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dairy milk

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Creativity and a little strategy with dairy items is one way I can really save on our grocery budget. How many of us have little containers of sour cream or cottage cheese languishing in the back of our refrigerator because we bought it for a recipe and only used half of it?

Our family has gone through periods of avoiding dairy, particularly when my oldest son was lactose-intolerant for the first five years of his life. If that is you, I will address dietary restrictions in another post. Stay tuned for that!

Substitute

One of the most important things when it comes to saving on milk products is to be flexible. (I see you over there, you with the horrified look and quizzical brow. Just take a deep breath and release your death grip on that recipe.) Don’t be afraid to substitute. If you get a good sense of what you can substitute in different contexts, then you don’t have to buy six different dairy items that barely get used and then sit in the back of your fridge until they finally go bad. For example, we rarely have sour cream on hand. But you can substitute yogurt (Greek or otherwise) in most recipes. We also use plain yogurt instead of sour cream for topping our Mexican food, chili, curries, etc.

I often buy the actual item, but in a pinch, here are some common substitutions I make based on what I have and what I need:

  • If you don’t have sour cream:
    • Plain regular yogurt
    • Plain Greek yogurt
  • If you don’t have buttermilk:
    • Regular milk with a splash of lemon juice or vinegar to sour it
    • Whey
    • Almond milk with a splash of lemon juice or vinegar to add tartness
    • Yogurt thinned/mixed with water
  • If you don’t have milk (for cooking, not drinking):
    • Whey
    • Almond milk
    • Yogurt thinned/mixed with water
    • Cream or half-and-half thinned with water
    • Any other thicker dairy product thinned with water
  • If you don’t have half and half or cream (for cooking):
    • Yogurt mixed with milk
    • Milk mixed with a little bit of extra butter/oil
  • If you don’t have yogurt:
    • Sour cream
    • Cottage cheese

And I rarely have exactly the kind of cheese a recipe asks for. I substitute cheeses right and left. It may change the flavor slightly, but it’s usually a delicious substitution.

Use it anyway

Has your milk gone sour? Did you find a spot of mold in your yogurt? Don’t throw it out! You can still use expired dairy for baking, as long as it hasn’t gotten really nasty. Get rid of the moldy spot (if there is one) and proceed as usual. The heat of the baking process will take care of it just fine, and you will never know the difference.

Freeze it

Many dairy items can be frozen easily, so if you find a good sale, buy a few extra and stick them in the freezer! For example, one time I found goat milk on sale at a local discount store for $0.99 per quart. My then-lactose-intolerant son could tolerate goat milk in baked goods. You’d better believe I bought 10 of them and stuck them in the freezer! Note: Yogurt does not freeze well.

We’ll dig into this freezer topic a little further in a later post.

Make it

Sometimes it really is cheaper to make it yourself. Making my own yogurt saves us a lot of money. Click here to go to the recipe. Plus, you end up with a lot of whey, which can be used in many ways.

I have only made ricotta once or twice, but you can make it in the microwave out of milk and lemon juice.

As mentioned in the substitutions section, you can make a buttermilk substitute by adding a splash of lemon juice or vinegar (preferably apple cider vinegar or white vinegar) to regular milk and letting it sit for a few minutes.

Do without

Did you know that you can use water instead of milk in my favorite cornbread recipe and it still turns out delicious? You can also use water instead of milk in my favorite bread recipe and it still tastes amazing (because HOMEMADE BREAD). If you’re making macaroni and cheese, then you obviously can’t use water instead of milk (though I have used whey!), but when baking, be willing to try substituting water for milk and see if you notice a difference. You might. But you also might not, and if it is something you make a lot, it can really add up over time.

Do you have any other tips and tricks for saving money on dairy products?

Other posts in the Stretch Your Grocery Budget series:

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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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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:

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