♥ ♥ ♥ Free Birthday Food

I love free. Especially free food. I think that just might be my favorite thing about my birthday — that I get lots of free food from businesses. I especially love that it gives me an opportunity to sample from businesses that I don’t ordinarily frequent.

In the past 2 weeks, I’ve eaten free (truly free, not “free with purchase”):

  • Ice cream from Baskin Robbinspretzel
  • Ice cream from Coldstone Creamery
  • Pulled pork sandwich from Dickey’s BBQ
  • Burger and fries from Ruby Tuesday
  • Pretzel from Auntie Anne’s
  • Frappuccino from Starbucks
  • Iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts
  • Fried seafood basket from The Crab Shack
  • Sub & drink from Jersey Mike’s
  • Sub from Firehouse Subs
  • Pastry from Panera Bread
  • Chocolate from Godiva
  • Grand Slam from Denny’s

Most of them require that you join their loyalty clubs well before birthday time — which is why I googled birthday freebies about a month before my birthday, to make sure I’ll be able to get the freebies I’m interested in when the time comes. And, most of them don’t require getting the freebie on the actual date of birth, which is definitely a bonus. I would probably explode if I ate all that in one day.

Love the free!

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.

My Foray into Cheaper, Healthy(er) Eating

I used to eat Hot Pockets, potato chips, frozen corndogs, pop tarts, and tv dinners. Then I decided processed food was too expensive. So I went to eating a pasta, rice, and beans-based diet which was super cheap, but got old after a while. So then I went back to the Totinos. And then I met my husband, who likes to talk about eating healthy. I started cooking more and eating less junk in an effort to be healthier, and to my surprise, my grocery bill went down! How can this be?

Healthy Eating

I don’t do expensive healthy eating, only cheap healthy eating.

So…why do people think eating healthier costs more? Well, for one thing, all the vegetarian processed food items (morningstar burger patties, tofurkey, etc) are expensive. In general, so is anything labeled “organic”. And then there’s all the processed food that’s “low fat”, “non-GMO”, “gluten-free” — all those words on the box cost money. I don’t buy it. And then there’s fruits and vegetables that are imported or offered out of season. Asparagus out of season is like $5/lb. Heck no. And the bags and bags of pre-washed, ready-to-eat salad greens. There’s also the local “farmer’s markets” that’ve really caught on, and the Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, EarthFare. Expensive, expensive, expensive.

I buy my groceries from Walmart, Save-A-Lot, and the flea market. Sometimes I buy from local grocery stores if I see a particularly good price in their weekly flyer. Most of what I buy is from the fresh produce section. I don’t buy the “fancy” healthy options, I’m not a health nut.

I went to Walmart today to get some groceries. I did a few price comparisons while I was there between unhealthy and healthy options, and it’s pretty obvious to me now why my grocery bills went down.

Impulse Aisle

Photo Apr 23, 8 14 46 AMPhoto Apr 23, 8 44 28 AMA 74-cent, impulse aisle Hershey’s bar is 1.55 ounces — which comes out to $7.64/lb. A pound of carrots costs 88 cents. Money-wise, 8.68 lbs of carrots = 1 lb Hershey’s. That’s a heck of a lot more snacking per dollar! The impulse aisle seems cheap, but it’s actually super expensive, empty calories. Even steak and seafood is less than $7.64/lb!! I do not buy from the impulse aisle anymore. The pricing makes me ill.

Beverages

Water (either cases of bottled or tap) is much, much cheaper and has fewer calories than soda, juice, milk, Kool-Aid, Gatorade, or any other flavored drinks. I drink mostly water, I save a few bucks. Lots and lots of bucks, compared to when I drank soda and juice.

Frozen Meals

Photo Apr 23, 8 26 42 AMFrozen meals ranged from $1.76/lb (cheapie Banquet tv dinners) all the way up to $12.80/lb (Atkins brand pizza). This includes the frozen “skillet” dinners like pasta meals that you dump into a pot and heat up, and frozen pizzas. I’m looking at price per lb instead of price per meal because it’s a cost per fixed quantity of food. It’s the most apples-to-apples way I can think of at the moment.

What vegetables and meats are less than $1.76/lb? Off the top of my head: tomatoes, onions, potatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, green bell peppers, carrots, celery, sweet potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, collards, cucumbers. About half of those are less than $1/lb, and most if not all of them are cheap year round! There’s a lot of other veggies in addition to those that pass in and out of that price range according to season. Pork and chicken go on sale at grocery stores every week for about $1-$1.50/lb.

When I’m in a hurry to get dinner done, I go with frozen or canned veggies. I get the bags with no seasonings or sauces because they’re cheaper.

Once a filler like bread, pasta, or rice is added to a meal, the meal cost per lb goes down even more. Spices, oils, & vinegars were a bit expensive when I first started cooking on a regular basis, but now that my collection is more or less complete I only have to buy maybe one every 3-4 months.

There’s really no “it’s cheaper” excuse for frozen meals and frozen pizzas.

Junk Food

Photo Apr 23, 8 32 58 AMPhoto Apr 23, 8 34 15 AMRaisins are cheaper than Chips Ahoy cookies per lb (barely). Throw raisins into a blender or other food processing device (I use a Ninja) with a little peanut butter, vanilla extract, and some dry oatmeal, and it makes terrific, “healthy” no-bake peanut butter cookies.

My personal concoction was inspired by the Chocolate Covered Katie’s Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Cookie recipe. I use less peanut butter, no peanuts, and add dry oatmeal for texture (and to decrease cost per cookie).

The crunchy snack aisle is very deceptive — all the chip bags look all puffed out and full, but there’s not actually very much product per bag. That’s why I’m looking at the price/lb of products. The cost of crunchy snacks (potato chips, cheese puffs, pretzels, pork rinds, etc) ranged from about $1.60/lb to $7.20/lb for everything from store generic cheese puffs to premium, kettle cooked chips. Fruits & veggies = cheaper than $1.60/lb a great deal of the time. If a crunchy, salty snack is a must, bulk popcorn kernels are a great pantry staple to keep — it’s fast and easy to pop popcorn in a stockpot on the stove. The microwave packets aren’t too shabby price-wise, either.

In terms of fruit, the cheap ones I can think of are: apples, oranges, bananas, pears, and grapes. Those are pretty much year round cheap, ranging from $.50-$2/lb. Most of the other fruits are only cheap in-season.

Eating better can be cheaper than eating junk!