Tips on meal planning and food budgets

Hopefully you’ve all begun to recover from your holiday gluttony and are well on your way to a healthier and happier 2013. This week has been all about exercise, raw vegetables and as little cheese as possible (I’ve still had some cheese—I mean, come on, I’m only human). But one of my biggest resolutions has been focusing on my food budget. I often find myself SO excited about a new recipe that I’ll run out, buy a bunch of ingredients and get cracking. Sometimes, these dishes only yield a serving or two, leaving me with no leftovers and another trip to the grocery store in my near future. Since my current salary doesn’t allow for this, I’ve started carefully planning my meals and grocery trips. If you’re in the same boat as me, here are a few tips on how to make your groceries stretch without emptying your wallet.

First things first—do a quick inventory of your pantry. It’s easy to forget about that bag of rice or those cans of garbanzo beans leftover from a hummus making spree. With each new grocery trip, they’re just pushed further back into the dark corners of your pantry. Now, that’s not to say that you should be using anything that’s been in your cabinet since the ’60s, but you catch my drift (I’ve gotten into the habit of writing the date when my grains were first opened—that way I can eliminate any stale flavors). Once you know what you have, you can start to split the portions up into meals. Half cup of quinoa on Tuesday, half pound of pasta for Wednesday… Next, I’ll take a look at any dairy, veggies or other goods in my refrigerator. Is there anything a few days away from the sell-by date? Those items should be first priority on your menu. The key is to limit the amount of waste and get the most out of your purchases.

Now comes the fun part. Sit your butt down (maybe with a favorite cookbook or food blog) and start brainstorming recipes. I tend to look for meals that will make good leftovers or ones that can be reworked into new meals. For example, a roast chicken is your best friend. The first night you get the real deal. Then the remaining chicken can be used for sandwiches, hash, tacos, soups—use your imagination! After you’ve cleared the leftover meat from the carcass, you can boil down the bones with leftover veggie ends and VOILA!-chicken stock that can be frozen and repurposed for soups, braises, or cooking liquid for your grains. (Tip: When I’m chopping up my veggies, I toss onion ends, carrot peels, mushroom stems or whatever other veggie ‘waste’ is lying around in a plastic bag and stick it in the freezer for future stock making. Chances are, you would have thrown them out or composted them anyway so why not use them for another meal?). That brings me to another point—your freezer is crucial to making meals last. No one wants to eat a bowl of chili every meal for a week. Just take half that pot, split it into a couple of containers or bags, date it and pop it in the freezer. That’ll give you a quick, homemade meal you can defrost a week or two later. The Brown Eyed Baker has a great post on organizing your freezer here.

Last but not least, do a little deal hunting. I’ve never been a coupon cutter or circular browser but sometimes you can find a great sale on that perfect cut of steak or your favorite brand of canned tomatoes just by looking around. Whole Foods, for example puts their weekly circular online so you can see what’s on sale before you leave your house—this is especially helpful for us North Brooklyners who are a hike and an L-train ride away from the closest location.

Don’t worry, we can get through this together. Happy Austere January!

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2 thoughts on “Tips on meal planning and food budgets

  1. Smart tip about marking your grains! I forget about food all the time, so obviously I need to start wielding a Sharpie too.

    It seems like you do this too, but I shop where I’m most likely to find bargains–like at my inexpensive produce place in Hell’s Kitchen (holler, Stiles on 52nd!) for fruit and veggies and Trader Joe’s for nuts and butter. What keeps this from being irritating is keeping them to once-weekly or monthly excursions.

    Good luck cooking frugally, Mo! If you need company/prep help/some of my wine stash, never hesitate to give me a call!

  2. Homemade Pumpkin Ravioli, Caramelized Onions and Brown Butter Sauce – meauxcrow

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