Monday, June 20, 2011

Get More Bang for Your Food Budget Buck Part II: Menu Planning and Plan Ahead Prep

If you are like most of Americans, you rush home after work and have about 10 seconds of private bathroom time before the kids are banging on the door screaming “What’s for dinner!?” Again, like the majority of us, you draw a blank. You open your fridge and see a hodge podge of ingredients and think, “What can I make with that?” Have no fear; we are going to turn a little bit of this in that into a few staple meals. Let’s get crackin’!

Let’s start with a little planning. Remember the notepad from your fast food favorites list? Pull that sucker out. Turn it to a clean page and gather the family around the table. Ask everyone at the table if they could choose dinner tonight, what would they want to eat? I’m going to give you 5 days worth of dinners that you can make on the spot if you plan and prep ahead just a little. This will help you when you are going to the grocery store, because you know what you are going to cook for the week and you can stick to a list of those items. This cuts back on wasted food, time searching for items, and impulse shopping. Let’s see some common favorites:

• Spaghetti and Meat Sauce

• Tacos/Fajitas

• Meatloaf

• Chicken (strips/nuggets/breasts)

Chicken Pot Pie

Believe it or not, you can crank most of these meals out in about 30 minutes if you plan ahead and have the prep work knocked out ahead of time. When you think about how these meals are more similar than different:

Okay now. You’re probably still freaking out about this, but now let’s talk about prepping these meals in advance so that all you have to do is throw the ingredients together and go.

Let’s start with the meat. As you can see from the diagram, we have six of the meals where half require ground meat (beef or turkey) and the other half requires chicken breasts. When you go to the store, buy a big container of ground beef and a bag of frozen chicken breasts. You will need ½ to ¾ of a pound of ground meat per person, per meal and 1/2 to 1 whole chicken breast piece per person. You will also need sandwich or quart size Ziploc bags. I do all my shopping on Saturday, and do all my prep when I get home. If I were going to make those 6 meals this week, here is how I would begin the prep:

1. Plan Which Day to Cook What Meal: Select which day I want to have each meal and write it on a notepad on the fridge. Mondays are my busy day, so I pick the meal that is quickest to prepare (spaghetti). I don’t like eating beef three days in a row, so I decide I’m going to have beef meal alternated with chicken meals. That way everyone know which dinner is coming up.

2. Prepping Bulk Ground Meat: I crack open my beef and I put enough meat per person for one meal in each bag. For our household of 2, we put in 1 lb or a good fistful approximation of ground beef per bag. Push the meat flat in the bag so it stacks nicely, and thaws quickly after being removed from freezer. When you have divided up all your beef, you will know how many meals you can get out of it. We have found that we actually use a lot less meat this way. $$$!

3. Prepping Bulk Chicken Breasts: Next, go after the chicken. Decide how you want to prepare your chicken. The pot pie and chicken nuggets require smaller pieces, so I cube up the chicken into small pieces, putting those in a bag. Some chicken breasts are mutant large and you can get away with making two cutlets out of them. To make a cutlet, cut the breast in half lengthwise, then mash it a little flatter with your palm. Put a cutlet for each person needing a meal, per bag. Cutlets are how restaurants get their chicken breasts to go farther. Chicken Parmesan, Chicken Fried Chicken, Chicken Teriyaki, etc. are all made with chicken cutlets. Tacos/Fajitas/ Chicken strips will require you to cut your chicken into strips. Cut accordingly.

Cutting a breast lengthwise will make two cutlets
4. Freezer Organization: If you have extra plastic baskets laying around, consider labeling them as beef or chicken, etc. so your mini bags of meat are quickly identified in their buckets. It will help keep all your bags organized, give you a good visual about how much meat you have left, and can help little ones who want (need to) help identify different types of meat. Example: beef is in a red bucket, chicken is in white. "Jenny, open the freezer and pull out one bag from white bucket and put it in the fridge for mommy."

(c) Jem from Dog Food Forum
An alternative approach care of "Crazy Cake Lady"

Now let’s talk a little about prepping veg. Most meals require some aromatics. What is an aromatic? A vegetable used as a flavor base for cooking, usually by sweating or sautéeing. Carrots, onions, garlic, peppers, and celery are all aromatics. All the meals we listed will require aromatics in different sizes. I like to buy garlic that is pre-diced in a jar, but all the rest I will cut myself. Guess what, they rarely go bad because I only pull out what I intend to use right away. Yes, you can buy pre-diced onions, celery, carrots, etc. If you are in a big time crunch and don't mind spending the extra money go for it and buy the pre-chopped stuff. You can save a lot more by doing it yourself though. If you feel more comfortable starting out with the pre-cut stuff and then moving to chopping yourself, it's a good baby step to getting started cooking at home. No judgment.

Onions are a must for all these meals, whether in sliced or diced forms. Sliced onions are the kinds you use for fajitas where diced is the small little cubes. Now because there are plenty of videos on how to dice an onion, and because I am not yet a domestic goddess when it comes to dicing, I am just going to refer you here to watch a video on how to do it here. This takes practice, but you will get faster each time you do it. It's important to take your time and make uniformish pieces so that they will cook at the same rate. I put the diced onion in a Ziploc and slap in the freezer. It will quickly thaw so defrosting is no biggie. (Feel free to make a sliced onion and bell pepper medley bag for tacos/fajitas if that suits your fancy.) Chop some celery into smaller, bite sized pieces and bag. Ditto with the carrots.

The hard work is done now. All your big prep for each meal is ready to go when you are. So let's talk about the next step we delayed earlier: Getting your family involved! Rituals, rituals, rituals.

1. First Person Home Pulls Out the Meat: Starting when I was about 8 years old, my mom would call me after when my school bus arrived home and asked me to pull out a package of whatever meat was on the menu for that night. The first person home checks the week's menu on the fridge, and pulls out one bag of meat that is required for that meal. Put the whole bag on a plate to thaw on the counter, out of sunlight. Because you have prepped all these little bags, it will defrost faster than the whole big container, and you will only use what you need. No kids to do this step? Before you go to bed, check the menu the night before, and place that meat in the fridge to defrost. It will be waiting for you when you get home.

2. Mise en place: What the heck does that mean!? Mise en place is simply French for "everything in place". Since you already know what meal you are going to cook because you have it all right there on the fridge, you have all your ingredients put together on your counter ready to go before you start cooking. This is a great step to do with kids 6 and up. Ask them what they think goes in spaghetti, what do they need? Have them go to the pantry and fridge to pull those out.

3. Starches take the longest to cook, start them first: How many times have you started a meal, only for one part of it to be getting cold while the rest is still cooking. It's a common problem, I still do it myself. The thing to remember is that starches like potatoes, biscuits, etc. take the longest and should be started first, followed by your meats, and your veg last.

Mise en place for lemonade syrup.
With these simple steps, the time it takes to make dinner will be cut back significantly. You'll be proud of your results when you see a week's worth a meal prep ready to go for the next week. As children get older, they can start taking on more tasks in the cooking department until they are cooking a meal a week independently. This is an important life skill that will help build confidence and self esteem. Good luck!

Are you making any changes you that you have read about? What did you do, how much did you save, and what did you learn? Tell me about it in the comments!

Next in the “Get More Bang for Your Food Budget Buck” Series: The Art of Braising, Turning Cheap Cuts of Meats Into Stellar Meals With Very Little Effort.


  1. You make it seem do-able!

  2. It is! You can do it, I believe in you!


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