This is Part 2 of a series on frugal/budget cooking. You can read Part 1 here.
Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard
To get her poor dog a bone
When she got there, the cupboard was bare
And so the poor little dog got none!
And then Mother Hubbard went to the grocery store.
Last week, we looked at planning meals from a budget standpoint. This week, let’s take that menu and turn it into some actual produce.
Step 1 is to look at your list of recipes (print them out, it’s easier, I promise) and go through your pantry/fridge and find out what you need. Make a list of what you will have to buy, noting especially that you need THREE onions, not just “onion”. (Don’t ask me how I know that this is important, just learn from my mistakes…) The printouts will come in handy later, as keeping a binder of recipes in your kitchen is a good practice in general. I use a big 2” binder with plastic sleeves, to avoid splattering tomato sauce all over my recipes. If I make something, and it’s awesome, it goes in the binder. If I make something and it sucks? The recipe goes in the recycling. (Sometimes the food goes in the compost too)
Once you have your list, have a snack.
You will be less tempted to buy crap if you’re not starving at the store.
And now, off to the store! (Do not forget your list)
Make the rounds of the store – most items on your list should be on the outside edges, since you’ll be doing most of the actual cooking yourself. Other than produce, dairy, and meat, you’ll probably only need to stop by the freezer aisle for vegetables and the “staples” aisle for rice, pasta, breakfast cereal, and baking stuff.
Do not be tempted by the things on the end-cap at the grocery aisles – those are usually there to BE tempting, but aren’t always a good bargain. However, if you have freezer space, buying an extra pack of meat that happens to be on sale (or close to its sell-by date and reduced) means you can get a really cheap meal out of it next week. Just don’t forget to put it in the freezer IMMEDIATELY once you get home.
If you have a little extra cash to spare on your trip, consider making a double batch of something (like lasagne or a casserole) that you can freeze (labeled, please). That way you’ll have a few aces up your sleeve in a later emergency.
The biggest waste of money you can have when it comes to food is anything that spoils before you can eat it. This can be avoided by sticking to your meal plan and by using things like lettuce and mushrooms earlier in the week. Frozen vegetables are a great option for things like broccoli, green beans, stir fry mix, and corn. If you’re not sure your meat will still be edible, put it in the freezer and defrost it in the microwave or the day before in the fridge.
Also, choosing “shelf stable” fresh produce can reduce the chance of having to toss a science experiment at the end of the week – think apples, potatoes, bananas, oranges, red peppers, onions, garlic instead of apricots, peaches, cucumbers, and lettuce. Keeping as much as you can in the produce drawer of the fridge will help too. Just don’t put the tomatoes or onions in the fridge. Onions will spoil faster, and tomatoes will lose all their flavor if you keep them in the icebox. Also, don’t keep your apples next to the onions and potatoes. Apples, as well as other fruits like peaches, emit ethylene gas (a ripening agent) that will make your onions and potatoes go all gross on you.
And now, a word about coupons.
Coupons are pretty cool. We’ve all seen the advertisements about the women who go to the grocery store and buy six carts of stuff for $3. This is an exciting part-time or full-time job. (That’s the part they don’t tell you on the commercials) While it DOES make sense to shop sales and use coupons, if you’ve got a 40 hour a week job (or more), spending all of your free time clipping coupons is… well, it’s slightly more exciting than watching paint dry. Also, a lot of those deals are made by purchasing in mass quantities.
Instead, I recommend checking out your store’s weekly flyer (they’ll have it on display as you go in, so don’t subscribe to the newspaper for it) and also checking at the website Hip2Save. This website posts list of coupons that may or may not apply to you, but it’s worth a scan on things like personal care items, toilet paper, and some food items. Usually it’s all set up so you just print off the coupon and go!
Being truly coupon savvy is more “Budget Cooking 102”, though, and Mother Hubbard is pretty obviously in the 101 class, so for now stick to using the posted circulars at the store as well as being sensible about deals.
Remember – it’s not a deal if you didn’t intend to buy it or won’t use it. (Buying meat that’s on half price sale so you can freeze it? Good deal. Buying 10 packs of store brand honey buns that are already looking stale? Not a good deal.)
Once you’ve made the rounds of the store with your list, READ THE LIST AGAIN. Especially if you’re using public transportation or bumming a ride from a friend, having to make a 7pm trip to the grocery because you forgot eggs (and really, you can’t substitute for eggs in a lot of recipes) will make you feel particularly silly if you have EGGS written on your list and just didn’t double check.
Then head home, and get everything put away!
Note: If you buy extras of staples (rice, lentils, meats), I highly recommend keeping two marking white boards. Ok maybe three, but hear me out.
- First board goes on the freezer. On it, you write down any meats you buy that you’re saving for next week. Instant menu planning quick list! (Also, you’ll put frozen meals on there, but that’s another post). This is your HAVE IT list.
- Second board goes somewhere REALLY OBVIOUS. On it, you write down anything you need. Toothpaste, potty paper, dog food (*sidelong glance at Mother Hubbard*) butter, ketchup, pickles, whatever. This is your NEED IT list.
- Third board (if you need one) goes in the pantry, to let you know about any staples that you’ve stored somewhere else. If you don’t store staples elsewhere, you don’t need this one.
These boards become your go-to lists before you go-to the store (har har).
When you get home from the store, erase anything you purchased from the NEED IT list. Add anything you’re putting in the freezer to your HAVE IT list.
Use a post it note to write down the menu items on the fridge (so you know your options) and cross them off as you make them. The recipes go in the front pocket of your recipe binder. (Remember, if they suck, throw them away. Don’t make one recipe failure into a repeated recipe failure!)
And now, you’re all stocked for a week (or even maybe TWO!) for meals that you can make, some of which will hopefully be in your slow cooker, and all of which should be delicious!
In the next part of our adventure with Mother Hubbard, we’ll take a look at leftovers, cooking for just one (or just two), and the “healthy snacks and lunches” part of this whole deal. After that, I’ll hook you up with some of my favorite, easy and cheap recipes.