Between buying a new house and preparing for baby #2, my husband and I decided a few weeks ago that it wouldn’t hurt to keep a close eye on our spending. We’re grateful that we’ve always had more than enough to live comfortably, but buckling down now and then never hurts. So we budgeted a conservative amount per week to spend on food/gas/miscellaneous, and went from there.
Since I do the majority of meal prep in our house, I’ve been particularly keen on cooking budget meals and finding ways to save on groceries…without sacrificing on taste and nutrition (having both a growing toddler and a pregnant lady to feed). Constraints often force the discovery of new ingredients and preparations, and this has definitely proven true even just a few weeks into this exercise. A few principles — none new, but diligently practicing them is another ballgame — have helped with belt-tightening:
Practice portion control
This has less to do with how much we eat per meal, but with how much we prepare and buy. I’m finding that for our family of 2.5, preparing food for 4-6 leaves us with enough for dinner, plus a couple lunches. That’s plenty. If there are too many leftovers, they inevitably hide out in the back of the fridge and go bad. Similarly, while buying in bulk is sometimes cheaper, the savings are canceled if you buy more than you can use.
We do enjoy meat and are in the habit of buying less expensive cuts (think chicken thighs and certain Asian market cuts of beef), but we’ve also taken to using just a little less per meal — for example, using just two sausages in a soup instead of the called-for four. On-sale meat is something I do buy in bulk, then freeze in ~1 pound portions (butchers will often portion it out for you if you ask).
Rediscover rice and beans
Rice has long been a staple in our house, but we are learning to appreciate different types of beans and legumes. I have to say, the Instant Pot has really helped out here as it takes only ~20 minutes to cook up a batch of beans instead of a couple hours! We’ve also started trying more dal recipes using different types of lentils, and they’ve been a big hit. Fresh spices are key here; and this is another instance where I’ll buy from the local bulk store — not because I can buy a whole bunch but because I can get just the amount I need — 30 cents worth of tumeric, for instance.
I’ve never been much into weekly meal planning before; and I’ll probably never be the type to detail everything I’ll cook in the coming week. But I am trying to plan out at least the main courses several days in advance now, rather than just a couple. Mainly this is to cut down on unnecessary trips to the store where inevitably extraneous groceries make it into the shopping cart. I am in the habit of shopping the weekly grocery ads (the Flipp app is super helpful), which definitely helps determine what we’ll be eating.
I’m also trying to be more regular about preparing things that can be quickly thrown together for nutritious breakfasts/lunches — for example, boiling a dozen eggs and baking up a batch of granola at the beginning of the week; chopping up cheese cubes; baking a batch of muffins and freezing a portion. And of course a loaf of sourdough bread is almost always available.
Shop your pantry and freezer
One of the first things I did when we started this exercise was to take stock of what we already had at home. (Favorite rice vermicelli recipes, anyone? Because I have a lot…) Since we’re moving soon anyways, it makes sense to try to use up what’s in our pantry and freezer. I’m pretty good about knowing what meats we have in stock, but not so great at remembering our dry goods stash. (This ties back in with the first principle — don’t buy more than you can [remember to] use…) So I’m trying to do a better job of working in the wealth of neglected pantry items into meal planning.
Fruits and veggies get a bad rap for being expensive. If you’re buying strawberries in December, sure…but as long as you eat with the seasons, fresh produce is very affordable. (Plus, in-season always tastes better.)
What are some of your favorite budget recipes? Here are a just a few we’ve used for inspiration:
- Green lentil dal
- Refried beans
- Pasta e Fagioli
- Pork hock cabbage stew
- Kimchi Nabe — I usually use whatever meat is on sale and switch up the veggies depending on what we have
- Instant Pot Biryani — our spice blend/marinade is a bit different but the method works well