Of all the memories a person has of growing up, few beat those created in the kitchen–eating your favorite meal, baking cookies with your mom, blowing out the candles on a birthday cake during your childhood, surrounded by family and friends who you love. In many homes, the kitchen is where everyone gathers to cook, snack, and enjoy meals together. That also means the kitchen can become a source of stress for the main food prepper of the house, especially if that person is budget conscious and interested in providing healthy meals for the family.
While every home is different, there are some universal tips and tricks that a lot of moms use to simplify the process of preparing healthy meals for themselves and their families.
Let’s be real though. Pinterest, Instagram, and Mommy Blogs have convinced all of us that we have to be in the kitchen creating photoshoot-worthy, plated meals for our families. So before we dive deeper into the best ways to meal plan on a budget, let’s do a quick group activity. Take a deep breath. And forgive yourself for not being a trained chef, food stager, financial planner, and home organizational consultant all wrapped up into one mom. It doesn’t matter that you’re not all of those things because: You. Are. Enough. You work hard and want to prepare beautiful meals for your children–meals that will help them grow up to be lovers of nutritious, wholesome, delicious food. That is a wonderful goal and, honestly, one that all moms should strive for.
But that doesn’t mean you have to be creating 30-ingredient masterpieces for every meal (unless that’s your thing of course). A meal can be both simple and impressive; delicious and nutritious; unique and inexpensive. With some small adjustments and a willingness to try new things, you could be spending less money on food and creating easy, delicious meals each day. Here are some ideas on where to start:
Keep a food journal – and not the kind you think
One of the best ways to make sure you’re not overspending on items you purchase every time you’re at the grocery store is to keep track of the cost. Bring a little notebook with you to the grocery store and keep track of price per pound on onions, tomatoes, etc. You can do the same with bulk items as well as the price for boxed or canned products. This may not dissuade you from purchasing that product, but if you paid $1.49/pound the one week, you may not be willing to spend $3.49/pound the next. And if you decide against a certain product because the price is a bit inflated that week, choose something similar to replace it with. Maybe you’ll find a new favorite ingredient for your stir-fry or a new brand of granola bars.
Make meal prep social
Preparing three meals per day seven days per week can be exhausting. Take a task off your plate by working with friends to rotate around each other’s homes for meals. With a group of four families, you can pick a day that works for everyone and rotate every week so that each family is responsible for one day. And while this would mean you have a lot more food to prepare, buying in bulk can be a lot less expensive. Everyone can go home with leftovers and food waste doesn’t have to be a concern. Plus, it’s just more fun to be around friends and to cook for people you care about.
Shop more often
This is an incredibly difficult piece of advice for most parents to follow through with. Shopping more than once per week is nearly impossible for some people. Nevertheless, shopping more often for fewer items has been proven to significantly reduce a family’s food waste. Less food waste leads to less spending. And less spending results in a much more friendly overall food budget. How many times have you purchased all your food for the week only to have one or more family member come down with some sort of illness that actually calls for soup? Or maybe you purchased ingredients for healthy meals all week but you could just use a night of mac n’ cheese and ice cream. Shopping more often can help a family adjust to the actual needs on a given week.
Go vegetarian or vegan
This may not be appealing to some families, but reducing the amount of meat used in meal prep can significantly decrease spending on food. Vegetarian or vegan food includes some really popular dishes like pasta, pizza, soups, and stir-fry, so it won’t necessarily feel like you’re missing out on anything during those meals. Commit to eating vegetarian for part of the week and see how it goes. It may be a new budget technique that leads to some of your favorite new recipes!
Give your leftovers a second chance
Often times, people wrap up their leftovers with every intention of eating it at a later time. But then the cravings kick in and they make something entirely new for the next meal. Make sure you stick to the plan with leftovers but give them a bit of a facelift when you eat them the second time around. Turn your spaghetti and meatballs into a casserole. Put your tossed salad into a grilled chicken wrap. Or try a really fun leftover trick: a design-your-own pizza night. All you need is a sauce, cheese, and premade dough from the grocery store (or tortillas, especially if there is a gluten allergy in the family). Have everyone raid the refrigerator for the leftovers of their choice and build their dream pizza. You never know–Leftover Pizza might turn into a new family favorite.
Make your own stock
I wouldn’t recommend trying to make all your own base ingredients, but something like veggie or chicken stock is so easy to make that it’s not even worth purchasing a canned version. After cooking any meal, take all the food scraps and add it to a crockpot with water, garlic, and salt. Leave it for about four hours and voilà: you have yourself some stock. Use an ice cube tray to freeze cubes of stock so you can throw it into any sauce or soup recipe for an extra kick of flavor.
Become best friends with your freezer
Everyone has a few items that have been living in their freezers for so long that they’ve practically become part of the walls. The freezer comes in real handy during the case of the sick child. If you’ve prepared all sorts of meals for the week and you have to switch over to chicken noodle soup and orange juice, put that prepared food directly into the freezer so it doesn’t go to waste. But here’s the catch: you have to actually serve it the next week or soon after. Be sure to check your freezer before your next grocery store trip and see what’s available for that week’s meals. Buy that much less at the grocery store to avoid redundancy and save some cash.
Keep a list of crowd favorites (and least favorites)
Every kid has a favorite food… until they hate that food and move on to something else. And we all know that this can happen in a matter of minutes. Put a whiteboard or chalkboard somewhere in the kitchen for members of the family to write their favorite foods and those that aren’t so exciting to them anymore. As long as everyone knows that writing it down doesn’t mean it’s going to appear on their plate for dinner, it can be a fun way to explore new ideas and learn more about each other. The list may even inspire your next shopping trip.
Of course, these are just a few of the thousands of ways people can create healthy, budget-friendly menus for their homes. What are your favorite meal prep or food budget tips?