By Cat Morris
When both my children were very small, my mother used to tell me that I ought to 1) dress myself to the last detail before anyone else was up in the morning, and 2) know what I was making for dinner before I climbed out of bed each day.
I secretly rolled my eyes at her advice. “Give me something a little more useful,” I thought, “Who cares how I’m dressed in this day and age?” I also considered it just short of insulting to place emphasis on my planning dinner menus. “I have more important things to think about. I have a life.”
After a couple of years spent stumbling around in a bedheaded, sleep-deprived haze wearing yesterday’s sweats, and with a vague question mark in my mind at 4:00 p.m. in place of a dinner plan, I came round. Mom was right: No matter how tired I am, if I make the effort to get up before anyone else, dressed completely, and plan my meals in advance, the rest of the day falls magically into place. Really. Meal planning has a double benefit, though. Not only does it keep me organized, but it’s absolutely key to saving money.
In years past, when I’ve dramatically reined in spending, I’ve stopped eating out, scoured the supermarkets for the greatest deals, purchased bulk items, and made food from scratch. I soon have unit prices memorized and will become so zealous that I refuse to buy an ingredient for one penny more than the best price recorded in my notebook. I get that way–a bit compulsive. It’s all or nothing.
If I’m really honest, though, the truth is that my savings have not been so much about buying “best priced” chicken breasts, or bulk quantities of flour, but about preparing meals from scratch versus buying prepackaged components, or going out to eat.
As you undoubtedly already know, our most consistent savings (and/or the best nutrition) will come from routinely buying and preparing the least processed foods available: Purchasing a whole chicken versus buying boneless, skinless chicken breasts; making soup from scratch instead of buying canned soups; baking cookies instead of buying dough or prepackaged goodies; even buying popcorn kernels to pop on the stove, versus microwave popcorn.
Did you know that you can easily get a minimum of three meals for four people from one whole chicken? Some people routinely get four or more meals from one bird. If you buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts at the store you cannot do this. Buy the whole chicken.
A one-pound bag of beans costs about as much as one 15 ounce can of beans, but yields about four times the quantity. Buy the dry beans.
Pre-shredded cheese can cost significantly more than cheese purchased in blocks, and usually contains a non-caking agent. Grate the cheese yourself to save money and lose the added cellulose. Buy the block cheese.
I think you get the drift.
You cannot prepare food from scratch if you aren’t a good planner—which is to say that you can’t very reliably save money on a nutritious diet if you don’t have a menu in place and the ingredients chosen and purchased ahead of time … which is really another way of saying, “You should know what you’re having for dinner before you get out of bed in the morning.” Sigh. See how that works? Saving money on a nutritious diet requires time management more than finding the best price on any single item.
So, let’s revisit that whole chicken concept, shall we? I don’t have space to provide recipes here, but I learned to get at least three meals from one chicken from the More-with-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre: Day one is roast chicken: Roast the chicken with veggies in the oven. Day two is homemade chicken potpie, incorporating leftover veggies. Day three is chicken noodle (or rice) stew, and I usually end up with enough for two day’s worth of servings for our family. If you want to learn ways to stretch a chicken much farther, search the internet using the term “rubber chicken recipes” (Get it? You want recipes for s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g chicken. I’m serious.) Good luck!
The internet abounds with free and low cost menu planners to help you get organized and start saving money, from the bare bones sample menus at www.hillbillyhousewife.com to e-mealz.com, which provides menus and shopping lists tailored to selected grocery chains. Others include relish.com and mealmixer.com—and the list goes on.