Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Recipe Rut

In the past several days, half a dozen women have mentioned to me that they are in a menu rut.

"Me too!  Me too!"

Perhaps you are trying to stick more closely to a budget, or as one lady put it, "If I make spaghetti one more time, I think I'll just die."

Last week I tried some new recipes, but they found less than enthusiastic review from my family. Either I'm boring and fix quesadillas and taco soup every other day, or I try new things and despite the energy and time, few folks are thrilled. I'm tired of coming up with the menu and falling short.

So this week, I canvased the 7 oldest members of my family. They each chose a main dish, two vegetables (or a vegetable and a salad), and an optional fruit. Here's what they came up with.

Mari Alice:
Sausage links with Mac'n'Cheese
Sweet Peas
Caesar Salad
$14.75 = $1.84 per person

Spaghetti (we will NOT die:)
Green beans
Caesar Salad (I'm not the only one in a rut.)
Frozen fruit
$14.45 = $1.80 per person

Talapia or Salmon with Mashed potatoes
Caesar Salad (sheesh, people)
$16.50 = $2.06 per person

Chicken Pockets (chicken + cream cheese rolled in crescent dough)
Squash & onions
Caesar Salad (I mean, really!)
$24.25 = $3.03 per person

Oriental Stir-fry with rice (using leftover steak, chicken, and a scrambled egg)
(veggies up to and including "asparagus & those cute little tiny corns")
$9.00 = $1.13 per person

Deer Steak (raise your hand if you're surprised)
Steamed broccoli, carrots and cauliflower
Frozen fruit
$7.50 = $.94 per person (venison from freezer $24.88 per lb seems free:)

That puts us at a weekly dinner average cost at $1.77 per person per meal. And this will provide a small amount of left-overs, so that carries over to compensate some of the lunch budget too.

I love it. The whole week planned within budget, and none of it was my idea. And we know this because Taco Soup is never mentioned. (I do cook other things ... sometimes.)

My family became huge fans of Caesar salad when I bought one of those kits from the produce section. (Philip's devotion goes back farther to decades of patronage to seafood restaurants and steak houses.) I have found that I can buy a big bag of greens for half the cost and add my own croutons and Caesar dressing (even thinned a little, if necessary). The frozen fruit that EVERYONE wants to pair with their meal is the big bag of Dole mixed fruit. $8 will give us at least 3 meals. The dough for Luke's chicken pockets could be homemade and save $5 ... but I didn't. Don't judge.

Other ways we minimize our grocery budget:

We are water drinkers. I buy sugar free lemonade mix occasionally, but besides milk at breakfast, we drink water all day long.

No one ever gets a whole serving of meat to themselves ... like a whole chicken breast or steak. (They can gripe to their therapist later.) I chop all expensive meats into sauces or casseroles or soups or salads or quesadillas. You get the idea. The only exception is fish. We throw caution and rations to the wind when we serve up fillets.

The only snacks I buy are raw almonds, apples by the bag, and the occasional box of ginger snaps. Oh, and popcorn for the hubs and me. Several of the kids like to bake treats, so we have flour/sugar/eggs/choc chips/butter on hand. I do buy lunch chips, but they are for sack lunches ... not to grab and munch (eh-hmm, Luke Johnson!)

We don't eat cheese on sandwiches unless we're rocking the George Forman. *I found it interesting that none of the meals my family chose included shredded cheddar cheese. What is wrong with them? See, if we had Taco Soup, we'd need cheese!

When making quesadillas 6 times a month (kidding, sort of), I am able to use less cheese by mixing my ingredients in a big bowl. Chopped chicken or steak, a can of rotel or salsa, fat-free refried beans or drained black beans, frozen corn, fresh spinach, grilled onions/peppers, etc. I dump it all in a bowl, stir in some shredded cheese, and spread the pasty mixture onto one half of a tortilla. Fold them each over, and six will fit on the Foreman. You can keep spreading and folding while the first batch grills. Fast, yummy, easy.

Lunch sandwiches rotate between tuna/ham/pb&j. Many times I send leftovers with Philip or we eat them here for lunch. Veggies and hummus are served with almost every lunch.

Breakfast is cereal or oatmeal. Once or twice a week I make eggs and toast. I buy the $1 unsweetened puffed wheat or puffed rice cereal and mix it with "good cereal". Read: sugar laden crunch-o-saurus whatever. This accomplishes two goals: 1/2 the sugar per bowl, and 1/3 of the cost per bowl ... and half the grumbling.

I buy half-price, day-old bread. I actually buy a ton of it and put it in the freezer. It is perfect for paninis or toast.

I cook. We just don't go to restaurants as a family very often. (Something else they can add to the list to process with their therapist.) We would just rather spend our money on other things. And when we do go - for birthdays and such - it is more special. The exception is $5 pizzas or Wendy's drive-thru dollar menu. If we stay around the $2 per person cost, sometimes it's just easier to grab dinner and keep the kitchen intact. I also keep cans of soup in the cabinet and ravioli in the freezer in case time is short and we're tempted to go out. We can have soup and paninis or pasta and sauce for pennies per person and call it a night.

They hunt. Our freezer has meet in it all year. All joking aside, it is very nice.
One venison idea: When we process our deer, we grind most of it straight into stew pots with onion and pepper. I brown meat on all 4 burners that day. After it cools, we place a meal's worth into each freezer bag and freeze them. So any day of the year, I'm 15 minutes out from spaghetti, chili, casserole, or TACO SOUP!

Whatever doesn't fit into the pots, we grind into my largest mixing bowl and I make meat loaf and meat balls. Then I cook them and freeze them. Again, SO much closer to dinner several nights of the year with one [stinky] night's work. And healthier than the store's freezer version.

What else? Maybe I'll think of something else later.

What are some things YOU do to save time and/or money when it comes to groceries?
Are you in a rut?