Saving Money: Budgeting Monthly Food Purchases
When my son was a teenager, I found many ways to save on food costs. His friends hung out at our house and I had to do something to keep them from eating me out of house and home. Certain stores had lower prices on staples like cheese just after the first of the month. By keeping track of food prices, I was able to lower my bill simply by adjusting my shopping week. Many folks keep a "price list". I compared prices on key food items at several stores and found the least expensive overall.
I like food that has a lot of flavor. A few years ago I started an herb garden to compliment my annual garden. Now, when I need a little kick, I go out and chop off a pepper or some chives and add it to the pot. During the summer we plant tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, peppers and more. It is amazing to watch how much a zucchini can grow overnight! It's also amazing the number of great recipes you can invent to use up the giant zucchini.
When everyone was tired of zucchini, for example, I made "apple pie" out of the zucchini. The recipe I found called for adding lemon to make the zucchini taste like apples, and it worked! I also tried zucchini brownies, fries, hash browns, and much more. The idea was to get very inventive with something I had readily available that cost me virtually nothing to grow. I try to plant just enough so we have it coming out our ears for a bit, but not too much that we get sick of any one thing. This is an art and skill that I have honed over the years.
When I was teaching my son all about fresh cooking, we ate a lot of fresh vegetables from the garden and added many new recipes to our favorites. It is lovely to think "what's for dinner...hmmm...let me check the garden". When summer wanes, I pick as much as I can and freeze. I haven't taken up canning yet, but that may be next.
Food Preparation and Menus
Cooking from scratch saved a lot of money, but took a lot of time. I started to develop recipe shortcuts and worked on a set of fallback basics that I knew everyone would eat. I also started teaching my son how to cook. I've always been a huge fan of crock pot cooking, thus many of our meals started with something frozen being thrown in with a bunch of seasonings in the morning.
Having a large freezer more than paid for itself over the years. It cost only a few dollars to run each month, but allowed me to buy items like milk, meat and bread in bulk. My Mom, always kept a fully stocked freezer. With 6 kids (and all of our friends) she pretty much had to shop weekly. I researched what could be frozen and found that just about everything, excluding a few vegetables like lettuce can be frozen. I also found, through experience, that most foods, like milk and bread, stay fresh longer after they are frozen.
I started using a schedule so I didn't have to think about "what's for dinner" every single day. Monday was leftovers from Sunday, Tuesday chicken, Wednesday ground beef/veggie/cheese, Thursday pork, Friday tacos or hamburgers. Saturday I usually cooked a lasagna or enchiladas in which I hid vegetables and Sunday was roast day.
The meals could have gotten boring with a set schedule, but I made menus for the entire month and made sure I didn't repeat certain types of food too much. For example, if we had Mexican on chicken night, I made pork night Italian. There are many recipes in many flavorful backgrounds available at the click of a button. By knowing basic cooking techniques and keeping a fully stocked pantry, I was able to whip up virtually anything on any given day.
When I shopped, I planned an entire day of food prep. I purchased groceries once a month. When I got home, I cooked all of the ground beef and some of the chicken. I packaged the beef in 3/4 lb increments, just enough to add flavor to a meal. I boiled and shredded the chicken and packaged in 1 lb increments. I also used some of these to make "frozen burritos" for the boys. It is less expensive and healthier to cook and freeze than to purchase high sodium and preservative frozen foods. By having the meat ready and cooked, I virtually eliminated the "I'm too tired after work" stop at fast food places. Meals were half way cooked anyways, and just adding some noodles, rice or potatoes and vegetables finished it.
Get Them Involved
I taught my son and his friends how to shop! This saved me money and got them to eat healthier. I gave them a budget and took them to the grocery store with me. They could buy whatever they wanted with the money I gave them. The first month it was all JUNK. But they soon ran out of the junk and had to eat vegetables the rest of the month. The next time, they bought fresh ingredients and made some of their favorite junk food from scratch. I taught them a few ways to extend food such as adding cheese and beans to meat when you make burritos. By the third month they were looking for "on sale" meat and cheese and they ditched most of their soda and premade drinks for iced tea.
Using their love of all things fire related to get them further involved, I taught them to safely use the barbecue. This got me out of the kitchen quicker, because they began food prep before I got home from work. Of course, you need to have mature, trustworthy teens before you can pass on this level of responsibility. Almost anything can be made on a barbecue.
I only wish I had gotten them involved sooner! I could have saved a lot more and they could have eaten even healthier. My son has brought a certain frugality to his current roommate living situation too. Imagine 3 young men using a crock pot to cook a roast every weekend. They make pancakes from scratch instead of eating at a restaurant. When they are tired they eat eggs or grilled cheese. They did learn that you can't cook an entire package of spaghetti at one time in a small crock pot!