As I was lurking on Facebook yesterday, a friend from way back, Rachell, asked in what ways were people saving money and cutting household costs. Well, this led to a whole tangent of cooking vs. eating out with some of the women mentioning that with work schedules it was hard to cook every night and others commenting that they wished they knew how to cook more things or just even how to cook period.
I’m fortunate enough that I work from home now but even when I was working from my friend’s house, my schedule was flexible enough that I could get home in time to cook a decent meal every night if I wanted. And most nights I didn’t want. In fact, for a while, we ate out about 4 or 5 nights a week, spending upwards of $400 a week on food. Mediocre food at that.
When my husband lost his job right after Christmas of 2009, things had to change dramatically. Our income was now one third of what if was. Fortunately, we live in the house my husband grew up in so it was paid off. We paid off one car, got rid of the other one and then cut out the one thing we were spending so much on. Food. Eating out to be more specific. I knew I had to buckle down and start cooking. Problem was, my kids are picky eaters and won’t eat things normal kids eat. Because they had been spoiled by eating Vietnamese, Mexican, or Italian every night, a simple baked chicken was “boring” and they would often refuse to eat it. Luckily I was armed with 20+ years of restaurant work experience (my previous career), 23 years of being raised in New Orleans, and an ex-chef for a husband. I could do this. I could make just as interesting if not better meals than some of the places we used to eat out. Armed with a vast collection of cookbooks and a subscription to Cooks Illustrated online (cooksillustrated.com $35 a year), I set out to build up a recipe repertoire that would make dinner fast, easy and good every night. And this is how I did it.
At first I was going to the grocery store every couple of days just buying whatever and coming home, $50 later, with a few bags of groceries and not really anything to cook or nothing that went together. Then I read an article about one of those women who cooks all the food for her family for a month and freezes it. She spent one weekend a month cooking 30 meals (well, she really cooked 10 but just 3 of each and rotated them for the month) and then putting them up so every night all she had to do was pop something in the oven or microwave and dinner was served. It wasn’t the whole theory of cooking meals for the month that appealed to me, it was the fact that she sat and planned every meal. So I sat down and planned a whole week of menus, went to the store and spent about $120. For a whole weeks worth of food. And I actually had stuff to cook, and had stuff to eat for lunch, and the kids had breakfast stuff and snacks. After looking on the internet, I found a shopping list template here. I like it because it breaks the list down in sections. For the actual menu planner, I ended up making my own. I’ll try to post it here but if not, just email me and I’ll send it to you.
I’m not going to bother posting any of my recipes because there are plenty of excellent resources out there. You need to figure out what types of foods work for you and your family. Some of the ones that have worked for me and my family are allrecipes.com (Their recipes are rated by members so you can figure out which ones are good and which ones are duds), cooksillustrated.com (It’s $35 for a year but not only do you get the current month of the magazine recipes but you also get all the past recipes. It’s really like having about 15 cookbooks in one place and you get videos, reviews, well worth it.), foodnetwork.com (A lot of the recipes I have gotten off here are easy to prepare and don’t take a lot of time. And say what you will about Rachel Ray, she has some great recipes that churn out super fast.) just to name a few. Also, go through your cookbooks, I know you have some. Write in them!! If your family didn’t like a meal, write a big X over it so you know not to make it again. If you substitute an ingredient (for instance, my daughter doesn’t eat beef so some beef recipes I use chicken instead), write it in the recipe. Cross out an ingredient if your family doesn’t like it. I have a great Indian dish that calls for raisins. We don’t like raisins, I don’t put it in, I crossed it out in recipe. Make the recipes yours. I will tell you that things like onions, garlic, ginger, those are seasonings and you really should leave them in. You don’t have to use as much, I generally use only half an onion where it tells me to use a whole. If you cook the onions down for a few minutes first, they will usually melt away in the dish and add so much flavor but you will hardly know they are there.
Another way to save time is buying meat in family packs and then re-packaging it to put up in your freezer. I have a FoodSaver machine but you could easily use zip loc bags. I also have a digital food scale so I weigh out portions and freeze them so one bag is one meal portion. I will then write on the bag what meal it is for. I told this trick on Rachell’s post but you can also precook things like ground beef with onions and garlic,salt and pepper, then portion it out to save yourself a step as well. Take out a pound of beef, add a tablespoon of chili powder and a teaspoon of cumin and you have taco night. Add a large (28 oz) can of crushed tomatoes, a tablespoon of Italian seasonings, and a tablespoon of tomato paste and you have spaghetti night. Add a tablespoon of chili powder, a teaspoon of cumin, a tablespoon of tomato paste, and a medium (14 oz) can of tomato sauce and you have chili night.
Also, when you re-package your food for freezing try to make the package as flat and thin as possible. If you are freezing chicken breasts, lay them out so they are all flat. Raw ground beef, roll it out with a rolling pin or use the flat of your hand and mash it out without closing the bag all the way so the air gets out. Doing this will make it easier and way faster to thaw out than a big clump of meat.It will also lay nice and flat and neat in your freezer, saving space. (Thanks Chris K for this tip) And remember to thaw meat in the fridge (take it out the freezer and pop it into the fridge when you are preparing that nights meal to have thawed meat for the next day) or under cold water or in the microwave.
When I plan my menu, on the planning sheet, I also write down whatever cookbook and the page number I got the recipe from as well so I don’t have to try to remember. I also put post it tabs on the pages in the cookbooks of the stuff I’m cooking that week as well so it’s easier to find. I also don’t totally stick to the dinner schedule either. If on Wednesday it says tacos but everyone wants Thai Chicken Basil which is on Saturday’s menu, I just switch it up. Some of you may not have that option but a bag of frozen chicken breast that I’ve packaged to be flat and thin only takes about 10 minutes to thaw out so it can be an option if you plan stuff right.
The whole process of planning out your meals and shopping will get easier the more you do it. You will figure out what things your family likes to eat and what works for time and what doesn’t. Get your family involved. Keep a list of the things they like to eat, what cookbook it came from and the page number. I ask my family every week to give me suggestions of things they want. I’ve been doing this long enough now I pretty much know what they like but it can be fun to go through some cookbooks or look at recipes online with the kids. Mine like looking through the cookbooks at the pictures and know enough about cooking to know what recipes look good and which ones they won’t be interested in. You can get them involved too. A 10 year old can stir a pot while you chop vegetables. My son loves to help even if it’s just collecting ingredients from the fridge and pantry for me.
Don’t stress over it, relax and have fun with it. The more you cook, the easier it gets.You can do it and save yourself some money and calories in the process. For about the same time and a third of the price, you can have a home cooked meal every night instead of sitting in a restaurant wasting time and money. All it takes is a little planning.
Added note: I was able to upload the Menu Planner page I made into Box.net. You should be able to grab it from the widget on the right. The spaces along the left of the page allow you to fill in the days of the week. I did it that way because I don’t always shop on the same day. Enjoy!