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Pointers for Weekly Food Prepping

This has become somewhat a series, going through weekly meal planning, meal planning on a budget, budgeting for groceries, and today some tips/tricks for meal prepping that can help you stay on track to at-home cooking instead of eating out or opting for convenience foods at the store (which also helps staying on track with the grocery budget).

Meal prepping has become essential for our smooth(ish) functioning during the week.

Let’s get real: the time of day that you are most depleted of energy (and maybe motivation) is the time of day you really have to rally because it’s just so darn busy.

Getting dinner on the table, eating, baths, and bedtime routines for a crew of littles, kitchen clean up and dragging your own exhausted self to bed (hopefully after a shower to remove the days worth of vomit compliments of the littlest who struggles with reflux and is a barfing machine)…

It’s a lot.

And it’s easy to look at the clock and think “ughhh….uber eats tonight?”.

BUT, if you have food already bought and prepped in the fridge that can come together more quickly and simply than starting from scratch you’re most definitely more likely to choose that route versus Uber Eats.

If you are like me, there is a fine line between prepping ingredients for a quicker come-together during the week, and having everything fully made for re-heating during the week (leaving you feeling a little like you’re just eating a bunch of leftovers night in and night out).

Some recipes lend themselves well to a complete assembly prior and a simple re-heat. In fact, some recipes are BETTER this way. Soups and casseroles tend to be good examples.

It will take some time for you to determine where this line is with your recipe line-up (and I will try to do better to give the prep-ahead tips I use on my recipes going forward) and prep accordingly.

Here are some things I take the time to knock out on the weekends to ensure meals can meet that “quicker and easier” standard through the week:

Cook all Pastas and Rice

Rice, in particular, takes a long time to cook. This can be a deal breaker for assembling a meal on a week night when you’re already fried. I’ve found that rice is often times actually better after it’s been cooked and had time to chill in the fridge.

In fact, I’ve been known to cook a whole large batch of rice at once and then freeze it in smaller portions. It thaws and re-warms wonderfully (side note: rice in the freezer has come in handy when I’ve had sick kiddos who need a bland bit of something for their tummies and waiting around for rice to cook simply wouldn’t be an option).

Ever been working on a recipe only to discover that you didn’t get the water for your pasta set to boil…and now you’re standing around literally waiting for a pot to boil?

Pasta also cooks and re-warms well.

Cook your rice and pasta (cook pasta to al dente) then store in air-tight containers in the fridge until ready to use.

Rice will need a simple stir and re-warm in the microwave if your recipe can’t do the re-warming and pasta can use a quick rinse under warm water and you’re all set!

Wash and Chop All Fruits and Veggies

Once fruits and veggies are washed and cut into their recipe appropriate size and shape, store in the fridge in airtight containers by recipe and timing of addition for cooking.

Example: if I have a stir-fry on the menu that calls for garlic and onions to be added to the wok before the peppers, I will store the garlic and onions in one container and the peppers in another. Then, if I also have a roasted veggies side dish planned for another night, I will prep all those veggies and store them together in yet another container.

You get the idea…

It can add up to a lot of containers, yes. I have a dishwasher so I don’t get too worried about that (and honestly, from night to night it really isn’t a stack of dishes). If you worry about the abundence of dishes, zip-top bags are an option as well (they’re just an added expense).

A note about potatoes: If prepping potatoes (chopping, cutting into wedges, etc.) prior to cooking, be sure to store completely submerged in water otherwise they will turn black. Added bonus of soaking in water before cooking? Water will pull some starch out of the potatoes and they will crisp up nicely when it comes time to cook.
Fully cooked potatoes can be prepped ahead of time, start to finish, and stored in the fridge until ready to re-warm. See this example for mashed potatoes made in large quantity and kept in the freezer

Cut Meats According to Recipe Specification & Start Marinades

Having meats already cut, and stored in containers per recipe, is a time and mess saver on a busy night.

Added bonus? If a recipe calls for a marinade and you prep this detail on the weekend you 1) won’t forget and run out of time for the marinade to work its magic and 2) your meat will have time to absorb LOTS of flavor, which is the whole point of the marinade to begin with.

Brown Hamburger and Sausage

Cooking meats ahead of time isn’t typically a recommendation of mine but hamburger and sausage is the exception. You won’t notice a bit of difference re-warming either of these when it’s time for your recipe to come together.

Cook with appropriate seasonings and store in air-tight containers in the fridge until time to use.

Added bonus tip: I tend to use the same pan for browning these meats. Hamburger first, drain and quick wipe with a paper towel, then brown sausage. ONE pan to wash when it’s all said and done!

Assemble Soups, Sauces, Casseroles & Dressings

Soups, sauces, casseroles and dressings tend to get better after the ingredients have time to mingle. Assembling them on the weekend and allowing a few days before eating will add an extra element of YUM when it comes time to eat.

Note: if you are preparing a sauce that will go over pasta later in the week, I’d recommend storing each separate, then re-warming and adding sauce to pasta the night you serve that dish. Otherwise your pasta may over-absorb the sauce and get mushy.

Assemble Crock-pot Meals

Any crock-pot meals you have on the agenda during the week can likely be assembled in large containers or zip-top bags for an easy dump-and-go (or do yourself one better if you have the fridge space and assemble in the crock of the crock-pot, pop the lid on and the day of simply pop the crock in the cooker and turn on).

See? So much can be done on the weekend, saving you precious minutes during the week and helping keep you on track to at-home cooking/eating.

I promise the day you food prep your kitchen will be a HUGE disaster! My husband always just shakes his head. BUT, remember that mess would happen eventually anyway and clean up really doesn’t take all that long in the grand scheme of things. I know I’d rather tackle that task along with the bulk of the cooking when I have more hands on deck for entertaining the littles.

Wouldn’t you?

Photo Credit: Photo by Katie Smith on Unsplash

Setting a Grocery Budget

Isn’t it amazing how time can get away from you?

I cannot believe that it’s FRIDAY. I have no idea what happened to my week; what I even really accomplished. Stuff got done, don’t get me wrong, I just have no real recollection of who, what, when, where, why and how.

At any rate, I’m sliding in under the wire with the post I promised last week (when I shared with you some tips for meal planning on a budget) about setting a grocery budget.

There are lots of ways to go about setting a budget, so let’s get your wheels spinning on a few different options and you can figure out what might work best (and be most realistic) for you.

Side Note Before We Jump In: I can’t stress realistic enough. I’ve read plenty of articles about families of six living on a $35/week grocery budget. And while I’m not saying that isn’t possible, I AM saying it’s not realistic for us. I simply can never imagine a time when I will omit meat as a staple in our diet. No judgment either way for those that have…but I’m a Nebraska girl and meat is where it’s at! And I like to include as much fresh as I can (as opposed to lesser expensive canned and frozen options – which I’m not mad at, it just all has a time an place in my meal planning and cooking).

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics = 15%

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that Americans spend between 11%-15% of their annual budget (which is after tax, take home income) on food each year. A simple mathematical equation for figuring your food budget based on this information is to determine what your monthly take home is and calculate out the 15%. Divide that by four and you have <roughly> a weekly grocery budget.

Grocery Budget Calculator

Iowa State University website hosts a grocery budget calculator that will help you assess your spending, suggest what you should be spending and give ideas to cut costs.

Assess and Re-Assess

Or, you can do what I did…which was mostly a process of trial and error based on what I could easily find in my budget and later making adjustments based on what grocery necessities were costing (based on a standard of eating I wanted to achieve. I suppose we could all just live on hotdogs and mac and cheese if we want to get down to the nitty gritty).

When I first set out to establish a grocery budget, I had to start by putting pen to paper and figuring where my money was going each month. This included ALL spending (mortgage, utilities, phone, fuel, groceries, entertainment, etc.).

That was compared to my income followed by a critical review of wants versus needs. Setting a strict budget meant NO SPENDING ON CREDIT!

As it turned out, with my adjusted income (remember the story I shared about changing jobs at a far reduced salary?), I was easily outspending what I was bringing in every month. Not only was my debt rising, it also meant nothing was making its way into savings.

Cuts had to be made.

Cable TV was the first to go.

This essentially became my grocery budget and I worked a plan to stay within that budget for two months.

After the 2 months, I re-assessed.

While I was staying within the budgeted amount, I wasn’t eating as well as I would have liked and it was a struggle not to over-spend. I knew that I had other areas of spending I could trim that could help me increase my grocery budget AND start stashing money into savings.

So, I made a small adjustment to the grocery budget (it’s amazing what the additional $25’ish could accomplish) and the rest tucked neatly into my savings account.

At that time, as a single gal, I spent no more than $100 on groceries monthly, and had separate budgets for Other Necessities (i.e. household, health and beauty items), Entertainment (i.e. eating out, trips out of town, unnecessary shopping, movies, etc.), Fuel, Etc.

Once J and I merged our lives the budget increased to $250/mo. Feeding a man requires a little more than what it took to feed only myself.

And now with the addition of our kiddos we stick to $350/mo (though, in full disclosure, because our oldest two are part of the foster system, they do get a few grocery benefits that amount to about $50/mo and will continue to receive that benefit until age 5).

Our babe has his own budget for formula, food, diapers, wipes, etc.

And anytime things start to feel tight (think: as the kiddos grow and begin eating more OR when the baby came on the scene and we needed a budget for his necessities) we return to our budget and re-assess.

Wants versus Needs.

It might mean foregoing some non-essentials more frequently. Or finding a bit of side-work for a few extra bucks. Or spending a little more time finding rebates, sales, and discounts to tap in to. Or getting more creative in the kitchen and figuring out ways to make meals that stretch further and don’t cost as much to make in the first place.

We make it a priority to keep our debts low. Other than my student loans and our mortgage (which we pay extra on every month in an effort to pay them off sooner) we strive NOT to live on credit AND to have a comfortable cushion of savings should push ever come to shove.

It’s not always easy.

We certainly don’t live a glam life (like I have the energy for that anyway LOL). BUT we are still making memories as a family on the cheap.

I can’t tell you the last vacation we went on. Actually, I can, it was our honeymoon over FIVE YEARS ago…unless you count the trip to New Mexico we took over two years ago, where we landed at our sweet friends home (they graciously hosted us) and mostly hung out visiting and bobbing around their pool and relaxing.

Our eating out at least a couple times a week as a couple without kiddos has drastically reduced to maybe a couple times a month.

I could go on and on…but put simply: it’s all about priorities.

A grocery budget is just one place to start.

Do you need a budget? Do you have a budget that needs re-visiting? Are you feeling at all compelled and inspired to take another run at this? Have you devised another method for figuring your grocery budget that you wouldn’t mind sharing? Let us know in the comments below!

Meal Planning on A Budget

As promised when I posted about my weekly meal planning routine, I’m back to chat a bit about how to go about meal planning on a budget. The method I use is really a 3 step system – but there are some other details (7 in total) to keep in mind when first getting started…

1. Know What’s In Your Grocery Budget

It’s difficult to meal plan and grocery shop on a budget if you don’t know what the budget is; and having a budgeted amount means you aren’t buying groceries on credit.

If you’re not sure where to even start with this, I’ll be circling back next week with some ideas of how to go about determining how much you should be spending <realistically> on groceries for your family.

Until then, I might encourage you to begin jotting down your income and expenses (both necessity and luxury) and do your best to try to determine what you are already spending monthly on groceries and eating out. You may also examine what sorts of things you are currently buying at the grocery store and thinking about which of those things are needs vs wants.

Living on a budget – including meal planning on a budget – sometimes means having to make tough decisions about which things you can do without….I lived without cable TV for a long while in order to have money for groceries and we almost never eat out now because it’s so darn expensive and we needed to beef up our grocery budget.

2. Know What You Have On Hand

Always start your meal planning by knowing what you already have on hand. This will save you from purchasing things you may already have in the freezer or pantry.

I remember the time I realized I had THREE containers of thyme in the cupboard…and I don’t even use thyme that often in my cooking…ughhh!

Utilizing what you already have not only saves you from duplicate purchases, but it can drastically reduce the length of your shopping list AND ensures that you are utilizing things you’ve already spent your hard earned money on before they go bad.

Raise your hand if you’ve had to toss meat from the freezer because it was buried and freezer burned by the time it re-surfaced. Grr!!!

3. Know What Is On Sale At The Store

After you know what you already have on hand, take a look at the grocery ad to see what is on sale for the week.

This is especially important for your big ticket items like meat, but can mean cost savings where smaller items start to add up as well.

4. Determine Your Menu

Equip with the knowledge of what you have on hand, and what is on sale at the store, begin brain storming meals for the week that fall in line with these two important details.

Having to purchase every ingredient for every meal of the week, and not shopping the sales will burn your budget SUPER quickly.

If you need recipe inspiration Pinterest is a popular resource, but there are also applications in the web that allow you to plug in ingredients and they will spit back a recipe utilizing what you’ve entered. Recipe Key is an example. (Note: I haven’t used this application myself, but I know folks who have with lots of success).

I also caution against convenience foods. Not only are they not as healthy as what you make yourself, but that convenience comes at a price. The freezer and deli sections of grocery stores are chalk full of convenience meals….or meals already put together that essentially just need heated at home.

And, not to further tempt you, but Costco makes some of the THE BEST convenience foods. I know only because others brought them to us after we brought the baby home. The meals were DELICIOUS but also at least double (and in most cases, triple) what it would have cost to make essentially the same thing at home.

I know that life is busy and by the end of the day it’s often difficult to muster up the energy to put together a dinner from scratch. So….how about we talk more about meal prepping prior to the busy week in a week or so? Tune back in for that ’cause I’ve got some ideas that might just be the ticket to making home-cookin’ feasible for you.

Oh! And don’t forget to factor in breakfast and lunch.

Unless we have company, I don’t generally do a lot of planning around breakfast and lunch. These are the only two areas where I sort of wing it, but we always have fresh fruit, yogurt, bread, cereal, sandwich fixin’s, and leftovers that generally make their way onto the breakfast or lunch menus. Or I may toss together a quick breakfast casserole or some burritos for quick re-warming during the week.

5. Strive To Use EVERYTHING!

As you go about putting together your menu keep in mind leftovers and strive to use everything so nothing goes to waste.

I get that leftovers aren’t always all that exciting, but neither is wadding up a $10 bill and throwing it in the trash either.

It might take a little bit to figure out which meals are going to stretch further than others, and that will help determine how many meals you need to set out to make each week.

A good rule of thumb while you work that out (and, honestly, I still use):
1. plan a few meals that use lots of fresh ingredients and a couple that use ingredients that aren’t as perishable (this can still mean fresh, for example, brussels sprouts tend to stay fresh in the fridge longer than bell peppers)
2. prepare the meals that use quick to perish fresh ingredients early in the week, saving those that will last a little longer for later in the week (or can roll to the beginning of the following week, if needed).
3. have ingredients for a meal or two that keep in the freezer/pantry in case your leftovers run out.

6. Make – AND STICK – To A Shopping List

This detail is SOOOOO important.

Not making a list almost ensures something will be forgotten, requiring a subsequent trip to the store.

Wandering aimlessly around the store almost ensures you will purchase stuff you don’t need.

Wandering aimlessly around the store on multiple occasions can mean a grocery budget blown in short order.

Sticking to the list and only purchasing what is needed for the week will help keep you on track with your budget. This sometimes <a lot of times> means forgoing snacks, chips, sodas and other items that just aren’t necessity.

When I first started meal planning on a budget, making and sticking to a list of necessities was super difficult. I promise that it gets easier and doesn’t mean always having to forego some of you favorite junk foods.

7. Stock Up!

As your budget allows, stock up on pantry friendly items when they are on sale. Good examples of things I like to buy extra of when on sale include: rice, pastas, meats, canned and frozen goods.

Now, word to the wise here….I am NOT encouraging you to spend a gross amount of your budget (particularly at the start of the month) on pantry and freezer friendly items simply because they are on sale. But, for example, if pasta is on sale for $1, pick up an extra box or two. Doing so will help you to slowly grow your pantry and freezer inventory, saving money down the road when those ingredients find their way in to your planned meals line-up.

At the end of the month if there is money left in your budget you can handle that in a few different ways:
1. continue purchasing items on sale to build your pantry and freezer stock
2. purchase some of those goodies you’ve foregone the rest of the month
3. roll that money over to the budget for the following month.
4. put the money aside for your next freezer meal cooking marathon (I love freezer cooking but it doesn’t always fit neatly into the monthly grocery budget).

If you’re coming in to the end of the month and your budget is super tight:
1. double check that ALL leftovers (meals and ingredients) have been eaten and/or utilized.
2. consider more expensive ingredients that can be reduced or omitted entirely from a recipe (examples: meat and cheese).
3. dig deeper into your on-hand inventory and get creative
4. consider meals that can be made on the cheap: sandwiches of all varieties, pasta with a simple sauce, soup, etc.
5. turn to your ‘on hand’ meals to get you by until the following month (but remember that you need to replenish those meals for evenings when leftovers don’t stretch as far as you’d hoped).

Once you get into the swing of meal planning on a budget, it becomes quite simple to do and stay on top of. But, like anything else, there is a learning curve.

Any thoughts or tid-bits about how you plan meals on a budget? I’d love to hear from ya! And stay tuned for some ideas in the coming weeks on setting your budget (if you don’t already have one or think your current budget may need revision) as well as food prep guidelines.

-H

Photo Credit: Photo by Madison Kaminski on Unsplash