It's that time again...the end of the month. Time for me to start dreaming. In my little world, my opportunity to let my mind soar comes in the form of...you ready? Recipe shopping. Ah, it's sad but true and exciting to me at the same time. It's step number one in my process, and it goes a little something like this:
On days when I'm lucky, around 12:50 in the afternoon, the two youngest are down for a nap, Emily and Kaleb have had a successful morning with maybe one subject left apiece, and I have a precious 45 minutes to recoup. This means that I take ten minutes to tidy up the kitchen after lunch, remind Emily and Kaleb that it's "quiet time" and define what that means, and then head upstairs...to be alone. I turn on the Food Network and spend 30 minutes watching Rachael Ray prepare a meal that will likely be on next month's menu for us. At the end of that 30 minutes, I'm refreshed and (sort of) ready to head back into reality.
Okay, it may not be quite the etherial experience that I've made it out to be, but I appreciate those times all the same.
In addition to my afternoon TV inspirations, I am pretty well acquainted with the Food Network's search engine, in which you can search for a recipe that you've seen on a show by keywords or ingredients. You can then narrow the search based on the host/chef of the show.
Now, let me sidetrack for a second here to remind you of the kind of couple my husband and I have become. We live a modest life and are always inspired when we hear budget tips. If you don't have a monthly budget, I'd encourage you to GET ON ONE! I am assuming that with the economy in a sad state, most people are trying to be more and more frugal. For the past few years, Greg and I will schedule a "business meeting" in which we let the kids watch a 60-minute video while we have our appointed dark chocolate and coffee break and talk finances. There's something about dark chocolate that makes us both more agreeable!
I'm not going to get into the envelope system that we use, but if you haven't heard of it and would like to know more, get back to me and I'll share. But basically, to us, that means that we can plan for the entire month. At the beginning of the month, I have my grocery budget, and I can do with it as I please. I can spread it out and go to the grocery store weekly, I can go every day, or I can go on one giant grocery shopping spree at the beginning of the month. We've (almost) tried it all. But what works for our family is (with much planning) a big day or two at the beginning of the month, and then three or four trips throughout the month to get produce, etc.
This is why I spend so much time at the end of each month in front of the computer. I'm preparing for the following week, the big grocery day at the BEGINNING of the month. Since I'm barely working, I consider it part of my job to take a couple of hours a month to plan and stretch our dollar. Let's get back to the plan:
There are a couple of key things that I do to keep myself as wallet- and time-friendly as possible. First of all, probably 50 percent of the time, I double my recipe, pack up half of it, and either freeze or refrigerate it. I've found that you can freeze almost any dish, as long as you aren't depending on crisp-tender veggies or anything like that. If the flavor was good the first time around, it will be just as good when it thaws. Texture may change slightly, so if you're a big texture person, I'd encourage you to refrigerate it and eat it two or three days later instead of freezing. I like to think that my first week in the month will be spent doing a lot of cooking and prep work. That way all of my fresh veggies are used before they go bad. But if I freeze half of each of those dishes, I have 5-7 nights later in the month in which I don't have to cook! It saves a lot of time, and I promise, it saves money too.
Tip #1: Double and freeze.
Let's say I need to buy a jar of red curry paste to make an asian chicken dish. That jar costs nearly $4. If I use 1/2 of it to make a double batch of that chicken dish, then I freeze half of the dish, I'll search for a recipe that uses red curry paste (like a shrimp dish), and make a single batch of that recipe (otherwise we'll eat curry four times a month, and, while I'd like it, I'm not sure my family would). Now, at the end of the month, I've stretched that $4, and don't feel bad for buying an odd ingredient that I wouldn't otherwise have on hand.
Tip #2: By planning well, you can use up EVERYTHING you buy.
I'm sure it's no mystery that you can get greatly reduce your grocery bill by looking through your Sunday paper, so I'm not going to spend as much time as I could on this one. I usually buy two copies of mine, cut the coupons that I'll use, and read the ads over to see what I can really use (circling sale items that your family uses a lot helps). When I put the coupons in my coupon book, I have the ads in front of me. If I know that I will definitely use the coupon on a routine item or I see it in the ad (double savings!), I keep it out and stick it in my little basket that I take on my big trip to the stores. I'll go into greater detail on my store system in another blog, but wanted to mention my coupon resources.
Since we don't buy a lot of typical prepared grocery items (like flavored pasta dishes, etc.), it's a bit more challenging to find coupons for the things that we DO buy. We spend a lot of time in the natural foods section of our grocery store, so I use Mambo Sprouts coupons. Grocery stores often carry these little books near their natural foods department or up by customer service. I grab a handful of them at the beginning of the month. You can also go to the website of the product you like (Stonyfield Farms yogurt) and often print coupons.
Tip #3: Coupons, coupons, coupons...
Okay, so once I've found the items that I can get on sale and looked for recipes that can use them well, I open a Word document and copy and paste the recipes. I note after each recipe title if I am going to double the recipe. In the end, I have three to six pages of recipes, and it ends up to be 20-30 dinners (will you be out of town this month? Don't plan 30 dinners! Special events? Consider them so that you don't have too much food to make.)
I print out the Word document and stick it on my fridge. I don't plan which dinners I will make each day, I just have a nice big bunch to choose from everyday. (If I have a particularly busy day, I choose an easier recipe. Lots of time? I'm a cooking fool that day.) This gives more freedom. Then I check off which recipe's I've made and note if I stuck half in the freezer. If I deviate from a recipe and use extra of an item, I write it down so I can get it at the store next time. Otherwise I'm stuck when I need it again.
I also make my monthly grocery list from this document. I'll get into that next time...I've thrown a lot at you.
Do you all still love me now that you know what a dork I am?