From the planning to the preparation, making meals the whole family will enjoy is no easy task. 7-Day Menu Planner For Dummies shows you what you can whip up in the kitchen without breaking the bank.
Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but staying in for dinner—and eating out on special occasions only—is becoming the norm these days. Many families are looking for ways to eat cheaper and healthier while also spending some time together. Busy schedules and tighter budgets have people divvying up duties and shopping for deals in hopes of making mealtime run a bit more smoothly. Unfortunately (as you know all too well!), a healthy and satisfying dinner doesn’t just appear at the snap of your fingers—there’s lots of planning, shopping, and prep-time before the finished product makes its way onto your plate.
“People are realizing that home-cooked meals provide a healthier alternative to fast-food runs or TV dinners while also saving them some money,” says Susan Nicholson, RD/LD, author of 7-Day Menu Planner For Dummies® (Wiley, October 2010, ISBN: 978-0-470-87857-6, $19.99). “Plus, sitting down to eat with your whole family allows you to share some time together—so that’s an added benefit!”
As Nicholson points out, cooking up some quick and easy meals at home can help you save some dough (money, that is!), consume a more nutritious diet, and spend time with your loved ones. What are you waiting for?
Read these eleven budget-friendly tips to help you get started planning your menu:
Monitor your portions. Cut portions to coincide with the nutritional needs of each individual in your family. Not many people need three or four pork chops (unless they’re digging ditches). Perhaps Dad can handle two chops, but most likely Mom and the kids can do well with one apiece. You might even split one chop for two smaller children. It’s time to put down those huge portions you’ve been eating and get a grip on your nutritional needs, not wants. Not only do extra calories run up your weight, they run up your food bill. Whether you’re eating at home or in a restaurant, pay attention to portions for your wallet’s sake (not to mention your waistline and overall health).
Watch for sales. Watch for sales, including buy-one-get-one-free (BOGO). BOGO is an easy way to halve the cost of what you’re buying. If you’re buying something in the $4 to $5 range, it’s worth it if you use the product. Some tuna (albacore) is usually $7.25 per 4-pack. That’s a good deal with the BOGO special. Another good deal is the low-fat mayonnaise that can run $4 to $5 per jar. Whether to go for these offers or not depends on whether your family will eat the products on sale. When is a sale not a sale? When you buy an item because it’s on sale and never use it. That’s no bargain. (This does not include shoes.)
Newspaper ads can determine where you do your major grocery shopping for the week. Mostly look at the cost of protein—meat, poultry, and fish—and fresh produce. You can also check out online ads to find the best deals. And try not to go from store to store to save a small amount. For $3 or $4, you could be tempted; for $5, give it a go if the store is close by! You have to make that decision.
Clip coupons. When it comes to coupon clipping, people range from the if-I-remember-them-I’ll-use-them shoppers to the I-won’t-buy-it-if-I-don’t-have-a-coupon shoppers. The amount of money you can save depends on your interest level. Those who devote their time and energy to clipping coupons save a lot of money. Some wise shoppers use online sites to ferret out valuable coupons. You’ve read about these amazing folks who get $5,000 worth of groceries for 15 cents. That’s a gross exaggeration, but there are those people out there who know how to use coupons to their fullest.
Buy generic. Store or generic brands seem to have improved greatly over the last few years, and you should rarely hesitate to buy them. You can sometimes save half versus a branded product. If you’re devoted to the flavor of one brand over another, then by all means, buying a store brand isn’t worth it. One-pot meals and skillet dishes provide an excellent home court for generic brands. For making soups or stews, the canned generic vegetables are just as good as the brand names! Also, generic canola oil, jellies and jams, brown and white sugar, flour, and a number of other staples will often pass your taste-test, too. Read the ingredients, not just the food label, to compare.
Buy in quantity. Buy larger quantities of non-perishables if you have the space to store the extras; you’ll save money and time. When you run out of something in the kitchen, you can shop in your own basement or garage. Typically, a big jar of something that you use only occasionally isn’t worth it, even if you save a little bit. You’ll usually end up throwing it out anyway, so where are the savings? Also, be smart and check the price per ounce or pound of these so-called “bargains.” Sometimes the larger sizes of items are more expensive per ounce than a smaller size. It pays to read the fine print on the shelf tags. And note that having a place to store an item and knowing it won’t spoil are both litmus tests for buying in quantity.
Don’t pay for waste. Lean meats and fish have little waste because their fat and moisture content are low. Ground beef that’s 20-percent fat may be cheaper, but 95-percent-lean ground beef has much less waste. You pay for more good-for-you protein and less unhealthy fat. Poultry that has been “plumped” with water and salt is the opposite and loses a lot of moisture when cooking. You’re paying extra for that water only to watch it cook away. The devil is in the details. Remember to do the math and compare cost per pound. You’re better off buying lean meats to keep your ounces on the table rather than watching them go to waste.
Clean out the freezer and cabinets. Decrease your inventory. No doubt you could live out of your freezer, pantry, and refrigerator for quite a while if you just surveyed them more often. It’s a good idea to keep a list of what’s in the freezer so food doesn’t get buried and become an artifact. Anything you find in the freezer or pantry is found money because you’ve already paid for it. You can dig it out of the freezer, defrost it, and turn it into another meal without spending a dollar from your wallet for the meal.
Cut down on convenience foods. They may save a little time, but at what price? Convenience dinner portions often aren’t enough to fill the heartier eater. If a dinner says it has four servings, it’s probably actually closer to two-and-a-half. Is that a bargain? The flip side of eating convenience foods is that they’re less expensive than fast foods such as pizza, burgers, and so on. If you add a big serving of vegetables to the dinners, you can justify them occasionally. Just don’t let your freezer look like the freezer section of the grocery store! One convenience food to consider is pre-packaged deli items. A pint of chicken salad at $4 is enough to feed four. Don’t forget to add a side and a green salad. Chicken salad is delicious in a hollowed out tomato, halved avocado, or on bread for a sandwich. Sometimes you can make your own convenience food that’s just as good as or better than what you’d pick up at the store. For example, you can cut some of the fat you get with premade chicken salad by using the meat from a rotisserie chicken for your own recipe. Add some halved grapes, toasted walnuts or slivered almonds, a little low-fat mayonnaise, and sliced celery, and you have your own chicken salad.
Pack a lunch (or dinner). Pack your lunch if possible. It’s a good way to use those leftovers from last night. You’ll do better nutritionally and certainly eat better than you would by having a burger and fries every day, not to mention how much money you’ll save. Over a year, if you eat in just half the time, saving $8 to $10 per day, you’ll save $1,040 to $1,300. Just think of what you could do with a thousand dollars! Also, a lunch can be more than a sandwich and chips, though turning 7-Day Menu Planner recipes into sandwiches can make for wonderful options: meatloaf, pulled pork, and taco fillings for sandwiches or wraps are some favorites. Why not portion your carry-to-work microwavable plate with your dinner’s leftovers? Put the plate together after dinner. Make your own TV dinners and reheat the next day for lunch. It’s less expensive and healthier.
Think doggie bags. You gotta love those doggie bags. We Americans rarely eat all the food at a restaurant and are too proud to carry home (and eat) the leftovers. This has to change! When you bring home restaurant leftovers, you save money (and calories you might eat in one sitting if the original meal is enough to feed sixteen).
Plant a garden. Plant a garden if you have the space and energy to make it work. You save money in the long run when you buy seeds and plants, invest a little time and effort, and then harvest the produce instead of paying Mr. Grocer for fruits and veggies you could have grown yourself. Not only that, but the flavor and quality of homegrown fruits and vegetables are generally better than those of canned or frozen ones.
Wise people in cities are creating community gardens for folks who don’t have space for a garden but enjoy the experience plus delight in the value of the harvest. All-you-can-pick farms offer another way to buy in quantity, and you can freeze or can the fresh produce.
“If you put the effort into implementing these wallet-friendly tips, then planning and preparing your nutritious and delicious meals will be a lot less of a headache,” Nicholson concludes. “And don’t forget to get everyone involved to make it a family effort!”
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About the Author:
Susan Nicholson, RD/LD, is a registered and licensed dietitian who writes the syndicated newspaper column 7-Day Menu Planner. She is a member of the American Dietetic Association and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
About the Book:
7-Day Menu Planner For Dummies® (Wiley, October 2010, ISBN: 978-0-470-87857-6, $19.99) is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or directly from the publisher by calling (877) 762-2974.