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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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Event Horizon

This week will likely represent a big turning point for us. We expect the new job offer to become 100% official sometime before the end of this week. I'll also need to give notice with my current employer by the first of next week. And to top it off, I'm driving down to the new location this weekend for a home inspection.

You see, we're doing something that's probably very foolish: We're buying a house in North Carolina, even though our Ohio house hasn't sold yet.

We know it's a move that doesn't make sense in this economy. We know it will make us quite poor in the short term. Or, more accurately, it'll make us poor for some undetermined amount of time.

Given the low interest rates, our downpayment, and other factors, the mortgage on the new house will be half as much as our current mortgage. HALF.

Doing this will solve a wide range of logistical problems, but of course the big downside is that until our Ohio house sells, we'll be paying half again as much in mortgage payments. Which by extension, means that our remaining income after housing will be cut in half. (I know, halves everywhere, huh?)

In essence, we'd be doing the financial version of one of my old favorites, The Half Project.

So we've been going over our budget with a fine-toothed comb. We've squeezed every penny we can find among our assets. We've investigated every expense and change we can think of: differences in property, income, and sales tax; differences in benefits and deductibles; differences in bills (and some bills in both places); differences in driving miles, fuel costs, grocery costs, and everything we can think of. Budget cuts of course. Or "austerity measures," as the headlines like to say.

And if the whole thing completely goes to hell, well, at least we'll get some good practice at being poor.