After I got married, I spent the first year of our marriage sure that I had to make the most budget friendly food possible. We were well-off, with savings and a buffer, and an emergency plan and I fed my new husband Polish Bean Soup with sauerkraut for months at a time.
Don’t do what I did.
The real problem was that I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t have a pantry or stockpile. I didn’t know how to reconcile our food philosophy with my budget or find local foods and buy them well. On top of that, I was trying to reconcile food allergies with my budget and medical choices with my food choices. So, I would panic and serve Polish Bean Soup. I was taught me to budget, eat well, and so much more, but not where to start.
After more than a year of trying to figure it all out, I am on a tighter budget, super pregnant, and I have a couple guidelines that have helped.
1. Menu Plan
This one is the universal. Everyone says it, many try to do it, and few have a comfortable system. In conjunction with #2 I have a constant general plan I can hang every meal on. A set meat cut for every week of the year, rice & beans night, soup night, eggs night.
From there I pick what I want to cook each week. Sometimes it is rice, beans, and veggies in bowls. Other days E and I work on perfecting new dishes. Currently we are developing perfectly spiced mujadra, a Lebanese lentils and rice dish.
I cook most of my meals in double batches, so I can freeze a batch.
2. Buy Bulk
Breakfast is oatmeal at my house. We eat lots of beans and rice too. Every few months I buy 50 pounds of oats, lentils, black beans, or rice. We just invested in half a side of beef and we focus on using it.
Buying bulk is only great if you use the food you have. Many bulk meat buyers say they haven’t used what they have. I use a Google Calendar and an inventory in my bullet journal to keep track of the cuts I have, what I need to use, and gives myself a due date to use it. When I packed my meat in the freezer, I inventoried the stock and planned the year’s meat plan.
Bulk buying gives me a lot of freedom for tight months. I have enough food to take care of my family for at least six months. We can spend as little as twenty bucks for supplemental veggies in a month. When we have a bigger budget, I have a set framework for our meals to give us some roll over for the next month.
Get really good at making excellent basics. While we can combine so many of these foods in great combinations, the best way to ensure you use them is to make tasty food out of them. Rice and butter, black beans and bacon fat, or oatmeal and salt are great places to start.
3. Eat Ethnic
This has two aspects. The first is, “Be Creative.” Don’t settle for what you always eat. You will miss out on great opportunities to learn about and love other places. Enjoy your food more or you won’t want to stay in your budget.
The second part is taking advantage of the cultures built around common foods. Most ethnic foods are simple – a grain and a legume. Black eyed peas, red beans, soy, lentils, or black beans and rice. Cajun, Mexican, Middle Eastern, and Far Eastern dishes broken down to their basic form.
Learn to use spices well. Many traditional dishes are simple and accessible to the general population. Their distinct and full flavors were developed to elevate simple food to an art. Often meat is a flavoring or side dish. Ethnic foods are meant to be built off of a base. Using meat well reduces a huge amount in the budget.
4. Leftovers (with Limits)
Eat all your leftovers. Always.
Don’t let things go bad in the back of the fridge. The simplest way to do this is to plan to eat leftovers and limit your storage options.
Have leftovers for lunch, reshape it for dinner, and fry the stale rice for breakfast. For example I made a huge batch of potato corn chowder. Usually I would freeze half, but milk and potatoes don’t freeze well.
Night 1: Soup
Day 2: Lunch: Leftover Soup
Dinner: Potato Corn Chowder with frozen chicken for a Chicken Pot Pie (with company)
Day 3: Lunch: Leftover Chicken Pot Pie
Dinner: Chopped Sausage, Chowder Gravy, cheese broiled on the top
Day 4: Lunch: Leftover Sausage, Gravy, Cheese
Dinner: Last of the soup w/ hot sauce
I couldn’t have used it for four days without creativity, excellence, and planning, but it was a learning process.
An easy trick to make sure that the work you do for your budget will pay off is to cut down on the number of containers you have to store food. Having an infinite amount of Tupperware often means you use all of them. I use mine as a gauge on what I have to eat. We have five plastic containers. One or two are for E’s daily lunch which are constantly used and cleaned and a few extra for future meals. If I need more than five containers to store a meal, I ask if it can be frozen or reworked into my meal plan. If I have used all of our storage containers, we have leftovers for dinner.
5. Start Small
It takes a while to figure out what works for your family. Take one step at a time and learn how food works in your house. Don’t drop everything and start couponing for things you wouldn’t normally buy. Do figure out what simple foods your family loves and find the best deals on them.
Make it an adventure, not a burden. Being a steward of your resources is a life-long journey. Use this as a time to bring your family together, learn more about the world around you, try new things, and grow in humility and grace as a family.
Bonus Tip: Give
We don’t realize how much we have until we give to those who don’t. If you don’t have the money, volunteer at soup kitchens, your church, or out of your home.
Make room for hospitality.
In the end, our lives are a summation of the little things we do. If we eat three times a day, our attitude and actions surrounding food will have a lot to say about who we are.