Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Our new flexible, frugal meal plan

As I mentioned in my previous post, we are about to be poor. Poor by choice at least, but with effectively half our non-housing income gone, we've got some major adjustments to make.

One area that seemed like a good target for cost-cutting was food. Our grocery bills have been growing along with our kids. We don't eat a lot of convenience foods, but we do eat out more often than we mean to. Hopefully a healthy dose of self-discipline will solve the latter problem, but what would we do about the former?

We decided to come up with a frugal meal plan. To start with, we wanted to plan out seven days of meals, to be repeated each week. As we settle in, we'll add variations, but for now, simple and flexible are the buzzwords.

Actually, our goals were a little more involved:
- Simple
- Flexible
- Inexpensive
- Healthy & nutritious
- Made from "real" food rather than packaged / convenience items
- Made from ingredients we could potentially produce ourselves, even if we're not right now
- Easily adaptable to seasonal produce
- Made from items that are not hard to find locally and/or organically
- Appealing to all family members (including Amelia)

That seemed like a tall order when we started talking about it, but a plan came together much more quickly than we expected.

So below is the menu plan that we're beta testing now. It focuses on dinners. Breakfasts are usually easy for our crew - some combination of oatmeal, fruit, nuts, yogurt, toast, etc. Lunches are generally soup, sandwiches, or dinner leftovers.

Roast two whole chickens. (It's just as easy to roast two at a time, and you only have to heat up the oven once. Plus whole chickens are the cheapest kind.) Serve one chicken for dinner, along with whatever is in season. The beautiful thing about roast chicken is that it goes with so many things - potatoes in almost any form, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, rolls, cornbread, salad, and just about any vegetables you can name....

Cut the meat off the second chicken. Put half the meat in the refrigerator and half in the freezer. Stash both dismantled carcasses in the fridge as well.

Cook a double batch of rice. Use half of the rice, plus some of the leftover chicken to make one of several chicken & rice dishes in our repertoire. (Chicken vindaloo, Golden rice & chicken pilaf, etc.) Put the remaining rice in the fridge.

Make chicken stock and/or chicken soup with the chicken carcasses. (See: Free Soup.) We have several soup recipes that can work here. Serve soup with salad, sandwiches, bread, or other items as appropriate.

Use the leftover rice and remaining chicken, along with seasonal veg, eggs, or whatever's on hand to make a simple fried rice dish. Or add beans, cheese, veg and tortillas to make burritos. Or beans & rice.

Some form of pasta & tomato sauce. Spaghetti, chili mac, lasagna, baked ziti.

Thursday Free-for-all. Leftovers, sandwiches, fritattas, omelets, scrambled eggs, pancakes, dinner with friends... whatever makes the most sense.

Homemade pizza. Bake a loaf of bread at the same time, as long as the oven's hot.

Then, we start again. Only the second week, we only roast one chicken instead of two. Since we froze half the meat from last week's second chicken, we'll use that in the coming week's recipes.

We can easily swap some days, and we can easily substitute other meats from time to time as budget and circumstance allow. And although the menu appears to repeat the same dishes every week, pretty much every night has a myriad of variations available. Very little consultation of cookbooks is required. Prep is generally simple as well.

If we raise three batches of 25 meat chickens per year, we are suddenly self-sufficient in chicken. If we can 50 jars of tomatoes, we are suddenly self-sufficient in tomato products. We can produce pretty much everything in this menu ourselves, short of flour, rice and pasta (all of which can be purchased in bulk, and all of which store well - a single 50 lb bag of rice would last over a year with this plan). A good sized garden's worth of potatoes, sweet corn, and other standard vegetables should cover a large percentage of our needs.

It's a little light on whole grains on the surface. We hope to incorporate a lot of brown rice (which the kids love), and whole wheat (or whole/white mixed) items, but for the sake of simplicity (and storage) we didn't factor those into the plan explicitly. And of course there's always popcorn.

After we've worked our way through this a few times, we'll probably make some adjustments and refinements. It's already simplified meal planning and grocery shopping greatly. We saw an immediate effect on the grocery bill. It should cut down on waste, including the number of "oozing blobs formerly known as produce" in the bottom of the fridge.

We are oddly excited about this plan. It removes many variables. And it makes the garden planning math SOOOO much easier.

We'll see how it goes over the long haul. So far, so good...


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At 7/30/2010 12:09 AM, Blogger knutty knitter said...

You can't beat leftover vegetable soup :) I got two dinners and a lunch for four out of my last pot and still have enough frozen for a two man lunch :) Thats 14 meals out of half a cabbage, a chunk of cauliflower, two old leeks, a few onions an old carrot and a chunk of local blade steak with bone plus seasonings and a large spoonful of over chillified tomato relish (a mistake from last year that I'm slowly working my way through). The whole lot cost about $10 all up.

We've been poor forever and its amazing what you can do for very little.

I've also found it pays to stay away from supermarkets as much as possible - they are just too tempting. We go about one or twice a fortnight. We are lucky to have a local veg and fruit shop and a local butcher who also sells free range eggs. The farmers market is where all the rest comes from. We also converted to no poo and use bar soap and baking soda. That alone saved heaps.
I'm now about to experiment with laundry mixes and making our own soap.

The thing is to do it gradually so that it just becomes normal a bit at a time.

I'm crossing my fingers that it all works out for you :)

viv in nz

At 7/30/2010 1:36 AM, Blogger Katie said...

Wow, this is fantastic. I think I might try it myself!

At 7/30/2010 6:19 AM, Anonymous daisyfae said...

this is pretty inspirational... it would be cool to see updates every now and then as you do the tweaks!

At 7/30/2010 8:27 AM, Blogger Wendy said...

What an awesome plan! And such an inspiration! I love how proactive you're being, and rather than lamenting about all that you won't have, you're making plans for how to best use what you do have. You guys totally rock!

At 7/30/2010 8:52 AM, Blogger e4 said...

Thanks everybody. And Viv, you are right about the leftover soup. In fact, so far I've been surprised at just how much food this plan produces.

We shifted the pizza to Thursday instead of Friday this week, and still had leftovers, even though two of the neighbor kids stuck around for dinner at our house last night.

The shocking thing was one of the neighbor kids is notoriously picky eater. I mean, pickier than any kid I've encountered, to the point of being absurd. He thought the pizza looked a little dubious at first - heck so did I, since on a whim I baked them in a couple cast iron pans (going for sort of a deep dish effect). The outer crust was brownish black where touched the pan. But after everybody else started wolfing it down, he ended up taking a piece. And came back for another.

So I guess so far the plan is working better than expected.

At 8/02/2010 10:31 AM, Blogger e4 said...

... also, there are enough little bits and scraps of chicken to keep the barn cat fat and happy.

I think the biggest surplus so far has been in the chicken stock/soup area. Our first tweak may actually involve reducing the amount of cooking and the amount of food. We may roast two chickens every other week, and none at all on alternate weeks.

At 8/14/2010 6:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read SO MANY of these on-line, and NONE of them have worked for me... except one. To make a chart - eight weeks, I think - and a list of the meals you like to eat the most. Then plug them in (with night out column and anything goes spots), and laminate it. Then mark off what you eat, using the chart to choose meals. It's an idea, anyhow. I wrote a blog with a picture... hrm. Wonder where that is?


At 7/06/2011 9:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love your blog. We're standing on our precipice in 2011.

For grains, have you considered quinoa or amaranth? Like rice, they're not loaded with gluten (in my understanding) which irritates my children's digestive system less.

Did you sell your house in Ohio?

At 7/06/2011 9:36 AM, Blogger e4 said...

We have grown amaranth, which was big and beautiful.

We are (we think) in the final stages of selling our house in Ohio.

And I really need to post something new....


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