Archive for January 18th, 2011

The key to successful menu planning is to “know thyself.”  For me, that means recognizing that my love of planning is matched by my love of freedom to be spontaneous.  In all honesty, I don’t like to be told what to do – even by myself.  That may seem…well…stupid, but it’s just one of the many quirks of my personality.  If I design a detailed menu that relies on lots of perishable ingredients, I might as well just throw the food into the trash when I get home from the grocery store because at some point during the week I will change my mind about an item on the menu and decide to do something else, thus wasting those ingredients and money.  So I’ve learned to plan up to 2/3 of my weekly menu based on fresh ingredients, and plan the remaining meals around staples in my pantry.  That way, if it doesn’t work for me to make a particular recipe on a particular night, I can swap it with something else and rearrange the order of the meals without risking any wasted ingredients.

Successful menu planning also requires that you “know thy schedule.”  I don’t plan meals that require a lot of prep work on Thursdays because that is the day I run most of my errands, and I know that I will not want to be on my feet any more by dinnertime.  I also look ahead to nights when we have evening activities and plan for crock pot meals because I can then guarantee that it will be ready early in the evening.  By taking my schedule into account during meal planning, it cuts down on the amount of menu reshuffling (and wasted ingredients) because I am able to find appropriate recipes to match each day’s schedule.

The other two menu planning strategies I employ are: “know thy sales” and “know thy pantry.”  (Okay, I’m done with the Olde English now.)  I look through the ads and the clip coupons that come in the Sunday newspaper before planning my menus.  Then, I look through my cookbooks and try to match recipes with sale items and food in the fridge that needs to get used up.  For instance, if blueberries are on sale and I have sour cream that is approaching its expiration date, I’ll plan to make my Sour Cream Blueberry Muffin recipe for Sunday breakfast.    This strategy also allows me to utilize fresh meat and produce that are on sale with minimal waste.

If you’re new to menu planning, this may seem overwhelming.  But by doing a certain amount of planning, you’ll save money by getting the best deal and using ingredients before they expire.  It takes some discipline to stick to a menu, so if you’re used to flying by the seat of your pants, plan for that!  Pick a few meals that you like and that are easy to prepare from staples in your pantry, then be sure to replenish those items after each use so you always have these recipes to fall back on.   For me, this includes GF spaghetti and meatballs (which I make myself and freeze in meal sized portions), quesadillas made with whatever meat I can scrounge from the fridge or freezer, and a few canned convenience foods like Progresso clam chowder and Hormel chili (both are GF).  I keep these ingredients on hand and try to reserve them for nights when my schedule has been upset or I absolutely need a break from cooking.

Even though I generally go to the store with a menu in mind, I don’t limit myself to just those ingredients.  Since a meal or two is usually supplied from ingredients I already have on hand, that gives me some wiggle room in my budget to look for good deals.  When I find something we use regularly (like pasta or pancake mix) on sale, I stock up – the amount depends on how good a deal it is and how many I can use before the expiration date.  Buying bulk is how we can afford to eat gluten free food, which is incredibly expensive.  When an item goes on sale, or becomes available through Amazon’s subscription service, I stock up.  These become the building blocks for future pantry staples recipes.  For instance, because I stocked up on canned crushed tomatoes and canned beans awhile back, I knew when I saw ground beef on sale today for the rock-bottom price of $2/lb. that I could throw together some chili this week.

In order to know when to stock up, you need to pay attention to prices when you shop so you can recognize an actual good deal from what the store would like you to believe is a good deal.  Albertson’s is the worst when it comes to “buy 1 get 1 free” deals because they jack up the price so much that it’s often not a good deal.  Sometimes it is, but you have to figure out the actual price per item and know if it’s a good price.  For me, any boneless meat that is under $2/lb. is worth buying, so if you’re new to price comparisons, that’s a good place to start since meat is one of the most expensive things you’ll buy.

I try to limit my shopping to 2 or 3 stores per week, with occasional visits to Costco and the Franz Day-Old bakery here in town where you can get a free bread item with every purchase.  (Since I still eat wheat, this allows me to get cheap bread for myself, and offsets the cost of the more expensive gluten free bread for my family.)  By dividing my shopping between two days and a couple stores, I can check for unadvertised sales and buy reduced-price meat that’s close to its expiration date (which is how I got the cheap ground beef today).  I always check for marked down meat and leave some flexibility in my meal plan so I can utilize it.  By visiting a couple stores, I can also spread out my produce purchases, which allows me to buy smaller quantities of produce at a time and lessens the likelihood of something going bad before we can use it.  However, the more stores you visit, the more money you will end up spending through impulse buys, which is why it’s best to try to stick to just 2 stores whenever possible.

I mentioned in an earlier post that one of the keys to joyful finances is contentment.  By being content to use whatever items are on sale, and including easy meals in your menu from time to time to give yourself a break, meal planning on a budget can be joyful.  Tomorrow I will post our weekly menu and, hopefully, recipes.  But just so you know, I probably won’t stick to it.  Enjoy!

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2 lbs. cooked ground beef
2 med. onions, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
15 oz. can tomato sauce
15 oz. can diced tomatoes and green chilis, drained
1 can white or pinto beans, drained
1 can black beans, drained
1 can red or kidney beans, drained
1 tsp. pepper
2 T. chili powder
1 tsp. garlic salt
1/2 – 1 tsp. seasoned salt, depending on how salty you like it (Lowry’s is GF)
1 tsp. cumin
Dash cayenne, optional for a little heat
1 bay leaf

Combine ingredients in 5-quart crock pot.  Cook 4-5 hrs. on high or 8 or 9 hrs. on low.  Remove bay leaf before serving (or give a prize to whoever finds the bay leaf in their bowl).  This recipe freezes well, and tastes even better the second day.

Tips for saving money on this recipe:

  • You can get by with less ground beef, but the easiest way to save money is by using the higher fat ground beef, which tends to be cheapest.  After draining the grease, rinse it by filling the pan with hot water and draining it into the sink using the lid to hold back the beef.  Pat dry with a few paper towels.  This removes most of the grease and makes it the same fat content as the more expensive, lean variety.
  • When peppers are not in season, they can get to be pretty expensive.  So when I find them for a good price, like $.50 each, I often chop the whole thing and use part of the pepper in a recipe and put the remaining amount in a zippered freezer bag for later use.  Today, I threw a handful of frozen orange pepper in my chili, and experimented with using half a jar of roasted red pepper I bought at the dollar store.  I came by this amount very scientifically, by piecing together parts of a pepper until it looked like I had the equivalent of one pepper.
  • Obviously, you can save money on the beans by using dried beans.  One pound of dried beans is roughly the equivalent of 3 cans of beans.  Start the day before by sorting and rinsing the beans, then placing them in the crock pot covered with water 2 in. above beans.  Don’t turn it on, but just let it soak at least 6 hrs.  Drain and rinse beans.  Place back in slow cooker and cover again with water.  Cook 8-10 hrs. (overnight) on low until tender.  Drain (in the morning) and you’re ready to make your chili.
  • I get all my spices in the bulk section of the store (Winco or Fred Meyer).  Sometimes, I’ll initially buy a new spice at the dollar store, then refill the jar from the bulk section.  I use a lot of spices for cooking flavorful “real” food, and the bulk section allows me to do it for (literally) pennies.

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Sour Cream Blueberry Muffins

These super quick, super easy muffins taste…well, super!  They also freeze well, and look fancy if you use the crystallized sugar (the kind you sprinkle on cookies).

2 c. Bisquick-type baking mix (we use Pamela’s GF Pancake & Baking Mix)
¾ c. sugar (I’ve reduced it to 2/3 c. without my family noticing)
2 eggs
1 c. sour cream
1 c. fresh or frozen blueberries (do not thaw)
Crystallized sugar or regular sugar for topping, optional

In a large bowl, combine the baking mix and sugar.  In a small bowl combine eggs and sour cream; stir into dry ingredients just until combined.  Fold in blueberries.

Fill greased muffin cups and sprinkle with sugar.  Bake 20 minutes at 375 degrees.  Cool for 5 minutes before removing from pan.

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