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Meal planning strategies to save you money - bonjourHan.com

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I’m actually not going to tell you how to meal plan. Everyone’s circumstance is so different, and different methods work better with different personalities, and I myself have changed my “method” so many times over the years because I kept needing to flex with what would work best for us in that season of life. I honestly still haven’t landed on a “method” that I love.

That being said, the basic bones of what I have done the majority of the time is to plan out several dinners for the time period (week, biweek, or month), but not every single dinner (leftovers are awesome, guys, and so are spontaneous dinners out with friends). I get what I need for those meals, and then I have a list of things I can make. I pick from the list based on whatever I need to fit my circumstances that day. Things come up, and I don’t want to be locked into a specific meal for a specific day. I will maybe plan a few specific breakfasts and lunches for that time period, but otherwise I just get some staples and we figure it out as we go for breakfast and lunch (more on breakfast and lunch in later posts).

BUT this post is not about meal planning methods. I just figured it would be helpful to know what I do for context. Nor am I getting into specific ideas yet. This post is more about some higher-level strategies to keep in mind before you sit down to plan meals.

Overlap ingredients

Just a quick word on this: Try and overlap ingredients so that you’re not buying single-use items. If you really need Swiss cheese for something, incorporate Swiss cheese into a couple of other meals as well. If you buy pesto for pasta, maybe also use it in an omelet another day and to season some chicken another day. It can help save money when you use ingredients across several meals.

Seasoning, not stuff

Avoid high-dollar ingredients and stick with cheap, flavorful seasonings.

Guys, I cannot say this enough. Get to know your seasonings. Seasoning does not mean spicy. It just means flavorful! Instead of smothering everything in cheese ($) or cream ($) or fill in the blank ($), give your food flavor from other things. Don’t be afraid to use a lot of seasoning! It doesn’t mean you can’t use cheese or sour cream, but don’t rely on them for flavor.

Honey, for example, is an expensive ingredient. Marinades or sauces that require more than a couple tablespoons of honey are an automatic “no” in my book. That “sticky honey chicken drumstick” recipe looks delicious, but I’m not going to use $7 of honey just to add flavor to my chicken.

There are a lot of herbs and spices in the world, and even more ways to combine them. I love the creativity that invites, but you might not. It does not have to be intimidating, though. This goes back to what I said in this post about learning how to do a few things really well. Find a couple of marinades or seasoning combinations that you really like, and perfect them. (I’ll be posting my favorites later.) You don’t need to “kind of” know 10 chicken marinades. Have 1 or 2 no-fail staple chicken marinades that you know are delicious, and you can use that chicken for all kinds of things.

The beautiful Central Market wall of bulk herbs and spices is my happy place, but we don’t have one here in Kansas City, so now I get my bulk spices from Sprouts. I buy all my spices in bulk. For some, the benefit is buying exactly what you need (a baggie of dried dill for $0.15, anyone?) rather than a whole jar of a spice you may only use once or twice. For me, the benefit is paying a tiny fraction of the cost for large quantities of spices I know I will use over and over. It is so much cheaper.

Vinegar is another cheap, flavorful addition to amp up the flavor. Dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and rice vinegar (I make a lot of Asian dishes) are some of my staples that I almost always have on hand.

As you plan your meals, try to add up the approximate cost of all the “flavor” items. Is it surprising? Think of how much “actual food” you could buy with that money. Do what works for you; I’m not trying to guilt anyone into never making honey chicken ever again. And you don’t need to say goodbye to cream cheese forever, but a general awareness of the cost of “flavor” items can help you better manage where your money goes. (I will always and forever make homemade tzatziki sauce to go with my already super-flavorful chicken shawarma because I am not a monster.)

Please hear me: I am not saying “Eat boring food.” I am saying, make amazing food without the $$ ingredients!

Herbs, spices, and vinegars are your secret weapon. Use them!

Staple recipes

Beyond your meal plan, it is helpful to have some staple recipes you can whip up in a pinch that don’t call for “special” ingredients but rather pantry ingredients you might already have on hand. (Think snickerdoodle cookies, balsamic roasted chicken, or vanilla raisin baked oatmeal.)

For one, you won’t have to go out and make a special purchase, which is particularly helpful in a time crunch. For two, vanilla and cinnamon are much cheaper per use than chocolate chips ($), pecans ($$), berries ($$), cream cheese ($), maple syrup ($$), heavy cream ($), caramel ($), etc. Some of these items are still fairly cheap, but it’s helpful to have some staple recipes that don’t require ANY extra items.

At the grocery store

Your job isn’t done once you have made up your grocery list.

You can also get to know the general cost of things at many grocery stores around you, and know your bottom line. For me personally, I will not pay more than $2/lb for chicken, because I know I can almost always find it for that price somewhere. I will not pay more than $1/lb for apples, so if apples are more expensive than that, I just don’t buy apples. I’m not being stubborn. It just takes that kind of strategy to make sure my budget can stretch all the way to the end of the month while still feeding my family well. This is where being flexible and using substitutions comes in. If I need to make a very specific dish for a specific reason, then I will just go ahead and pay for the apples. But otherwise, I will flex. This can throw a wrench into many people’s idea of a “meal plan,” haha!

Familiarizing yourself with general prices at the stores around you can also help you strategize which things to buy at which store. Back in Texas, we just made a morning of it every two weeks and went to all three of our regularly frequented grocery stores to get what we needed for that time frame. Now, we make more frequent smaller stops when we happen to be near one of the grocery stores.

A few weeks ago I threw caution to the wind and tried to get everything I needed for about a week’s worth of meals all at one store, and it ended up costing about 1/3 more than I was expecting. Oops. It was a pretty tight stretch after that. Some people really value being able to stop at one place and get all their grocery shopping done, and that’s great! But the cost savings makes it worth it for me to split my shopping between a few different stores.

I realize much of what I have said here is pretty broad or vague, so I will get into many more specific recipes and tips and tricks in later posts. I have so many things I can’t wait to share with you! This is just to give an overview of a few concepts I try to consider when I plan our meals. These things won’t all work for everyone, but maybe they will give you something to think about. Was anything surprising to you?

Other posts in the Stretch Your Grocery Budget series:

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Homemade yogurt is so easy in the slow cooker! ~ bonjourHan.com

We eat a lot of yogurt.

  • We eat it as a snack plain or mixed with cinnamon
  • We eat it for breakfast mixed with thawed frozen blueberries, a sprinkle of nuts or granola, and a drizzle of honey
  • We eat it as a sour cream substitute on top of our food
  • We bake with it
  • We use it in tuna salad and chicken salad to lighten up the mayonnaise
  • We mix it into curries to cut the spice for the kids
  • I’ve even used it as an emergency substitute for milk when baking (more to come on that)

Several years ago I started making my own yogurt, and it has saved us quite a bit of money. This recipe yields a lot of fresh yogurt, plus a quart or two of whey, depending on how thick I want my yogurt. Because of the return, I usually feel okay spending the extra for organic milk (around $6 for a gallon around here). This can be even cheaper if you don’t use organic milk. I have done both.

Ingredients

If you don’t go through absurd amounts of yogurt like we do, you can easily half the recipe.

  • 1 gallon of whole milk
  • 1 cup of plain yogurt (Greek or regular)

Look at the ingredients on the yogurt and make sure it includes “live and active cultures.” That is what is going to turn the milk into more yogurt. Once I actually used whey from a previous batch of yogurt when I realized last-minute that I didn’t have any actual yogurt, and it worked! But I only tried it once, so you’re welcome to try it, but maybe get a few successes with the actual recipe first.

Directions

  1. Pour the whole gallon of milk into the slow cooker and replace the lid. Turn on LOW for 3-3.5 hours. I usually set my phone alarm to go off rather than using a timer.
  2. At that point, turn the crockpot OFF but don’t remove the lid. Just leave it alone (with the slow cooker OFF) for 3-4 hours.
  3. After that, ladle out about a cup of the warm milk into a 2-cup measuring cup. Add the 1 cup of yogurt to it and whisk to combine. Pour this mixture back into the slow cooker and whisk.
  4. With the slow cooker still OFF, wrap a bath towel around the slow cooker and place another bath towel on top of the slow cooker. The towels act as insulation so the milk can culture into yogurt. Leave it alone for about 9-12 hours (I aim for about 10).
  5. Place a large colander over a bowl to collect the whey (the wonderful liquid that drips out). Line the colander with two layers of cheesecloth and strain the yogurt on the countertop for 1-3 hours depending on how thick you want it to end up.
  6. Transfer the yogurt into a container and refrigerate. Pour the whey into a jar and refrigerate. You can use the whey in baking as a delicious substitute for water or milk. I have even successfully used it instead of milk to make macaroni and cheese.

It may seem complicated, but once you make it a time or two, it will seem SO EASY. I have gotten into a rhythm where I can make it with minimum dishes and effort. For example, after pouring the whey into a jar, I use the bowl that previously held the whey to wash the cheesecloth. I fill it with dish soap and water, swish the cheesecloth around, then swish it in clean water a few times to rinse. Then both the bowl and the cheesecloth get clean.

You also need to think about when you are going to start; you don’t want to get partway through and realize you are going to have to wake up in the middle of the night to turn off the crockpot or mix in the yogurt (let’s pretend I have never done that). I usually start the process around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. That way, it cultures overnight and it’s ready to strain in the morning.

Do me a favor and don’t taste the yogurt until it has been chilled in the refrigerator. Room-temperature yogurt is not the best way to taste your success.

What are your favorite ways to eat yogurt?

 

 

Grocery store produce aisle

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We keep a pretty tight grocery budget. Sometimes it has been intentional, and sometimes it has been out of necessity. We also love good food and are adventurous eaters, so it takes a bit of work to make that happen. I have gotten a lot of questions over the years on how to save money on groceries, and I have been wanting to gather and share my thoughts for a long time. I do not have it all figured out, and as life has changed over the years, my methods have had to change as well. Staying in budget is not easy for me (though I do stay within budget), and I definitely feel the stretch. I just want to share some things I have been learning over the years in case anyone else feels a few familiar things pulling them in different directions when they try to plan meals or go to the grocery store.

Here are the things I personally try to reconcile as I’m feeding my family:

  • Our grocery budget is not just a nice idea. I have to stay within my budget.
  • My people eat a lot (there are six of us, and my kids are not dainty eaters).
  • We strongly prefer to eat healthy, fresh, unprocessed, “real” food for the most part. We certainly enjoy the occasional drive-thru combo meal or frozen dinner.
  • Having people over and sharing food with friends is an important part of our lives.
  • I have four kids 7 and under, and we homeschool. When I cook, someone is usually either “helping” me or needing something from me. It also means it is less realistic to quickly run to the store for that one thing I forgot.
  • We get tired of repetitive meals, so while “taco Tuesday” and regular weekly meals make sense for some families, they make our family want to ditch dinner and order pizza, which is not a helpful long-term habit. Thus, I have to spend more time and effort to be creative and come up with a wide variety of meals every month.

Does any of that sound familiar?

We buy very little organic food. And as much as my inner Ma Ingalls longs to eat local, farm-fresh everything, it just will not realistically fit in our budget. But we also eat very little processed food, so there’s that. In the end, we do what we realistically can to be healthy, but I’m not going to live as if eating 100% cage-free, organic, grass-fed, locally-sourced, raw, made-from-scratch-with-love-and-kale-dust healthy food is the most important thing in life. It’s just not.

We eat very well on our budget. But there are also a lot of things that we simply do without. As much as I love salmon, I haven’t bought it in years, because the cost per pound for six people is just not a prudent purchase for us. Cheese sticks are a rare treat for my kids. We don’t stock the fridge with bacon. You might be able to buy those things on a regular basis, and that’s great! But that is, I think, an important part of eating well within a budget. Learn what your budget can handle, and get really good at those things. For example, I have developed a vast chicken repertoire and can do magical things with a bowl of oatmeal.

I have a long list of ideas, habits, and tips I have collected over the years, and I look forward to organizing and sharing them with you. Hopefully they can be a help to someone! Is there anything you specifically want to know? Let me know in the comments!

Other posts in the Stretch Your Grocery Budget series:

Green Noodles

Green Noodles - quick, healthy, delicious pasta with spinach and herbs

Flowers would look beautiful in front of my house, but since I am extremely pragmatic, I am using that space for herbs. (Curb appeal? What’s that? At least it’s not weeds.) I have basil, oregano, mint, and parsley in the little flower bed area by my front door. Just a few dollars spent in the spring, and I get fresh herbs until the following winter.

One of my favorite uses for fresh herbs is “green noodles.” The name is not glamorous, but neither are toddlers, so that is what we call it in our house. I make green noodles at least every few weeks, which is quite frequent for me. My kids (5, 3, and 1) love it, and so do I. It is quick and easy. They are not fans of the leafy texture of spinach, so this is an easy vehicle for spinach that they actually like. (However, they are not picky eaters, so I make no promises for you.) I make it with whatever I have on hand — it is never the same twice. I do use dried herbs in the winter when my plants are dead, and this “recipe” still turns out just fine. I just prefer the taste of fresh herbs.

Disclaimer: If you need specific measurements and precise instructions or are extremely Type A, you may want to leave now to preserve your sanity.

Ingredients

Seriously, I use whatever I have on hand. It is usually some combination of these things, and it is never measured.

  • 1 lb pasta (or more… or less) — we have also used egg noodles.
  • Several handfuls of fresh spinach, preferably lightly steamed (I like to pack it into my little microwave steamer, steam for 1 or 2 minutes, and then just rinse out the steamer after removing the spinach. One less dish to wash. Did I say that out loud?)
  • Handful of fresh basil (or about 1/2 – 1 tsp dried basil)
  • Maybe about 1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves (stripped from the stem) (or about 1/4 tsp dried oregano)
  • Handful of fresh parsley (or about 1 tsp dried parsley)
  • Sprinkle of smoky paprika
  • Tiny sprinkle of cayenne pepper (this does not make it spicy; it just adds flavor)
  • Maybe 1/4 – 1/2 tsp salt
  • Maybe 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 1-2 cloves fresh garlic — you can also use a sprinkle of garlic powder if you don’t have fresh garlic
  • 1-2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
  • Blob of plain yogurt (Greek or regular) OR about 1/4 cup pasta water (the water you drain out after cooking the pasta)
  • About 2-4 Tbs parmesan cheese

Directions

This recipe is similar to the avocado pasta recipe I posted a while back, but this is more of a pesto than a sauce and is a little quicker to make.

  1. Boil pasta according to the package directions. While it is heating and cooking, you can assemble the pesto.
  2. Toss the remaining ingredients into a blender or food processor. (If you are using pasta water, you can blend everything else, and then blend again whenever the pasta is done and you get some of the pasta water.)
  3. Taste and add spices as needed. Also add additional liquid or yogurt as needed to thin it out to your desired texture. Remember – this is supposed to flavor the entire batch of noodles, so you want the flavor of the sauce to be a bit stronger than you might want just to eat by itself.
  4. Stir the pesto into the pasta.

After you have made it a few times, you may learn your favorite ratios and be able to toss it together quickly and with little thought (which is a win in my book). I’d love to hear your favorite way to make it!

Quick And Easy Spinach Herb Pasta - delicious!

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Blueberry Banana Pancakes ~ bonjourHan.com

These pancakes look and smell amazing. I’m sure they would taste amazing too, but unfortunately I don’t like bananas. “Don’t add bananas,” you might say. But these faces love bananas.

This is why I make banana pancakes even though I can't stand bananas.

So the bananas stay.

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup buckwheat flour
  • 1/4 cup white whole wheat flour
  • 2 Tbs cornmeal
  • 1 Tbs sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 Tbs coconut oil
  • 1 – 1 1/4 cup unsweetened almond milk (My 3-year-old is lactose intolerant)
  • Butter for greasing the pan (Not THAT lactose intolerant)
  • 1 cup fresh blueberries
  • 1 banana, thinly sliced

I doubled the recipe and froze most of the pancakes. On busy mornings (or regular morning, let’s be honest) I can just pull a few out of the freezer and pop them in the microwave. My kids eat them unadorned with their hands, and aside from random smears of blueberry juice, cleanup is minimal. Unless the 3-year-old wants to see what happens when he crumbles the rest of his pancake into his cup.

Directions

  1. Whisk the dry ingredients together in a bowl.
  2. In a separate bowl beat the eggs.
  3. In a third bowl or microwavable measuring cup, heat the almond milk and coconut oil in the microwave until slightly warm (try 30 seconds). The coconut oil should be melted, but you should be able to stick the tip of your finger in it without feeling pain. That is my highly technical method for calculating the temperature of my baking liquids. If it is too warm, let it sit for a few minutes.
  4. Slowly pour the milk/coconut oil mixture into the egg bowl while whisking.
  5. Add the dry ingredients to the bowl of wet ingredients and whisk gently until mostly smooth (some lumps are ok). It should be somewhat thin, like cake batter.
  6. Gently fold in the blueberries.
  7. Heat a skillet or griddle over medium heat and when hot, “draw” all over the griddle with the unwrapped end of the stick of butter (or do something more civilized, whatever).
  8. Ladle about a 5″ circle of batter onto the griddle and drop a few banana slices on top. Repeat until you run out of space. Once the tops have lots of tiny bubbles and the pancakes appear to be more solid, flip them over to finish cooking.

I then cool them on a cooling rack and pop the whole thing in the freezer to flash freeze before removing them to a gallon-size plastic bag. Because I’m not the awesome mom who cooks breakfast in the actual morning (ain’t nobody got time for that).

Blueberry Banana Pancakes from bonjourHan Blog

 

This recipe is adapted from a book called “Cast Iron Cooking” by Dwayne Ridgaway.

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