garden for free…now that it’s cold outside, I’m stuck paying ridiculous pepper prices. These babies can cost up to $4 PER POUND at the regular supermarket, but luckily, Aldi’s has 3-packs for around $1.50. This summer I’ll be growing my own out back in my garden!)
- Spring Mix for salad (99 cents at Aldi’s)
(This all equals out to around $25, but, as you can see, I’m buying enough meat to be the basis of at least 2 weeks worth of meals. If you only bought what you needed for the week using the sale prices I’ve noted this week, your total would be around $10 for my shopping list. Yours may vary depending on what you have on hand, but remember my shopping tips above to get the best deals and the lowest prices! Remember, this is just an example!)
In addition to the items on my shopping list, I’ll be using some things from my pantry/freezer/fridge: onions, potatoes, rice, tomato paste, shredded cheese (frozen from a great sale+coupon day when it was nearly free!), frozen veggies, spices, garlic, lemons, cornbread, olive oil, butter, etc.
The Week’s Meal Plan
(I’ve included links to some of my favorite versions of these recipes below, but feel free to get creative! Use up what you have on hand, crack open those recipe books your grandma got you for Christmas five years ago, and get cookin’!)
- Monday: The week starts off with a great big pot of chili. I use a recipe I adapted from this Jamaican Me Crazy Chili recipe. It’s VERY flavorful, and a just a little bit different, but still has that classic chili taste. Feel free to omit or substitute items if you don’t have them on hand, I do. Not only is this a great meal for the start of the week (I’ll probably make some corn muffins or corn bread on the side), but now I have a ton of leftover chili to pack in Mike’s lunch for the week so he has something hot to eat.
- Tuesday: It’s time to bust out the bird! A simple dinner of Roast Chicken is a nice change-up from the chili last night. I usually make some homemade mashed or scalloped potatoes on the side, and pick a bag of frozen veggies (in winter) from my stockpile in the freezer.
- Wednesday: Leftover roast chicken makes for excellent Chicken Enchiladas! To complete the South-of-the-Border theme, I usually do some Mexican rice on the side using my rice cooker, and maybe a can of re-fried beans from my pantry.
- Thursday: I work late on Thursday, and there’s still some life left in that old bird, so tonight I’ll probably use the rest of the meat to make a nice, hearty chicken noodle soup. But first, I make my own homemade stock using the chicken carcass, some herbs, and some onions and carrots and celery I have leftover from Thanksgiving. The soup will taste 100 times better with the homemade stock!! On the side I might make some biscuits or rolls, I usually have the refrigerated kind handy from recent sales to make it easy on myself. A nice salad with the spring mix and some dressing from my stockpile will round out the meal.
- Friday: To be completely honest, Friday is a day where we will order a pizza half of the time. Mike is super exhausted from a long week at work, and I don’t get home from work til around 8:30 or 9 pm, so a coupon for a $5.99 pizza delivered to our doorstep is a godsend sometimes. Or we might just have some of the leftover chili from earlier in the week to finish it up before it goes bad. We often make some simple grilled cheese sandwiches on the side to go with the chili, using up any leftover sandwich bread from the week. Mmmm…
- Saturday: I’ll defrost one of my 3/4 lb packages of ground chuck and make a Taco Lasagna. We love mexican! This uses the rest of the tortillas from the package we bought for the enchiladas as well. And I always keep my own special Mexican spice blend on hand. Cheaper than traditional Italian lasagna (damn you, ricotta cheese!), but just as tasty!
- Sunday: I work til 8 pm and usually don’t feel like slaving over the stove since it’s the end of my work week. We will probably do something simple like frozen pierogies and salad, as well as raid the fridge for leftover Taco Lasagna. I usually do a batch of cupcakes or brownies or banana bread for dessert as well, so Mike can have it in his lunch all next week.
There you have it, my low-cost menu plan for the week! Next week it’s back to coupon-clipping and building up my stockpile! I’d love to hear your low-cost menu ideas in the comment section of this post (I’m always on the hunt for some new ideas!)