Easier Prep Ahead Meals

Eating at home instead of in restaurants is the #1 way to save on food costs, but it’s not always so easy.  I was visiting with another mom (while we chaperoned a field trip) about how expensive it can be to raise a family.  She confessed that they get food stamps but also spend over $700 a month in restaurants for their family of 4. She knows it’s sabotaging their goals, but she feels trapped.  How does a family get food on the table when they are so busy and stressed?

Planning and Preparation.  The busier you are, the more important it is to have a detailed plan and scheduled in time to make it happen. If part of your meal is already done, and all the ingredients are on hand, cooking is not as big a deal.

I meal plan on Wednesday, shop early on Saturday and meal prep for the week either Sunday night or Monday morning.  If you don’t have time to do your own meal planning, I offer affordable, detailed meal plans done for you.  If you’d like to do your own but aren’t sure where to start, click here.
After about 6 months of prepping my meals ahead this way with the FitMama meal plans, I have some thoughts about how to make meal prepping easier. The idea of Fit Mama is to have all of my food made ahead for the week, so I can focus on the meals my family needs the rest of the time and not have to make two different things every night.  Plus if my food isn’t already made before I get hangry, I will stuff my face with any and all edible substances within reach.

Meal prepping lets you borrow time from a moment when you aren’t as stressed and move it to the moment that is the most intense.

 

With Fit Mama, I eat 6 small meals a day.  Prepping 36 single serving meals for the week is more labor intensive than prepping 6 family dinners.  Yet, it has been the part of the program that has brought me the most success.

It’s important to choose simple when you are in the busiest seasons of your life.  I’ve narrowed meals down to 3 types:

  1. The easiest are stir togethers like overnight oats, homemade gelatin, chia seed pudding, or protein pancake or waffle batter.  They go together the quickest and make me feel productive.

2. Then there are casseroles, marinated meats, and crock pot or one pot dump recipes that can be assembled or thrown in a bag, then cooked quickly just before meal time.

3. On the more labor intensive end of things are meals that require cooking some of the ingredients before the dish can be assembled and cooked again.  For example, My breakfast stuffed sweet potatoes require pre-baked potatoes, browned turkey sausage, and pre-cooked scrambled eggs before assembling. They are delicious!  But if my prep time is shorter than usual, it’s not the best choice for that week.  A good option for these types of dishes is to prep the singles first, such as browning hamburger and leaving the rest of the chores for another time.  It’s a lot easier for me to consider making stuffed sweet potatoes for breakfast if all I have to do is put it together for the final bake.

The other option is do to generic meal prepping. This would include cooking a bunch of hamburger in bulk and then freezing it in portions ready to throw in a meal. Or filling the slow cooker full of chicken breasts to shred. Or washing all your produce and shopping it ready to go for the week.

There’s no right or wrong way to prep for your meals as long as it feels doable to you and takes some of the pressure off when you’re the most stressed.

It’s also the perfect time to get some of the family members involved.  Here’s a screen shot from a live video my boys did with me to show the FitMama members how we meal prep. The boys have learned to dice and chop and all sorts of other kitchen skills by helping me in this way.

Tell me about you.  How do you meal prep?  Any tips for us?

You might also like:

The Easiest Shredded Chicken for Your Freezer

Batch Cooking Ground Beef in Your Slow Cooker

Step 1 to a meal plan you’ll actually follow

 

 

Feeding 8 on a 4 Person Budget

Families with a lot of kids don’t necessarily earn any more money than their small family neighbors. And yet, bigger cars require more gas per mile.  More showers and more laundry, means more water and electricity use.  An $8 ticket to the zoo isn’t a big deal if you’re only buying 4, but buying 8 is another story.   When it’s time to buy shoes, it’s tough to buy 6 pairs instead of 2.   Hotel fire codes require large families to get at least two rooms. Then there’s the grocery budget.  What’s a big family to do?

We are steadily working on getting our income up, but while we do that, we do fewer spendy things.  When kids aren’t used to a lavish lifestyle, they appreciate the little things a lot more.

We almost always eat at home, so when we go to McDonald’s it’s a big TREAT.  Since it’s rare, we don’t have to let them order whatever they want off the menu to give them that feeling of excitement.  Everyone gets a $1 burger, ice water, and fries to share.  When we get home, if a kid is still hungry he makes a snack.

  1. We always drink water.

2. Fast food is a treat not the time to stuff ourselves.

When we go to a park or festival with food vendors, we pack a cooler from home.  Some parks won’t let you bring it inside the fence, so we plan to leave and have a picnic back at the car for lunch, then return to the park for the rest of our day.  Sometimes there’s a food there that we can’t get anywhere else.  Then we might buy some and cut it up so everyone gets a taste.  If you see the 8 of us gathered around a single funnel cake happily sharing bites.  Don’t feel sorry for us. The kids are thrilled.  Just getting to taste it was a big deal.

We went to the zoo to see cool animals, not to eat over-priced ice cream.  Replace the red words with whatever fits your situation. It helps to keep it in perspective.

3. Pack food when you can.

4. Share special treats.

The most expensive items on my grocery budget are meat and cheese.  We’ve found it’s possible to halve (or at least reduce) the amounts of meat and cheeses in most recipes and still meet everyone’s protein requirements.  This works great for casseroles, soups and stews.  I replace the bulk with another ingredient like beans, brown rice, quinoa or vegetables.

5.  When doubling recipes to feed your family, don’t double expensive ingredients like meat or cheese.  Replace the volume with low cost, high nutrition foods that are compatible with your recipe.

Growing kids are always hungry.  I have 3 teenagers, but the 12 year old is hungrier than all 3 teens combined.  I don’t ration food at our house.  There’s always something they are allowed to grab: apples, carrots, peanut butter and jelly, homemade bread or muffins, bananas, eggs, and milk.  If it’s not on the unwritten, “help yourself” list, they know they have to ask.  They are not allowed to eat all the leftover roast beef that I was saving for stew the next night, or snack on pepperoni or lunch meat.  They can’t eat all the granola bars in the lunch packing baskets.

6. Have a list of low cost, nutritious foods that your kids can have any time (except 30 minutes before dinner is served, lol.) Train them to ask for permission for other things.

7. Bake easy whole grain items like muffins, that are easy to grab and eat on the run or for after school snacks.

Breakfast should be the easiest low cost meal of the day, but food manufacturers have figured out how to make their money anyway.  A serving of Bran Flakes cereal is 10 cents.  Oatmeal is 7 cents.  A cup of milk is 18 cents. Eggs and a slice of bread are 5 cents each.  Half an orange is 15 cents….you get the idea.  While a grab and go cereal bar is $1.  Frozen waffles the same. Name brand fancy cereal is 5x’s the cost of plain.  What we’ve found is if the food is simple, homemade, and nutritious, our kid’s happily eat what they need.  But if it is pre-packaged to look fun or full of sugar, they gorge themselves.

8.  Teach the kids to be satisfied with simple, basic foods.

 

Big family or small, what are some ways you do fun things, feed nutritious foods and still keep the costs down?

 

The Ibotta App–Is it worth your time?

A friend recently introduced me to the Ibotta app and I gave it a try.  Here’s what you need to know:

It’s easy to download the free app, unlock coupons and then verify them by scanning your receipt and your product upc from the packaging after you get home from shopping. Do it right away before you lose anything or eat the food and recycle the packages.

The products are mostly name brands that are trying to increase their reach or to announce a new product release…like Post Cinnamon Rice Pebbles cereal.  But there are some unbranded coupons available, like “any bread” “any milk” “eggs” or “bananas.”  There is a large amount of coupons for alcohol–which doesn’t feel very classy, but it was easy enough to scroll past them for the real food.

The same coupons work at multiple stores, but are usually limited to 1 or 2 of the same item at any 1 location.  If you use a coupon at Wal-mart, it will disappear from your options for that store for the week, but you might be able to unlock the same coupon for another store.

Not all the coupons are for food.  Jo-Ann crafts and a handful of clothing stores are participating too.  When I first started there was only 1 coupon at JoAnn, but there are a more available now.

Once you earn $20 or more in rebates, you can request the cash sent to you via paypal or though gift cards.  In a little over 3 weeks, I earned about $38. Since I have a business paypal account with fees taken out of it, I opted for an Amazon gift card.

You can earn additional money by sharing a link with friends who don’t already us the app. They’ll give you $5 credit when a new friend joins through your link and redeems their first coupon.

Most of the foods are rare treat type foods and not our every day staples, but I’ve still found several things that I could use each week.

What about you? Have you ever used Ibotta before?  Do you use any other coupon/rebate apps?

Simplifying Breakfast

When I was a new mom I had dreams of sitting around the table every morning, with Daddy leading devotions to smiling children memorizing Bible verses set on a backdrop of a hearty home cooked breakfast. I had no idea at the time that we would welcome one baby after another and that I’d have 12 years of rough mornings. We’d be up all night taking turns with a colicky baby and Darren would peel out of bed barely rested, just in time to throw on clothes and dash to work where he had a loaf of bread stashed for breakfast toast.

Read the rest at http://www.kansascitymom.com/simplifying-breakfast/  and get the make ahead Always Ready Bran Muffin recipe that my family loves.

$6 Left

Last weekend I finally ventured to Costco for the month and when I was done, I had $6 left for food in April.  It’s been awhile since I ran out of money this early in the month and I know exactly what happened.   Marshmallows and All Beef Hot Dogs several times a week add up. Plus they taste really good with chips and soda…also expensive and not healthy.

Follow me on instagram here.

Our new fire pit is so much fun, but I didn’t know what else to cook out there at first.  We’ve since broadened our horizons.   Marinated chicken and homemade whole wheat bread dough will roast on a hot dog fork.  And oh man!!! They are delicious.  You can also fork roast vegetables (like zucchini, mushrooms, peppers, and onions) and fruits like apples.

But really that’s not the point.  I broke one of my own rules this week and it didn’t end well.

Necessities FIRST! Rare treats after.  

I can have roasted marshmallows once in a while (but 4 bags a week might be overdoing it.)  I just should have made sure that I had enough money for all the essential foods first.

Necessities are any affordable foods that promote health:  In season fruits and vegetables, whole grains like oats, brown rice and 100% whole wheat bread or flour, unprocessed meats, nuts, beans, and some dairy items like milk, butter and cheese.

Rare treats are processed foods like crackers, chips, lunch meats, desserts, sodas, juices, and other beverages. They also might include higher priced healthy foods like steak or fresh raspberries. I’m not saying never buy these, just make sure of the necessities first.

We’ll be ok on $6 this week.  It’s enough to buy a couple of gallons of milk and my pantry is well stocked with enough stuff that we’ll eat just fine.  It’s a good chance to practice my creative pantry cooking skills, but I’ll be doing things differently in May.

Makeover Your Grocery Budget in 5 Easy Steps

Thank you to everyone who weighed in on the survey.  If you missed it, you can still add your opinion.  I’ll be checking the final answers next Tuesday and working to meet the needs expressed there.

It’s no surprise that most of you are here to shrink your grocery budgets!  I love that, because food is usually the single biggest budget item in any household budget.  For most families it’s even bigger than their mortgage!  Unlike a mortgage bill that’s set in stone, the grocery budget is flexible.

As a busy mom of 6, I know how easy it is for grocery spending to get out of control. The grocery budget is the largest flexible expense in my home. I can run around the house turning off lights and unplugging appliances but won’t save nearly as much on electricity for my efforts as I do when I manage my food spending well. Currently our food budget for our family of 8 is $630 a month. This is just food—not cleaning supplies or shampoo. Our food budget includes $30 for my husband to buy lunch making ingredients to keep at work. With 31 days in the month we average $2.50 per person per day or $.63 a meal.  When our kids were in private school, our food budget was $400 a month.  We have 3 teens (and 3 younger kids.) It wasn’t easy, but it was possible.  It’s ok to make your budget reflect your current income and bill situation and then increase or lower it as the situation changes.

 

I’ve been helping families reduce food spending for the last 8 years and have found the average family overspends on food enough to buy a cruise ticket every month. Some could buy 2. Let that sink in for a minute.

 

Real food with plenty of produce is important to me. I just shop for it differently than most. Awhile ago I went to a freezer-cooking day with friends. We all had the same recipes, same shopping list and went home with the same amount of food. The others spent between $200-$350, I spent $85. We made multiple meals of Bacon Butternut Squash Casserole; Creamy Spaghetti Squash; Pesto Stuffed Chicken Breasts; and homemade meatballs and marinara. One family shopped at a local chain grocery store, another at Sprouts, a third at Costco, and I shopped primarily at Aldi supplemented with a few items from my home pantry.

When I’m shopping, I spend a few seconds on every item looking for the best value without compromising health. For the freezer cooking day, I made a few substitutions that didn’t change the final outcome of the recipes. For example a pound of bacon was $3, a bag of real bacon crumbles was $1.50. Prepared Pesto sauce was $1.50, the ingredients to make my own pesto were more than $10. Before choosing to buy prepared pesto I made sure there weren’t any preservatives or questionable ingredients. One of the recipes called for a block of provolone cheese. Aldi only carried provolone slices, but they were half the price of buying a block of cheese anywhere else. I bought the slices and tore them into pieces instead of grating cheese from a block. My final recipes turned out just as delicious as the others.

Here are the basics to our low budget.

  1. Use Cash. We put our grocery money in an envelope and when the money is gone, I’m done for the month. I like to save a bit in a separate envelope for the last week of the month. Just to make sure we can still buy milk and eggs.


2. Know what things Cost. Is that “sale” actually a good price? I have a head for numbers and pay attention to food prices. If I didn’t I’d write them down in a pocket notebook. Then when prices drop significantly I recognize the deal.

3. Stock up when the prices are at their lowest. When I see that good deal, I buy enough that I won’t have to buy until the next sale.

4. Meal plan with the food I already have on hand. I call it reverse meal planning. Instead of shopping from a list of recipes, I shop for the best deals I can find, then meal plan around those foods.

5. Buy necessities first, rare treats after. Everyone likes a treat now and then, but it’s easy to spend too much on cookies, chips and soda and not have enough money for healthy foods. I buy the essential foods first. Then if I have money left, a treat or two is ok.

Once we get used to thinking about grocery shopping in a new way, it becomes second nature to spend less without sacrificing nutrition.   If you’d like to find out more, I hosted a whole month of learning to reduce food costs here.

 

Dirty Don’s Haul and Adrenal Fatigue

I made a little venture over to Dirty Don’s today.  If you’re new here, that’s a salvage grocery store in my area.  There are salvage groceries in almost every large city where they get freight from semi’s and trains that didn’t make their destination on time. The stores can buy the merchandise for pennies on the dollar and then re-sell it at a discount to their customers. It might be perfect or dented or repackaged in some way. Dirty Don’s is like that, but the trashiest of all the stores in my area.  For that reason it has the best potential bargains, but I have to check the expiration dates closely.  They don’t have any qualms about selling stuff 4 years (or more) past expiration.

I spent just under $30 and this is what I got:

Dirty Dons 2-8-16

Multigrain Cheerios: $1 a box (2)

100% whole wheat tortillas: $.75 a bag (4)

Long Grain Brown Rice: 2 lbs for $1 (4)

Chicken Hot Dogs: 3 lbs for $1

Cutie Clementines: 3 lbs for $2 (2)

Strawberries: 1 lb for $.50 (4) (I know you’re wondering, I did throw away 1 berry per box but the rest were good)

Mandarin oranges: 3 cans for $1 (6)

Tomato Puree: #10 can $2

Marinara Sauce: #10 can $2

Tropical Fruit Salad: #10 Can $3.25

Blueberry white tea: $1.50 box

They had a lot of other deals, but I was pretty selective about what I bought and purchased fairly small quantities this time.  It’s becoming harder for me to feed my family on our budget and I wanted to make sure that I had money left for fresh stuff the rest of the month.

Insert Squealing tires as we change subject.

I’ve been blogging a bit over at my other site, Centsablyfit.com, about my experience with Adrenal Fatigue.  It’s not really a topic that I felt comfortable featuring on this blog.  I needed to get my thoughts organized about it so I could go back and remind myself how far I’ve come and what is working.  If it’s a topic you are interested in, here are  my last 4 posts:

my journey with adrenal fatigue
finding professional help for adrenal fatigue
Natural Help for Adrenal Fatigue

Symptoms and Testing for Adrenal Fatigue

I have a little bit more to say on the topic so if this is important to you, subscribe over there so you won’t miss anything.  I also post my favorite fitness recipes there as a resource when meal planning for myself.

Top 15 Economic Survival Foods

Top 15 Economic Survival Foods

Yesterday I asked you to think about how you would spend $100 if that was all you had to feed your family for the month.  I’ve never lived on such a small budget for our family.  Even when we were getting out of debt and had 3 small children (instead of 6 big ones) our budget was $185.   That’s as low as I’ve ever gone.  There are a bunch of great ideas in the comments and several people even mentioned giving it a try for a month.  Report back if you do, but understand I’m not asking or even suggesting someone try it.  It’s just a mental exercise.

Here’s a list of the highest nutrition lowest cost foods I know.  Some of them have been smeared online as unhealthy foods (ahem…..whole wheat, cough cough….potatoes), but since the dawn of creation they have sustained healthy human life.  If God made it and called it good for food, it’s good enough for me. None of these links are affiliate links.  Links are for proof of price.  There may be lower cost options available locally. Unlinked foods are from Aldi.

1. Whole Wheat Berries:  $15.48 for 25 lbs;  274 servings at $.05 each.  I would grind them fresh for pancakes, whole wheat bread, English muffins, tortillas, pitas, cracked forhot breakfast cereal, sprout it for salads etc. It would be our main diet staple.

bucket of wheat

2.  Long Grain Brown Rice: 5 lbs for $3.38; 50 servings at $.07 each.  I would use it to make rice, pilaf, soup, pudding, hot breakfast cereal, and yes–sprouts.

brown rice package

3. Dry Pinto Beans: 4 lbs for $3.82; 52 servings at $.07 each. I would use these in soup, casseroles, with rice, veggie burgers, ground as flour to add protein to bread, and grow sprouts etc.

pinto beans

  1. Rolled Oats (Aldi): 42 oz for $2.39; 30 servings $.08 each.  I would make hot breakfast cereal; add it to bread, muffins, pancakes etc.

Background of rolled oats, a grain cereal in which the seeds have been milled and rolled for use as a cooking ingredient and breakfast cereal

  1.  Popping Corn: 2 lb for $1.98; 27 servings at $.07 each. I would pop this for snacks and grind it for cornbread and hot cereal mush.

popping corn

6. Celery: 1 stalk for $1; 16 servings for $.06 each. Soups, salads; with peanut butter. The beauty of this food is you can regrow it from the base.

7. Potatoes: 10 lbs for $2.99; 20 servings for $.15 each; baked potatoes, soups, home fries; mashed potatoes, bread.

8. Carrots: 2 lbs for $1; 8 servings for $.12 each; salads; soups; muffins, pancakes;

9. Eggs: $1.59 a dozen; 8 servings for $.20 each

bowl of eggs 2_edited-1

10. Milk: $2.15 a gallon; 16 servings for $.13 each.  I would use it in pancakes; hot cereal; biscuits; and yogurt making

11. Peanut Butter: 40 oz for $2.99; 35 servings for $.09 each.  Sandwiches, muffins, and as a dip for veggies and fruit

12.  Apples: 3 lbs for $2.69; 9 servings for $.29 each

13. Bananas: 4 lb for $1.16; 16 servings for $.07 each

14. Onions: 3 lb for $1.99; 12 servings for $.16;  add to soups and casseroles to add flavor and nutrition

15. Whole Chickens: 5 lbs for $4.75; 16 servings for $.29 each.  I would boil chicken for bone broth soup and remove the meat to combine with beans, rice, etc…and make it stretch.

chicken whole

Everything on this list totals $49.36 and has 589 servings averaging $.08 each.  (Keep in mind it takes several servings of different foods to make a balanced meal.)  I still have half my budget left to do this again or find a little more variety to add to the mix.  While I was shopping and doing the research for this post, they had chicken legs on sale for $.49 a lb; oranges 4 lb for $3; broccoli for $1 a lb and avocados for $.39 each.

In March, I could add nutrition by gathering wild edibles like lamb’s quarter, clover blossom and leaves; violets; wild chives; and dandelion.  Hunting for more protein options is another possibility. There are also 30+ harvester drop off locations in driving distance from my house where we could get free food several times a week.  Area grocery stores donate product to them for a tax deduction when they get close to their sale date. Most of these drop offs do not ask for registration or proof of income, but do require some wait time to stand in line.

When I made my purchases I would also think about what could regrow into food for the future.  For example, celery and green onions can be regrown from the base. Potatoes can be cut into pieces and planted in the spring.  Right now is the time to start seeds from peppers, tomatoes, and cantaloupe.  You can grow them from seeds found inside your purchased food. Here’s more info on growing a garden from grocery store food and here.

What do you think? Did any of the cost per servings surprise you?

 

 

 

If you only had $100

I’m guesting posting over at Don’t Waste the Crumbs Today on 5 Fail Proof Ways to Reduce Grocery Spending.  I’d be honored if you’d come visit with me and check it out.

What if you only had $100
Think carefully about this question and put your answer in the comments below.  What would you buy to feed your family if you only had $100 for the entire month?  Let’s say you have a decent pantry of staples like yeast, salt, spices, and oil, so you just needed to buy food things.  I want to know what you would you get and what would you would cook with it to keep your family alive and healthy.

I think about this some times when I hear that my donation of $20 can feed a family in Africa for a week.  What are they eating?  Is it balanced?  Would I be too proud to live on it?  When my husband suddenly lost his job 8 years ago, we faced a time like this.  I told Darren that with $200 I could run the whole household for the month, not just food.  It was a fun challenge and one I was equally happy to have end.  Not until I had to do something drastic did I see what I was really capable of.

Let’s pretend it’s drastic.  What would you do?