Friday, January 16, 2009

Budget Meal Planning

A budget favorite: Grandma's Buttermilk Pie

In these tough economic times, what's a person to do when it comes to eating? Budgeting for food is one thing, but being able to actually spend that money wisely so that you can feed your family is a completely different matter. I am going to share with you how I feed our family of 9* on a budget of $150 or less per week. It really is doable and we don't eat beans every night. In fact, beans rarely make it into our menu.

I've already written about how I plan and the lists I make, and I'll elaborate on that below, but I think the best way to show how I'm accomplishing this seemingly impossible feat is to share with you what we eat. Let's start with recent weeks, for instance.

Our budget the past few weeks was $60 less than usual and the cupboards after the holidays were nearly bare, so it was even more of a challenge than usual. We haven't been eating like kings, but nobody is starving and I've even had requests for seconds on several of these meals.

In no particular order, our dinner menus for 8 of those days were:

  • Italian Eggs and turkey bacon
  • Burgers in gravy with rice and fresh green beans
  • Turkey Sliders and Baked Parmesan potato wedges
  • Chili and corn chips (one pot with beans and one without)
  • Meatloaf with mashed potatoes and sweet corn
  • Chuck Roast with potatoes, carrots, salad and rolls
  • Spaghetti and meat sauce with garlic cheese rolls
  • French toast and turkey bacon

Total cost for all of these meals was less than $70 - about $10 per meal, less than $1 per person.

The best part is the extras from leftovers. The Potato and Ham Chowder from A Thousand Soups was made of leftover potatoes from Sunday's dinner; we had a vegetable beef soup that was made from leftover potatoes, carrots, chuck roast and green beans from two dinners; lunch one day was a soup thrown together from leftover chili.

It doesn't matter what my culinary aspirations are, when it comes to keeping my family fed, I go with what works and what I know they will eat. Some of what you read below is from my Dinner Menus page on my site.

A couple tips that help me to keep costs down :

Make a list! This is where the whole list of menus on my website came from. I find that if I figure out what we will eat and make a list to stick to that my bill is lower.

Make another list! I know, some of you just aren't list makers but this one has really helped me; I go through my cupboards and refrigerator/freezer and make a list of everything I have (not spices, etc.) and take a look at that first before I make my shopping list. This has saved me from buying multiples because I wasn't sure if I had the item on hand or not. I am also sometimes able to make full meal plans from what I already have on hand and buy less for that week because of it.

Be flexible! For instance, if I make my list up and get to the store to find that one thing is on sale or just far cheaper that week than another then I try to adapt and plans change a bit. I do try to keep the main dishes the same and make sure that I check the ads FIRST so I know what is on sale or not.

Check the "dented cans" section. Many times I have checked here to find items that were completely fine (and not dented at all!) but were there because the store was phasing them out. I've gotten many things from beans to holiday coffees and candies etc. in this section at a mere fraction of the price, most often as little as 30% of the original. If I don't use the item that week because it wasn't "planned" it simply goes onto the "have-on-hand" list the next week and usually gets used then.

Buying in bulk doesn't always work. Say you're down to the last $5 of your budget and you still need potatoes. There's a large 50 pound bag available for $10 - which is far cheaper than the $4 for 10 pounds you were looking at. Well, if all you have is $5 you go with the smaller package, even if it costs more per pound. Keep in mind that you need adequate storage space for bulk items and that some things can spoil before you're able to use them.

Cooking ahead saves time and money.
Not everyone has the time to do full-blown Once A Month Cooking excursions, but often times a little planning ahead for leftovers can save money. Buying a large roast with the plan to get a second meal from it is a good idea. When there were just 7 of us, I did a whole month of food for less than $200 - that would translate to about $400 right now, but that's still a considerable savings over the usual budget.

Think seasonal!
Anything bought within season is generally better and cheaper than when purchased off-season. With shipping the way it is nowadays, you can certainly get almost any food at any time, but you're still paying more than if you were to pick it up when it's at its peak.

Don't throw it away! Before you think that a half cup of vegetables won't amount to anything, consider the fact that several of those half cups can be added to soup or stew, tossed into an omelet or frittata or added to a casserole. I keep bacon grease on-hand in the freezer along with bread heels, nuts, stock, gravy, leftover soup and anything else I have that isn't enough to serve as-is.

Keep coupons to a minimum. I don't mean don't use them, but don't buy an item just because you have a coupon for it. I have gotten some great deals in the past using coupons like getting items completely free or at a very large savings, but in general I don't save enough on a national brand to make it cheaper than what I get at ALDI.

So, where do I shop that allows me to keep within my budget? Here in the Lehigh Valley, I shop primarily at:

Valley Farm Market
Price Rite

I get out to Wegmans occasionally for items I'm not able to find at my regular stores and I also like Elias Market for things like bulk beans, nuts, seeds, Middle Eastern foods and very affordable produce.

About ALDI - I did a post at about ALDI that got a bit of interest. ALDI seems to be a love-it or hat-it affair, but I can honestly say there is nothing to hate. Please keep in mind that I have a culinary education and have cooked and eaten some of the finest food there is. ALDI really does compare well to other stores and save a very few items, everything is as good as or better than other brands. ALDI's packaging is often far larger than national brands, making the savings even greater. I would say I get at least 85% of my shopping done at ALDI, and sometimes more.

I'm hoping this information helps someone and if you have any other questions, please feel free to email me at irishones7 (at) juno (dot) com.

*This was written in 2009 and a few things have changed since then. The amount of people I now cook for is 7 most days (divorce and one kid living elsewhere), but the budget is still relatively the same. I shop more often at Price Rite for the time being, but I will always recommend ALDI!


Judy@nofearentertaining said...

Love this post. We all need a little help right now don't we!

glamah16 said...

Great, great , great, article. I admit I was a bit of a snob with Aldi, but CS is a loyal customer because the store is based in his home town of Essen Germany.He grew up on Aldi. I was plesantly surprised with their products. Some I wouldn't touch, like any store, but I get dry good, some meats, frozen, and dairy there at times. Their produce varies by store but is getting better.

Kate said...

I'm so glad you are sharing your shopping/cooking tips, along with your fantastic recipes!

I feed my family for about the same amount of money you do, but our menus are sooooo boring. I'm going to add some new stuff in and thrill my husband with the change in menu. :-)

Thanks, Anne!

kbabe1968 said...

I need to start an I love Aldi fan club. Lately ALL of my friends are going to Aldi and liking it so much more than the regular stores. I talked with our manager when I first moved here and found out when they get their produce delivers and when it's on the shelves. I try to shop Aldi on the day after they get their deliveries, and the produce there is awesome.

For those in the Lansdale are there's Colonial Meats & Deli on Broad that has AMAZING prices on deli and meats. (also known as Lansdale Meats & Deli). You can sometimes get boneless/skinless chicken breast for 1.49/lb (as long as you buy 10 lbs or more!). LOVE IT.

Thanks for sharing Anne! :D

Anonymous said...

I love Aldis! Two friend relocated to this area because her husband is one of their regional VPs. She has the inside scoop on who makes many of their products. You're buying "big name" labels at no-name prices. Secondly, another friend was a home economics teacher for years and is truly an amazing cook. She swears by Aldis (despite the fact that she could easily afford to spend any amount on food!) and believes their quality is top-notched.

Great post. Thanks!

Midwest Mom said...

I love your note on buying bulk -- I agree! For potatoes, often the smaller bag has higher quality potatoes, too. There's nothing like buying 20 pounds of "cheaper" potatoes, only to find that you have to throw a third of them away!

Ditto on the saving 1 serving of vegetables! At our house, "mixed vegetables" or "succotash" are served every few days. My kids admit those are their favorite vegetable days (I don't have the heart to tell them it's just all the leftovers at once.) But leftover veggies are also fantastic for pot pies, which we *love*.

Great post! -MM

growingupartists said...

This is such a great post, chock full of interesting links and information. I'm trying to switch over to more turkey products, it looks as if you've successfully made the transition. You sure are inspiring!

Annie Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Annie Jones said...

I pink puffy heart Aldi! And I PPH you, too. I do ALL the same thing you do when meal planning!

sj said...

I love that you are doing these posts Anne... as a Mom of 3 I *know* how important it is to be economical in these lean times and I think so many folks will benefit! Thank you!

Deborah Dowd said...

Great tips, Anne. In tough times planning is always the best place to start. Avoiding impulse buys is important but you also have to have some flexibility for when you get to the market and find marked down veggies or a special on ground beef with additional coupons. To your tips I would add- check your markets the day before and after when their advertised specials change- often they have more stock and they want to get rid of it before the sell by date and will attach money off coupons or offer buy one-get one.

Melissa said...

Wonderful suggestions! Really great and helpful post Anne.

I have to say the one thing that has kept me from wasting or overspending in my household of 2 is making that second list of what I have so I don't buy double, especially for items $4, $5 or more. Lifesaver.

Anonymous said...

Really great compilation of tips here! I am a huge victim of the coupon using, and often buy things I would not normally purchase because I have one, I need to watch that. PS. The ham soup sounds wonderful!

Anonymous said...

I have to thank you for all of these tips. I finally made it to Elias today and I will be going back. I also will be trying AFM because a friend of mine tried it last month and raved about.
Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Have you checked out Bottom Dollar or Produce Junction? I much prefer them over Aldi. I too live in the Lehigh Valley--small world! Just commented on your post about hunger.

Anne Coleman said...

Bottom Dollar wasn't here when this was published in 2009, and Produce Junction may have been, but I haven't had the time to get there. I almost exclusively shop at Price Rite now.