Over the last few years I’ve made a few attempts to cut back costs by meal planning. I got real gung-ho one year and spent all of a weekend making all this food and putting it in the freezer. Thinking oh yeah man! Tons of lunches! Well lets just say after about a week of Buffalo Chicken pasta and Cauliflower Soup I was over it. Even with my Breakfast Bites and my Empanadas I was over them after a few days. Eating the same food over and over again gets old really fast and since I’m cooking just for myself and I’m living in a small studio with an even smaller freezer, making gigantic portions of food and storing them in my freezer leaves me without a lot of room and a freezer filled with leftovers that I’ve forgotten about. So instead of trying to make meals in bulk and having a freezer stuffed of two weeks worth of a certain dish, I’ve found it a little easier to shop smarter and buy groceries with much more versatility and still do a little stock piling in the fridge/freezer, just not a few weeks worth.
Now I’m going to contradict exactly what I’ve said and say that my make-ahead breakfasts have literally saved me so much time in the morning and have provided me with quite a few days of lunches as well that I’ve eaten one almost every day for like 2 weeks. I am a little sick of eating them but I still toss them in my lunch bag because if I dont eat in the morning I’m practically crying from hunger by noon.
But when it comes to my regular lunch (if I’m not eating a breakfast burrito) or even for my dinner. It usually consists of some kind of fruit and whatever left overs I have from the night before. My complete lack of planning on the lunch side is what causes me to go out to eat so often. Something that desperately needs to stop. I’m great about not eating out for dinner, but often result in eating something not so great for me because I dont want to cook after a long day. Yet another thing that needs to desperately change.
But as I was thinking about what other recipes I want to make and post on the blog (I love to cook, especially on the weekends) I realized that many of my ideas stem from what I have in my fridge already and what I need to buy to complete the recipe. I am 100% a person that will look at a recipe and if it has like 10+ ingredients…I’m going to turn the page. If it takes 3 hours to prep…yep on to the next. Time is of the essence and spending half my day prepping some complicated menu is the last thing I want to do.
When I’m searching for recipes I look for a few different things:
- Do I have to buy weird stuff that I’ll only use for this recipe and never use it again and end up throwing it away after its spoiled?
- How many of the ingredients do I already have?
- Is it going to take me all day?
- Is it something I wont mind eating a few days in a row?
- Is it healthy? Can I substitute for healthier options?
- Is it using processed foods (like canned soup)?
When I go grocery shopping, I have a pretty standard list of items I buy. They can go in a variety of dishes and I will use them often.
So what are my basics? I shop at Trader Joes so there’s no coupons I can use or discounts and they rarely have sales. I shop there because of convienence; I don’t need to drive there and its reasonably priced compared to the other local grocery stores.
- Pasta: its the number one thing I cook with, the number one thing I buy. I was buying Quinoa pasta for awhile but that was adding up quickly so I switched back to regular pasta (99 cents compared to $1.99 ads up quick.) I tend to buy pasta that is smaller in size (no spaghetti or fettucini) just because its easier to get out of the pan!
- Cheese: Also one of my main ingredients. I usually have a fridge filled with cheese, everything from cheddar to feta. I went through a period of just buying block cheese and shredding it myself. This is one thing that I really should shop for with a coupon, as Trader Joe’s cheese can be a little expensive, both block and shredded, I use enough cheese that I could honestly buy a bag at Costco if I had a membership!
- Onions: I buy red onions. I prefer the stronger flavor. I only buy one at a time though. I also buy Green Onions/Scallions, just depends on what I’m planning on cooking at some point during the week.
- Almond/Soy Milk: I am lactose intolerant, and although I can eat cheese with no problem its regular milk and ice cream that give me the most troubles. I switched to Almond milk about 2 years ago and my digestive system has thanked me for it. I just have to remember to check the labels and not get the Vanilla or sweetened package! Trust me…Vanilla Mac & Cheese = not good.
- Peppers: A recent addition to my shopping trips, I’ve found I’m using them more and more in a variety of different recipes (chili, eggs, pastas, tacos, soups, etc) Peppers are really versatile and good for you.
- Eggs: Another recent addition to my diet. I never used to like eggs and couldn’t fry an egg for the life of me. I’m still not a fan of scrambled eggs but I can eat eggs over easy no problem. Eggs are a super quick option for dinner when I don’t feel like cooking. I eat them so often now that I just crave eggs a lot. Practice makes perfect and I am happy to report my fried eggs are cooked almost perfectly every time! If I haven’t eaten all my eggs, I’ll boil them up and have a few hard boiled eggs on the ready for a quick snack in my lunch.
- Sour Cream: I use sour cream in a lot of different things. I make my own ranch dressing with Sour Cream and Mayo, for tacos and for pasta dishes. Sour Cream is a good versatile option.
- Broccoli: When I buy broccoli its usually my Meal. I cook the whole thing divy it up into two containers and go to town.
- Spinach and/or Kale: Frozen or Fresh. Both are good to toss into a pasta. If I buy fresh Kale, I’ll make some Kale Chips.
- Peaches: I try to eat a peach a day, it usually is part of my breakfast or part of my lunch.
- Olive Oil: I always have olive oil on hand.
- Lemon Juice: Another thing I always have on hand
- Garlic Salt/Powder: As much as I’d love to mince fresh garlic every time I cook with garlic (which is almost every meal) I do not have the time or energy to do it each time. I used to buy the pre-minced garlic but Trader Joes doesn’t have that…so I just use the powder or garlic salt.
- Frozen fruit: I always have a couple bags of frozen berries in my freezer. Perfect for a smoothie when I’m craving something sweet.
- Ground Beef: I don’t eat a ton of meat. On the occasion that I do I’ll make some tacos. I have a few steaks in my freezer but I don’t eat steak often. Maybe once or twice a month.
- Chicken: I don’t eat red meat very often and I eat chicken even less. But I do try to keep a little bit of chicken in my freezer just in case I need it for a recipe. I typically don’t like chicken at all but I do cook with it on occassion (tossed into pastas, or I recently made some chicken tenders). When I do buy it, I try to break it up ahead of time and keep the pieces separate in the freezer.
- Bread: I don’t buy bread very often. I don’t really eat sandwiches, I eat toast but only when I make eggs but even then a loaf of bread could take me two weeks to get through.
At any given time this is what I buy and what I have in my fridge. I pretty much can make anything I want from these items and have a huge variety of meals. I do have some random staples like Flour, salt, pepper, a variety of herbs (basil, dill, chives, oregano, etc) and of course things like butter and some random other small things in my cupboards. But when I go to the grocery store that is usually what I buy. So how on earth do I end up going crazy on groceries and going over my budget? Its buying all the weird things that I don’t normally buy…frozen pizzas, ice cream, cereals, fresh berries, pasta sauces and junk food.
So instead of meal planning, I shop smarter by buying things I can easily use in a variety of recipes without having to buy a lot of additional items that will ultimately go to waste. I will make enough portions of a meal to have for the next day’s lunch but I’ve learned that if I make too much it ends up sitting in my freezer and doesn’t get eaten, I end up tossing it regardless. Meal planning doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. My plans usually go out the window when I come home intending too cook but fall asleep on the couch cuddled up with the dogs. Here’s how I make my “meal planning” or Smart Shopping work for me:
I know what is in my cupboards at all time.
Even if I don’t have an idea of what I feel like cooking throughout the week, or have zero plans to make a more elaborate meal. I know that buying the items above I can create something tasty, if I do find a recipe, the likelihood of me having 90% of the ingredients is pretty good. I also have a pretty good idea of what I already have in my cupboards and fridge so I can avoid buying duplicates. The items that are in my recipes that I don’t already have, go right on my list.
I shop with a list.
Shopping with a list seems kind of redundant doesn’t it? Super obvious. But the few times that I go into TJ’s without a list…do you want to know what happens?! I spend at least $20-30 MORE. It also helps me to avoid buying said duplicates by forcing me to check my fridge/freezer/cupboards. Since I started my budget I’ve been super aware of what I’ve got in my freezer. Little did I know I had multiples of tons of frozen fruit! Just taking up space in my freezer for no reason! I don’t make smoothies often (especially when it starts cooling down) but I have enough frozen fruit to make smoothies for 3 weeks…
A list helps me know what I use the most as well. I check my cupboards to see if there’s any staples I need (pasta, rice etc) and my fridge for things I”m running low on (milk, cheese, eggs, veggies). It saves me a ton of money by having a list to go off of. I can be in and out of TJ’s in less than 45 minutes (the lines are always long!) and am able to avoid junk food, and unnecessary items that make my grocery bill increase.
It really is as simple as that. My cupboards are unorganized, I don’t prep my food as soon as I get it home (sometimes if I’m feeling extra motivated I do) I don’t have a plan of what I’m going to make for lunch or for dinner, I don’t buy in bulk and I change my mind about what I want to eat constantly.
Thank goodness for The O Guide though! because despite my complete lack of meal planning, I’m more inspired to try new things, make different dishes beyond my normal homemade mac and cheese. It requires me to do a little more planning and research, plus time taking some photos but it keeps me inspired to eat well, be creative and step out of my normal routine.
What are your essentials when you’re filling your cupboards and fridge? Are you a meal planner or a smart shopper?