Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Meal planning + food prep

I received a topic special request from a friend (Hi, Steph!), so this blog will be all about meal planning and food prep! Be warned: this will be long. I'm going to include a lot of info and some recipes, too.

I've always been sort of ruled by food, ever since I started putting on weight in puberty. I feel as though I could look at a carrot and gain 5 lbs. Even though I cheered and danced and swam and ran around all day every day all summer long and ate more vegetables than most of the people I knew, I was always a chunker from about 3rd grade on.

Over the past few months, I've been working to transition to a place where I rule the food around me, not the other way around. Instead of being controlled by my cravings and food wants, I make a conscious effort to think of food as nourishment and fuel for my body, plain and simple.

Yes, food may taste good. Yes, I am a true foodie, always looking for new flavors and ideas. But, I'm trying not to make it matter so much what I eat, just that I'm eating things that are whole, healthy, and as un-processed as my budget will allow. I'm not in the mood for the food I packed for my work lunch? Too bad. I'm saving money and being more health conscious by eating it. I'd rather run through the drive thru after work for a happy meal for Kimmy and a burger for me? Nope, I have a 20-minute meal waiting for me at home, and it's $2.50 per portion and chock full of veggies. See how I'm trying to train my thinking?

So, how am I making that switch?
1. I'm shopping based on what I need for specific meals, instead of shopping by what looks good and tickles my fancy at the store.
2. I'm planning a menu based on those meals. If I want to change things up, I can just switch the order of my meals, instead of going out for a quick fix and breaking my planning cycle.
3. I'm making a budget and sticking to it. Only extravagant budgets allow for over-indulgent food, after all.
4. I'm prepping my ingredients/dish components as much in advance as I can, so I can come straight home from work and cook, rather than giving in to ravenous food cravings and ruining my good planning.
5. I'm being less wasteful. If I have fresh produce in my fridge that has the potential to go bad, I don't need to be ordering take-out or procrastinating by eating non-perishables out of the pantry first. I've thrown away too much produce in the last few years, and I refuse to do it anymore.

Then what?
First thing's first: you need a good planning document. I print out these menu planner/shopping list combos every 2 weeks. I get paid every other Friday, so I either do my shopping on payday or the day after, and I get enough food for our household for 2 weeks. (I'm currently trying to spread our shopping out to 1 month intervals by shopping in bulk, but that's a work in progress, especially with my limited freezer space. I'll have to let you know how that goes.) Anyway, this document is cool because you can write down your meals in each box, guesstimate how many leftovers you'll have to allow that meal to stretch across a couple days, and write all your ingredients in the handy dandy categories below. This is a lifesaver (and timesaver) for me!

Once you've got your meals planned out and ingredients written down, you can take a look at your store's circular ad to see what can be swapped out to make your meals cheaper. If fish is cheaper than chicken, make a switch. If Brussels sprouts are on sale, but asparagus isn't, do a switch-a-roo. See where I'm going with this? Once you have some meal-planning practice under your belt, you'll be able to take a look at your grocery store ad first and do some quick calculations in your head to figure out which meals from your repertoire are feasible and which aren't.

My budget allows for $100 spent on groceries every 2 weeks. You might be sitting there thinking that's impossible, but I think you'll be shocked when you discover how much money you save by shopping by meal! I know I was. I usually come in under budget these days at ~$85-$90 every 2 weeks. This includes snacks like extra veggies, peanut butter, cheese, and crackers. Your initial few trips may cost more while you're stocking up on essentials, but I promise it can be done on a way smaller budget than you're used to long-term! And, obviously, if you have a bigger household than a 26-year-old and 2-and-a-half-year-old, you can adjust your budget accordingly.

"What do you usually buy at the store? What's your typical 2-week spread?" you ask.
Well, let me give you my current 2 weeks as an example! Some of the items I already bought, prepped, and/or froze, but I'll pretend I bought it all on Saturday for the purpose of this exercise.

Week 1
Breakfasts: refrigerator oatmeals (Monday-Friday), eggs and turkey bacon (Saturday), waffles (Sunday)
Lunches:  salad w/cheese and hardboiled egg (Monday-Friday), grilled cheese and veggies w/hummus (Saturday), chili (Sunday)
Dinners: moussaka (Monday/Wednesday), chicken thighs with rice and kale (Tuesday/Friday), spaghetti and meatballs (Thursday/Saturday), any remaining leftovers and salad (Sunday)

What I Bought
Dairy: butter, eggs (lunch salads, meatballs, breakfast), milk, parmesan cheese (meatballs), cheddar cheese (grilled cheeses), 1 qt. plain yogurt (oatmeal x 5)
Meat: 3 lbs ground beef (moussaka, chili, meatballs), bulk package chicken thighs, turkey bacon (or regular bacon if cheaper)
Frozen foods: 1 bag frozen fruit (oatmeal x 5)
Produce: hummus, celery (moussaka), carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, onions (chili, spaghetti, moussaka), lettuce (salads), eggplant (moussaka)
Canned goods: tomato paste/tomato sauce/diced tomatoes (chili, spaghetti, moussaka)
Dry Goods: 1 lb. kidney beans, thin spaghetti, bread crumbs, chili seasoning, pancake mix (waffles), syrup, rice (bulk is way cheap if you have somewhere to store it), oatmeal, whole almonds, bread
Misc: any additional spices/seasonings/dressings, snacks like popcorn or peanut butter or crackers, coffee, and coffee accessories

Week 2
Breakfasts: refrigerator oatmeals (Monday-Friday), eggs and turkey bacon (Saturday), cereal
Lunches: chili (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday), broiled tilapia and broccoli (Wednesday, Friday), grilled cheese and veggies w/hummus (Saturday), leftover pizza (Sunday)
Dinners: chicken leg quarters with potatoes au gratin and carrots (Monday/Wednesday), hamburgers and salad (Tuesday), meatballs w/tomato sauce and broccoli (Thursday/Friday), homemade pizza (Saturday), any remaining leftovers and salad (Sunday)

What I Bought
Dairy: eggs, milk, 1 qt. plain yogurt (oatmeal x 5), cheddar cheese (and/or whatever other kinds you like for potatoes au gratin), mozzarella cheese (pizza)
Meat: bulk package chicken leg quarters, ground beef (hamburgers, pizza)
Frozen foods: carrots, broccoli x 2, bulk bag frozen tilapia
Produce:green onions (potatoes au gratin), lettuce, potatoes
Canned goods: tomato sauce (pizza), black olives, mushrooms
Dry Goods: pizza dough yeast, flour, oil
Misc: any spices/seasonings

Simple enough, right? You have only what you need for your meals, plus when you get things like flour, eggs, oil, butter, cheese, and rice that are part of your meals, you're likely to have leftovers that become staples in your food supply. A lot of times things like that will last for several rounds of meal planning. This helps you save money in the long-run.

So, some tips and tricks:
  • Do yourself a favor and purchase a big package of food storage containers. Throw away all the crappy ones you've accumulated and use your brand-new matching set. You'll thank yourself a million times!
  • Plan to buy and use frozen veggies for the last part of your meal-planning cycle. They're less likely to go bad, and you're more likely to get use out of them and not throw away good money.
  • Soups, sauces, and beans go further if you're trying to stretch your money. A pot of chili or hearty soup will last forever (which is why I freeze half as soon as I cook it)!
  • Always have ready-made food items in your freezer like muffins, waffles, casseroles, meatballs/loaf, pasta dishes, and whatever else floats your boat. These are nice bonus items when you're waiting for the next payday to roll around...or when you have no food for the next day's dinner, but don't have time to go shopping. Just thaw and warm!
  • Buy meat in bulk and repackage into meal-sized portions of your own to freeze. If ground beef/turkey is one of your meats, you can go ahead and shape your burgers and form your meatballs before freezing.
  • Label everything you freeze and look through your freezer stash every time you plan your next set of meals to see what needs to be eaten soon.
  • If you work (or have kids who throw off your stay-at-home-parent schedule), spend a few hours on Saturday or Sunday prepping all your breakfasts and lunches and morning/afternoon snacks. You'll remove almost all of the temptation to go out for lunch, waste money, and consume way too many calories. My fave work lunches are salads, a big casserole split into 5 portions, or a cooked meat + frozen veggie. You can actually put the veggies in your containers still frozen to save time, since you'll be heating your meal in the microwave before eating anyway.
  • Always check your menu for the next day after dinner to see what's coming up. If it's something that's in your freezer, move it to the fridge. It'll be nice and thawed by the time it's time to cook din-din!
  • Know your top 5 fastest dinners and be able to roll them off your tongue in 30 seconds or less! This comes in clutch when menu planning if there's a particular day you're going to be super strapped for time. Our busy days are Wednesdays because of church, so I usually plan leftovers that day or something I can cook in 20 minutes or less like broiled fish and a frozen veggie, tacos, veggie omelets, hamburgers, spaghetti, or fried salmon patties.
  • Toddler mommies: save those old bananas that get wasted more often than not! They make the most delicious muffins that will have your kiddos begging for their breakfast fruit/fiber!
  • Use coupons and buy generics whenever possible. Kroger has some amazing store-brand foods. Just sayin'. I used to be a name-brand snob, but I'm loving the savings and still-intact flavor/texture integrity I've found in Kroger generics.
  • If you see something at the store that's an unbeatable deal like several pounds of steak or salmon that's been mega marked down, grab it!!! Adjust your menu accordingly. Flexibility is key if you're serious about saving money!
Ready for some recipes?! None of these are extravagant, and all are super easy and delicious! Have you seen a recent food pic on Facebook or Instagram that you'd like a recipe for? Comment and let me know. What's mine is yours, friends!

1 lb. ground beef
2 potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 eggplant, peeled and thickly sliced
1 large onion, sliced
5 ribs celery, sliced
1 green pepper, sliced (optional...I hate bell peppers!)
1 large can diced tomatoes
salt and pepper

Layer everything in a casserole dish with raw beef on the bottom to tomatoes on top. Cover and bake for about an hour at 350º. Traditionally, this Greek dish is topped with a béchamel sauce, but I'm rarely feeling that fancy. Plus, this is a really filling dish, and I fear a creamy sauce would make it too rich for my blood. One other note: this dish is really versatile! You can really add whatever veggies or seasonings you like. I've done it with zucchini, spinach, kale, and mushrooms. All delicious additions!

1 lb. ground beef
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 c. fresh grated parmesan (like DIY grated parm...so much filler and processed junk in pre-grated cheese!)
1 tbsp. dried basil (or fresh minced if you have it!)
2 tbsp. dried parsley (again, fresh if you prefer. Fresh herbs are cheap and delicious, and leftover fresh basil and parsley make a bangin' pesto sauce!)
1/2 c. bread crumbs
salt and pepper
2 cloves minced garlic

Mix it all up, form into 1-2" balls, and either freeze raw or bake at 350º for about 20 minutes and cool before bagging and freezing. Pop 'em in your favorite pasta sauce or bake/fry them and serve as mini meatloafs with tomato sauce, ranch, or ketchup. These are a big hit with my Kimmy--very toddler friendly!

Potatoes au Gratin
4-5 potatoes, thinly and evenly sliced
3-4 green onions, chopped
1 stick butter
2-3 c. shredded cheese
salt and white pepper

Line your casserole dish with butter. Layer potatoes, green onions, little pats of butter, salt and white pepper, and cheese in 2 big layers. Cover the top well with cheese. Bake at 375º for 40 minutes (covered) and 10-15 minutes (uncovered).

Refrigerator Oatmeals
Ingredients (each)
1/2 c. old-fashioned oats
1/2 c. plain yogurt (not flavored and not low-fat)
1 tbsp. whole almonds (the baking kind, not the salted/snack kind)
1/2-3/4 c. fresh or frozen fruit of your choice
2 oz. milk

Measure all your ingredients and put them in a container. Pop on a lid and toss it in the fridge for at least 8 hours and up to 5 days before eating (the texture is not ideal outside of this timeframe). No stirring, no nothing. You can sweeten with whatever floats your boat (honey, Splenda, etc.) and stir it all up before eating. Seriously measure your ingredients, though: this is unbelievably filling. Overdo it, and you will not finish this breakfast in one sitting. Just sayin'.

Buy a box of Kroger brand buttermilk pancake and waffle mix. It's the best. Hands down. I do not buy any other brands. It's either this or homemade from a Googled waffle recipe. You'll also need vegetable oil and water.

Follow the waffle directions on the box. Put however much batter your waffle iron holds in your waffle iron. Cook. Cool completely. Freeze. #boom

This recipe or this recipe

Add in or substitute whatever fruits float your boat (especially those old bananas we all love/hate!). Cook. Cool. Freeze.

I hope this helps all you other busy bees find a little balance in your cooking/food schedules! I'm always open to blog suggestions, recipe suggestions, and whatever else you want to know about how I do things if it can help you organize your life.