food

Once a Month Meals

inthekitchen

I work full time, my husband is in college, I have three kids, and I’m starting graduate school in January. Family meal time is important to us and we eat 95% of our dinners together and at the table. Healthy, delicious meals eaten as a family is a priority to me, but y’all I was on the struggle bus. We’re on a tight food budget and I need to make a $400 a month grocery budget for five people stretch (that figure doesn’t include non-food items). My time is also budgeted as Atticus likes to go to bed well before 8pm and we’re not all at home until 5:30 or later. How to fit in dinner, bathing, chores, stories, playtime, and cuddles in roughly two hours?

I immediately thought of once a month cooking, but in the past I found even figuring out how much stuff to buy overwhelming. The only exception is that when I was pregnant with Atticus my “nesting” took the form of once a month cooking. I made 25 meals in two days just a few weeks before Atticus was born. I had memories of many dishes, puffy feet, and crying into some ice cream. I didn’t know if I wanted to approach once a month cooking again, but then I landed on a perfect system.

The answer: Once a Month Meals.

1

Cooking in my tiny apartment kitchen in October

Here’s how it works as laid out on their website:

  1. Plan

    Pick a menu based on the 7 different dietary preferences we offer, and customize to make it your own!

  2. Shop

    Gather and purchase your ingredients from your optimized, ready-to-go Shopping List.

  3. Prep

    Chop, dice, and slice to prepare all your ingredients according to your Prep Sheet.

  4. Cook

    Follow our customized, step-by-step Cooking Instructions to prepare your freezer meals quickly.

  5. Freeze

    Cook, package, and freeze your meals according to your Recipe Cards for proper storing and freezing.

  6. Serve

    Prepare or reheat your meals and serve by reading the Label or your Thaw Sheet. Then serve and enjoy!

2

Roasting all the things in November

I’ve used the meal plans twice and I’ve learned several things along the way.

  1. Follow the recipes. Every recipe I made from Once a Month Meals was awesome with the exception of when I try to cut corners. For example, I hate making meatballs and meat patties. I tried to turn a Salmon Sweet Potato Quinoa patty into a meatloaf type thing and it really didn’t work. I no longer pick those types of recipes that make me impatient.
  2. Be smart about cutting corners. Frozen chopped onions = lifesaver. Using bagged “shredded” carrots instead of whirring them up in the food processor = totally not the same and I bungled a recipe.
  3. Mini-menus. If time and space are an issue, then do two mini-menus a month. This also helps with money. I’m paid weekly so I rarely have enough cash for a month long cooking shopping trip.
  4. Assess the needs of your family before planning your meals. I’m the only person who takes my lunch to work (my husband eats free in the cafeteria as a job perk and my kids eat at school) and none of us eat breakfast “meals” in the morning except on the weekends (we are much more likely to just grab a granola bar or yogurt). I really only need the dinners. For some odd reason I did two rounds with dinners, lunches, and breakfast. It was kind of a waste of money and time for me. In the future I’m just going to do dinner mini-menus.
3

Onion chopping salvation

I’m having a cook day on Saturday the 17th and I already have my meals planned for my mini-meal making session. I’ll be cooking up:

There’s something for everyone here. There is a range of menus to address dietary needs and you can also pick recipes based on preferred cooking methods (i.e. instant pot or slow cooker). If you don’t like a recipe it is easy to swap it for something else and you can adjust the portions and it will recalculate the shopping list, prep list, and cooking instructions.

It is $16 a month, but I’m saving so much money and time. On cook weeks I spend just over $100 to $120 on food and on weeks I’m not cooking I spend $50 on food. Another bonus? No dishes at night from prep work!

Let me know if you’ve tried a system like this and what you thought about it. I’m pleased as punch with Once a Month Meals.

 

 

Note:  I am not being paid or compensated in anyway to write this review. I just really like this service!

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Meals for the Week, v.5

Lunches: It is the first of the month and that means LOTS OF BILLS. I’ll be using up odds and ends in my freezer for lunches to save some money. I seem to have picked up a variety of veggie burger patties. Each day I’ll have a veggie burger and a roasted vegetable of some sort. Oh yeah, I’m home all next week – with the exception of Monday – to get the kids set for school. School starts on Wednesday, August 3rd. AUGUST 3RD!!!

Sunday 07/31: Homemade Pizza Night! / Salad

Monday 08/01: Turkey Burgers / Pasta Salad / Watermelon

Tuesday 08/02: One Pot Creamy Garlic Pasta/ Bread / Salad

Wednesday 08/03: Honey Mustard Chicken / Jasmine Rice / Steamed Veggies

Thursday 08/04: Chicken Nuggets / Green Beans / Fruit Salad

Friday 08/05: Spinach and Artichoke Lasagna / Salad

Saturday 08/06: Slow Cooker Chicken Lo Mein Noodles

Meals for the Week, v. 4

Trying to get back on track with meals. The new school year is around the corner!

Lunches for work: Mango Quinoa Black Bean Salad, yogurt, fruit

Sunday 07/24: Balsamic Drumsticks / Corn / Mashed Potatoes

Monday 07/25: Chicken Nuggets / Tater Tots / Peas

Tuesday 07/26: Creamy Tomato and Spinach Pasta / Bread / Salad

Wednesday 07/27: Chicken Salad Croissant Sandwiches / Chips / Fruit

Thursday 07/28: Blueberry Pancakes / Scrambled Eggs

Friday 07/29: Black Bean, Corn, and Quinoa Stuffed Red Peppers / Chips & Salsa

Saturday 07/30: Slow Cooker Macaroni and Cheese / Steamed Veggies

Care and Keeping of Me: A temporary fall from veganism

Vegetarian-Times-June-July-2014
Last week I fell off the vegan train. I was so sick and my throat was so swollen. Sam brought me Chinese takeout of lo mein (couldn’t swallow it the first day) and egg drop soup. I sucked down that egg drop soup like some sort of dying, thirsting, crazy woman. And I ate a half-container of vanilla ice cream throughout my illness.

This is where being vegan gets tricky for me. Basically I don’t want to be an absolute dick while being vegan and my choices while sick were slim. I could have:

1) Told Sam (via text message because I really couldn’t speak) to whip me up some homemade tofu miso soup or make me some DIY vegan ice cream. After all, he was only working, doing school work, taking care of three kids and trying to sanitize my house. No big deal asking him to familiarize himself with ingredients he has never worked with to make my meals.

OR

2) Taken the emergency money and sent Sam to Kroger (no Whole Foods or EarthFare in my neck of the woods) to by $5 pints of coconut ice cream, $3 cans of soup, and maybe some other things for me to dine on. I mean what other emergencies could there be? It doesn’t matter that we spent $150 in copays for the both of us to go to the doctor (yeah, Sam was ill by Friday), $50 for prescriptions, and another $30 for tissues, Lysol, cough drops, and OTC meds. What’s another $50 in food for me?

OR

3) Thankfully accepted the cheap $10 Chinese takeout, eat the ice cream already in my freezer, sleep a ton, and worry about diet next week. In other words, don’t make my husband’s life hell.
I chose to NOT be an asshole vegan. If Sam wasn’t busy and liked to cook I would have chosen option 1. If my finances were better I would have picked option 2. However, my husband works 50+ hours in week, is in school full time, and we have three kids and we are flat ass broke. Yes, option 3 was the right choice.

Now that I’m well I am back to eating vegan. I’m still not 100% vegan because I REALLY don’t like being an asshole vegan. I can’t eat flesh, so I absolutely refuse beef, pork, chicken, and fish.  But if the baby feeds me a goldfish I eat it. If the waiter brings my no cheese/no mayo veggie burger out on a buttery toasted bun I eat.

Returning to vegan cooking is exciting; I missed the color, flavor, texture, and overall deliciousness of vegan food. Last night I cooked baked curry tofu, rice, and a big stir-fry with peppers, broccoli, and mushroom. It was healthful and delicious. My most recent issue of Vegetarian Times arrived the other day and I have my beautiful Pinboard of ideas. Methinks it is time to start planning next weeks meals.

VegWeek, Day 5: Grocery Shopping on a Budget

US-VegWeek-2013-Logo-for-Partners
Yesterday I was too busy to blog. Since I worked the closing shift at the library I had the morning free to grocery shop. When I arrived home I spent forever putting all my purchased items on the dining room table and photographing them for VegWeek. Yes, I am just that dedicated (and weird). Then I went through my receipts to tally up exactly how much I spent on food (not toiletries, diapers, and cleaning products). There was no time to blog for VegWeek because I was prepping for today’s discussion: Grocery Shopping on a Budget.
I hear from folks all the time that they cannot be vegetarian or vegan because it is expensive. It can be very expensive and so can being an omnivore.  I initially began exploring vegetarianism last year because I couldn’t afford meat. Through researching the economics of meat I was exposed to the rampant cruelty to animals and the poor at the hands of factory farming. I was in a previous relationship with a man who worked as a supervisor in the evisceration room at a chicken plant (I live in the poultry capital of the world, seeing abused chickens crammed into nasty trucks is a daily occurrence). I can attest that most workers are immigrants or poorer folks, the smell is abominable, the hours are long, the injuries are many, and the pay is meh at best. Poor people slaughter my food for little pay. Then the meat goes to a grocery store where folks making minimum wage sell it to me. The food production company and the grocery store make money. I cannot afford the grass-fed, organic whatever. So me, as a lower-middle class mom, is stuck buying cheap meat. Cheap meat is pretty gross, the animals are abused, and I’m perpetuating a labor market cruel to immigrants, minorities, and women. Eff that. I looked to vegetarianism as a way to quit supporting the perpetuation of a class of working poor and in the meantime I learned that yes, killing animals is abundantly cruel.
It has taken about a year of practice and some tweaking, but I have our vegetarian shopping down to a science. I’d like to share with you today in the hope that it dispels the notion that vegetarianism is expensive.
My system:
I have tried shopping weekly and realized that was too much work each week and I tried shopping monthly which was financially burdensome and overwhelmed my wee kitchen fridge/freezer. For the past few months I have been shopping every other week, but still getting fresh produce every week.
The nitty gritty — budget crunching:
I knew that I could only spend an average of $150 a week on food for my family of five. I decided to spend $50 a week on produce at either the farmer’s market or a produce delivery service and then every other week I budget $200 for other grocery items. Here is what April looked like:
04/04 — Organic produce box $50
04/11 — Grocery store $200 and Organic produce box $50 = $250
04/18 — Organic produce box $50
04/25 — Grocery store $200 and Organic produce box $50 = $250
Total for April: $600
Weekly average: $150

My Produce Box
I use Nature’s Garden Express. For slightly over $50 a week I get an array of organic fruits and vegetables, 1 gallon of whole, grade-A, grass-fed, lightly pasteurized milk and 1 dozen cage-free eggs. On Saturday a new order is generated, I look it over and make any substitutions. On Tuesday afternoon my order is delivered to my home. Farmer’s market season starts the end of May in my community. When that starts I will go to a smaller box and pick some things up at the farmer’s market each week, but keep the $50 budget. I also pick up organic produce on sale when I do my big shopping trips (if I can afford it), I buy over ripe fruit to freeze, I pick up bags of clearance vegetables to put in the freezer for stirfry, and I try to stock as much produce as I can as cheaply as possible. I cannot afford to do ONLY organic produce. About 60% of our produce is organic, but sometimes I buy frozen vegetables and clearance/sale items that are not organic. You don’t have to be all or nothing about this. The more organic the better, but it isn’t practical on my budget to go 100% organic.
Meal Planning
I make a meal plan for two weeks. Each week has four “throw together” meals and three recipes I’d like to try. I’d love to say I can cook a delightful culinary concoction each night, but that would be delusional. Here is a sample dinner meal plan:
Sunday: Spaghetti, toast, salad
Monday: Mango stir fry rice with baked tofu
Tuesday: Black bean nachos
Wednesday: Two-Lentil chili with sweet potatoes and steamed kale
Thursday: Pizza night
Friday: Spicy Thai noodle bowl with cashews
Saturday: Soy dogs, french fries, broccoli spears
For lunches I make sure to have plenty of sandwich stuff on hand, hummus, fresh veggies, and fruit. Snacks are limited to what I bake and what’s on sale. None of us like a big breakfast first thing in the morning so we rely on homemade muffins, granola bars, cereal, and smoothies for breakfast.
Before I plan my meals I do two things:
1) take stock of what I have on hand. Maybe I need to use some potatoes soon or I have a surplus of canned black beans or I have left over vegetables I can toss into a stirfry. I write down a few meal ideas based in my existing pantry and fridge.
2) I check my coupons and the sale papers. I shop almost exclusively at Kroger, Publix, and Aldi. Mostly at Kroger and Aldi. Aldi is super cheap and Kroger has the largest natural foods section and more clearance items. I write down the items I’m interested in from Kroger or Publix and keep that on hand while I plan. I also look to see what coupons I need to use and write those items down.
Next I write down my easy meals for the next two weeks. I base these meals on sales and coupons. For example, if LifeLight “bacon” is on sale I write down to have BLTs one night, etc. Then I spend some time flipping through my cookbooks and looking at Pinterest to find recipes for the other nights. This can be an overwhelming time suck. I keep it manageable by choosing two or three new meals to try and then make meals from recipes I’ve used before. I keep my sale list beside me and let it guide me in making choices. Bok choy on sale? I search for a recipe with bok choy.
My Grocery List
I make a list based on stores. My Kroger list is specific to what’s on sale and Aldi is for everything else. Here is how I construct my list:
1) I copy out what I need for my recipes/meals. I know I already have a list of what’s on sale, but sometimes I don’t get everything on sale and I like to group my grocery list by item type (produce, canned, bread, etc…). I find making a clean copy key to organizing my list and not forgetting items.
2) I write down other sale items too good to miss (i.e. a lot of this ends up being snack stuff like chips, crackers, coffee, etc…)
3) I check my pantry and fridge for necessities like flour, baking soda, almond milk, ketchup…. Things you don’t think about when “cooking” but when you need it you need it.
Tip: double check your coupons and place a * by the items on your list that need a coupon. This will help to remind you at the register to pull out your coupons. Also, keep an eye on the number of items. Kroger recently had a special on organic cereal. It was $4 off for every 4 items. I bought 4 boxes of cereal (typically $1.99 each) and paid only 99 cents each. If I had only grabbed 3 boxes I would have paid the entire price per box and not the sale price.
Shopping
Stick to your list, for the most part. I buy what is on the list and only make exceptions for discounted/ clearance food. Yesterday I purchased a a bag of 4 organic cucumbers for $1, three boxes of organic mac and cheese for 70 cents each on clearance, and a few loaves of bread marked down to 49 cents each. In the past I’ve purchased a five pound bag of jasmine rice for $2.99 and I have 15 cans of organic pumpkin sitting in my pantry from a huge markdown at Kroger (39 cents a can!). This is how I stock my freezer and pantry in addition to shopping for my meals.
The Result?
Here’s what I bought yesterday for $203. That’s two weeks worth of groceries (excepting my produce box).

grocery
Time = Money, Money = Time
I estimate I spend approximately 2-3 hours every 2 weeks planning meals, checking sales, and making a grocery list. It can feel like a lot of time, but the financial payoff is worth it. I save money and animals shopping like this. The times I’ve half-assed it and skipped planning meals and constructing a grocery list things have gone horribly. I spend more money at the store AND I end up making trips for forgotten items.
 
It is very doable to be vegetarian or vegan and this is WAY easier than shopping for cheap meat. It just takes planning, organization, and a pinch of tenacity.
Let me know your shopping tips and ideas in the comments!

A kid-free 24 hours

On Saturday — at approximately 11:30am — Sam and I had weekend get away.  Although we were gone for only just over 24 hours, I came back relaxed and well-rested.

First we went to our local Michaels so Sam could pick up some new canvases.  Next we were on to the local Thai restaurant; I had a bowl of Tom Ka (coconut soup), a spring roll, and some Masaman Curry.  Sam had the same except he opted for the Yellow Curry.  Then we were off to Athens, Georgia.

We stopped off at a local thrift store, but didn’t find too much.  It was close to check-in time, so we went on to the Holiday Inn.  Then we went our separate ways for a bit.  Sam and I work well together because we both know that we need time alone.  So Sam went to a comic book convention and enjoyed some PBR (ewww) and I went book shopping at my favorite bookshop, Jackson Street Books.

I behaved very well at the bookstore.  I purchased four titles — all Viragos — and then went in search of a coffee shop for some reading.

Sam met me at the coffee shop and we strolled back to the hotel to change for dinner.  It was nice getting all dolled up in a dress, and jewelry, and tights, and boots (because that’s how I roll).

We walked to dinner at this lovely place called Farm255.  They grow their own food and raise and butcher their own meats.  We enjoyed homemade bread, fries, and burgers.  Afterwards we walked to The Grit for coffee and cake.  I had an orgasmically good vegan Death by Chocolate Cake.

With our happy and full bellies we walked back to the hotel.  We showered, hopped into bed, and watched Cupcake Wars until we fell asleep.  OMG y’all, I slept sooooo much.  We went to bed just after 11 and I woke up at 5am and freaked out because I didn’t hear the baby.  Then I remembered that the baby was with the coparent and I was with Sam in a hotel in Athens.  I WENT BACK TO SLEEP.  I slept until 9:30.  It was heaven.

Around 10:45 we checked out of the hotel and went back to The Grit for brunch.  Sam had the breakfast burrito and I had the potatoes and vegetables.  We both had grits, toast, and coffee with our brunch.

After we finished with brunch, we drove back home to the kiddos.  It was a wonderful weekend.  We’re going to a Memphis wedding in August, but we’re hoping to get away for a longer weekend trip in January on our two year anniversary.  Hooray for mini-vacations!