Quick, Healthy, Money-Saving Meals
Making the Most of Your Grocery Dollars
Food is precious. An obvious necessity, food provides us both sustenance and pleasure. It is capable both to heal and to harm. Food has the power to evoke strong memories and emotions, to excite and to soothe. It is an integral component of celebrations and brings family and friends together.
Second only to housing in most budgets, we trade thousands of our hard-earned dollars for it every year. We devote a large percentage of our homes' square-footage to kitchens, pantries and food cellars. Refrigerators and freezers run in every home, often times more than one of each. The availability of recipes and cooking information on the web, print and television have transformed many home kitchens into gourmet eateries, rivaling the best restaurants, complete with high-end pots, pans and other cooking accoutrements. Additionally, restaurants offer cuisine of all kinds, from fast and cheap to full-service fare featuring traditional or international menus. Eating is not just a necessity, but a social and entertainment experience. The ever-increasing number of restaurants is testament to the amount of money that we are willing to spend to enjoy a meal on the town.
This article will explore tactics to make the most of our food dollars and reduce waste; i.e. wasted money, wasted food, and our waist-lines, too!
It's All in the Planning
There is no magically quick and easy way to serve healthy, nourishing foods while at the same time saving money. Quick, cheap restaurant and convenience foods are often easy on the budget, but they offer little in the way of nutrition, and may actually be detrimental to your health. More nutritious options can initially be more costly, though they may arguably save money in the long run by potentially reducing future medical costs. Our busy, stressful schedules can make us feel as though we need to depend on convenience foods to varying degrees.
In reality, our busy schedules are not the problem, but instead a lack of planning and preparation that causes us to depend on quick, easy food choices. On a personal note, a recent event brought this point home to me and illustrated my need to be a better meal planner. On a particular Friday, my kids found out at the last minute that the National Livestock Show was in town and that the youth sheep competition was in one hour. We wanted to see the sheep, so we jumped into the car without thinking about lunch. On the way, we had to stop for gasoline, and the kids asked to run into the station and get a hot dog. They returned to the car 15 minutes later with hotdogs, chips and giant sodas…and a receipt for nearly $16 spent on junk food. I was mortified! We just spent much more money than I had intended on food that I generally consider to be one step up from toxic waste. To add to my displeasure, we hadn't saved any time at all. Had I simply thought ahead a little bit, we could have quickly made sandwiches, orange slices and carrot sticks for the road; a much healthier and less expensive option.
I have found that the more effort I put into planning and preparation, the easier it is to have healthy and inexpensive meals. I generally plan on three tactical levels. According to dictionary.com, a 'tactic' is a plan, procedure, or expedient for promoting a desired end or result. I plan meals in order to achieve the end result of having healthy meals with the least amount of time and expense possible. The tactics that I employ are as follows:
1. Make-Ahead Meals and Snacks
2. Food Storage (to take advantage of grocery store deals)
3. Planning for Eating Out
Preparing Make-Ahead Meals and Snacks
If you are anything like me, one of the hardest parts of feeding my family is simply deciding what to make each day. If I wait until the afternoon when I am tired to begin contemplating dinner, the battle is generally lost and I will order pizza. Therefore, I know that each week I need to take a brief inventory of what I have in the fridge, pantry and freezer, and write down a list of the meals that I will make for the week using the ingredients that I have on hand. I also make a list of the items that I need to purchase at the store to complete those meals. For instance, if I notice that there is ground beef at the back of the freezer that needs to be used ASAP, and a can of mushrooms and egg noodles in the pantry, I may put sour cream and an onion on my list in order to make Beef Stroghanoff that week. A two-minute inventory saves me from finding the ground beef months later and having to throw it away, and also arms me with a dinner plan that will help to keep my budget on track for another day.
PremeditatedLeftovers.com has a great article about meal planning. Read How I Create Menu Plans for some tried-and-true tips.
Planning meals ahead is only the first step, however. Nothing prevents me from hitting the drive-thru window more than having a healthy, delicious meal already prepared in the fridge or freezer for a busy day. I have found that many of my favorite recipes can be doubled, or even tripled, and frozen for another day. If I have planned ahead to have enough ingredients on hand, I can cook once, and eat several times with almost no additional effort.
When I am feeling very industrious, I download a menu plan and ingredients from OnceAMonthMom.com. For a small subscription fee, members can access complete monthly menus, from traditional meals to gluten-free and vegetarian fare. Spreadsheets allow the subscriber to enter the number of people who will be eating the meals, and all of the ingredient amounts are automatically adjusted on the shopping list and in the recipes. This process can be a bit overwhelming, especially the first go-round, so I recommend working with a partner and splitting the meals. Smaller weekly menus are also available for cooks, like me, who don't want to cook an entire month's worth of food, but still have some meals ready to go in the freezer.
On days when I know that I won't have time or energy to cook, or on nights when I am teaching and won't be home to feed my family, I keep meals that can be removed from the freezer and placed in a crock pot before I leave the house in the morning. By evening, the family has a healthy meal ready to be eaten.
Although I have two freezers, they fill up quickly with meals for a family of 5, so I also like to keep some dry mixes, a.k.a. homemade Hamburger Helper, that don't require refrigerTation and that can be mixed up quickly with a few fresh ingredients. The mixes that I make at home, using recipes posted on the 'Tip Garden' website, taste so much better and are less expensive than store-bought mixes, and they contain a lot less sodium and no preservatives.
Additionally, I make sure that we have healthy snacks handy. In season fruits and veggies are always available in my kitchen. Dried fruits, nuts, pretzels and cheese 'n' crackers also great snacks. I love to bake, and have found that most cookies freeze well. I make big batches of several different kinds of cookies and freeze them in small packages so that we can rotate them. One of my favorite snacks is Lisa Leake's homemade Larabar recipe that she posted on her '100 Days of Real Food' blog. These bars satisfy our sweet tooth and are also easy to make and very healthy.
The "Once a Month Mom" website posts tons of freezer-friendly meal and snack recipes that you can view for free, no membership necessary unless you also want access to editable shopping lists, menus, bulk cooking instructions and recipes. Additionally, there is an abundance of freezer-friendly and bulk recipes posted on the web. To visit Once a Month Mom, Tip Garden and other bulk cooking websites, or to get Lisa's recipe for homemade Larabars, scroll down to the "Get Cooking" section at the bottom of this article.
Proper food storage can extend the life of leftovers, a bumper crop in the garden, or a bulk food purchase. In our kitchen, we use glass containers for short-term storage, and a Food Saver vacuum sealer for longer storage. Both methods are BPA-free and effective.
My Food Saver device is used almost daily. When I find an item that we like to eat on sale at the grocery store, I purchase in bulk and put my vacuum sealer into action. Here are a few of the ways that I most commonly use the machine:
1. Meat can be purchased at a discount in a family pack and separated into individual meal-sized portions. Raw meats that are vacuum sealed maintain their color, texture and flavor much longer than in zipper freezer bags. With ordinary storage, meats should be used within six months, but in freezer bags it can be stored as long as 2-3 years in the freezer.
2. Crackers, chips, cookies, bagels and other breads stay fresh weeks longer in the pantry, and years longer in the freezer. When I make a bulk purchase, or have items that I notice aren't being eaten fast enough before they go stale, I remove the packages from the box and seal them in vacuum bags. Since these items are not particularly "germ-y," the bags can be rinsed and used again.
3. Vegetables that are blanched (scalded) and vacuum sealed can be stored for up to 3 years, and still taste fresh out of the freezer. To blanch, wash veggies well and peel, if desired. Chop into bite-size pieces. Bring a pot of water to a full rolling boil. While you are waiting for the water to boil, fill a bowl with ice water and place it in the sink. When the water is boiling, add a dash of sea salt or kosher salt to the pot. Add the vegetables to the water, a few cups at a time, and allow them to simmer for a minute or two to stop the enzymes that are responsible for the degradation of color, flavor, vitamins and minerals. Then remove the veggies from the pot and quickly place them in the ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain and seal in vacuum bags. For more detailed instructions, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation using the link in the "Get Cooking" section near the end of this article.
4. Coffee retains its fresh flavor longer when vacuum sealed. Coffee is sold at my favorite store in a large, cardboard container, similar in shape and size to an oatmeal container. Coffee will retain its flavor longer when removed from this type of container and vacuum sealed. I do not recommend freezing coffee unless you need to store it for more than a month, as the temperature fluctuation can damage the flavor. Instead, seal whole beans in a vacuum bag and store in a cool, dark cabinet until you are ready to use them.
By incorporating a Food Saver or other vacuum seal system into your routine, you can take advantage of seasonal grocery store sales that return cyclically year after year. For instance, in January, Christmas chocolates and candies are clearanced, Super Bowl snacks are discounted, and vitamins are often sold 2-for-1. If you have a vacuum sealer, you can purchase these items when the price is low and store them in a manner that retains its freshness.
For more information about cyclical food sales, visit Living Richly on a Budget at the link located in the "Get Cooking" section of this article.
The Food Saver Model that I Recommend
Automatic vacuum-packaging system with SmartSeal technology keeps food fresh longer. This model has 2 vacuum speeds, 2 seal levels, canister mode, and marinade mode for marinating in minutes. It contains built-in bag-roll storage, and the box includes an 11-inch roll, 3 quart-size bags, and 2 gallon-size bags.
This is the model that I use and recommend. It stands upright and does not take up much room on my counter top. Because of its slim profile, I leave it on the counter at all times, which increases its usage since I don't have to get it out and put it away every time I want to store a food item. Older models lay flat on the counter, taking up twice the space.
It also has a feature that older models lack in the ability to stop or decrease the vacuum action of the machine so that soft items, such as bread and marshmallows, are not flattened by the suction. Some previous models did not have the ability to stop the suction manually.
Glassware for Food Storage
Flip your food storage containers upside-down and take a look at the recycling triangle and number printed on the bottom. If this number is #3 or #7, it probably contains either BPA (bisphenol A) or phthalates (used to make PVC plastics.) These chemicals mimic estrogen and can interfere with with our bodies' hormone leves . This effect can be particularly harmful for developing children's bodies. Unless the container clearly states that it is both BPA and PVC-free, the safest thing to do is to get rid of them or use them for another purpose. Glass containers are a much safer option, but be certain that the plastic lids are BPA and PVC-free.
Amazon carries some good options for glass containers. Super Saver shipping is FREE on qualified orders of $25 or more.
If you still prefer to use plastic containers, be sure that they have a recycling number of #2, #4 or #5, which are widely considered safe for food storage. No matter what the recycling number is, never use plastic containers in the microwave as the heat may cause harmful chemicals to be released into the food.
Kitchen organization has gotten much easier since the days that we used to have to save our whipped topping and margarine tubs for leftovers. Stackable plastic storage containers are inexpensive and they come in every shape and size. They are convenient, reusable, recyclable and transportable. However, some studies show that BPA and PVC in plastics can be detrimental to our health, and particularly the health of young people whose bodies are still developing. However, the FDA will continue to approve the chemicals until they are proven conclusively to be unsafe. I, for one, believe that there is enough research evidence to dissuade me from using plastics that contain BPA and phthalates. What about you?
Are we paying for this convenience with our health?
Plan for Eating Out
Although I believe that in general my own home cooking is more healthful than eating out, I ALSO know that stress is both damaging to my health and can quickly derail my resolve to cook the bulk of our meals at home. Each week, I balance my cooking schedule with two or three meals out, i.e. a dinner date with my husband, lunch with a friend, or happy hour at my business partners' favorite restaurant. A little bit of planning makes these meals enjoyable, economical and healthy.
My husband and I really love to try out new restaurants, and we were thrilled to discover Restaurant.com. This website lists restaurants across the United States for which $25 gift certificates can be purchased for $10 or less. We subscribed to their email list, and often receive coupon codes to purchase these certificates for as little as $2 each. The only catch is that the user generally has to order a minimum of $35 before the gift certificate can be used, but once the $25 certificate is subtracted from the bill, our net gain is significant. Visit the Restaurant.com website to see what restaurants are available in your area.
Other deal websites that I use often are Living Social and Groupon. Besides restaurant deals, these sites also post discounts for entertainment, salons and spas, shopping, education, getaways and more! Our favorite local restaurant often posts $30 certificates for $10 each, and we have tried several new restaurants because of the great deals that we were able to get from Living Social and Groupon. Use the links below to see what Living Social and Groupon are offering in your area.
To Coupon or Not to Coupon?
Do you use coupons and deals when dining out? Or is it too much trouble? Perhaps you feel it makes you look like cheapskate to use a discount? Tell us your opinion. If you like restaurant discounts, tell us the best places to find them.
Coupons and Deals?
Food for Thought
I hope that this article has spurred you to think more carefully about your food expenditures. Your plan may look very different than my plan. However, by incorporating your own plan for cooking at home, buying in bulk when the price is low, and controlling your restaurant expenditures, you may find that you are eating better and have more money for other necessities and wants. Stress will be relieved and you may even see improvement in your health as you become more in control of the food you are eating.
If you are new to cooking, the first step is to learn a few simple recipes and techniques. Take the time to read a few starter cookbooks or watch some cooking shows on television. There are many resources online. Once of my favorites is "The Reluctant Gourmet" whose motto is "You have to eat, so learn to cook and eat well." Visit their website in the "Get Cooking" section of this article.
Have fun learning healthy recipes, and practical ideas for saving time and money, and you will be on your way to a lifestyle that improves the prosperity of your wallet and your health.
Amazon carries a large selection of wonderful cookbooks and helpful resources to get you started or improve your skills. Super Saver shipping is FREE on qualified orders of $25 or more. And students can get Amazon Prime free for 6 months here.
- Once a Month Mom
Once A Month Mom helps you fill your freezer by creating monthly menus using freezable seasonal recipes.
- Recipe: Homemade Larabars (4 ways including nut-free!) - 100 Days of Real Food
Well, I stand corrected. All this time readers have been telling me I should make my own Larabars at home, and I proudly stood my ground saying I already make too many things from scratch so I would continue to buy them from the store. But that was u
- TIP GARDEN: Master Mix: Hamburger Helper Pantry Kits
Talk about saving money, I already had all the ingredients in my pantry to make my own hamburger helper kits, so no reason to spend the money on the commercial ones at the store. I think it literally took me maybe 15 minutes max to whip them together
- Hidden dangers of food storage containers
Stackable food storage containers are convenient, portable and reusable. But are we paying for this convenience with our health?
- National Center for Home Food Preservation | How Do I? Freeze
Blanching (scalding vegetables in boiling water or steam for a short time) is a must for almost all vegetables to be frozen. It stops enzyme actions which can cause loss of flavor, color and texture.
- Grocery Sale Cycles; When Do Things Go on Sale?
Ever wonder when things go on sale at the grocery store? Well, stop guessing. Here's your guide to grocery sale cycles for the entire year! Know when to stock up on certain grocery items and when to wait until things go on sale. Get the best deals
- "How To Cook" by The Reluctant Gourmet
Cooking Techniques for Beginner and Intermediate Cooks. Learn the basic techniques of cooking including saute, roasting, grilling, braising deglazing and more.
I would love to hear from you. What tips can you share for cooking healthy meals and saving money? If you have a related website that you would like to share, feel free to post it here. Kindly link back to this article from your website, in return.