I'm getting really tired of how much we've been spending on groceries lately. Every week I feel like we're hemorrhaging money at the store, only to have us back where we started in six or seven days. Is this just us, or does this happen to you, too? I admit, we've gotten lazy/busy these past few weeks, and I haven't been able to meal-plan as carefully as I have in the past. I've noticed that when I am diligent--when I do sit down on a weekend and meal-plan the week and then go shopping, we spend much less on food than we do during those weeks when we're making two or three frantic dashes to the store because I have no idea what we're going to cook, or the time to cook it, and I've been coming home with more packaged foods and less fresh foods.
Last week I gave two of my students a lift to the store and they each spent over $30 on what amounted to a small bag of groceries. They were a little shell-shocked, to say the least. When I looked at what they had purchased, though, it was clear. They had both bought packaged and processed foods, the bulk of which would be consumed at one sitting. Yes, it was relatively cheap, all things considered, but when you calculate how much they spent, it didn't make sense to buy packaged food over fresh ingredients. It's hard, though, as a college student, to stock up on enough fresh foods to last you a whole week, or even two.
But while I'm sympathetic to my students, this is about ME, and about how we're trying to scale back on how much we spend on food for a family with only four people in it--a family with one member who seems able to live on bread and water just fine, and another member who doesn't even weigh 30 pounds. I'm trying to stay away from the packaged and processed foods, and we're focusing more on beans and vegetables, and ingredients we can make stretch, like carrots (I love how a big bag of carrots can last forever, and go into many dishes) and potatoes. When I shop these days, I try to think about the way my Greek grandmother used to shop each week, stocking up on brown paper bags filled with fruits and vegetables, and using certain staples with every meal: bread, rice, pasta, or beans. Still, it's difficult to keep this in mind when you just barely have time to throw a load of laundry in the wash, or pick up the shoes that were left on the bottom stair.
So I am back on the meal planning wagon. I took 15 minutes out of my Sunday afternoon and wrote up a menu for this week: taco salads yesterday, pasta tossed with peas and parmesan cheese (T.'s favorite) today, vegetarian stew in the crock-pot on Wednesday (a long meeting-day for us both), stir-fry on Thursday (L.'s staple), and lentil soup and salad on Friday. Buying the ingredients for all these meals ended up being cheaper and less time-consuming than my usual haphazard, mad dash through the aisles. I've also been trying to go back to making bread at home (this website has a tasty bread recipe, with step-by-step pictures to go along). On Sunday, for Family Cook Night, we made an entire meal from scratch--not a box or processed food package in sight--from the main dish: bulgur noodles with slow-cooked onions from this favorite cookbook, right down to the cooked rainbow carrots with ginger and butter, and the homemade rolls. (Note: Don't make our mistake and tell your kids the dish contains bulgur--they will think the name is gross and funny and not eat it.) I felt really good about it, for many reasons, and I really do think cooking fresh and healthy is something I can do on most nights, even if I do come home feeling daunted by the whole prospect.
It feels good to be back on the wagon again.
What are your cooking-fresh ideas for quick dinners? How do you save money at the store, and still cook healthy food for your family?