March 31, 2015

Cheap Eats: Overnight Oats

Good Morning!

So, March- and our budget focused month here on Peoplefood- is over... I am very anxious to welcome Spring, and all of the pleasures that warmer weather will bring.

At the beginning of the month, I mentioned that we were going to try to stick to a very strict food budget this month of only $125. How'd we do?? Well, we were unable to stick to our budget. But, that's ok. Why didn't we? Baby formula (story for another day), no eating out (you spend more at the grocery store when you cook every meal), prepping freezer meals for future enjoyment, and a couple unforeseen special meals. Overall, even though we didn't meet our (likely unrealistic) goal, we are happy with how we did.

One recipe/breakfast idea that I came to love this month is Overnight Oats. Budget-friendly, healthy and super customizable, they make for a satisfying and convenient breakfast.

I have seen overnight oats all over the internet, and at first I was a little skeptical. Cold oatmeal didn't sound all that appealing. However, I tried them and fell in love. I often enjoy them straight out of the refrigerator, or occasionally stick them in the microwave for just 30 seconds before stirring them up. I don't like eating piping hot oatmeal in the warmer months, and this will be a great way to enjoy heart-healthy oatmeal during the summer.

Mixing them up before bed and letting them do their thing all night while I sleep really couldn't be easier. Being able to just grab a ready-to-go breakfast comes in super handy on my work days- and when I'm home with my boys and need to be able to climb aboard a pirate ship couch/take Curious George to the veterinarian/make bottles and change diapers.

Like I said, one of the things I love about these is the fact that you can make them with just about anything! Start with 1/2 cup of old fashioned oats (NOT quick cooking) and 1/2 cup milk and let your imagination and taste buds determine the rest! I have seen recipes which include yogurt, but I haven't tried it that way just yet. Here are some of my favorite combinations so far:

Banana Bread
1/2 cup Old Fashioned Oats
1/2 cup lowfat milk
1 small banana, sliced
1 tbsp sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 tsp pure vanilla
dash of cinnamon
2 tbsp ground flax seed (optional) 

Strawberries and Cream
1/2 cup Old Fashioned Oats
1/2 cup lowfat milk (plus 2 tbsp to help mix before eating)
1 cup sliced fresh strawberries
2 tbsp ground flax seed (optional)

Peanut Butter and Banana
1/2 cup Old Fashioned Oats
1/2 cup lowfat milk
2 tbsp PB2 (or regular peanut butter)
1 small banana, sliced
2 tbsp ground flax seed (optional)

Cranberry Oats
1/2 cup old fashioned oats
1/2 cup lowfat milk
2 tbsp dried cranberries
1/2 tsp pure vanilla
2 tbsp ground flax seed (optional)

The method: In small tupperware (or mason jar), combine all ingredients, place in refrigerator overnight (about 8-10 hours). I have let mine sit in the refrigerator for up to 14 hours, and they have been just right. Take them out in the morning, mix 'em up and enjoy!

Notes: You may find that you need to add an additional 2 tbsp or so of milk to help mix. They are perfect right out of the refrigerator or after microwaving for 30 seconds and stirring up. Vanilla extract is a great way to add some sweetness without adding sugar, and adds another dimension to the flavor (perfect for the banana bread combo or for helping recreate the feeling of baked goods).

I am excited to try chia seeds, trying some yogurt in my mix, and trying some other fruits- I've been dreaming of a peaches and cream version... This works well with both fresh and dried fruits- I am going to try out frozen fruit next!

March 28, 2015

Cheap Eats: Freezer Meals

I have seen the posts on Pinterest... and read the blog posts... and talked to people about their freezer cooking. It is something that I have been on the fence about for a while, but always talked myself out of, citing lack of freezer space, lack of time for all that cooking, disbelief that we'd actually eat it, and some skepticism over how much money is actually saved. 

Then, I really thought about it... and put some effort into looking up recipes that I know my family would enjoy. Especially after a month of paying even closer attention to the budget, adjusting more to life with two kids under 4 (we don't have a lot of time uninterrupted in the kitchen), and realizing that I'm officially back to work (which means 12 hour shifts/13 hours away from home 3 days a week, leaving my husband to pick up the kids, make dinner and handle at least one bedtime on his own), I knew I had to jump on the freezer meal cooking train. 

I am so happy that I did!!

I was able to make: 8 Burritos; 16 Servings of Turkey and Kale Chili; 8 Servings of Chicken and Wild Rice bake; and 8 Servings of Chicken Teriyaki for $72! (That's a lot of food!)

Here's how I did it:

1. I found a partner in crime. (This was, for me, one of the most important parts.) It isn't fun to spend an entire day in the kitchen alone- no matter how much you love cooking, you eventually start to run out of steam. Having my friend by my side kept it fun, split the workload (there was a lot of chopping involved), and kept me motivated. It was great that I got all the cooking done, but even better that I got to hang out with a friend while doing it. Also important: music- turn the radio/Spotify/Pandora on your favorite channel and feel free to sing along!

2. I found recipes that I know my family will eat. (This is big.) No one wants to spend the money, time, and energy cooking/prepping meals that will sit in the freezer until they eventually make their way into the trash can. I made sure that the meals we made were meals that we would enjoy, and were interesting enough that we wouldn't get tired of them. I also made sure we had variety, and complete meals- limiting the need for side dishes. Soup freezes really well, but will my family be happy with soup 3 nights a week? No. We made one chili, one crockpot complete meal (just needs rice/quinoa on the side), one oven baked meal (just needs a veggie of some kind on the side), and one batch of individually wrapped burritos (perfect for lunch, or dinner if I forget to take something out to defrost). 

3. To be budget-friendly: we didn't really use any outrageous/expensive ingredients. We kept it simple. I bought the meat in bulk, used store brand items (canned diced tomatoes, broth, frozen veggies, rice), and planned my shopping list carefully so that I didn't over-buy. 

4. The night before, I cleaned the kitchen and adjoining dining room to make sure that we had the space to spread out (the dining room table made a perfect burrito making station). I also double checked to make sure that we had everything we needed, and laid out the recipes/ingredients together so we weren't running around looking for things. (Next time, I'll lay things out on the buffet table in the dining room so I don't run out of counter space!)

5. Planning: I looked at which recipes required longer prep times and tried to plan our cooking so that something was always in the works. (For example: The burritos we made required roasted veggies, rice and shredded chicken, but we needed them at room temperature before we could assemble our burritos- so those ingredients were the first to cook and then cooled while we worked on other recipes.)

6. Everything is in freezer bags. The use of freezer bags really maximized the available space in my freezer, and helped everything freeze quickly and evenly. (It also means that I still have a full supply of clean tupperware to use for other things, instead of tying them up with freezer goodies.) I also made sure to freeze some smaller portions of the chili so that we could grab and defrost enough for dinner and not end up eating it for 3 days (or wasting leftovers). 

I did not make up my own recipes this time around. I was focused on perfecting storage, mass-cooking (this is a little different than cooking for a holiday or family gathering), and making a variety of meals I knew we would like. I also wanted to make sure that I was making something that I knew would freeze well (because someone else ironed out those details) so that I could get an idea of how well things defrosted and tasted when cooked from frozen. That being said, small adjustments were made to the recipes to make them match our taste. 

The Recipes:

1. The Roasted Vegetable Burritos with Black Beans and Rice from the kitchn. We each made one batch of these burritos, (8 burritos each). We used multigrain tortillas, and brown basmati rice (I had this already in my pantry). I did not use any meat in my burritos- I used just rice, veggies, beans and cheese. But my friend used chicken in hers along with the other ingredients listed. (The chicken breast was poached in water, with salt, pepper, and bay leaf then shredded.) We seasoned the veggies with olive oil, salt, pepper and smoked paprika. 

2. Crockpot Chicken Teriyaki from New Leaf Wellness. We each made 2 batches of this (4 servings each batch). The only adjustment is that we used 20 oz. of frozen stir fry veggies. (The family pack was 80oz. and made more financial sense than buying a smaller amount of veggies in several smaller packages.)

3. Easy Turkey Chili with Kale from the kitchn. We each made 2 batches, or 16 one-cup servings of this. We didn't make any real adjustments here. We used 1 1/2 lbs. of turkey per batch, no salt added diced tomatoes, and Organic chicken broth (its even lower sodium than low sodium chicken broth). 

4. Chicken and Wild Rice Bake from the kitchn. We each made 2 batches of this (4-6 servings per batch). Only very minor adjustments here too... my friend made hers without mushrooms, and I doubled the mushrooms in ours- I used baby bellas. If you're on the fence about buying/using the smoked paprika, don't be. It is a definite must- it's delicious!

I am super excited; everything we made tasted/looked delicious! (I snuck tastes of the teriyaki marinade, the vinaigrette for the chicken and wild rice, the turkey chili, and the burrito components along the way...) 

We are already planning our next cooking session (we plan on doing this about once a month to make sure we always have meals on hand). 

March 23, 2015

Cheap Eats: Loaded Baked Potato with White Cheese Sauce

Hello again!! Our budget challenge for the month has been going very well, and before the month is over, I still have a few more yummy and cheap recipes to share... I also have been working on some awesome recipes for overnight oats (a cheap breakfast!) to share with you soon. 

Baked potatoes are awesome. When done right, the skin is crisp and delicate with just the right saltiness, and waiting inside there is soft, pillowy, creamy potatoey goodness to savor alone... or with every awesome ingredient you can think of. 

The best part? Potatoes are cheap... as were the ingredients we topped them with: a homemade white cheese sauce, crispy bacon and broccoli. These made a great meal- and all of the leftovers were happily consumed for lunch the next day. 

I made this meal (4 potatoes) for about $3.78... that's $0.95 per serving.*

First, let's start with how to bake the perfect potato. The method that I choose to use is oven baking- I have nothing against the microwave, but if your potato is going to be the star of the meal, baked is the way to go. It takes about 45 minutes/ an hour to bake them to perfection, but that's 45 minutes of hands-off cooking that you can spend doing something else... and it is totally worth it!!

Perfect Baked Potato

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Scrub your potatoes (Russets are the way to go),  use a fork to stab holes all over the potato (about 10 times), then rub them down with some oil, and sprinkle with salt. 
Place potatoes directly onto middle rack of the oven, and place a cookie sheet on lower rack, just in case. 
Bake for 45-60 minutes, until the skin is crisp, but the insides feel soft to the touch.
Remove from the oven, split-em open and top as desired...

Now I really want a baked potato...

The perfect accompaniment for these potatoes was my white cheese sauce. It was creamy and delicious- I didn't have to wait for shredded cheese to melt atop my potato- and it poured over the potato so that it was a part of every bite. It doesn't get much better.... The sauce took about 5 minutes to make, stored well in the refrigerator and reheated well for leftovers the next day. Awesome. For anyone a little intimidated by making cheese sauce, I took some photos to help you through it... it is super simple and you'll be very happy you tried it!

White Cheese Sauce

Makes about 1 cup

2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp mustard powder
1/8 tsp pepper
1 cup milk (I used 2%)
1/2 cup cheese (I used Monterey Jack)

Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. 

Whisk in flour, salt, pepper and mustard. Cook, whisking constantly, over medium heat until mixture is smooth, bubbly and slightly golden. 

Gradually add milk, and continue to whisk. Bring to low boil and stir until smooth. Slowly add cheese, and whisk until smooth/all cheese is melted. 

If you prefer cheddar, you could easily substitute some white cheddar for the Monterey Jack that I listed... I'm thinking that some PepperJack would make a pretty incredible sauce as well. Yum!!

*Price Breakdown: 4 potatoes $1.20 (from 5lb bag); frozen broccoli- half bag $0.50; 4 pieces of bacon $1.26 (I found uncured "Never Any!" bacon at Aldi and have fallen in love!); monterey jack cheese $0.66; milk $0.16... Total price above does not include butter, flour, or spices as those things are pantry staples. 

March 17, 2015

Cheap Eats: Homemade Marinara

Ok, so it really doesn't get any cheaper than Spaghetti. Pasta is about as cheap as it comes. Tomato sauce usually isn't that expensive either, but homemade tastes far better, and is often healthier (no added sugar, lower sodium).

This super simple recipe for homemade marinara sauce is flavorful enough to enjoy on it's own, or with meat added (this happened to be a meat-free day's batch). It would also make a great starting point for eggplant or chicken parmesan, lasagna, pizza... or anything else you can think of!

I made this marinara for about $1... that's about $0.17 per serving. Put that together with some pasta for $1/lb and that's a $2 meal!! It doesn't get much cheaper or easier!*

Homemade Marinara
Makes about 6 servings

1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1 28oz can crushed tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato paste
1/2 tsp basil
1/2 tsp oregano

Warm saucepan over medium-low heat. Add garlic and saute until fragrant and garlic is slightly tender; add bay leaf. Stir in tomatoes, tomato paste, basil and oregano; stir until tomato paste has dissolved. Simmer over low heat for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

Serve immediately over pasta, or in your favorite recipe. Also keeps well in refrigerator or freezer for future use!

*Price breakdown: garlic $0.15; crushed tomatoes $0.79; tomato paste $0.06. Cost of herbs/evoo not included.

March 13, 2015

Cheap Eats: Quinoa "Fried Rice"

One of the best ways to stay on a lower monthly (food) budget, is to avoid- or at least reduce- eating out. (This budget tip is not only healthy for your wallet, but for your body too!) One of the ways I try to cut down on eating at/from restaurants is to vary our menu at home to include different cuisines. I have found that pretty much whenever we order take-out, we order Chinese or Japanese food, so that is definitely something I try to incorporate into our menu at least once per week.

This Quinoa "Fried Rice" satisfies our craving for takeout but is far healthier and cheaper!! (It's also really yummy!!) Starting with leftover quinoa (I actually made extra the night before to ensure the right amount of leftovers) made this meal super quick and easy to stir up!

I was able to make this dinner for a total of about $3.04!!! That's only $0.76 per serving!!*

Quinoa Fried Rice
Makes 4 servings

2 large eggs
1 1/2 cup frozen stir-fry veggies
1 clove garlic, minced
small yellow onion, diced
1 1/2 cup quinoa, cooked
1 tsp chili garlic paste
1 tbsp + 2 tsp Low-Sodium Soy Sauce
1 tsp. sesame oil
1/2 to 1 tbsp canola oil
Cilantro and sesame seeds, for garnish

In a small bowl, whisk eggs, 2 tsp. soy sauce and 1 tsp. sesame oil. Heat wok (or large pan) over medium-high heat. Add eggs to pan and cook, stirring frequently/using spatula to break up. Remove eggs from pan and set aside. Next, add canola oil to pan (just enough to lightly coat), add garlic and onion; stir fry until onion is tender. Next, add frozen veggies and stir fry until beginning to thaw. Next, add chili paste and remaining soy sauce. Finally, add quinoa and stir fry until well combined, and vegetables are cooked through. Serve immediately, garnished with sesame seeds and/or cilantro. Enjoy!!

*Price breakdown: eggs $0.33; frozen veggies $0.96; onion $0.34; quinoa (which was bought in bulk at Sams) $1.00; chili garlic paste $0.06; soy sauce $0.22; and sesame oil $0.13. Total price above does not include garlic clove and canola oil.

All of these ingredients are staples in my pantry/refrigerator which really helped me make this cheap and delicious dinner!

March 09, 2015

Cheap Eats: Slow Cooker White Chicken Chili

Good Morning!!

As promised, I am going to share recipes for some cheap eats this month. Sometimes, eating on a budget can be intimidating, but I hope to help change that. My goal is to keep things healthy, delicious, interesting, and cheap!

This first recipe is something I found on Budget Bytes when I was looking for inspiration... I am so glad that I found it, (and was able to make it even cheaper!) I will definitely be making this again. It's better than any other White Chicken Chili I have made in the past, and is really easy to make!(Disclaimer: I did not find this to be a family-friendly recipe due to spiciness!)

I was able to make this chili for $7.38- that's only $1.85 per serving! (See bottom of post for breakdown.)

Slow Cooker White Chicken Chili
From Budget Bytes
Serves 4- 1.5 cup servings

1 yellow onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast (about 1/2 lb)
16oz salsa verde
2 15oz. cans cannellini beans
1 15oz. can pinto beans
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp black pepper
2 cups chicken broth
4 oz. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded for topping

Place onion, garlic, and chicken in slow cooker. Drain and rinse beans, then add them to the slow cooker, along with salsa and spices. Pour chicken broth overtop, and stir to mix. Place lid on slow cooker and cook on high for 3-4 hours. Check chicken after 3 hours- if unable to shred, replace lid and cook for another hour. Otherwise, remove chicken breast from slow cooker and shred with two forks. Return chicken to the slow cooker, and stir to combine. Serve chili topped with shredded cheese and cilantro. Enjoy!!

Price breakdown, (does not include price of spices): onion $0.34; chicken $0.99; salsa verde $1.98; cannellini beans $1.78; pinto beans $0.79; chicken broth $1.25, and cheese $0.25.

How I did it: Store brands (cheese, beans, broth). I bought the chicken in bulk for $1.99/lb. I also visited the International Foods area for the salsa verde- and found it for $0.99 per 8oz can which ended up saving me around one dollar over the other typical brands.

March 08, 2015

Menu Planning on a Budget: Part 2: How to Shop

I hope that my tips on menu planning were helpful! (Don't sweat if it seems a little complicated, I promise that practice makes perfect!) Like I said before, menu planning is an incredible tool for your budget, your health and your stress level.  If you're a newbie, give it a month: you'll be in the swing of things; eating well; and loving the bottom line after a month of practice.

Today, I'll focus on shopping tips... Then, for the rest of the month, I will be sharing budget friendly recipes- along with prices!- to bring it all together.

Ok... So, you've made up your menu and now you're ready to go shopping! Nope. I know you're psyched to get going, but be patient. The key to shopping on a budget is planning.

Now, it's time to make your list(s). Then, armed with a complete list, you can tackle the store with confidence that you won't overspend.

(In actuality, I make my list as I plan and double check my pantry against the ingredients I need for the meals I have planned, the snacks we need, etc. I will also plan recipes based on what I have on hand, in order to use remaining produce, etc. BUT, for purposes of these posts, it is much easier to separate the planning from the list making/shopping.)

Wegmans' Phone App in Action
Making a List and Shopping:

1. If you're sticking to a budget, know that number before you start making your list.  Keep that in your mind as a stopping point. It's much easier to build your list with an end in mind than it is to scale back once you've planned and made your list.

2. Use your store's website.  Sadly, not all stores are created equal. I do most, if not all, of my shopping at Wegmans, and am able to rely on their website (and app) pretty heavily for list making. Their site and app allow you to search all of the store's products, view the nutritional information and prices online and add them to a shopping list. (If you use their website, you are even able to print the list out which is sorted by aisle so you know exactly where everything is!) This is an incredible tool, and helps me completely build my list and know exactly how much money I'm going to spend when I get to the store. It also cuts down on shopping time, and impulse buys! There are a few other stores which allow you to search their entire inventory, including prices, and build a list: Target; Walmart; BJ's; and Sam's. Aldi allows you to see prices for sale items, frozen foods, and pantry items- and make a list with a running total. Sadly, many other stores (including: Publix; Shoprite; Stop and Shop; BiLo; Kroger; Harris Teeter; and Winn Dixie) only allow you to view the prices of their sale items when building a list. (Whole Foods only allows you to see what's on sale, and doesn't allow you to build a list... Trader Joes doesn't post any prices!)

3. Alternate the purchase of big-ticket items.  For me, protein is typically my big ticket item. With that in mind, I plan my menu- and make my list to include- only one type of protein per week. (I'll buy chicken one week, beef another week, and fish the next, etc.) I buy in bulk when I buy meat, and so I have enough to get me through a few weeks at a time- especially since I work to alternate proteins during the week so that we get a good variety.

4. Only buy what you need.  Part of staying on a budget- and eating healthier- is eliminating excess. You don't need two different flavors of jelly, three different types of cereal, and four different types of rice. Streamline. Alternate cereals weekly, buy one type of rice and learn how to dress it up (add scallions one night, slivered almonds and craisins the next, etc.) Put snack items on your list, and only buy what's on your list! If you wait until you get there to decide what to get, you'll invariably buy more than you need and probably make fewer healthy decisions.

5. Don't be afraid of store brands.  This can be a gradual process. It was easy for me to immediately switch to store-brand beans, canned items, bread, and pasta. It took me a little longer to try store-brand cereals, and even longer to switch to store-brand toilet paper. It's amazing how much we cling to name brand items! But, don't be afraid- find a brand you trust, and go with it. You can often get more for your money, and may even find store brands to be healthier. (I recently realized that Swanson reduced sodium chicken broth is the same price as Wegmans Organic Chicken broth for the same size container. Swanson's broth has over 500mg of sodium, whereas Wegmans organic has just over 100mg!)

6. Buy in bulk when it makes sense.  A good example of this is meat. I buy family packs of meat when I shop (and break it down in 1lb. packages for use in recipes when I get home). I can buy boneless skinless chicken breasts at $1.99/lb. (LOVE Wegmans). It is cheaper in bulk, and something that I know we will use. I won't, however, go to Sam's and buy gallon containers of mustard because it's cheaper... it's not something we will use, and will probably end up going to waste. Bulk items make sense if you'll use them.

7. Don't be scared to try new stores! My husband and I recently tried the Aldi in our area after encouragement from a friend. We were able to find grapes at 99 cents/lb that looked just as good as the grapes I would have paid $2.49/lb for at Wegmans! We also saved on their brand of: graham crackers (delicious!); pasta; and snacks. We also choose to shop at a local "microdairy" for our milk and ice cream. (We are able to get fresh, local, additive free milk- and lactose free milk- at a savings!) We also checkout local farmers markets in season.

8. Try frozen fruits and veggies!  Like to have smoothies for breakfast?? Bags of frozen berries are typically far cheaper than their fresh counterparts, and just as delicious! (Plus, they don't need any prep!) Frozen veggies are also a great buy- I love frozen green beans, at just $1.99 for a 16 oz bag, I can get 2 nights of sides out of one bag. Frozen stir fry veggies are also a great buy. Having frozen vegetables on hand not only helps with your budget, but is great when you're planning more than a week at a time because you don't have to worry about everything going bad. (I do not rely on frozen vegetables alone, but I have found that they are a big help- there are some veggies that I prefer fresh only, such as broccoli and cauliflower.)

9. Shop with cash. It is proven that we spend more money when we use credit or debit cards. Go to the store with only your budgeted amount in hand. You can't go over budget if that's all you have!

That's the end of my tips/tricks... for the rest of the month, I'll be sharing cheap eats (and prices) to help you eat (healthy) on a budget!!

Disclaimer: I have not received any incentive or payment for speaking about Wegmans or any other stores listed in this post. The opinions are mine alone, and are based on my shopping experiences and research. 

March 03, 2015

Menu Planning on a Budget: Part 1: How to Plan

Once upon a time, (pre-motherhood), I did not plan a weekly menu... My hubby and I would just wing it. I would go grocery shopping a few times a week to pick up ingredients that I thought looked good, for what we felt like having for the next day or so... Or, we would order/go out.

We didn't follow a diet of any kind and ate what we wanted, when we wanted- we were young! We ate some extravagant meals, along with a lot of pasta, leftovers and random tidbits (we were relatively fresh out of college and were used to it). We also didn't follow a budget- a rookie mistake.

Over the past few years, however, due to lack of time and need to live on a budget I have been honing my menu planning skills. (We should have been on a budget since the beginning of time, but hindsight is 20/20, right?)

Menu planning is somewhat of an art. Every week is different: different schedules; different weather (yes, I do take weather into consideration when planning); different ingredients; and different cravings- with a toddler in the house, these food preferences can change on an hourly basis!

My menu planning tool/calendar.
For this post, I'm going to go through my planning tips, and share my menu tool with you!

First, let me say that my average weekly budget is $75 for the three of us. This month, we are stretching a bit more and are attempting to stick to $120 for the month! A little daunting... But, I figured that it would be a great month to share my planning with you, as I will definitely be buckling down and making it happen.

Something to keep in mind:
No matter what your budget, menu planning is an incredible tool. With a menu plan in hand, you don't stress about what's for dinner, (because you already know and have everything you need), and you eat healthier (because you plan ahead and don't give into last minute cravings or grab what's quick and easy at a drive through). You spend less money- armed with a complete list of what you need, you make fewer/no impulse purchases and you don't buy things you don't need because you know what you have in your pantry. So, whether you are spending $300 per week, or $300 per month- planning a menu is a great thing to do!

Weeks don't always start on Sundays! Don't be afraid to start your plan mid-week. Vacations, nights out, babysitting, and work schedules can all throw you off of a normal Sunday-Saturday schedule. This week, I went shopping and started my plan on a Tuesday because I had babysitting!

Tips for menu planning: 
1. Plan for your lifestyle.  One of the great things about menu planning is you look ahead at your week, and adjust your plan based on what you have going on that week. Working a long day? That's a good night for a crockpot meal, or (if you can) takeout. Home all day? Plan something a little more labor intensive. Make sure that you have a mix of quick-and-easy meals and a few more time consuming meals- it will make you more likely to stick to your plan.

2. Be flexible.  Have meatloaf and mashed potatoes planned, but instead you're really craving pasta? Make the change. You can switch your planned meals around as you see fit. The menu plan is really a guideline- things can change last minute- be ready to adjust as needed!

3. You will have leftovers.  If you're cooking every night (as I try to do), don't forget about the leftovers! In our house, we eat leftovers for lunch, and may even plan a night of leftovers for dinner if I forsee the need. Make plans to use leftovers in different ways: chili one night means loaded baked potatoes with chili on another; roasted chicken means homemade chicken salad for lunch; use rice leftover from a side dish for fried rice... leftovers don't have to be taken at face value. They are often more enjoyable when (easily) made into something new!

4. Plan every meal.  Yep- every meal, even if you're planning takeout. That doesn't mean that you'll be cooking every meal, (breakfast plans at my house include many cereal days), but it will help you keep track of how much you need of what. If your kid eats cereal 7 days per week (my toddler's current food phase), planning it will help you make sure that you have enough of it in the house (avoid meltdowns!). Planning everything also helps with budgeting and keeps you from overspending.

5. Plan variety.  No one wants to eat chicken every night. It helps to have a general rotation. I have seen some plans that include set types of food per day (eg. Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, etc.). I find that too strict, so I go for basics. One to two meatless days, one to two beef days, two to three chicken, one fish; using that plan, I mix it up through the week. Our week generally includes three quick/easy meals, one to two crockpot days, one tried and true family favorite, and one or two new recipes. (If I'm home more, I'll try more new recipes to stay entertained.) Variety isn't limited to protein- try different cuisines throughout the week too! Chinese stir-fry, tacos, greek lemon chicken, meatloaf, chicken curry, spaghetti and meatballs- don't be afraid to mix it up! I have found that variety helps you stick to your plan- you're not bored and tempted to order takeout to mix it up.

6. Practice makes perfect.  The first few weeks will take a lot of thought, time, and effort. But, as you go along you'll get quicker and better at planning your menu- and sticking to your budget! Soon, you'll start to notice patterns of what you and your family like to eat and you'll be able to plan according to those preferences. You'll also notice what staples your family really needs to have on hand, (I always have to have the ingredients for peanut butter and jelly, pancakes, and chocolate milk). This will help immensely with your shopping list.

7. Keep it simple.  It is easy to get carried away. (I've learned that the hard way!) Reuse leftovers. Give yourself a break- it is ok to have BLT's for dinner one night, or use some pre-made ingredients. Dinner doesn't have to be a big event every night. Find ways to make it easy for yourself: make some meals ahead on a day you have the time; place fresh meat into a freezer bag in the marinade you want, so all you have to do is take it out of the freezer the night before; don't be afraid of the crockpot!

Once you get the hang of the basics, here are more things to keep in mind:
1. Look ahead at the weather! In the warmer months, this can make a big difference. (You wouldn't want to plan on grilling if you have a rainy week ahead.)
2. Plan meals with mostly pantry items for later in the week. You want to use your fresh produce when it's at its freshest.
3. Don't be afraid to plan more than one week at a time... a new plan doesn't always have to mean another trip to the store. If your pantry and freezer is well stocked, you'll be able to plan further ahead.
My menu calendar: a close-up.
Now... how to keep track of it all?? My menu planning tool is basically a blank week calendar, (which I built in Excel). I typically use pencil, and start by filling in a very basic schedule in order to get an idea for how many meals/what types of meals I should be planning. (For example: On days that my son is at school, he doesn't eat breakfast or lunch at home, so my only big plan is dinner that night.)

Once I've filled in the basic schedule, I know how many nights I really need quick dinners, how many breakfasts and lunches to plan, and when I'll have time for something special. Then, I start plugging in the basics: cereal/oatmeal/yogurt and fruit for breakfast; grilled cheese/peanut butter and jelly or leftovers for lunches; Meatless Monday; fish or something fun on Friday; and a bigger Sunday dinner. I start by filling in my standby recipes (chili, pasta with homemade sauce, roasted chicken, meatloaf, BBQ chicken in the crockpot, et al.). Then, if I'm stuck or in the mood for something new, I'll look through my cookbooks, my recipe binder, and/or search the internet for ideas. The longer you plan, the more recipes you learn/come up with and the bigger your repertoire!

I hope that this intro to menu planning has been helpful! I will share more tips on how to plan/make cheap meals, and how to shop on a budget soon.

Do you plan a menu? Share your thoughts/ideas/methods!