Ok, here is the big one....the food budget. The area that I feel like I should be able to do the most good. Because really, even though commercial food service is different then cooking at home for two people it has still helped me pick up some knowledge and skills that should make having a tight food budget easier.
First off, I am going to make sure that we are utilizing our staple items. These are the items I either buy every week or at least have some supply of 90% of the time. Our staple items are:
*A wide variety of salad dressings
*A wide variety of cereals
*Olive or Canola oil
*A wide variety of dried spices
*Generic 100 cal packs or at least a cake mix or something to indulge our sweet tooth.
*Boxed Mac and Cheese
Some of these items are more for Nathan than me. I think he could live on boxed Mac and Cheese. And while I don't mind it, it has sooo many calories that I try to steer clear of it. And although he loves my cooking, he also loves the convenience of being able to just throw a sandwich and a 100 calorie pack in his lunch bag for work. My big must haves are the produce and the variety of salad dressings. I try to eat a vegetarian diet as much as I can during the week, so having produce on hand makes that a lot easier.
We get all these items from one of my favorite grocery stores...Aldi. For those of you that have never been to an Aldi, they are a discount grocer that carries very limited stock at low prices. Most of the above staple items I have listed are 25-50 % less than the cost of a regular grocery store, even when the store is having a sale. And even though their selection is limited, I find it fairly easy to menu plan now that I know the layout of the store and what they regularly carry. I do occasionally stop at another grocer for some items, but I would say that 95% of what I need is at Aldi.
With that said, Aldi isn't the best grocery store for everyone. While they are starting to carry speciality products like organic and low fat, they are still very far from having the large variety that some people desire in their diet. And while the one I shop at is very clean, many discount grocery stores have the reputation for being dirty. Plus, if it bothers you to shop with rednecks, than Aldi isn't the place for you.
Often times when I talk about shopping at Aldi I am asked about the quality of food. I can honestly say their has only been one or two products I have bought their that I wasn't 100% happy with. Everything else has been great. A lot of their produce and meats move quickly because of having such a low variety, so I never have meat or produce that goes bad any quicker than from a regular grocery store.
Besides where I shop I really have about 100 ways to cut cost when it comes to food. When I started to write this post I was trying to figure out how to organize all this information without it being just too crazy. So I think I am just going to take it week by week and tell you what Nathan and I are eating and how I managed to save a few pennies.
Since Nathan and I don't eat together, we each have our separate menus. Unfortunately, Nathan doesn't enjoy a lot of vegetables and I do. I am done trying to make him eat stuff he doesn't enjoy because he just ends up being miserable and perfectly good food gets thrown away. This week Nathan's eating:
*Stuffed Chicken and Cheddar Mashed Potatoes
*Mac and Cheese
This week I'm eating:
*Veggie wraps with loaded Spanish rice
*Maybe some soup?
First Nathan's menu. The #1 thing I did this week to cut cost was turn 1.5 lbs (2 large, 1 medium) of chicken breasts into 8 servings by butterflying them. Nathan could easily eat 1.5 lbs in two sittings. So I had to work a little magic to make them into what he would find more substantial. I took my trusty mallet and pounded out 4 of the breasts into thin pieces. I made up a kind of Cajun style stuffing of toasted corn bread crumbs, spicy sausage (both leftover in the freezer), sauteed onions and bell peppers, garlic, Cajun seasoning, and just a little shredded cheddar and butter to kind of hold the mixture together. I put this mixture on the chicken, rolled it up (no toothpicks needed!) and baked it for a few minutes. A totally easy, yummy dish that Nathan told me tonight that he LOVES.
So I took what would have been a wimpy 2-3 oz chicken breast and turned it into a filling, tasty little concoction that was cheap. Really doing a stuffed chicken breast is so versatile. Another stuffed chicken recipe I use frequently has Italian bread crumbs, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, garlic, Italian herb blend and just a little butter. Again, so cheap, but still yummy. And doing it this way really helps us cut costs through portion control.
One great and cheap item from my menu is my loaded Spanish rice. I bring 1/2 c. water and 1/2 c. salsa to a boil and add 1 c. instant white rice along with cumin, chili powder, garlic, cayenne, and sauteed onions and bell peppers. Once the rice is cooked I add some black beans. And that's it. Good by itself or sometimes I put it in a tortilla with cooked veggies like zucchini and squash. I love it, and you really can't get much cheaper than rice and black beans.
The other item on list this week that is super cheap is soup. I love making soup and it is definitely a good way to stretch a dollar. I usually try to get it on my meal plan once a week, but when it is hot outside it is really tough. However, this week might have to be an exception because of the cheddar mashed potatoes I made Nathan. I am thinking I may have made just a little too much, and mashed potatoes are an AWESOME base for a great soup. I will just cook a potato, make a roux of margarine and flour, saute onions, add the mashed potatoes, milk, more cheddar and some seasonings and I will have a very tasty and quick soup from mostly leftovers that need to get used up anyway.
So that is where we are going to save this week. Again, I have a ton of food tips up my sleeve, but I don't want this one post to get more massive than it already is. My mind is already thinking of another post about of how I meal plan with utilizing leftovers and what is already on hand. But to wrap up the budget series, here is the challenge:
As of August 1st we have $350 combined to spend on food, misc, and entertainment/going out. I combined everything because I think we may have some overlapping into each budget. I have decided that we are majorly dependant upon our debit cards so anything that isn't a bill or gas will be paid in cash so we can truly understand what we are spending. I am also keeping receipts so that at the end of the month I can get an exact amount on what when where.
Our first few days left me questioning if we could really meet our goals, but hey, it is totally worth a shot. Sure we could have some huge unexpected expense come up and we might fail, but I just want to try and see how it goes. Wish Nathan and I luck!