I’ve finally gotten in the habit of shopping once a week around a meal plan. And now, of course, I can’t imagine how I managed not to go crazy before, running to the store almost every day for just one or two things that always turned into fifty dollars worth of crackers and “good deals” we didn’t really need. We’re being extra frugal right now to pay our tax bill, and while I’ll be glad to feel less constricted in the future, I hope I never go back to being as unaware and uncaring of how I’m spending my household money. (Which was never that uncaring, just relatively speaking.)
One thing that has made this experiment possible (besides financial necessity, which is always a great motivator) is that my relationship to food has changed this pregnancy. Instead of wanting to try new things every day, I am often just trying to get something on the table. It has to be relatively healthy, and I’m finally feeling up to making some of my favorites (bread, yogurt) from scratch again, but now that shopping and cooking are more of a chore that just has to be done on a more regularized schedule, it’s actually less of a hassle than it sometimes was before, and I find it just as satisfying to make a meal plan once a week, as it once was to get a craving and make that dish hours later. A case of restriction feeding rather than starving the creative impulse.
A couple other things: being on a strict budget ($150 a week total for all grocery/discretionary/household/entertainment spending, except gas, which I’ve cut back a lot on incidentally) makes me realize how little we need, especially in the way of prepared or convenience foods (or toilet paper. Kidding). Also, once I make a rule for myself, it becomes a matter of honor to stick to it, and since it’s not a forever thing but more in the manner of a goal, it’s almost fun. So we may not have any fresh fruit on Friday night: that’s a good excuse to eat the canned apricots in the pantry. $150 sounds like a lot to me; I’m sure many frugal people are able to live well on less, and before this month I would’ve guessed (hoped) I spent that little (though my bank account knew better).
But what I always want to know (especially when I’m in a rut) is what’s for dinner? I once made a seven-week meal plan that carefully balanced beef/chicken/fish/vegetable meals with rice/noodle/potato/bread accompaniments, but then I never felt like making things in that proscribed order. So now I look at cookbooks and AllRecipes and TastyKitchen for ideas and take things one week at a time. I usually add a salad or veggie sticks or frozen peas and corn or green beans or brussels sprouts as a side. (Costco has the best frozen corn ever. My kids like brussels sprouts so much I start to worry they’re aliens until they do something kid-like and complain about onions. In the spaghetti sauce! Call 911!)
My sister keeps binders of recipes and always makes notes of what worked and who liked what, along with the date and any alterations. I can’t imagine going to that much work without hoping that someone, somewhere will learn from my misadventures, so here you go:
What was for dinner last week (I can’t remember the order, and I can’t assign days beforehand either. That just seems too regimented):
Chicken Piccata (The chicken and noodles were a big hit, but the sauce was a little tangy for the kids, and, fine, me too. I added lots of extra cream and broth, which made a huge quantity of sauce to languish in the fridge.)
Spaghetti Squash Lasagna (I make this just like regular lasagna, only I substitute baked spaghetti squash for the noodles.)
Sloppy Joes (It’s a long, tragic story, but I accidentally added about a 1/2 cup of salt to this recipe, (which I had doubled), so then I quadrupled it. It was still too salty, so nearly three pounds of sloppy-joed hamburger are in the freezer waiting for redemption. This is a good, easy recipe for serious comfort food, especially on homemade buns.I’ll make it again, once time has dimmed our memories.)
Chicken, Vegetable, and Barley Soup (This was good. I threw in the leftover sauce from the chicken piccata which gave it a lemony tang. My kids weren’t impressed with the barley. They wanted “noodles.” A couple days later I threw in some cooked ramen and they fell on it like devouring beasts).
BBQ chicken pizza and a pepperoni one for the kids, though Susan preferred the chicken. I used the 5 minute artisan bread as the crust, and it was the best pizza crust I’ve ever had, soft and chewy on the top, crusty and crunchy on the bottom. I didn’t have purple onions, and I’d used up my parsley, but I sprinkled fresh basil on it. Basil is good on any pizza.)
Thai Curry Chicken and Rice (I bought green curry paste for this — now I could make a rainbow of curries — and I’ll probably have cilantro and limes on the side, because it’s Thai, and I love cilantro and limes. Oh, and I’ll use chicken that we canned this summer, which means it’ll be on the shredded side, but with strong flavors like this it’ll be a fine economy.)
Stephanie’s Macaroni and Cheese (I’ve wanted to try a baked macaroni and cheese with swiss cheese even though I don’t like swiss cheese by itself. Stephanie makes good food, so this seems like a good one to try.)
Spinach and Feta Pita Bake (I have a great recipe for pita bread from Chrysanthemum, and this’ll be a nice change from the (delicious) chicken salad we’ve been stuffing our pockets with.)
BBQ chili (Yes! Inspiration strikes for my too-salty sloppy-joed hamburger in the freezer. I bought dried black and red beans and have 5 gallons of dry pinto beans. Beans will soak up that salt like nothing else. And Tom has been asking for BBQ chili ever since we had it at that church cook-off when my white chicken chili took the Honorable Mention. Ingrate. I’ll also make Marcy’s cornbread that’s really more like corncake even with the buttermilk. I haven’t found a great recipe online for BBQ chili, so unless someone has a link, I’ll just throw stuff in.)
Crab Salad (This is one of my favorite pasta salads ever. I use sugar instead of artificial sweetener, of course, and fresh herbs whenever possible instead of the dried, and twice as many vegetables as noodles. I’ll used canned chicken in this too, because even fake crab costs more than what I’ve got in my pantry, and the kids aren’t crazy about crab anyway.)
I hope that gives you some ideas, even if what not to do, and at the least, I can look back at this in a few months and have two weeks planned for me. If you have any (easy, cheap, delicious) favorites, I’d be most grateful for a link or notes. I try to let each child pick one of the five meals, and involve them in cooking with me. I find they’re more likely to try things when they’re invested that way, plus I can’t wait for the day when each of them has a day of the week to cook from start to finish. Five meals works out well; then we have leftovers for Tom’s lunches and ours, a night for quesadillas or breakfast for dinner, and a night for cleaning-out-the-fridge-you-don’t-get-anything-else-until-this-casserole-is-gone.