Be a budget-meal beast

My mother taught me how to stretch a penny from the time I could point from the grocery cart baby seat and cry, “ME WANT!!!!”

It was then she taught me her simple tips like, always look at the lower shelves because eye-level products are more expensive and, of course, to take note of the little number in the corner telling you how many cents per unit.

And my favorite life lesson: teaching us that a box of wholesale ice cream sandwiches would offer us many days of ice cream joy as opposed to a one-time treat from the ice cream man. She even inspired us into shouting, “Down with the ice cream man!” ….but that’s another story entirely.

As a newlywed starting out, and as someone paying off student loans with a husband finishing school too, being on a tight budget is really important. But here’s the thing– making “budget meals” is more than finding a penny-saving recipe. It’s a way of life. 

And no, I’m not being over dramatic about this one. Think about it. Eating healthy is a lifestyle, right? You can’t just crash diet all the time or you’ll never be healthy. You need to incorporate healthy eating into everything you do. Same goes for cooking budget friendly meals.

But don’t worry, you don’t have to be an extreme couponer to be a beast at budget meals (though, I’m not going to lie, it doesn’t hurt). Here are some baby steps to help you get started, or at least get you thinking like the beast you need to be. I figured this would be more important than just posting my cheap go-to meals that Hubs is so so so fond of.

Here’s a couple to start you off with. More to come later!

1) Stock your pantry with essentials: Having a stocked pantry is the number one way to have budget meals. This may sound counter-intuitive. After all, stocking a pantry costs money, right? Consider it an investment and shoot for when things are typically on sale. Here’s what I always keep on hand and in bulk:

  • Tomato sauce
  • Various pastas
  • Bags of rice (not the instant stuff if you can help it, but if you can’t go without Minute Rice, then get the big box)
  • Canned food you know you’ll eat (for me, that’s every kind of bean under the sun and stewed tomatoes)
  • Canned soups (not just the kind that’s good with a sandwich either, but cream of mushroom or cream of chicken is great in a pinch)
  • Baking supplies (Bisquick, flour, sugar, spices, oils, etc)

It’s good to keep certain staples in your fridge too. Like eggs. I cannot live without eggs. Sound silly? Omelets for dinner are awesome. Crack an egg in some Bisquick with some oil and you have pancakes. The list goes on.

But when you have a pantry or fridge that has your basic essentials, your budget meals actually make themselves. I’m serious. For example, just from the list I gave you, if you were really in a pinch– go out and buy a package of chicken breasts and make chicken with rice and bake it with cream of mushroom soup (recipe usually on the back of the can). Or if it’s a cold day, grab your various cans of beans and stewed tomatoes, throw them in a big pot and maybe grab a pound of turkey or ground beef to brown to make some chili that will last you pretty much all week (no lie). Or you can freeze the leftovers for some in-a-pinch frozen meals.

2) Plan your meals: Now, I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants sort of gal and will sometimes cook as the mood strikes. However, I still generally follow a plan. Plans are essential for budgets. Why? Because you need to build your ingredients off of certain meals. If you plan meal-to-meal with little link between the two, you’ll spend tons on ingredients you may only use a little of. For example, my rice cooker’s smallest setting is two cups of rice. That’s a LOT of rice for two people. One night we had stir fry over brown rice. That same rice will be making a surprising reappearance the next night as parmesan veggie stuffed peppers (which the veggies are also leftover from some other pasta dishes and salads from earlier in the week). If you plan effectively, you can buy more in-bulk rather than those overpriced little servings.

Another example? I needed fresh basil for something– like one sprig. -_- Really?  I know I can use dried basil (which I do have for certain penny-pinching days), but if I want basil, I’m not going to buy the smallest pack. It’s so expensive! I’m going to go bigger. It’ll be cheaper per unit, AND then I could just make a whole recipe of pesto sauce the next night.

Remember, just because you need to link your week or two week’s worth of ingredients together so you can get the most for your dollar, that doesn’t mean you have to have boring meals that taste the same night after night. Remember: Asian stir fry to italian stuffed peppers. Definitely not the same, but I got to use all that rice.

3) Stretch your meat: Let’s face it, meat can get pricey. Also, a lot of meat isn’t the healthiest for us. I’m in the process of weaning Hubs off of the concept of having meat in every meal, but in the meantime, I’m just incorporating less and less meat into each meal. For example, I never cook a chicken breast whole. Usually they are HUGE, and definitely not the recommended portion size. I slice them length-wise and make thinner cutlets of meat. This also helps them cook faster when you’re on a time crunch, AND Hubs has never ever wondered where the rest of the meat went. If you have plenty of veggies/sides, you’ll have a very filling meal without all the meat (and I recommend filling up half your plates with veg). So, when I want chicken, I first buy in bulk (makes the cost much much better) and then immediately trim the fat and slice in half. Now instead of 8 servings, I have 16. Not a fan of cutting length-wise? Making chicken tenders works too. However, my husband sometimes thinks those=less meat and isn’t fooled. Length-wise is definitely the way to go in our house.

Another way to be savvy is to buy unseparated pieces of meat. What I mean by that is by getting the meat that has bones still on it. I once did this by accident (I usually opt for just the in bulk packages of chicken breasts), but this time, I got unseparated chicken breasts. First of all, it’s way cheaper because more labor is involved on your end. But there’s another secret added in here. As I was cutting the breast off the bone, and then slicing length-wise, I was getting tid-bits of meat off that were often attached to some pesky pieces of fat. Other times, I got hunks of meat sliced off. I made piles as I cut: 1) the actual breast halves, 2) the cubed pieces, and 3) the tid-bits attached to fat. Because of this, you can stretch your meat even further. Now, not only do I have the breasts for the meals I planned on, but I had extra cubed meat and random tid-bits (which surprisingly go a long way).

In this example, I cleaned up the tid bits, threw them in a hot frying pan with cooking spray, browned them, and tossed them with salsa. I then proceeded to make chicken quesadillas with some whole wheat tortillas and cheese I had already. Originally I had planned on using some of the actual breasts I had bought for it, but I had so many little pieces of chicken, I couldn’t bear to throw them out. Hubs LOVED it and had no idea they were the “rejects” from the pretty cuts of meat.

For the cubed pieces, I had about a cup of meat. That may not sound like a lot of chicken, but when you throw them in a stir fry filled with two frozen bags of veggies (both for about a buck a piece), it goes a long way. I served that one over some of my stock pile rice with a bit of teriyaki sauce I bought. Honestly, the teriyaki sauce was the most expensive thing in the meal (and it wasn’t that bad either). Dirt cheap and again, “reject” pieces of the good cuts of meat I separated from the bone myself. The best part? Hubs looked at his plate and immediately was like, “WOW! This is a lot of food.” And yes, we had leftovers for the next night :-).

4) Eat Healthy Portions: This may sound ridiculous, but it’s true. If you’re not over-eating, you’re not wasting money. I’m not saying starve yourselves, but if you are mindful of how much you eat and make sure you eat a normal serving size, you’ll be making your food and money stretch further without having your waistline stretch further. Have a husband hounding you for more budget friendly meals? Or as a couple do you want to lose weight without breaking the bank? Propose this portion-size concept.

If you’re smart with your food pairings, you won’t go hungry at all. Hubs and I are currently having salads every night before a meal (and lots of water too) to help us fill up on healthy foods so our meals don’t have to seam huge. Also serve on smaller plates. It seriously tricks the brain. Remember that stir fry I mentioned about where Hubs said, “Wow! That’s a lot of food!”? Yeah…I served that on a salad plate. ;-). He never knew the difference. He just saw a plate filled to the brim. Who cares if it’s a small plate as long as the food is tasty and fills you up.

5) Be Mindful of Packaging: This goes with stretching your meat and was slightly touched on in the step about linking your ingredients, but this is REALLY important and applies to almost all of the products you probably buy. A lot of times, we pay for packaging. If you’re on a budget, why would you buy bags of salad? You shouldn’t. Get the packages of three romaine hearts, at least. Tear them up yourself at home. Takes minutes and MUCH cheaper. Also pay attention to the “per unit” price in the corner of the actual price listed. You’ll be surprised which companies charge more just because their jar looks a certain way.

Those are my first few baby steps on budget meals. There are definitely more, which I’ll get to later on in some future blogs. Like I said, eating on a budget is a way of life– not just a recipe. Start with these and slowly work your way up to the bigger stuff.

Hope that helps!

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2 thoughts on “Be a budget-meal beast

    • Sam, I am so jealous of that meal planning board you made. Totally told Hubs about it this past weekend and described how cool it was. He thought it was pretty cool too. You make a lot of cool things on your blog, but I must say, the meal planning board is one thing I’m definitely envious of.

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