Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Cheap Meals and Money Saving Tricks

So far, the grocery challenge is working out well, and we've got a week and a half to stick it out.  The beginning was easy.  On Labor Day we had a family party where food was provided, we went out to eat for my dad's birthday, and I pet sat for all the dogs while my parents were out of town (my mommy pre-makes me food when I pet sit, because I'm still the baby.)  We were able to have totally normal meals the first week and a half because we had all the ingredients we needed, mostly in the freezer - like we bought all the stuff necessary for a meal with the intention of making it, but then something must have come up and we just stuck it in the freezer for 'next time.'  But now we're starting to get into the last items and we're having to buy a few items to round out our meals while still keeping costs low.  So I'm going to share some of my top go to meals that are super cheap as well as some of the other tricks I use to spend way less than normal at the grocery store.

Cheap But Tasty Meals

It's important to not first and foremost that the bulk of your spending is on meat and dairy.  If you cut those things out, like me, you instantly significantly decrease your grocery bill.  Even though you have to spend on other sources of protein, iron, and calcium, it doesn't come close to what meat costs.  That said, John apparently 'needs' meat, and other than breakfast and deep dish cheese pizza, he pretty much won't have meal without it.  So I do have recipes that include meat, but know that the cheapest route is to do without for awhile.

Burritos or Other Mexican Food.  Rice and beans is a great bang for your buck, and you can flavor them a ton of different ways.  But I prefer Mexican.  In order to make this truly cheap, of course, you need to learn to cook rice and dried beans.  No instant!  But it's actually easy and you can make a ton at once to use throughout the week.  I'm able to get spices and burritos at an ethnic store (more on that in the next section.)  I like to add sautéed veggies to this, and onions are always cheap, as are bell peppers when you get them on sale.  I'm able to add a bit of meat to John's portion, just some chicken or ground beef, whatever we have on hand from a previous meal.  It doesn't take much.

'Fried' Rice.  It's not really fried rice, but it's really cheap to make the same rice as you used for the Mexican food and add veggies and soy sauce.  Frozen peas, corn, and carrots are cheap year round, and I'm able to add chicken and eggs to John's part, which is one of his favorite meals.

Sloppy Joes.  I hate this stuff but John loves it!  It's cheap and simple - ground turkey or beef, whatever is cheapest, barbecue sauce, buns.  He'll do baked potatoes on the side, which are also incredibly cheap and can be topped with tons of things, including vegetables to bulk up the meal.

Pasta and Meatballs.  Boxes of pasta are so cheap, as is sauce in the jar.  Personally, my dad makes the best sauce and he'll do huge batches of it once a month or every two months, so the sauce is free for us.  I use this recipe to make meatballs, but without the sausage and only with ground beef or turkey on sale, so it's even cheaper.  We also do garlic bread on the side, which I keep the cost down on by going to the store late in the day when the fresh bakery bread is discounted.

Need more ideas?  Paige just posted some on Monday!

Money Saving Tricks

Don't make the meat the focus of the meal.  If the main thing on the plate is the chicken breast or the steak, that increases your costs.  To still include meat but spend less, you need to use less.  So don't make the meat the main portion of the meal.  Instead, use it as just another ingredient.  Make chili, where you can use more beans and less beef.  Try fajitas, where you can just use some strips of chicken instead of an entire breast per person, and instead add in more vegetables with a side of beans and rice.  Trust me, this trick works on those who insist they need meat with every meal.

Check the store ads first.  I don't coupon, because it's not worth it here in Chicago.  I know in other places they have price matching, double coupon days, etc etc, but Chicago doesn't allow any of that legally.  So I don't even bother because it's not worth my time and effort to only save a few pennies.  What is worth it though is checking the store ads before I shop.  My store posts them online, so I look at just the first two pages and the last page to see what's deeply discounted.  These are called loss leaders, because the products are actually sold at a loss to the store because they just want to get you in the doors so you'll spend on the rest of your items.  Plan your meals around these loss leaders and you'll save tons.

Shop at ethnic stores.  If it's an option, get to one.  My parents aren't far from Devon Avenue here in Chicago, which is Indian central.  Since my dad is Indian, we've frequented the area my whole life.  They have a few grocery stores along the street and the prices are insane, it's so cheap.  For regular old produce, just like I'd get at my Jewel-Osco, I'm not even talking about Indian specific foods.  Even if the store specializes in Chinese or Spanish foods, they have all the traditional 'American' stuff too.

Prepare things yourself.  Prices increase exponentially when you start buying them already prepared.  Pre-washed salad, diced fruits, even pre-shredded cheese.  Buy these things in their natural state and do those steps yourself to save a ton of money.

Learn to make (certain) things from scratch.  There's a time and a place for convenience, I agree.  But if you cook something regularly, it's worth it to learn how to do it from scratch because you pay for the convenience of having it already done.  As a vegetarian, I eat tons of beans, and canned beans are marked up, full of sodium, and just not as good as cooking dry beans.  So I learned how to cook dry beans myself and it's pretty damn easy since I figured out how to do it in the slow cooker.  Is it worth it if you eat beans once a month?  No.  But if you have them multiple times a week, yes.  The same goes for things like stock/broth, it's ridiculously easy to make that yourself if you're big on soups.  Lots of Mexican food in your house too?  We're weekly taco eaters, I get it - buy spices in bulk and make the blend yourself, don't use the silly taco blend seasoning packets.  Think about the ways you're cutting corners on your most used items and research how to make them on your own.

Look up and down and don't be brand loyal.  Unless you're shopping at Aldi, your store has tons of brands selling the same products.  The highest priced versions of these are placed at eye level, so if you look up and down you'll see what you need at a lower cost.  It might not be the normal brand you buy, but usually it's just the same.

Don't snub all the frozen foods.  Frozen vegetables are actually flash frozen at the peak of freshness so nutrition-wise you're getting the same benefits as the fresh stuff.  We're heading into the produce lacking months here in the northern states, so the prices on fresh items is outrageous.  The frozen veggies are absolutely cheaper in winter.  But please, go ahead and snub the frozen TV dinners.

Since we're at the point now of having to buy items here and there, we're using all of these tricks to keep our costs as low as possible - remember, part of my kitchen clean out challenge was also to spend less than $100 on anything we do buy for the month!  If you have any more tips and tricks to share for saving money on food, I'll have a link up next Friday, the 29th.

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