One of the most challenging aspects of saving on groceries is trying to figure out what to actually make for dinner, when you’ve been diligent about shopping the sales and building up your stockpile. After all, there is nothing worse than suddenly realizing it is quarter after five, the kids are starving, and you have a pantry FULL of food, but absolutely NO idea what to cook!
While there are times where I really enjoy the challenge of creating tasty new recipes using whatever ingredients I have on hand, lately it has felt like dinner in the Soukup house has been more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind-of-show. There has been a lot of
creative desperate improvising.
(Peanuts + cold cereal + grapes = a balanced meal! Right?)
For most of you, however, peanuts and Special K does not a dinner make, which means you probably will have to put a tad more effort into figuring out how to balance great sales with great meals.
There are a lot of different approaches you can take. Depending on your personality, food preferences, and time constraints, some will work better than others. It may take some trial & error to find out what works best for your family, and you may also find that what worked for you at one point isn’t working so well anymore. In that case, don’t be afraid to try something new!
The “Just Wing It” Approach
If you are going to take the Just Wing It approach, you can’t be afraid to experiment and improvise. This approach will probably save you the most money, since essentially you will be forcing yourself to use exclusively what you have on hand in your stockpile, and almost nothing else.
I have come up with a lot of delicious stockpile meals this way, but I have also had more than a few flops. There are definitely a few things you can do to make your life easier:
- Be sure to keep a good supply of basics on hand, such as butter, milk, sour cream, cheese, flour, & olive oil, as well some onions and garlic.
- Keep an ongoing list of dishes that you’ve made that you can refer to when you get stuck–you may not be able to recreate something exactly, but it might get the creative juices flowing.
- When in doubt, make noodles. It doesn’t get any easier than spaghetti, and those are ingredients you should pretty much always have on hand. You can always jazz up the sauce with some additional spices, meat, or vegetables if you really feel the need to “cook.”
- Don’t always wait until the last minute. It happens, I get it. (Oh, believe me, I get it!) But once the panic has passed, try to think ahead to the next meal. Is there some frozen meat you can thaw overnight or something you can throw in the crock pot in the morning so it is ready by dinnertime?
Freezer cooking used to intimidate me, but that was before I figured out the “cheater” method! If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I am a big fan of easy-to-make freezer recipes that don’t require any pre-cooking. Over the last couple of years, I’ve put together several different 10 Meals in an Hour plans that allow you to whip up ten meals in almost no time at all. All of the recipes use basic, easy-to-find ingredients and allow you to “shop” from your pantry as much as possible. You can find the various plans here.
It does take a little planning to gear up for a freezer cooking day (check out these 7 tips for freezer cooking like a pro), but I love the convenience of having so many pre-made meals at my disposal. Here are a few more tips to keep in mind:
- If you can, plan your menu & print your list at least a month in advance. Figure out what meals you want to make, then shop the store sales each week to avoid paying too much at the last minute.
- In your regular shopping trips, be sure to continue stocking up on sale items when they are at their rock bottom price.
- Don’t forget to stock up on food storage items when you find them on sale! The cost of things like freezer bags, heavy duty foil, & foil baking pans can add up quickly.
“Traditional” Meal Planning
In my pre-coupon life, I would sit down with my favorite cookbooks once a week, pick out a week’s worth of recipes, then make my list and go to the store, nary a coupon (or often even a sale) in site. We ate very well. We also spent over $250 a week on groceries.
I’m not suggesting you do that. However, it is possible to take a more traditional approach to planning your meals and still save money with coupons, even if the savings are not quite as dramatic.
- Before you sit down to plan your meals, take a moment to peek in your pantry and refrigerator, and to glance over the upcoming sale ad. Are there any meals that come to mind based solely on the contents of your stockpile or upcoming sale ad? Add those to your meal plan first.
- Try to pick recipes that include a majority of ingredients you already have on hand. The fewer items you have to buy, the more you will save.
- Be sure when you shop, you are not only buying the items from your meal plan, but also stocking up on any sale items that happen to be a rock bottom price. This will keep your pantry full, and make it easier to plan your meals in the future.
E-Meals Meal Planning
This is sort-of the minimum effort version of traditional meal planning. If winging it is too scary but traditional meal planning sounds far too labor intensive, you may want to try subscribing to E-Meals. This is what I used when I first started shopping with coupons, before I had established a good stockpile and when I was still having a lot of trouble with the idea of not planning every meal. It was a godsend!
For $5 a month, E-Meals will provide a weekly meal plan tailored specifically to your store & based on your store’s sale ad, helping you plan delicious meals using ingredients that are on sale. It is awesome! Most of the recipes are super easy & pretty fast too, and you can even try it out FREE for two weeks!
Even though I am more likely to wing it these days, I still love using the E-Meals lists for dinner ideas, since there are usually at least one or two recipes on the list that I will always have the correct ingredients for.
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Ultimately, if you are going to be successful at cutting your grocery bill in half, you will have to figure out the best way of balancing saving money with cooking to meet your family’s needs. These are just a few of the techniques and methods that I have used, but I’d love to hear your ideas for making meal planning just a little easier as well!
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I am traveling but I plan to give emeals a try as soon as I get home.
One successful strategy I used when my children were small was to interview each member of the family for their likes and dislikes, including their favorite meal(s).
I included that in my two week cycle menu. If someone was not pleased with the meals on a particular day–their day was coming. Don’t neglect to include your favorite meals, too.
Food services use cycle menus and repeat those meals on a rotating schedule (1, 2,3, or 4 week) I repeated meals every two weeks and developed seasonal meal plans taking into account the weather as well as the availability of certain items especially produce in each season. I kept the meals in my home notebook in page protectors and had shopping lists to go with them. Once it was done I only had to make occasional changes to the docs saved on my computer. Easy peasy!!
What a great idea Mary!!! 🙂
My favorite thrifty meal idea is tuna casserole. Combine 1/2 bag of egg noodles (cooked) with 1 can of crm of mushroom soup and about 1/3 can of milk, a can of tuna, and 1/2 cup or so of frozen peas, salt and pepper and top with bread crumbs or crushed crackers. Bake at 325 for 25 minutes.
I LOVE the e-mealz site. I have never heard of it before but have been looking for something like this to help me. I’ve already signed up! But if I win I’d love to give it to my friend if I can’t use it for my next 3months.
Due to health problems I have to eat mostly organic & GMO free food. I hardly find any coupons for the things we eat. How do you cut back on your food bill when organic and grass fed meat and poultry is expensive?