Cheap, Healthy Eating: Meal Planning

This is kind of a continuation of my previous blog post about how eating healthy has actually cost me less compared to when I was eating junk. It took me a few months to get the hang of meal planning, after getting off of frozen pizzas and microwave dinners. I thought I would share some tips and tricks on how to conserve (thereby saving a few grocery bucks), along with a two week snapshot of what me and my husband’s groceries and meals consist of and cost. I usually cook about 3 times a week — the other days we’re eating leftovers (and once in a great while, eating out). I sit down every Saturday morning for 15-20 minutes, leaf through recipes, decide what we eat the coming week, check what ingredients I’ve got in my kitchen, and make up a grocery list.

Weekly Meal Planning 101

1) Choose recipes with overlapping ingredients. When I first started cooking, I would choose recipes based on what I felt like eating that week. Which is fine up to a point, but when I picked recipes that used vastly different ingredients (i.e. eggplant parmigiana, chicken pot pie, and sweet potato burritos), I would end the week with a fridge full of unused vegetables that I had no plans for, that I ended up throwing out. You know, from when the chicken pot pie recipe calls for 3 celery stalks so I buy a head of celery. Now when I plan for the week, I choose recipes that contain the same or similar vegetables.

If it’s a “summer veggie” week (zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes), then I might make spaghetti squash with homemade spaghetti sauce (which freezes very well, btw), California grilled veggie sandwiches, and tomato basil salmon with zucchini/yellow squash and rice pilaf on the side. If it’s a “comfort veggie” week (onions, carrots, celery), I might do a pork pot roast, chicken gnocchi soup, and a veggie pot pie.

The point is that the more the ingredients repeat among a week’s planned recipes, the less waste there’ll be.

2) Plan at least one meal a week that takes 15 minutes or less to prepare. Let’s face it — life interferes. Sometimes I just don’t have the time and/or willpower to spend 30 min or an hour making dinner. Sometimes I know ahead of time that I won’t (crockpot!), sometimes I’m just running late or really tired.

Meals that take 15 minutes or less to prep and cook at dinner time: salad (with or without cooked meat on top), burritos, stir fry, most crockpot meals, black bean burgers (I can throw canned black beans, veggies, bread crumbs, and an egg into my Ninja; dump the mixture onto my panini press; cut up lettuce, tomatoes, and avocado while the patties are cooking, and get everything on the table in 15 minutes from beginning to end. No joke.), pan fried fish, chicken, or pork along with a side of sauteed veggies.

Quick Thaw Tip: Fish filets (and thin meat filets) can thaw in 5-10 minutes. Just fill a large mixing bowl with room temp tap water and put the filets in, being careful to keep filets separate from each other. (Use a plastic baggie if you care about the filets getting wet).

3) Freeze leftovers. Anything that me and my husband can’t finish in 2 days’ time and isn’t *quite* tasty enough that we want to eat it for 3-4 days straight, I try to stash in the freezer the day after it’s cooked. Some things freeze really well (vegetable-based sauces or mixtures, soups/stews), and some things don’t (rice, pasta). This not only keeps us from giving a ton of leftovers to the chickens, it also gives me future 15-minute-meals (see #2, above).

4) Plan one meal a week that’s a catch-all. What do I mean by that? A meal that’ll be able to use a lot of the “leftover” fresh produce. Like when I buy 3 zucchini, only ended up using 2 in recipes, and don’t feel like eating zucchini in the following week. I favor salad or stir fry for the catch-all meal — those are really quick to prepare and all sorts of veggies can be used in varying quantities.

Two weeks of my life in groceries

So…this is what our groceries looked like the past 2 weeks, and the overall items and cost is typical for us. This is what we actually bought and spent and ate.

The groceries bought make up breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks for us, minus lunch for my husband sometimes.

Week 1 Dinner Menu: black bean burgers, pork enchiladas, grilled veggie sandwiches, salad

Week 1 Bought: strawberries, apples, grapes, romaine lettuce, red & green bell peppers, cucumbers, garlic, a red onion, roma tomatoes, carrots, grape tomatoes, avocados, spinach tortillas, burger buns, shredded cheese, canned black beans, Rotel

Week 1 Cost: $36.80 total, or $2.63 per person per day

Week 2 Dinner Menu: beef & venison mushroom barley stew, split pea soup, stir fry

Week 2 Bought: bananas, strawberries, apples, grapefruit, mangoes, celery, carrots, mushrooms, grape tomatoes, roma tomatoes, yuca, onions, dry split peas, beef back ribs (1 lb), raisins

Week 2 Cost: $43.71 total, or $3.12 per person per day

I’m not very good at shopping grocery store sales and coupons, so almost everything bought is “regular price” at wherever I’m buying it from. I tend to buy my groceries at the flea market, Walmart, and Save-A-Lot. Produce at my local flea market costs ballpark about 30-40% less than regular prices at a supermarket. I’m Asian American, I don’t care that the produce signs are sharpie-on-cardboard, or that the floor’s gravel and dirt instead of shiny linoleum and concrete, or that most of the produce stands are run by Mexicans, or that they’re only open on weekends. The stands have a huge selection of fresh items and I don’t have to leaf through sale flyers in order to save a few bucks, so I’m all for it.

Also, a recipe sometimes calls for a lot of different ingredients, but that doesn’t mean I buy them every time I use the recipe — a lot of things I already have on hand from previous weeks and months of cooking. For example: out of week 1’s groceries bought, I had carrots, roma tomatoes, garlic, cucumbers, and shredded cheese left over and rolling into week 2. I buy garlic maybe once a month (even though I use it every week). Compound that over weeks and months and occasionally years for spices, oils, bouillon, rice, oatmeal, etc.

It IS possible to eat healthy and eat cheap. I do it, so it must be possible. But, it takes planning and lots of fresh produce. I love that I know exactly what goes into my meals now — and I love even more that it only costs me a dollar on average when I sit down to eat a meal (and that’s assuming all my snacking is free, which it’s not, and I snack constantly). Chew on that. $3/day.

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