Monday, March 10, 2014

How to plan and save money on groceries

March 10, 2013

I've taken the past several months off from blogging. I needed a break. A friend had some questions about how I plan and save money on groceries and that is all it took to spark my interest in my blog again. I will probably not go back to posting daily (it takes so much time away from my family) but I do enjoy writing a post when I can.

The first step to saving money on groceries is to plan meals. It sounds cliche. I never used to plan meals. I would buy whatever looked or sounded good at the grocery store. My cupboards would be over flowing with random items that once I got them home, they would sit untouched. There were always items that no longer looked appealing once I was out of the grocery store. Then I started this challenge to save money and started meal planning. Wow. It really does make a difference.

Now that you want to meal plan, where do you start? I start in my kitchen. Remember all those items that you bought and haven't gotten around to using? Those are the first meals that you plan. You wouldn't throw away a five dollar bill so why would you throw out a five dollar ingredient (if you let it expire)? I plan a few meals with items I already have at home whether it be items in the cupboard, freezer, or things that need to be used up in the fridge. Next, I turn to Pinterest. I get a lot of meal ideas on there. I may not follow recipes exactly but they at least get my creativity flowing and get us out of dinner ruts. As you are browsing for recipe ideas, keep in mind what meals you have already planned for the week. You don't want to end up with three nights of pasta meals (well, I wouldn't mind that much pasta but the rest of my family might!). Also, I like to tie two meals together. If you need to buy an ingredient for one meal, you may as well plan another meal that will use up the rest of that ingredient. If you use it in a completely different way, you won't feel like the dinners are repetitive. Lastly, don't forget to keep your schedule in mind. I like to have easy meals for nights where the kids have multiple activities.

Here is an example of my meal planning:

I mentioned tying meals together. I need to buy sweetened coconut flakes for the sunflower cookies that I am craving. A bag of coconut is way too much and I don't want the rest to go to waste. So I planned a meal around using up some more of the coconut. I LOVE the coconut sauce (copycat of Red Lobster's) and it needs coconut flakes. Perfect. The sauce also uses some pineapple. This leads me into the pineapple and portobello tacos. Ok, bear with me. These next tied together meals will sound strange but when my hubby tried it months ago..... it was pure genius. I made a batch of cream of potato, leek, and fennel soup and the following day he used some of the leftover soup as a pizza sauce. It was incredible. Pasta night is a quick meal for busy nights. My hubby bought me a pasta roller/cutter set and I have been having so much fun making homemade pasta. We dry some of the pasta to keep for busy week night meals. Shepherd's pie is the perfect follow up meal when you have leftover mashed potatoes. Not all weeks flow so nicely together.

Last week's menu:

  • Buffalo cauliflower & quesadillas
  • Fish tacos
  • Vegetarian sloppy joes
  • Roasted red pepper mozzerella, & arugula pesto sandwiches
  • Pasta
  • Burgers (vegetarian grillers or roasted garlic & quinoa)
  • Enchiladas
  • Salmon

Last week's meals didn't really tie together but I had a lot of the ingredients at home. I had a head of cauliflower from the week prior. I always have tortillas (quesadillas and enchiladas). I had two types of fish in the freezer. I had burger buns that needed to get used up.

After you meal plan, the next step you can take is to use up leftovers. Ugh. I just said the dreaded "L" word. We were horrible about leftovers prior to this challenge. We still have a way to go but for the most part we are well on our way to not being so wasteful. The kids pack lunches with most days leftovers or at least using up our never ending supply of bread on sandwiches. The best way to use up leftovers is to use it in a completely different way. Then it won't feel like a leftover. I have used leftover vegetable and quinoa soup (scooping it out as to not use too much of the broth) as a base for shepherd's pie. It turned out so well that my daughter asked me to make more for lunch the next day. Leftover mashed potatoes, mashed rutabagas, or mashed sweet potatoes are perfect for shepherd's pie. It makes it a quick meal versus a labor intensive one. Shepherd's pie is so versatile. You can use up leftover ham, turkey, ground meat, beans, and I've even used leftover vegetarian meatballs chopped up for shepherd's pie. I always seem to have too much bread. If you plan a meal outside of the box, it will make it more appealing to use up leftover bread. To me, breakfast is boring. I hardly ever eat breakfast. But, serve it to me at dinner and somehow it becomes fun. Ha. Grilled cheese made like from my childhood (simply with american cheese) ....Boring! Now we make them with caramelized onions, tomato, avocado, and a variety of cheeses. This past week we made them with sourdough bread, swiss, dill havarti, horseradish cheddar, sauerkraut, and mustard. It was delicious!

Here are a few ideas to help you create your meal plan:
If you have extra:                                                                           Make:

  • Arugula                                                                            Pesto
  • Bread                                                                               Croutons, Bread crumbs
  • Bread as dinner item                                                        Breakfast for dinner, fancy grilled cheese
  • Chili                                                                                 Pasta sauce (put through food processor)
  • Cooked cauliflower                                                         Cauliflower soup
  • Tortillas                                                                           Tacos, Enchiladas, Homemade chips
  • Hotdog/Hamburger buns                                                 Garlic bread
  • Cream of potato/leek/fennel soup (any cream soup)        White pizza sauce
Examples of tying meals together:
First night's meal:                                                                        Second night's meal:

  • Stir fry with rice                                                                Stuffed peppers with leftover rice
  • Rotisserie chicken                                                             Casserole, soup, or broth
  • Sausage & sauerkraut                                                        Reuben sandwiches
  • Ham (or any meat) & mashed potatoes                              Shepherd's pie
Will all of this save you money? It did for me. I took an average of what I spend at the grocery store ($175) and restaurants ($80) each week. If I spent less than that in each category this week, then I "save" that money. I also count the money that is saved if the kids pack lunch for school versus buying lunch. The big incentive for me to stick with this challenge is to actually save the money. Many times people will spend less and call it saving. You aren't actually saving if you only spend less. Put that money into a special account. I only use that money to pay for special things. I used it for a couple vacations and to buy our sweet little puppy, who turns one today. Happy Birthday Chief! You could use this money to start retirement savings, a down payment on a car, college savings for kiddos, etc. Keep track of how much you save. You will want to get more creative, save more money, and stick with it longer as you see your savings grow. The first year of this challenge we saved $5,036.79. As of 140 days (almost 40%) into the second year, we have saved $1,348.75. I'm saving a little bit less so far this year but I am ok with that. This is something I want to stick with forever and if that means allowing a little more play room a few weeks, then so be it. The biggest thing to remember is that YOU set the rules/boundaries for your own challenge.  If we have a week where we go over the averages and end up in the hole for the week, I do not take money out of our savings. I simply count that week as a zero. The averages that I use are just that: averages. Remember that there were weeks that you spent more prior to this challenge so why would you think it isn't ok to have weeks like that during the challenge? Don't get down on yourself. Take a breath, eat a leftover, and try again next week!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Vegetarian goulash & sunflower seed cookies

November 5, 2013

You know days where you just don't feel like putting forth much effort into dinner? Days when you are tempted to order in? Today is that day. I couldn't figure out what I wanted to eat which didn't help matters. My will power somehow stayed strong (must be from giving in and eating three cookies before dinner, but we'll get to those cookies a little later) and I decided to try to stick to the challenge.

I looked in the fridge and saw that there was still leftover vegetarian chili. Hmmm. I'm sure the kids wouldn't be thrilled if I said we were having leftovers. What to do. Then it hit me. I was going to remake one of my favorite meals that my mom used to make for me. Goulash. My mom's recipe was made with ground beef, corn, egg noodles, and a tomato sauce. I can do this.

I had the kids pick out what pasta they wanted: veggie spirals. They played in the other room while I got to work. Good thing because then they wouldn't see the chili container come out of the fridge! I put the leftover chili (made from carrots, celery, turnips, onion, leek, garlic, lima beans, chickpeas, red quinoa, home canned tomatoes, tomato sauce & paste) into the food processor. It was still a little thick. I went back to the fridge and saw that there was about 1/3 of a quart of home canned tomatoes. Perfect. I tossed that into the food processor to thin out our "sauce". I steamed cauliflower and sliced up some leftover bread from our dinner out last night. I stirred the sauce into the pasta and then added 1/2 a bag of corn (frozen from farmer's market).

Dinner was a hit! Everyone cleaned their plates and had no suggestions for next time. Score! Ok, now onto the cookies...

I wanted to try to make a healthier cookie. Healthier not healthy. I mean, it still has to taste like a cookie. Oh, and by "I", I really mean the kids. I just supervised but they measured, poured, mixed, and shaped. I found a recipe on and decided to try to make sunflower seed cookies. We halved the recipe and with half of it we also added in a big handful of dried cranberries. 1/2 cup butter softened (I used vegan), 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1 egg, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, 1 cup flour, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/4 teaspoon baking powder, 1/8 teaspoon salt, 1 cup rolled oats, 1/2 cup coconut, 1/2 cup sunflower seeds. Mix butter and sugars until fluffy then add egg and vanilla. Mix together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in separate bowl. Add it to the butter mixture. Stir in oats, coconut, and sunflower seeds. Bake at 350 for 8-11 minutes. I had to bake mine for 14-16 minutes depending on the size of the cookie.

The kids and I really liked them. You definitely need to like sunflower seeds in order to enjoy this cookie. They have a strong taste. However, I normally do not like shredded coconut and I loved it in this cookie. I preferred the batch that had the dried cranberries in it. This is a keeper recipe. I think that next time I will work on making it healthier by maybe using half wheat flour and possibly cutting down on some sugar.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Chickpea veggie soup; grocery savings

October 26 - November 1, 2013

Have you missed me? I haven't been hiding. I've been sick. This virus is really hanging on (today is day 10). I feel bad for the kids. They have been eating so much canned soup, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, and other not so healthy dinners.

I did feel well enough to make dinner one night this past week. I threw together a soup out of whatever random veggies I had on hand. I used onion, 2 carrots, 1 turnip, 1/2 clove garlic, handful of kale, 2 cobs of corn, 1/2 leek, 1/3 pint of home canned tomatoes (leftover in fridge), handful of green beans, homemade veggie broth, and about 1/2 cup barley. I wanted to try using beans in soup. I looked in the freezer and found a cup of chickpeas. Perfect. I tossed them in. Wow. This was delicious. And good thing because I ate it for days!
My pre-challenge grocery weekly average was $175. Once again, I didn't feel up to driving all the way to the commissary so I shopped at a more expensive local store. Worth it to me for today. I spent $8.47 on cleaners/toiletries. I spent $14.48 on impulse items. I saw black rice. It drew me in and as I read the package "in Ancient China, it was reserved exclusively for Chinese royalty". Oooooh, sounds like a rice I need to try! I also found a potato leek soup, vegetable broth (incase I am not feeling well enough to make my own this week), and whole wheat capellini (trying to do better at whole grain items). I spent $6.98 on gossip magazines. I spent $113.23 out of pocket. This is a savings of $61.77. The kids packed lunches and saved $21. My pre-challenge restaurant average was $80. After grocery shopping, I stopped at our favorite gourmet cafe and picked up a trio of soups: cream of potato with leeks, cream of cauliflower with smoked gouda cheese, and cream of mushroom with amontillado sherry. The soups come with her delicious homemade rolls. I also grabbed a piece of apple pie. For $18, the kids will be super excited to have a delicious (and easy) meal tonight. This was a savings of $62. Our savings for the week are $144.77. Our total for our first year at this challenge was $5,036.79 and so far for our second year we are at $307.23 in 15 days.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Grocery savings

October 23, 24, & 25, 2013

We haven't had very exciting dinners the past few nights. I came down with a virus and my hubby hasn't been able to be home for dinner. The kids have been eating a lot of sandwiches and canned soup. Ugh. I still have a slight fever but had to go out today. My son had to get a tooth pulled (infected) so I figured while I was out that I would grab a few groceries. I didn't feel like driving all the way to the commissary and fighting a crowd so I just went to a local store. Prices are a bit higher but it was worth it for me today.

My pre-challenge weekly commissary average was $175. Today I spent $17.72 on cleaners/toiletries. I spent $7.38 on impulse items (gnocchi, macaroni & cheese, and a sauce meant for pot roast but I will use on it's own). I spent $49.81 on groceries. Wow, it's pretty low I guess because I haven't felt like real food and haven't been able to cook for the kids. I spent $10.97 on gossip magazines (I think that is around what I spend for four at the commissary and this was only for three). I ended up spending $87.45 out of pocket which is a savings of $87.55. My pre-challenge restaurant average was $80. After getting groceries, I stopped at our favorite gourmet cafe to pick up dinner. I got the kids a chicken, vegetable, and gnocchi soup. I got a roasted red pepper, wine (can't remember what kind), and caramelized onion soup. I also got a cranberry muffin and a blueberry cheesecake baked good. Our soups came with her sweet rolls and slices of cracked wheat bread. Our pizza earlier in the week along with tonight's dinner was $30.29 which is a savings of $49.71. The kids packed lunches and saved $25.20. Our savings for this week were $162.46 in 8 days. Our total savings for our first year at this challenge was $5,036.79. Looks like we are off to a great start for our second year!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Black bean, butternut squash, and caramelized onion tacos

October 22, 2013

Today calls for a celebration. It is our 15th wedding anniversary. Yay! My hubby was unable to eat dinner with us but that didn't mean that he couldn't be a "part" of it. I thought about what I would want to make for him had he been able to eat it. It didn't take long for me to figure out that it had to be tacos.

I decided to try a new taco tonight. Stay with me this is where it gets long. Caramelized onion, butternut squash, and black bean tacos. Oh yeah. This is happening.

I started out by peeling and chopping a butternut squash. I gave it a light coating in olive oil. I spread it out on a large baking sheet and separated it into two sections. One side got salt, pepper, and garlic & wine seasoning. The other side got salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder, and oregano. I baked them at 425 for about 10 minutes. It didn't take too long to bake seeing as I had cut them so small.

I also made a batch of caramelized onions. It is time consuming (probably about 40 plus minutes) but so worth it. Our other toppings included: whole black beans, black beans processed with homemade salsa, sour cream, sautéed green pepper/Portobello mushrooms/garlic, cilantro, avocado, cucumber, and spinach. We had our tacos with local grapes and apple juice in fancy glasses.

I had dinner all set up before the kids came into the kitchen. I was hoping that it would like nice for them. That it would make it feel more like a celebration even though daddy wasn't here. Sure enough. My son walked in and said "oh, it looks so fancy". Ha. Perfect.

Wow. The tacos were amazing. The caramelized onions and butternut squash were really delicious together. However, I think I would not add the black beans processed with salsa next time and stick to just whole black beans. I can't wait for leftovers tomorrow! The kids both liked the butternut squash. My son skipped beans and had leftover pork loin in his taco.

What is a celebration without cake? Not a celebration I want. Ha. We had a giant cupcake of chocolate cake and a strawberry shortcake layer cake. I can't take credit for making them. Oh well, I deserve dessert off. :)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Wild mushroom agnolotti

October 21, 2013

It was fun packing lunches for the kids today. Ok, maybe not fun fun. It was challenge fun. My daughter packed a leftover shepherd's pie, grapes, and a juice. My son packed leftover pizza (the free one that I froze), homemade maple applesauce, and a juice. I was really excited to see if grabbing a piece of frozen leftover pizza and putting it into his lunchbox would end up being a perfectly thawed piece by lunch. The good thing is that he likes cold pizza. Sure enough, it was perfect. Yay! I had leftover pizza as well.

I wanted a quick meal for tonight before the kids' activities. I thawed out a half of pork loin. I popped that in the oven for the kids. I steamed some broccoli while the kids made deviled eggs. I grabbed a package of ravioli type pasta to try. When I was looking in the refrigerated section at the store last week, there was no way that I could pass this package up. "Wild mushroom agnolotti generously filled with fresh Portobello and Crimini mushrooms, imported grana padano and parmesan cheeses, and fresh roasted garlic". I made this meal even easier by also buying the ready made alfredo sauce also made by Buitoni.

I wasn't sure how the kids would like the pasta. They are iffy with mushrooms. They love them raw but cooked is sometimes another story. They both said they were good. My son said he even prefers them over the cheese tortellini I normally buy. WHAT? I loved them. If I were to order them in a restaurant, I would be happy with them. I can't wait to buy more! My son's reaction when he saw the pork loin (not pictured)...."Is that REAL meat"? Ha. Yes.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Dressed up pizza & vegetarian shepherd's pie

October 19 & 20, 2013

We had a busy Saturday. We went to my son's best friend's birthday party. Afterwards, we had just enough time to come home and hang out with our puppy for about an hour. Next up it was time to get my daughter to her activity of the day. The Girl Scouts were having a lockin. My son and I decided to do a pizza and movie night together.

I had a coupon for buy one large cheese pizza and get one free. Before we left to bring my daughter to the lockin, I pulled some veggies out of the fridge. My son asked if he could help. He sautéed some onion, garlic, green pepper, broccoli, and mushrooms for me. He seasoned them with salt and garlic & wine seasoning. We set them to the side until we got home.

Once we got back with our cheese pizza, it was time to dress my slices up. I added the veggies to the pizza and topped each piece with a slice of provolone cheese. I put the pizza under the broiler just until the cheese melted. Oh yum! It turned out great. I froze the second pizza. I have never tried that before so I hope it freezes alright.

I wanted to use up some of the leftovers in the fridge. I had veggie meatballs, carrots (that had cooked when I made veggie broth), and corn leftover from when I made soup. I settled on shepherd's pie. I chopped up the meatballs and put them in the bottom of my mini pie pans. I sautéed half of a small onion, 1/2 a large bulb of garlic, 1/2 a leek (sliced), celery, one turnip, and one purple potato. After a few minutes, I added in a splash of homemade veggie broth. After the veggies were cooked, I stirred in the leftover corn, carrots, and a handful of peas. The veggie mix went on top of the meatballs. I made a quick gravy. I didn't feel like cooking up onion/garlic for it tonight so I just melted some butter and stirred in flour. I whisked in homemade veggie broth and then stirred in the broth that I had mixed with corn starch. I seasoned it with salt, pepper, and garlic & wine seasoning. I topped the veggie mix with mashed potatoes. Well, it was half potatoes and half rutabagas. A thin layer of gravy went next. It was all topped off with cheddar cheese. I put it in the oven at 400 until the cheese melted. We also had a side of cottage cheese. For some reason, the three of us have suddenly taken a huge liking to cottage cheese.

My daughter loved it. She had two pies. My son's throat was hurting so he didn't eat too well. He said that he liked the veggie mix but wasn't big on the mashed potatoes. He isn't much of a potato lover though. Instead, he ate a big bowl of my homemade maple applesauce. I was surprised that the leftover veggie meatballs worked. I guess any leftover meat would work fine.