Menu Planning for Moms on a Budget

Before Goose’s arrival, when we were a family of two, there was no such thing as planning meals in advance. After work, we decided on what we wanted to cook and someone went to the store, or we either hit the drive-thru or pulled out the take-out menus. We might have eaten anywhere from 6 to 10 pm. It was definitely not the most cost- or time-efficient method of feeding ourselves, but it worked just fine for a double-income, no kids couple. Now that I stay at home, our food budget is definitely tighter, but I still manage to feed my family very well on the money I have to work with.

For the first few months home with Goose, we ate a lot of takeout and meals my husband could throw together when he got home from work (he seriously ran the household during the newborn stage, bless him, while I was basically tied to the couch nursing day and night). After a while, I realized that we were putting a serious hurting on our budget as well as our health and all of this fast food and takeout would have to stop. I knew I wasn’t going to be capable of cooking a meal from scratch every night, but something had to change. I remembered how my mom, who needed to feed five kids and two adults on a tight budget herself, would make a weekly menu to plan our dinners. Then she would do one major shopping trip, the idea being that getting all of your groceries at once eliminates daily trips to the grocery store, which as we know can really add up. Adopting my mom’s strategy was my first step towards eating on a budget. I was proficient at cooking back then, but I wasn’t as into it and didn’t have a large repertoire of go-to recipes to pull from as I do now, so we ate a lot of repeat meals throughout the month, but we weren’t eating takeout daily anymore and we weren’t making multiple trips to the store, spending $30 here and there.

Once planning a weekly dinner menu became routine, I realized I could probably save a lot more money by creating my menu based on what was on sale at the grocery store rather than just whatever tickled our fancy at the moment. Step two towards becoming my mother – now I was scoping out the circulars. For example, if boneless, skinless chicken breasts and diced fire-roasted tomatoes are on sale, I know I can make a crock pot full of chicken tortilla soup (see below) for next to nothing, so that goes on the menu. When frozen tilapia is super cheap, I plan on oven-fried fish. Proteins are usually the most expensive component of a meal , so I generally look for sales on those foods first, then see which pantry and produce items are marked down that week. Not all of our meals come from the circular items, but by purchasing a little extra meat, pasta, and canned goods when they are on sale, I fill in with meals we want even when their ingredients aren’t wallet-friendly that week.

 I’ll pause here and admit I don’t have much patience when it comes to coupons. I live for online sale codes and I do scope out coupons for things like diapers and razors, but my coupon clipping and collecting doesn’t go much farther than what’s available in the Sunday paper, mainly because we buy a lot of store brand items that are cheaper than name brand even with a coupon, but also because I’m just too lazy to sort and keep track of coupons and sale cycles and all of that. There are lots of online communities and blogs devoted to streamlining the process and I know they are an excellent resource for lots of people but right now I am just not into it. I think couponing would be more worthwhile to us if we had more pantry space to allow us to really stock up, but we don’t, so my eat-mostly-what’s-on-sale approach is just more efficient for now.

 There are a couple of tips that have made the process even easier for me. First, take the time to compile a master list of all of your favorite, go-to main courses in Excel. I have mine divided into categories: beef, fish, chicken, pork, vegetarian, breakfast for dinner, pasta, soup, and miscellaneous (things like, um, chili dogs). Having this list really helps when your mind draws a blank when it comes to dinner ideas. I update it every time I try a new recipe that gets the thumbs up from everyone. Second, and this works for me but might not for everyone, is to go shopping by yourself (or send the more financially responsible partner). When I have Goose and my husband in tow, it seems like we spend a good 20% more than when I shop alone. I’m pretty good about sticking to my list aside from a treat or two, and my husband…is not. It’s not like I NEVER let him do the shopping (he had to when I badly sprained my foot a while ago, and the bill was astronomical, but I was grateful to not hobble around the store on crutches), but for the most part, that’s my gig. Besides, I go in the evening after Goose is in bed, when the store is generally pretty quiet, and I really enjoy my hour and a half of peace – it’s like my weekly little bit of zen. I do understand that some people like grocery shopping to be a family affair, though. I like the act of shopping as a family, just not the cost.

 Menu planning does take a bit of time – now that I’m accustomed to it, I spend maybe an hour on Saturday or Sunday morning reading weekly store ads online, asking my husband what he’d like to eat, writing up my menu, checking the cabinets, and then making my grocery list. But when you consider all of the trips to the grocery store saved, not to mention the money, it’s worth it.

 Here’s a little bonus recipe for a really easy and delicious (if inauthentic) crockpot chicken tortilla soup. My husband isn’t crazy about soup in general but has requested this often since I first made it, and Goose even devoured a bowlful the other night. It’s a fairly spicy soup but you can make substitutions if your family prefers something milder.

 Chicken Tortilla Soup

adapted from Tasty Kitchen

serves 8

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts

15 oz can of diced fire-roasted tomatoes with jalapenos (or just plain diced tomatoes in juice)

10 oz can red enchilada sauce

2 cups water

14 oz can low-sodium chicken broth (or homemade stock)

1 medium onion, finely diced

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp chili powder

salt to taste (start with ½ tsp)

10 oz bag frozen corn

15 oz can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 or 2 bay leaves

 Mix all ingredients minus the black beans in the crockpot and cook on high for 3-4 hours or low for 6-8 hours (I usually cook on low). An hour or so before serving, pull out chicken breasts, shred, and return the meat to the pot. Add the black beans and let cook until heated through. Beans can be added at the beginning, but they seem to make the soup less starchy if you toss them in at the end. Top individual bowls with broken tortilla chips, shredded cheese, sour cream, chopped cilantro, avocado, guacamole, and/or a squeeze of lime juice. Enjoy!