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24th October
2009
written by Steph
[Note: For those interested in skipping all this preamble and going directly to the mealplan, click here!] The Background When Tony and I got married, I went into overdrive when it came to our finances.  We sat down and tried to streamline everything and figure out what our basic required costs were (e.g., rent, car insurance, food, etc.,) as well as all the other little “extras” we indulge in (e.g., Netflix, phone, internet, gym memberships, etc.,), so that we could have a good working estimate of how much we have going out versus what we have coming in each month.  Even though it was stressful to sit down and talk money, it ultimately wound up being really good because it meant we could know without reservations or guilt how much we could spend on frivolous things, while still meeting our other financial obligations AND still putting some money away in savings each month. The one thing that threw a wrench in the works when it came to outlining our finances was our monthly grocery bill.  We had rough estimates, but we had no real sense of how much we spent each month on food.  Our estimates were roughly $400, but we had no idea.  So I decided to start logging each of our weekly grocery bills so that we could know for certain exactly how much we spend on food. The Problem At the end of August, the number was shocking.  That month we had spent almost $600 at the grocery store!  How could that be?!?   I promptly went into panic mode, wondering how much was us being irresponsible while also trying to take into account the rising cost of food.  I phoned my parents to see if they could offer any tips on trimming our grocery bill, since they had to feed four people at one point, whereas Tony and I are only two.  Surely $600 was too much. I understood certain important cost-saving principles like buying offbrand and scouring the grocery ads to find out what was on sale and making use of those items, but I also stumbled upon two important realizations: 1)   In a bid to free up time and alleviate stress in the mornings, rather than packing sandwiches and the like for lunch, I was sending Tony (and often myself) in with leftovers from dinner.  Dinner is, generally speaking, the most expensive meal of the day, and yet we were both eating 2 dinners per day (read: 2 expensive meals per day) . 2)   As a result of eating our leftovers for lunch, I was cooking unique meals nearly every single night. The Solution I decided we needed to change our ways, and pronto!  I am a big proponent of eating interesting meals that taste good and are healthy.  Normally I don’t use very many (if any) preprocessed foods, and tend to stick to the “outer aisles” of the grocery stores, focusing on fresh ingredients.  I didn’t want to change this element of our diet – sure we could save lots of money if we only ate ramen every night for dinner or pork & beans, but that wouldn’t be good for us, and quite frankly it wasn’t a tradeoff either of us was willing to make.  Instead I decided that I would change the way I cooked and the way we structured our meals in the following ways: 1)   Rather than taking in yogurt, granola bars, and other “snack” type foods for breakfast, we will instead get up slightly earlier and eat a bowl of cereal in the morning, which will keep us feeling full longer AND costs less than buying yogurt & granola bars. (Confession: We still buy these things, but as we don’t eat them daily or in such quantity (as they no longer constitute a single meal), and so they last us longer.) 2)    Rather than cooking 5 - 7 individual and unique meals each week night, I will instead plan to cook 3 – 4 meals per week, with the intention of there being leftovers.  These leftovers will be eaten for other dinners throughout the week, rather than taken in for lunches, with ONE notable exception: One of the meals each week will be a soup. Soups are easy to make, have many servings, and are fairly cheap.  This allows me to circumvent the “no dinners for lunch” rule, since a bowl of homemade soup for lunch is equivalent in price to, or even cheaper, than taking a sandwich (and if not cheaper than certain frozen dinners, then definitely healthier).   A soup made for dinner can be taken as lunch.  If there is no more soup remaining, then a sandwich should be taken instead. [I admit, sometimes if I make a dish that has far more portions than anticipated, I will eventually send it in for lunches… generally it means we’ve eaten it at least 3 nights for dinner] 3)   Start buying as much as can be purchased from our weekly list at smaller/cheaper/international grocery stores, where the prices are not as expensive as the local big name supermarkets. The crux of this plan is that I have to plan out my meals for a week.  I don’t know about you, but I CANNOT stand eating the same thing day in and day out, so I didn’t want to eat chicken pot pie 4 days in a row (Tony is another story).  This means that I need to literally schedule out my meals (using a spreadsheet in Excel) for each day, so that I have enough variety as well as enough meals planned to last us through the week.  Our shopping routine is such that we only go shopping once a week, some time on the weekend, and this is when we buy everything we need for the week.  I decided that I would simply sit down on Friday night or Saturday morning and plan out our meals for the entire week, generate a list, and stick to that!  No more browsing about the stores aimlessly or simply picking something that looks good or tasty but for which I have no plan and so it ultimately goes bad.  No more buying meat that is on sale, even if we have a stockpile of it in the freezer (overflowing, by the way) simply because I can’t remember if we have it or not. Generally speaking, I base our weekly mealplan on a combination of four factors: 1)   What is on sale at the grocery store based on weekly ads 2)   What is in season (which is in part linked with (1)) 3)   What I already have on hand and that needs to be used 4)   Whether I’m craving something specific! The Result As compared to our $577 bill from the end of August, our bill in September was only $326!!!  That is OVER $200 in savings (!!!), and is far more in line what we feel is an appropriate grocery bill for 2 people.  I should note that we did not eat out considerably more or less in September than in August, and we did go grocery shopping every week.  Actually, we probably did not eat out as much in September, because on night when I was likely to come home and feel cranky about cooking, I either already had something made that just needed to be warmed up, OR I already had the food in mind and didn't have to agonize about what to make. October is more difficult to quantify because we have both been out of town for portions of it and have also had visitors from out of town (which lends itself to eating out more) but so far we are on track for another month with a grocery bill less than $400.  For us, this weekly mealplan and new cooking philosophy is definitely helping us keep our grocery bill manageable. The Update Some of you may recall that I used to occasionally post recipes here on Steph & Tony Investigate.  In part, I fell out of this habit because it was just too time consuming to post a recipe for every meal I was cooking (and you’ll recall that I was cooking a new meal every night of the week).  With this new gameplan, I think I can get back into the swing of posting recipes. BUT the really exciting part is that I was talking to my friend Simona, who is responsible for me posting recipes here in the first place, and with whom I tend to do a lot of recipe swapping.  She expressed a lot of interest in my weekly mealplan (saying it was something she would like to do but is just too lazy to put together on her own), and said that if I posted it, she would cook along and provide me with feedback.  I also liked the idea of having a record of past mealplans (I tend to just write over them in my spreadsheet). So, here’s my plan: each Sat/Sunday I will post my mealplan for the week, broken down by day.  I will attempt to include links to recipes I’ll be basing each meal around (though some may seem so self-evident or pop into my head without external reference, so I may not always be able to do this), AND I will attempt to draw up a shopping list (though of course the linked recipes will give you the info you need).  Note that if you were to buy EVERYTHING on the shopping list each week, your grocery bill would probably not decrease, but the idea is that some of these things are staples (like rice, pasta, garlic, soy sauce, etc.,) and so you will not have to buy them every week.  In most cases, I only have to buy a handful of items each week, and I do try to maximize overlap in ingredients between meals (if not all within one week, than between weeks). Throughout the week as I cook each dish, I will post a picture along with the modified recipe I used (we all know I like to play and do my own thing when I cook!), and if you chose to make the dish as well, feel free to mention what you did to make the dish your own (or how the original recipe turned out for you).  Even though I don't really follow recipes, I will try my best to stick to the plan as I've written it, though sometimes there may be slight deviations. This Week's Mealplan So without further adieu, here is the mealplan for the week of October 24 – October 30!
Mealplan for Oct 24 to Oct 31

Mealplan for Oct 24 to Oct 31

Meal Links: Shopping List:
Shopping List from Oct 24 to Oct 31

Shopping List from Oct 24 to Oct 31

[Again, remember that this is pretty comprehensive, but you will likely already have some of these things on hand.  AND, you can always reference the linked recipes for more precise quantities.  Also, of course you should substitute things based on personal preference, allergies, etc.,] [Note: I didn't include things for sandwiches, because I'm primarily focused on dinners here, so I leave that up to you!] So, happy cooking everyone! I hope that you get some good ideas from this, and hopefully we'll see you back here next week!

15 Comments

  1. 10/24/2009

    Well, you’ve got to love a recipe (Tuna Noodle Casserole) that not only doesn’t use tuna, but includes frozen pee! :–)

    Actually, I am just bowled over by the spreadsheet and the planning. That’s just so impressive. I too determine meals by what’s on sale each week, but it’s so much less methodical! One thing I use a lot to get filled up without a lot of cost is yams. The yam very filling, and also versatile – you can throw cheese on it for a main course or side dish, or throw brown sugar on it for dessert. In fact, I’ve eaten so many it’s very likely you might mistake me for one on the street!

    Thanks for sharing your info – it’s awesome!

  2. 10/24/2009

    Ha ha ha! What a typo! I think by that point I had burned out with all that typing… I know I should change it, and yet… 😉

    Oh, and the original recipe does use tuna, it’s just I’m a big proponent of doing my own thing when I cook, so since I don’t like canned tuna (ahi tuna is a different story…), chicken it is!

    We eat our fair share of sweet potatoes – is there any difference between them and the yam? I think we will gradually start incorporating more things into our meals, as I’ve become fairly obsessed with Martha Stewart’s recipes lately and have become even more adventurous as a cook and eater. I tried kale and sweetbreads (though not together) for the first time this summer, and loved them both! I will hunt down some more sweet potato/yam recipes!

    Ok… I’m going to change that spreadsheet with the embarrassing typo now!

  3. 10/24/2009

    Wow, thanks for all of the great insights and tips. I am appalled at my grocery bills when I add them up. I think you have definitely hit on the winning formula and the root of it is definitely PLANNING. Thanks for sharing all of the great recipes too. Would be funny if there were hundreds of bloggers out there all eating the same meals for the week because we were all copying you meal plans! hee hee

  4. 10/24/2009

    Yams and sweet potatoes ARE different. I’m not sure in what way – biologically speaking – but they do taste a bit different. I prefer the former to the latter, which seem drier and not as sweet, and not as easy to cook. On the other hand, could someone like my husband tell the difference? Maybe not! :–)

  5. Congratulations on reducing your food bill. I am the opposite to you in that I rarely plan what I am going to cook for the week, but I still manage to have a fairly low bill because my cupboards are stocked with all the basics, so I can create just about any style of dish from the things I have. I am quite a good cook, so never use a recipe – I just throw in whatever I happen to have in the house.

    A great way to reduce costs is to eat less meat – putting more vegetables/pulses into each meal is healthier too.

    I also cook (and buy!) in bulk, so a casserole will be 2 – 4 times larger than we will eat. That way I can freeze some and have home made ready meals available for nights when there isn’t time to cook.

    Good luck with next month – I hope you are even more successful!

  6. 10/24/2009

    @ Kathleen: That nearly $600 bill was a really nasty shock – it’s what kicked my butt into planning mode. I’ve found that it’s a lot cheaper to buy enough ingredients to double a recipe than to plan to make 2 unique and separate meals, so I think that the “bulk” meals are what’s really helping out. Now it’s a rare week when our grocery bills are more than $100 (and often they are only $60 or so). Since I intend to keep with the meal planning, I’ll keep posting the recipes and my results, and hopefully others will find it helpful!
     
    @ Rhapsody: I actually don’t think I had had a sweet potato until I moved to the States – before that I think I had only had yams. Maybe the next time I’m planning on using SPs I’ll sub in Yams and see if I can tell the difference!
     
    @ Jackie: I don’t really follow recipes much either – I really just look to them for inspiration. In theory I could get by without planning meals, I’ve certainly done so in the past, but definitely one of the benefits to planning meals, for me at least, is that I don’t have nearly as many things going bad. Also, as much as I like to stock up on things so I’m never without, I find that’s a good way for me to forget about them which ultimately means money lost!
    And yes, cutting back on proteins/meats is definitely a good way to cut costs. Of course, Tony would not be happy if we went all veg, but so long as there’s a bit of meat he’s happy. I’ll often use very small meat portions, so in the end meat does not wind up being a huge part of our bill (for instance, I’ll use just a single chicken breast to make a curry!).
    As you can see, we do a lot of bulk cooking. It helps with keep costs down both on the grocery front AND on the eating out front. When I don’t feel like cooking, it’s hard to justify a meal out when we already have something premade that just needs to be heated up!

  7. 10/24/2009

    My partner and I are going through a similar realisation about our eating/food bills at the moment too and this weekend we are actually going to try and implement a meal plan for the week to come! He is the cook in our household so I’m a bit out of the loop when it comes to this sort of thing but hopefully our progress will be as successful as yours! Thanks for all the tips.

  8. 10/26/2009

    @ Karen: I didn’t realize how big a difference a meal plan could make until I started with one! It really cuts down on aimless shopping, and I think it helps me ensure that we have healthy and balanced meals. For instance, we aren’t going to eat red meat every week because that’s too expensive, and it’s also not very good for us… I don’t know that we did this before I started actively planning meals on a weekly basis, but seeing in writing what we are going to eat has made me a lot more conscious about what we will be putting in our mouths, and I think that’s been great for our budget (and hopefully our bodies!).
     
    @ Sim: Good luck! I don’t think any of the recipes are too tough, and I can’t wait for your feedback!

  9. Sim
    10/25/2009

    So SO awesome! Can’t wait to start following along!

  10. 10/26/2009

    Thanks everyone! I hope the one thing you take away is that this is a really versatile recipe that’s easy to play with. I tossed in a bunch of spices not listed, and it turned out great, so I hope it inspires some of you to try out spices and veggies that you have on hand (I almost added in some chopped carrot just because we had them in the fridge, but decided it didn’t need them… but maybe next time!).

  11. 10/26/2009

    I have four to feed, and a couple of them are very picky. I really like the idea of streamlining and only buying what’s on the list and what will be prepared that week. One of the things that did help me a bit to save some money on food was to start shopping at a grocery store in town that had a lot of buy one get one free items. They usually change things around each week, and I can always find a few new things to supplement the pantry by shopping the deals. Of course, there are a few things that never seem to go on sale (unless they are close to being out-of-date) but overall, I have saved quite a bit this way. Following your plan and idea, I think I could probably save more, which would be a big help since the grocery bill seems to always be slowly creeping upward. I also like the idea of doing one soup a week. I think that a good bowl of soup alongside some homemade bread would make all of us happy campers. Thanks for posting this! I will be watching this feature closely for some new ideas.

  12. 10/26/2009

    @ zibilee: Yes, I like to buy pasta via buy-one-get-one-free sales, as those always help! What I’ve really found helpful is going to the international supermarket and the local Aldi’s instead of Publix… doing that, I can cut my grocery bill by anywhere from $15 – 30! We used to go to Publix all the time, then we started going to Kroger, which helped, and now I try to just pop in to either of those places when necessary, because I can’t get get certain items elsewhere.

    And it really is incredible how much money we’ve been saving by sticking to a list and planning on our meals lasting 2 or 3 nights rather than just one. It also cuts down on cooking fatigue, and I’m enjoying the challenge of keeping our bills low but still keeping things interesting. And it really is a nice feeling to find that we’re using up ingredients rather than having them go bad.

  13. I’m excited to read these! I live alone, so I actually don’t good big meals that often — it takes me a few days to finish anything, even when it’s a dinner. I could probably use a meal plan though, to cut down on the aimless shopping that always happens.

  14. 10/27/2009

    @ Kim: When I was single, I had no need for a mealplan either! I think I got by on like, $30 a week! Perhaps the one thing that this mealplan might do for you is to encourage you to cook more! It certainly makes it harder for me to say “Let’s just eat out!” when I know I have the ingredients for a yummy meal on hand!

  15. […] others have thought of it before.  I offered up a potential recipe for you guys to follow in the Week 1 Mealplan post through such a search strategy, but pizza is so easy, I didn’t bother following one for […]

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