By Niesha Lofing, McClatchy Newspapers
It’s a dreaded question in many households: what’s for dinner?
The routine query seems even more trying now, as many of us struggle to do more with less.
A few weeks ago, I solicited readers’ tips on stretching food budgets while still cooking meals that the family would enjoy. What I got in return was some great advice.
Judy Lane, of Gold River, Calif., wrote me in an e-mail that years ago, before her now-grown children were born, she started planning her family’s menus, checking recipes for truly needed ingredients and verifying pantry items before heading to the grocery store.
She shopped just once a month, making weekly trips as needed for produce, milk or things that couldn’t be frozen or stored. She also remained flexible, cooking dinner a night in advance if the family’s schedule warranted.
“I always incorporated several ‘go to’ family favorite recipes each week and most always tried something new,” she said. “The effort cut 25 percent off the grocery bill and reduced the number of hours in the grocery store by a couple of hours each week!
“Menu planning is a task that even small children can help with and they are more likely to eat what’s prepared when they’ve had a voice in that decision-making process.”
Lane admitted she has strayed from the exercise over the years, but when she returns to planning her grocery bills go down.
Karen Harrison, a Woodland, Calif., mother of three, had a great idea this summer — her family ate through their freezer (figuratively speaking).
She vowed to use the freezer like a grocery store, “shopping” from its contents and making a meal from what she uncovered, minus freezer-damaged goods.
“I found some interesting items,” she wrote me in an e-mail. “Elk meat from my father-in-law, sausages that tasted great, lots of ground beef, frozen pesto that I made the summer before and forgot to eat, hot dog buns galore, and fish my husband lugged all the way home from Mexico.”
Then Harrison moved on to the cupboards.
“I discovered ‘good intention’ items — bulgar, lentils and brown rice, for example — that encouraged me to plan meals around those items as soon as I buy them. I learned to look before I headed out of habit to the store to buy food for dinner … I also learned that no family needs four kinds of maple syrup sitting at the far back of three separate shelves.”
I decided to take her suggestion to task in my own kitchen. You know something’s got to change when you go to retrieve a waffle from the freezer for your child and wind up needing your kids’ owie ice pack because a pork roast you can’t remember purchasing impaled your foot.
I vowed not to buy any more meat or items for the pantry until we get through the food we have. So far, I’ve used a family-pack of chicken thighs for slow cooker chicken adobo, made a fabulous tri-tip and have made side dishes using boxes of rice and stuffing from the far reaches of our pantry.
Here are some other money-saving tips I’ve uncovered over the years.
- Only shop at the warehouse stores with purpose and a list. These stores are great, but can really strain your budget if you’re like me and easily distracted by “deals” on things like kids clothes (they don’t really need any more) and the latest DVD (ditto). Basics — eggs, milk, bread, flour, sugar, are a great deal — but only if you can get through it before the expiration date.
- DIY frozen pancakes and waffles. Why pay for something you can do at home? There always seems to be an extra pancake or a forlorn waffle left on the serving plate at the end of a weekend breakfast. Stick it in a zip-top bag and freeze. The extras will come in handy as breakfast-for-dinner on a busy weeknight.
- Shop the sales. This seems like a no-brainer, but it really works. Supermarket Web sites now have specials and sale ads online and some even have user-friendly features that help you make a shopping list based on that week’s sale items.