Monday, April 21, 2008

Keeping Food Costs In Check

Lately, the cost of everything is rising. We are seeing massive inflation in the cost of basic consumer goods.

One place where costs can be controlled is in the food budget. It takes a little bit of time, but even the tightest of budgets can benefit from a little creativity in the grocery store and the kitchen.

First, check your pantry and freezer. What do you have in there? Most of us honestly would be surprised at how much food is in there. Start there, and cook with what you have.

When you do go shopping, don't just go to one place and throw a week's worth of groceries in the cart. Track what you use and what you need for a few weeks. The easiest way to do that is through a meal plan. Note what is eaten for the week, and then think about how often you eat particular items. Do you have chicken almost every night? Time to start watching for a deal and stocking up. We buy about a month's worth of chicken breasts at a time, but when I found a really good deal on organic chicken breasts, I bought all they had, about a 2 month supply.

No one store will have the cheapest, or everything you need. But few of us have the time to go to multiple stores. So here's what I do (and why stocking up is so handy - I rarely have to go to any single store at a particular time) - I cycle through my stores over the course of a month.

I frequent BJs, a 'big box' store for cereal, shampoo and conditioner, soap, toothpaste, ravioli, olive oil and some other staples - but I only go once a month. 1-2x a month I head to Market Basket which has the lunch meat my husband likes, as well as much of the canned and boxed goods we use at rock-bottom prices. Sometimes things are literally half the price of other grocery stores in the area. Once a month we head to Whole Foods, for coffee, and a few other items. We love their meats and seafood, but we wait for a true deal.

In addition, I pop over to our local farmstand a couple of times a month. I get milk, fresh veggies, and occasionally some meat.

Take that notebook or spreadsheet you tracked your meals in, and use it to create a list of staples. As your staples go on sale, stock up. When flour goes on sale around the holidays, I might buy 25 lbs. 24 hours in the freezer and it keeps nearly indefinitely.

Plan your meals. Seriously, think about what you'll have each night of the week. Who will be home? What kind of evening will it be - busy? Quiet? Weekday? Weekend? Plan accordingly. I typically plan meals about 3-4 days out. More than that and I spend too much time erasing, less than that and I find myself in one of those "I have no idea what to make" moods.
I love the meal planning calendars at www.cindysporch.com, and www.calendarsthatwork.com.

In any given week, I spend less than 2 hours shopping and planning meals. Considering that all but about 5 meals a month come from home - including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and our morning coffee, and the week contains 21 meals, that's about 5.7 minutes spent shopping and planning for each meal.

Once you've tracked, planned and shopped, you need to get into the kitchen.

The absolute best money saver? Cook from scratch.

Last night I served pan chicken - which is basically chicken cooked in a pan with seasoning, a little cooking wine, lemon and whatever else looks like it might taste good, spinach sauteed with garlic and olive oil, and bread with oil and vinegar for dipping. It tasted great and took less than 20 minutes to make. Only a few times a month do I spend lengthy periods of time in the kitchen, and then only on weekends. Most of our meals our simple - chicken, fish, vegetable, side dish. When I get home in the evening I rarely have a lot of energy for prep-intensive cooking.

But when I do cook, I try for large batches. On Thursday night I made squash soup, with the last of the butternut squashes I had on hand. We had dinner on Thursday, I had lunch on Saturday, and then froze it for my lunch today. The weekend prior, I made a huge batch of chili, which we had for dinner, it made me a few lunches at work, and there's enough for a couple meals still in the freezer. We will defrost it some night when we are too busy to cook.

When I cook in large batches, the leftovers go to either lunches or a future meal.

It's not just soup that this method works for. You can also prepare your own quick meals by doing a little advance cooking. Let's say your kids go through 2 boxes of frozen waffles a week. What if on Sunday morning you made a big batch of waffles and froze them instead? I priced out some name brand frozen waffles, and they seem to run between $3 and $4 for a box. I can make from-scratch waffles, or even waffles from a mix for about $1.10 a batch, including the oil and eggs. Over the course of a year, that's nearly $200 that you didn't spend - and your kids probably ate healthier.

On weeknights, prep the night before. Sunday through Thursdays in the Moneypenny household, most of our prep for the next day is done before we head off to bed. Coffee mugs with sweetener on the counter. Toast in the toaster oven. Lunches packed in the fridge. Snacks out and at the ready. In the morning, all I have to do is pour my coffee and some milk, hit the toast button, and grab my lunch from the refrigerator. In all, it takes me less than 3 minutes to get all that and get out the door.

So how much time do I spend cooking and prepping? About 30 minutes on a weekday, not including cleanup. On the weekends, I might spend up to an hour cooking. Add in 15 minutes for cleanup (even my biggest messes rarely take this long, and you can clean as you go), and I've spent less than 6 hours in a week feeding us and cleaning up. Add in the shopping and planning, and it's 8 hours. But it's 8 hours that not only pays back financially, but brings me a sense of pleasure and accomplishment.

You can fight rising food costs. Shop carefully. Plan accordingly, and roll up your sleeves and cook something. You may just find you enjoy it.

5 comments:

leann said...

This is where we've gotten really lazy lately. I try to shop at two stores - Whole Foods and a farm market, but the past few weeks it's just been Whole Foods. Since I won't spend the $2 a lb for fruit, it means we're eating less heathfully. And our grocery bill has gone up. DH always eats the same things, since he has a finicky stomach, so we don't get to take full advantage of sales. We really need to get better at this, especially in the face of rising food prices. Thanks for the inspiration! I think I'll go work out a meal plan since tonight is my weekly trip to WF.

K said...

I have recently embraced the idea of spending a few hours twice a month making up what my husband calls "K's to go meals". It makes putting together my lunch so easy. And I have a hot lunch every day. Since DH does the grocery shopping, I am trying to get him to embrace the idea of goig to more than 1 store but it is a slow process. :-) I will have to keep working on that one.

Jessica said...

I would really like to ask you some questions about your downshifting plan. Is there a better way to do that than just posting them all in a comment?

Ms.Moneypenny said...

Jessica - please do leave them. I'll be happy to answer them either directly to you, or perhaps in a blog post, I've been thinking about making it the central theme of the blog.

So I'd love to hear what you are curious about!

Jessica said...

Well, our situations are pretty different, so I know that there will be some variances. But I guess my biggest question is how did you set up the timeline for your downshifting goals? Our goal would be that I be able to be a stay at home wife & mom, but it seems like there are a lot of things to overcome to get to that point.