Monday, August 31, 2009

For the love of Food.

Let's face it. These days, I don't know many people who aren't feeling the crunch of the economy. Ugh. And there's not a whole lot you can do about your fixed bills, right? I mean, they are what they are. We have trimmed those as much as possible and we don't have any more room to cut down.

So what does that leave us? Where can we save money? Where can we cut corners and have it count for something? I'd love to share what we've done to cut corners and even more than that, I want to hear what you do!

For us, it has been our food budget. I used to be terrible about grocery shopping. Well, that's not true. I was terrible about being budget conscious while shopping. I bought anything that looked good and I almost never bought anything for the kids that wasn't in a snack size container.

In the past several months, I've had to modify my shopping habits, and recently I've had to go even further. I know that our family is not the only one with less money going around these days, so I thought I'd share what works for us.

But first, a disclaimer. I have a friend who is an amazing couponer. Basically every time she goes shopping, they pay her. I hate her. Ok, not really. But I am jealous. But I am also completely incapable of doing what she does. Coupons give me hives. I don't understand them, and when I use them I buy things I don't need, forget them in the car, or let them expire. So I quickly learned that coupons weren't the fix for us, although I have the utmost respect for those who wield them.

Instead. I've found that prioritzing what I spend our money on works the best. I choose the things that are non-negotiable, then fill in with whatever else we can afford that week. While it'd be great to be able to buy organic all the time, it's just not cost effective, at least where we live. I have a few things that I won't budge on though, and those are:

Milk (2% and whole)
Whole Milk Yogurt
Items from the dirty dozen

Everything else, I do not buy organic. Beyond that, if there is a store brand available, it's usually worth picking up. It took me a long time to learn this...I am very visual, and the labels on the name brand stuff just looked better. But it doesn't take long to figure out which store brands work and which just don't. In most cases, you can't tell the difference. When I can, I splurge on the name brand the next time.

A little thing that took me a long time to pick up on is actually looking at the unit price for things. For instance, when I'm trying to figure out which mandarin oranges are really the cheapest, I drive myself crazy checking ounces and doing math in my head. Now I just look at the barcode and the unit price.

A huge savings that we began to make last year was to buy large containers of all the kids' school items as well as a stock of reusable containers in snack sizes. Oftentimes a big container of applesauce is the same price as a six pack of applesauce cups, and I'm more than capable of spooning the applesauce into the reusable containers. I tend to get lazy about this sometimes, mostly because I always forget to wash the containers soon enough.

As far as dinners in our house go, I stopped making two dinners a night. You know how it feed the kids and then yourself separately after they go to bed, usually different meals. Now, I make one meal, and they eat it. Or they don't. But usually they do, even if they complain.
We make several dishes that we can eat at least twice, and usually more times. For instance, Ava and I are both huge fans of nachos, so we'll make up a batch of meat and beans and have nachos 3 or 4 times. Spaghetti and Green Beans & Potatos are two other cheap dishes that last for several meals.

We always have pasta in the house. It does a great job of stretching a meal and can either be a side or the main course.

I'm not a list maker. Even if I try, I forget things. So again, to fit my personality, rather than doing a lot of lists, I have a pretty set ingredient list every week. I have maybe 10 dishes I make in rotation every few weeks. Boring? Kind of, but the price is predictable and I don't get carried away with "one more thing!"

For us, that usually means getting about 3 meats that we prepare in different ways, as well as sides for those. The other nights, we do something that can easily be made over again...a batch of nachos can be tacos another night, and chili can be transformed into a totally different dish hen served on pasta with cheese on top.

For breakfast and lunch, we're also very predictable. We do a lot of pancakes and waffles with yogurt and fruit in the morning, and my kids are huge fans of grilled cheese with carrots or PB & J with string cheese. I usually keep 2-3 different types of fresh fruit in the house, and they eat these for snacks.

Another thing that has saved us a lot of money is to be aware of the kids' eat free deals and other fast food meal deals. I mean, my kids love fast food, and I do too, sometimes. I especially love that they can eat and I don't have to fix or clean up a thing! It's worth it to make life easier when you're running to activities at night. When you're dilligent about finding deals, you can eat for much less. For example, on Tuesdays at our local McDonald's, Happy Meals are only 1.99. We're also big value meal people. At Wendy's we can eat for about $2 a kid, which isn't bad for eating fast food.

When we're dying to go out to eat (which is me...I love eating's my weakness), it helps to have a list of all the restaurants that offer kids eat free deals and the night they offer them. Right now, between our neighbors and us we've compiled a choice for every night of the week but one. If you're going to go out anyway, it gives you a more affordable option.

So, that's what works for us.

What works for you? I'd love to hear your money saving tips.
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