So, I'm always curious how other people cook and what they buy at the grocery store because like most stay-at-home mamas, we're on a tight budget. However, I read up on how to save money and it never saves ME any money! Coupons... forget it! We don't buy the things they make coupons for. I'm extremely picky about my food, too, so I do not change brands very easily because there's a reason I buy what I buy. Just like my baby girl, I'm a girl who knows what she wants and there's no substitute.
I buy almost completely organic foods. I do not buy anything* with high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial flavorings, artificial dyes, MSG, sodium lauryl sulfate (body care products), or basically anything artificial or with chemicals. (*HaHa! Occasionally, there's some junk foody item I just can't pass by, but I consider that my "living in balance"... who wants to be TOO healthy??!) This is a tall order to be trying to SAVE money and still keep these standards.
However, the ways I save money are completely different from anything I've read before, so I thought I'd write about what I do. I do not believe in sacrificing eating healthily for the sake of money. If money were so tight that we only had $30 a week to spend, I think I'd buy dry beans and rice in bulk and continue getting produce from our CSA. Currently, we spend $450/month for groceries, toiletries, etc. for the 4 of us. From June to October-ish, we pick-up weekly shares of organic vegetables from our CSA farm, which is about $15/wk for a huge bag full of fresh veggies each week, which means we are gobbling up veggies to keep them from going bad.
Recipes? Well, I don't use them. Grocery lists? They make me spend more, and I always leave them at home. Meal plans? I just start winging it at 5 pm. So, umm.. yeah, it's a little unconventional, but it's so much simpler and really helps with the cooking burn-out because I don't have to put as much time into all the planning, organizing, recipe following.
So, what do I do? Well, lately I've been trying to go 10 days between trips to the store and spend about $150 per trip. That way, I'm cutting out a week's worth of grocery bills each month, as compared to when I go once a week. I don't buy more to make it the 10 days, I just make 3 days worth of really inexpensive meals. One night is homemade pizza, one night is breakfast for supper (pancakes or waffles), and at least one night we go meatless.
At the store, I just pick out some veggies and fruits that look good, and especially veggies that are on sale. Then I go through the meats and I usually pay the pretty penny for the beautifully red, wild coho salmon. Then I buy the organic air-chilled family packs of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, or a whole chicken and a small pkg of chicken breasts, then, occasionally I'll pick up some type of beef, if it's on sale. Basically, I buy ~3/4 lb of fish, and maybe 3.5 - 4 lbs of chicken breasts. I count on ~2/3 - 3/4lb of meat for a new meal. I buy cans of organic beans, maybe some rice noodles for a thai meal, wheat tortillas, 100% juice that we pour an inch into a cup then fill with water, cheese, organic whole milk, coffee, graham crackers, water crackers, almond butter, some more veggies from the frozen section... Those are our staples. We also shop at BJ's for cereal, juice, Annie's brand of macaroni and cheese, canned tomatoes, shredded mozzerella, flour, sugar, wild rice, Ghiradelli chocolate chips, and dinosaur chicken nuggets!
I think the difference in effort in saving money goes more into the baking than anything, which I like, so that works well for me. I don't buy many prepared foods and very few snacks, which is where the largest expenses are when you're purchasing organic products. Instead, I go through 10 lb. bags of flour in no time. We make lots of cookies, scones, muffins and breads from scratch. I make homemade jam in the summertime to save up year round. I freeze extra veggies from our CSA that won't get eaten fast enough. We buy tons of corn in the summer, blanch for 3 minutes, cut the kernels off the cob, and freeze them --- the BEST frozen corn EVER!
Another rule, I NEVER cook anything for dinner that takes too long. Like, 20-30 min is how much time I like to spend. So... we usually have the fish first and with it, we'll have something like wild rice and sauteed greens with onions, garlic, and olive oil. I almost always have one night of fajitahs (bell peppers, onions, cilantro, lime, and chicken/steak in a tortilla) with homemade salsa. Sometimes I make a thai dish with whatever veggies I have (maybe broccoli, onions, snap peas), sesame seeds or peanuts, and some chicken stir fried in sesame oil and soy sauce and put over rice noodles. Stir fries are a mainstay. Stir fries are mixed into pasta, put into wraps, or paired with rice. Quick and easy! Come to think of it, almost all my meals start out as stir fries!
For lunches, we have leftovers, Annie's mac-n-cheese, almond butter and jam sandwiches, easy black bean salad, dinosaur chicken nuggets (breaded and baked, not fried), cheese and crackers, etc. And, breakfasts are usually cereal, toast, eggs, pancakes. Snacks are fruit, a homemade bread or pastry, or graham or water crackers (no hydrogenated oils though!).
I think the basic idea is that Americans eat way too much meat, not enough veggies, too many pre-packaged foods, and too many artificial ingredients. By eating less meat and by making things from scratch is probably how I save most money in our own grocery bill, even though I pay more for my single ingredients because they are organic. I try to keep everything very simple. There's probably an average of 5 ingredients in the dinners I cook, and those ingredients are always variable because they change depending on what veggies I have on hand.