Monthly Meal Planning Update: How Much Did I Save?

FritoNachos

Yes, this is a combination Frito Pie/nachos plate. Jealous?!?

Whew! We finished our first Monthly Meal Planning experiment–yay! I wanted to give a brief overview and share my boundless wisdom. You know, things like, don’t go crazy in the bulk aisle (spoiler: it’s too late for me). But first, I’ll go through my original goals.

Feed my family a variety of meals: Survey says: yes! It helps that my Monthly Meal Planning spreadsheet has categories like Soup, Pasta, Tacos, etc. While I did scrupulously freeze our leftovers and serve them later in the month, it didn’t feel like too much of a repeat to eat the same thing twice in a month.

Choose recipes that have common ingredients: I did accomplish this to some degree. Most of the pasta dishes involved spaghetti, for example, and a couple dishes called for ginger and cilantro (two things that are notorious for going bad in my fridge).

Go only once a month to WinCo: I love WinCo, but it’s at least a 40-minute round trip in the car. Unfortunately, I did not go to WinCo once–I went a second time after deciding, at the last minute, to throw a Super Bowl party.

Save time (both cooking and doing dishes) by making large quantities of meals and freezing/rotating them: Making double recipes of muffins and freezing half of our spaghetti sauce and taco fixings did help to a degree. If I were willing to eat the same thing more often, this would have gone better.

Be as zero waste as possible by shopping from the bulk bins using my own containers, and by shopping wisely and selecting common ingredients (see above) so I use everything up: I did have much less food waste–both stuff going to the compost bin, and fuzzy surprises in the fridge. Yay! Plus, buying from the bulk bin and using my own cloth bags and other containers cut down on trash (mostly just related to dairy and meat).

But Did I Save Money?

In our last thrilling installment of Monthly Meal Planning, we were on track to save 35%–but then, the Super Bowl party. Since I entertain all the time, I thought this would actually be a good measure of how much I could actually save in a typical month. But I did go to WinCo (mama didn’t raise a fool).

The final numbers? We saved 25% over our typical grocery bill (the average of the past six months). Not too shabby!

Other Things I Learned

  • Um, I need more snacks. The chocolate almonds I bought the first week? Only lasted that week. And then I needed Totino’s.
  • We consume about six large cans of frozen OJ concentrate each month. We used to always run out of orange juice, but I forced myself to do the math and buy a whole bunch at once. Yay, vitamin C! No more scurvy!
  • If you want to eat tacos every week, you need to buy enough tortillas to last through the month. Damn you, math!
  • My son likes plain yogurt with jam. And he’ll eat it really fast.
  • A quart of bulk maple syrup costs $25. That is insane. Although it looks like it will last at least two months, so . . .
  • Most importantly: I think I used to be loathe to buy enough, say, OJ to last all month, because I was worried about spending too much money. But not needing to make emergency trips for one or two things actually saved us money–because I wasn’t tempted to make impulse purchases or buy more things to make the extra trip “worthwhile.”

So overall, this was a success, and I’ve already planning out the next month and done my big WinCo trip. Stay tuned . . .

Totino's Party Pizza

Monthly Meal Planning Update: Where’s the Totino’s?

Totino's Party Pizza

I love my lobster and caviar, but I must . . . have . . . Totino’s.

We’re on Week 4 of my Monthly Meal Planning experiment, and overall I’m pretty happy, except for one thing: I forgot the Totino’s.

Yes, I have a not-so-secret love of Totino’s Party Pizza (combination, thank you), but I have a couple rules for eating them: one, I have to eat the whole thing. I am not sharing. I will make you your own! Two, I never buy them when I’m grocery shopping! So I ended up asking Scott to pick some up after taking our babysitter home the other night.

Here’s my update on Week 3:

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 4.06.54 PM

Menu

Week 3 meals we did eat: grilled cheese and tomato soup, Sid’s chicken with pasta and veggies, salmon with veggies, tacos with ground beef and refried beans (freezer leftovers from Week 1, moved from Week 4), ham and cheese sandwiches with fruit and carrot sticks, blueberry muffins (freezer leftovers from Week 1), banana-spinach smoothie (moved from Week 2), pancakes with fruit and sausage, yogurt with honey and granola.

Week 3 meals we didn’t eat: Spaghetti with veggies (now I can save it for next month), pork and pineapple tacos with refried beans (ditto), kale smoothie with pineapple and banana (moved to Week 2), fruit with chocolate almonds (we ate all the almonds), Cowboy Cookies (ditto).

Week 4 shopping: There were a few additions to the list (toilet paper), but everything went according to plan.

Pros: Again, I never have to worry about what to make for meals–which makes it easier to resist any last-minute impulses to go out to dinner (sushi).

Cons: I’m happy about the time I saved by making double batches of muffins and alternating blueberry and bran week to week, but I’m fantasizing about what’s next–I’m bored! Hopefully this will help me plan next month.

Money

So, I did my official Week 4 shopping, and we officially saved 35% compared to our average monthly grocery bill. But! I have decided to host a Super Bowl party this Sunday, which falls within my 30-day timeline, so we’ll have to see where we really are next week. I would keep it separate, except I entertain all the time, so it must be included in the monthly average.

Going Forward: I’ll be putting together a full write-up of my experience with Monthly Meal planning, and updating our overall expenditure once the Super Bowl party is included (I’m going back to WinCo to hedge my bets).

Monthly Meal Planning: Eat Better and Save Money & Time

 I’ve been in a rut after the holidays–feeling stressed, uninspired, and like I’m always playing catch-up with my grocery shopping. I love to cook, like, I love to cook, but it was getting to the point where I couldn’t even figure what to make for dinner. I felt like I was spending too much money, wasting food, and just generally working way too hard. So I decided to brush off my old Monthly Meal Planning spreadsheets (something I started working on last year) and use them this month.

Plus, I’m sharing them with you: one, because hopefully they might help someone else, but two, I would love feedback on their usability, etc. Help me make them better!

Download my Monthly Meal Planning spreadsheet now, and then I’ll break down my method. Note: This is an example, not a complete list of items you would need to make all of these meals. This is because I had some items on hand, so I didn’t need to buy them.

This is a six-page Excel workbook that I’ve found very helpful. But first, as with any project, you should establish your goals. Here’s what I’m trying to accomplish:

  • Feed my family a variety of meals, but:
  • Choose recipes that have common ingredients
  • Go only once a month to WinCo (an amazing, large, cheap grocery store we have with dozens and dozens of bulk bins that is a 20+ minute drive for me, hence the once-a-month schedule)
  • Save time (both cooking and doing dishes) by making large quantities of meals and freezing/rotating them
  • Be as zero waste as possible by shopping from the bulk bins using my own containers, and by shopping wisely and selecting common ingredients (see above) so I use everything up

Here we go!

Menu

Monthly Meal Planning

As you can see, I plotted this out via several categories, beginning with dinner (which is my top priority). To help jog my creativity and make meal planning easier, I try to choose a pasta or rice dish each week, a taco (Taco Tuesday!), a soup, a meat or other entree, and seafood. Monday is devoted to either Kraft Macaroni & Cheese with a vegetable or grilled cheese and tomato soup (or something else I have in the freezer that is virtually instant). I like Mondays to be easy. As a rule, I only plot five or so dinners per week, because we may go out to dinner or eat leftovers.

Lunches are basic–I pack a bag for my husband and feed myself and Sarah sandwiches or leftovers.

Breakfast is my crucible, so planning really helps me. Categories include muffin or cake, smoothie, griddle, or yogurt. I used to have eggs in here, but I’m not a huge fan and our son Sid’s been saying he hates eggs, so we’re taking a break.

Snacks are pretty self-explanatory–for me and Scott to munch on, and for Sid after school. Desserts are also standard.

You’ll notice that some things repeat every couple of weeks this month: spaghetti, salmon, muffins, sandwiches, cookies. I’ll be making large batches and freezing them (and freezing half our fish and lunch meat) for simplicity’s sake.

Master Shopping List

I can only show you a small portion in the screenshot–this ended up being a list of 83 items! In addition to food, I went through and figured out what items we needed for cleaning, personal care, etc. I then added categories for stores (I’ll be shopping at four places: WinCo, the People’s Co-Op–I can get oils and such in bulk there–Fred Meyer, and Flying Fish, our local fish market), department, how much I need, and what week I need to buy it. Then I sort by week, store, and department.

I try to buy as much as I can in Week 1: non-perishables and freezables, weekly dairy and produce, etc. Then in Weeks 2-4, in a perfect world, I’d only need to pick up the weekly dairy and produce at the store. It never works out that way, but I can dream . . .

Week 1 Shopping

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 4.08.31 PM.png

I then copy and paste each week’s items in their own spreadsheet. Again, I can only show a small portion of Week 1–it contains a whopping 59 items. The only thing I would do to improve this is to move the departments around to mirror how the store is actually laid out–produce, then deli, then meat–but I’ll continue to refine this until it’s just the way I want it–then I can save it and pull it out every couple of months and save myself some work. In an ideal world, I would have four or five perfect months planned out that I could rotate and update, depending on what I have on hand.

Week 2 Shopping

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 4.08.43 PM

I won’t bore you with screenshots of the rest, I just wanted to show you the difference in the rest of the month–11 items in Week 2, baby! I’m living the dream! I’m only buying cavatappi pasta at Fred Meyer’s because they don’t sell it at WinCo and it’s my son’s favorite.

Sunday I went out to WinCo and did Week 1’s shopping. While I bought tons of food, including a whole chicken, four pounds of chicken breasts, two pounds of shrimp, ground beef, Italian sausage, bacon, breakfast, four pounds of dried beans, 25 servings of fruit–and on, and on–it totaled about a quarter of what I usually spend on groceries in a month, so I’m hopeful!

So what do you think? What changes would you make? I’ll continue to blog weekly and let you know how it goes. In the meantime, I’ll link to a bunch of the recipes I chose, in case you’re interested!

Banana-Spinach Smoothie
Chicken Soup With Rice
Chicken Hash
Coconut Braised Spinach With Chickpeas and Lemon
Cowboy Cookies
Coconut Curry Spaghetti Squash With Shrimp
Free French Vegetable Soup
Kale Smoothie with Pineapple and Banana
Pumpkin Smoothie
Refried Beans
Roast Chicken and Potatoes
Sid’s Chicken
Spaghetti
Strawberry-Flaxseed Smoothie

Prosciutto, leek, and gruyere quiche

Happy Monday! Holiday Recovery and Resolutions

Prosciutto, leek, and gruyere quiche

Prosciutto, leek, and gruyere quiche–so good I forgot to take a pic before we ate.

Happy Monday! How were your holidays? Mine were busy, fun, and full of mishaps. Case in point: I stumbled on the stairs and hurt my (already injured) wrist/thumb severely, which makes it super hard to type. I’ve been dealing with “Mommy thumb” (tendon lining inflammation) and this is finally pushing me to make a doctor’s appointment. You know, after being in pain for 10 months. I’m a genius.

But! Links!

Entertainment

I finally got to watch Fargo Season 2, and oh wow. It was amazing. I was a pretty spotty watcher of Season 1–I followed recaps and watched the occasional episode–but Season 2 was instantly addictive. Kirsten Dunst was incredible. All the actors were. But the writing and plotting were right there with them, and the balance of menace, absurdity, humor, and pathos was perfectly Fargo.

And the soundtrack. Here’s my favorite song from this season, Blitzen Trapper’s cover of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which brings me right back to my early childhood in Southern California:

This trailer for Fargo Season 2 gives me the shivers:

Cooking

We actually got snow in Portland! Well, maybe an inch of snow, but enough to stick and freeze, turning our neighborhood into an ice skating rink. So I’ve been going through our cupboards and using up holiday leftovers to feed us:

Prosciutto, Leek, and Gruyere Quiche. I used Julia Child’s base recipe for Quiche Lorraine (this one’s from The Foodies’ Kitchen), except I made a 9″ crust and used 2 cups of heavy cream and 4 eggs. To make: split two medium leeks in half and slice the white and light-green parts. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a pan and add the leeks and one clove garlic, minced. Stir and cook until leeks are translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add 3 oz chopped prosciutto and cook 3-5 minutes. Sprinkle 3 oz grated gruyere in a partially baked pie crust. Add sauteed veggies and meat, top with custard, and bake at 375 for 30-35 minutes. Cool for 30 minutes. Eat warm or cold!

Spinach and White Bean Soup. I basically followed the recipe, except I used 10 oz frozen spinach, chicken broth (instead of veggie), and about 2/3 cup of ditalini pasta. It was satisfying, tasty, and made me feel healthy.

Resolutions

I’m serious! For sure. Here they are:

  1. Create an editorial calendar for my blog–I’d like to blog more regularly, which means for planning!
  2. Get back to planning meals on a monthly basis–not only does this usually save me time, but it saves money, and I generate less garbage. I’ll put it on the calendar and blog about it (see resolution #1).
  3. Spend less time on my phone. I’m going to keep library books at close hand. And oh yeah, the faces of my children. Of course!
  4. Paint my kitchen!

So what are your resolutions? Favorite TV shows? Clean-the-kitchen recipes? Don’t leave me hanging!

 

Holiday Post-Game: Get in It to Win It

FullSizeRender 17

It’s time to polish the silver! And figure out what to do with these cherry tomatoes . . .

Happy Thanksgiving weekend! I hope this post isn’t too late to be at least a little helpful, but our (awesome, crowded) Thanksgiving was followed by an out-of-town visitor, and . . . I was a little tired. It happens!

But as I was cleaning up after Turkey Day, I realized your holiday entertaining post-game is just as important as your pre-prep–in fact, if you do it right, you can cut way down on your prep work next time. And with Christmas right around the corner, you can use your time now to reduce your stress then. Plus I’ve got some ideas for what to do with your leftovers!

Step One: Cleanup

First off: I know the cleanup after Thanksgiving is massive and arduous, so it’s tempting to rush right through it and half-ass it. Don’t do that. Instead of just putting things away, think of it as getting your things ready to use next time. It’s a subtle shift that can really help.

  • Take stock of all your gear. Did it turn out you were missing some items (I’m somehow missing two forks and I’m really bummed about it!)? Try to find them now, or replace them before you forget.
  • When you clean everything, make sure it’s all really clean. Take a moment. Are you putting away your rarely used china? Make sure it’s shined up. Wine glasses? Ditto.
  • Put everything away in a way that will make them easier to use and access in the future. Did you have to scour your house to find stuff? Did your original storage spaces make sense, logistically? I realized the drawer I was using for my cloth napkins was just too small, which means they were crammed in there and got all wrinkled (negating the effort I made to fold them right out of the dryer). Try to store the things you use together in the same general area!

Step Two: Leftovers

Thanksgiving and holiday leftovers are legendary. They can also be kind of overwhelming–what the heck can you do with everything before it gets gross? Here are my suggestions:

You can freeze many of these and have quick meals ready during the busy holiday season!

Step Three: Plan Another Holiday Party

What? Come on, it’s fun. Keep your momentum going, baby!

Thanksgiving Pre-Prep: Your Secret Weapon to Less-Stressful Entertaining

IMG_7580-0Wow, Thanksgiving sort of snuck up on me this year–what the heck?!? I had a brief panic attack late last week, which I tamped down by writing out my menu and then putting together a grocery list. However, while food and cooking are crucial elements of nearly any gathering, I’m going to share my secret weapon (which I’ve learned through a lot of trial and error): pre-prepping your equipment, dinnerware, etc.

I know you might feel rushed and panicky right now, but take a deep breath. You still have a couple days for pre-prep, and while it may take a couple hours up front, it can really save your bacon in the clutch.

It’s happened to everyone: you’re in the middle of cooking or serving a big meal, and suddenly you realize: I don’t know where that casserole pan is, or I don’t have enough platters, or Crap, I’m missing a butter knife. These last-minute snafus can throw a wrench into the works at the worst possible moment, and it can make it difficult for others to help you. Where’s my water pitcher? Uhhh … somewhere? This doesn’t have to happen for you this year!

This is especially important if you don’t entertain often–you may not have all your gear ready to go. But now you will!

Step One: Cooking Gear

First, write down all of the dishes you’re planning to make. Then, assign the bakeware/serveware you’re going to need for each one. Here’s an example:

  • Turkey: roasting pan, meat thermometer, carving board, serrated knife, white platter, large serving fork
  • Stuffing: 9″ x 13″ Pyrex, serving spoon
  • Mashed potatoes: 8 qt pot, potato peeler, hand mixer (find beaters), large white bowl, serving spoon
  • Rolls: basket, nice kitchen towel/cloth napkin to wrap

Your list may vary, of course! Once you’re done, go through your kitchen (or basement, or garage, or wherever your stuff has migrated). Get it all in one place and make sure it’s clean. Realize you’re short on serving spoons or casserole dishes? Make a game plan now: whether it’s to improvise with what you already have, ask to borrow from a guest, etc.

Step Two: The Table

Okay, you’re set to cook! Now make sure you’re not chasing down forks while dinner is cooling on the table. Close your eyes. Envision your table. Pretend you’re eating! And then write it down. My example:

  • Dinner/bread/dessert plates for X number of people
  • Silverware for X number of people
  • Water goblets/wine glasses/coffee cups etc. for X number of people
  • Corkscrew, ice bucket
  • Tablecloth, napkins
  • Butter dish and knife, gravy boat and ladle
  • Water pitcher
  • Chairs (do you have enough? do you have room around the table?)

Again, locate everything, and make sure it’s all clean (lipstick is murder to get off wine glasses, double check). If you have time, I find it’s really nice to lay your tablecloth the night before, after dinner. If, like me, your tablecloth is stored folded, spritz it with water and smooth it out with your hands–no ironing that way, and with everything on the table, no one will notice any stray bumps.

If your tablecloth is dirty, all the better! Wash it, take it fresh out of the dryer, and plop it on the table. Done!

Step Three: Odds and Ends

Take some time to think of anything I’ve missed–you’re bound to have some needs unique to your Thanksgiving. Here’s a few things I do:

  • Make ice the night before–fill those ice trays, you’ll need it
  • Give the bathroom a wipe-down, make sure there’s toilet paper and hand towels
  • Are you going to have some sort of cute arrangement on the table? That is not my forte, but my husband usually buys flowers and makes arrangements, so I get the vases and clippers ready
  • Extra credit: do you have Thanksgiving kitchen towels somewhere, maybe back in the basement, under your Fourth of July gear (. . . crap)? Dig them out, hang them over your oven door. Yeah!

There’s no such thing as a perfect Thanksgiving or a perfect dinner party–stuff’s always going to happen. But if you’re prepared for what you can anticipate, you’ll be ahead of the game.

So what did I miss? What do you do? When can I break out my Christmas china?!?

Taking the Bite out of Christmas Shopping

 

Sarah’s making her list and checking it twice.

 Hello! It’s after Halloween and I’m meeting my brother for lunch to start planning the holidays, so it’s totally okay to start writing about Christmas, right? CHRISTMAS.

Actually, I do think it’s a good idea to start planning your Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa shopping early: it sucks to still be running around the week of, shouldering your way through crowded stores and then trying to get everything wrapped. Plus it’s a good way to run through your budget. 

You want to enjoy the holidays with friends and family (and lots of Christmas movies and cookies and cocoa). So why not get your work done early?

This is what I do to save money:

  • Find all the gift cards in the house. Gift cards are a perennially popular gift, but if you’re like me, you’re lazy. I figure if I haven’t spent my lingering gift cards by November, they’re destined to go toward Christmas gifts. Put the cards in your wallet, plan your shopping around those stores, and you have free money to spend! Plus: if your friends bought you cards for these stores, it’s likely they like them, too. Go get them loot!
  • Sell/donate your stuff. My parents were smart: they’d have us clean out our rooms right before the holidays. Beej and I naturally assumed that the more stuff we got rid of, the more gifts Santa would bring us! Now I use this opportunity to gather up all the books I’m done with–novels, cookbooks, graphic novels–and sell them to our local Powell’s bookstore for store credit, which I then use for gifts. In addition to books, Powell’s has all kinds of toys and gifts (especially Powell’s Books for Home and Garden) Don’t worry if you don’t live in Portland–you can sell your books online, too! This could also work for videogames, sports equipment, comics, etc. Look and see what you can live without, and find out what stores near you are buying! Make sure to donate whatever you can’t sell.

So now you’ve got some extra cash and your house is cleaner. My next set of advice is pretty basic and obvious, but it does work.

This is what I do to strategize my holiday shopping:

  • Write out a list of everyone you’re buying a gift for: spouse/partner, kids, family members, friends.
  • Then, write down a list of all the people who’ve done you a service throughout the year: your mail carrier, hairdresser, kids’ teachers, etc. This isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s thoughtful and appreciated if you can offer a tip or a small gift to the people who help you out all year.
  • Finally, write down a list of people you’ll give token gifts or goodies to: neighbors, work colleagues, etc. These cranberry-orange slice-and-bake cookies are my go-to goodie (easy, freezable, no cookie cutters), but if you don’t bake, you could make homemade cocoa mix or put together a selection of tea bags. Again, not strictly necessary, but nice if you can swing it. Now for the hard part:
  • Write a monetary value next to everyone’s name (pro tip: baking is cheap). This is also a good time to brainstorm which store to shop at for each person.
  • Add it all up. Laugh, cry, stare in shock. Revise your list accordingly.

It’s incredibly scary how quickly everything can add up, and the pressure to spend more than you can afford is intense–it’s the American way. Seeing your budget in black-and-white and giving yourself time to think of thoughtful gifts can really help with this!

Another strategy I use: if I know I’m going to buy a particular gift, I can follow the sales online and try to get the lowest prices. It’s kind of like playing chicken, but it’s another way you can save money on the holidays by planning ahead.

Okay, I’m stepping off my tinsel-festooned soap box. What are your holiday shopping tips?