As I was making dinner last night I was talking to my husband about how much my meal planning has changed over the years and especially in the past few months. We love to try new things so I have several food magazine subscriptions and close to 2 dozen cookbooks. If I had to guess I would say on average I used to make 3 or 4 new meals a week. If I saw something that sounded good it went on the list whether it had 5 ingredients or 20 and most of the time I didn't take into consideration what we already had in the kitchen or what ingredients could be rolled over and used in subsequent meals. Because of that, our grocery budget was quite high even when it was just the two of us.
As we have continued to grow our family and go from two incomes to one I had to really rethink the way I planned meals. I used to plan all the meals, write out the grocery list and then quickly glance through the inserts to see if there was a coupon for anything that I was already buying. Boy has that changed! Now I sit down every week and cut out a majority of the coupons I come across (with exceptions for things I absolutely have no need for and don't see myself buying to donate). I also search out coupons online for brands I love and buy often. Then I browse through my grocery store ads to see what is on sale for this particular week. I narrow this down even further by seeing what coupons I have that pair up with what is already on sale. Then I start making my list. As I do this I start brainstorming meal ideas based on what I can buy cheap and what I already have stockpiled from weeks before. My menu is the final part of this whole process. I usually write out a week's worth of meals on my Wipe Off Weekly Menu Board and then the subsequent week we eat off what is in our freezer and cupboards (hence the beauty of building a stockpile - I don't need 10 boxes of spaghetti now but they will come in handy in the weeks to come:).
Let me break down last night's meal which is a perfect example of what I am talking about. This weekend I had bought a 44 pack of Gordon's fish sticks for $4.99, a 10-pack of Mission tortillas for $.99, and iceberg lettuce for $.49/head. This inspired fish soft tacos. Two nights ago I had used 3/4 of a head of lettuce for a salad so I shredded the rest (this is part of rolling over one food item into multiple meals throughout the week) to put on the tortillas. I then cooked half the bag of fish sticks which left half a bag for another meal, and placed 3 of the cooked fish sticks in each taco with the lettuce. Finally I made a simple lime sauce to top it all off using 1/2 cup of mayo (this is always on hand), 1/4 cup of sour cream (I bought 1lb for $1.69 and will use the rest for enchiladas that I am making out of another pack of the Mission Tortillas), 1 Tbsp of lime juice (I always have the bottle kind in my fridge) and garlic salt, pepper and dried dill to taste. And there you have it, simple and cheap fish soft tacos that were actually quite delicious. I paired this with homemade oven fries (4 potatoes sliced and tossed in a little olive oil and then seasoned with black pepper and salt, cooked on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper for 35 minutes at 425 degrees) and some green beans that I got on sale for $.69 a can. A meal doesn't get much cheaper then that!
It takes some time to get used to cooking based on what you can get at a good price versus whatever tickles your fancy on that particular day but it in no way means you have to sacrifice what you like or even what is healthy for you. We work in the things we have cravings for and we use the money we save shopping this way to bulk up on fresh fruits and veggies from the Farmer's Market or through Bountiful Baskets. I am proud to say that on average I save 50% on my grocery list (sometimes as much as 80%!) and that makes me feel good because I know that I am helping make my husband's job easier. He works hard for the money he brings in and the further I can stretch it the less he has to stress about making ends meet.
I would love for you to share the things you do to keep costs low while still feeding your family nutritious and delicious meals. What are your top tips for frugal meal planning?