I Saved $230 A Month at the Grocery Store with Extreme Cooking
In case you haven't noticed, grocery prices are climbing fast. Two weeks ago, I could buy a gallon of milk for under $3. Today it's $3.48 at the cheapest store in town. Extreme times call for extreme measures and so, a few months ago when prices started to rise I tried my hand at couponing. Not the kind where crazy people buy 80 bottles of mustard for a dollar, but using coupons to purchase things I would normally buy and use. And while there were some good deals to be had (I once got 6 bottles of Spray'n Wash for $4), if you happen to live in a state without double-coupon deals, it's a lot of work for a few dollars off. However, those dollars add up and there were times I saved close to 30% off my grocery bill. But I knew I could do better. I was still spending $400 or more a month to feed my family.
When I heard about Once-A-Month Cooking, I was attracted to the idea to save my time. I had no idea that it would cut my grocery bill in half. The book itself merely sparked an idea. I'm sure it has wonderful recipes but I didn't try any of them (except a fall pork roast that was very good). My kids are picky so I knew if I tried this I would have to use tried recipes they'll eat. Once-A-Month Cooking suggests you shop on one day and then rest. Then the next day cook for 8 hours and fill your freezer with food for the whole month. I'm a homeschooling mom of two very needy little girls. The idea of trying to cook for 8 hours gave me an instant migraine. To spare me a possible nervous breakdown, I decided to try cooking for just two weeks first.
I shopped for 10 days' worth of dinners and spent $170. I went home, put the baby to bed and set the older one up with a craft and poured myself a big glass of red wine. The iPod was set on shuffle and I started cooking. I chopped up chicken into bite sized pieces and put them in freezer bags, I started spaghetti sauce, browned 6 pork chops, sauteed vegetables for lasagna and chopped up 6 sets of veggies to make stir-fries. Three hours went by and I was done! There was a lot of clean-up to do, but the food was all prepared or semi-prepared and ready for freezing for later use. I had two lasagnas, six stir-fries, a pork roast, six pork chops, three bags of spaghetti, two chicken potpies, and more. What I thought would last 10 days lasted 22. I got through almost an entire month on $170. The only trips to the grocery store I made over the next few weeks were for butter, milk and eggs.
Next: The other benefits of cooking ahead...
Not only does cooking ahead save money, but it saves time. Shopping once a week with two children is a nightmarish scenario. When I say I would rather poke sharp sticks in my eyes than maneuver through WalMart with a full cart and two whiny, crying beggars it's not an exaggeration. I will literally do anything to avoid it (even shop at 9pm when I'd rather be in bed). Cooking ahead also stops the plague of missing ingredients. Menu planning isn't the answer to an organized life. I've planned my menus for years but inevitably I'd be cooking my planned dinner and find I was missing a key ingredient. This caused me to have to send my husband to the store after a hard day when he'd rather be playing on the floor with the girls. Now that my dinners are all cooked at one time, all the ingredients are conveniently already in there! The only things I'm left to prepare every day are easy sides like salads, garlic bread and the occasional can of corn.
Speaking of having nothing to do every day but throw some corn in the microwave, cooking ahead saves energy. I guess you could say it's "green." (It remains to be seen if I can get a 500 billion dollar loan from the Obama administration. Perhaps I should apply for one.) Any person responsible for cooking nightly meals for the family can tell you the sheer terror one feels when staring at frozen chicken at 4:30pm. Cooking ahead takes all the stress out of dishing up a great meal. My favorite pre-made meals are slow-cooker dinners. The browned, frozen pork chops are the perfect ingredient for the crock pot. I take them out in the morning, plop them frozen in the slow-cooker and toss in some apple juice and cranberries, or soy sauce and orange juice, or any number of other things that are good on pork and forget about it. When dinner time rolls around, all I have to do is set the table and heat up some rice and veggies. It has given me an extra hour and a half to take care of other important things, like trolling Facebook... I mean, laundry.
Next: No more rotten vegetables and wasted money...
No matter how hard I tried not to waste food before I started cooking ahead, the bags of rotting produce at the bottom of my produce bin always mocked me. Every time I'd find a rotten vegetable it was like watching money fly into a fire and it made me feel like a failure. I was constantly forgetting about that bunch of cilantro I meant to use for a dinner that never materialized or the pepper that grew mold before I got to chop it up. With cooking ahead, every single item gets prepped and stored in the freezer right away and lasts so much longer. I haven't found one rotten piece of produce since I started this project. Another bonus is my refrigerator bins are much less crowded and the only things in there are items we eat every day like fruit.
Cooking ahead can save your family money, time, energy and food, but would you believe me if I said it could help your community? I belong to a mom's group called MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) and whenever one of our moms has a new baby we sign up to bring her a meal for a week. Before I had a freezer full of meals I would get a call to provide another family with a meal and it was overwhelming. It meant I had to cook two meals that day and I'm embarrassed to say sometimes I couldn't do it. But now, if I get that phone call, I'm already prepared and my only problem is deciding which meal to bring! I've been on the receiving end of a meal prepared by awesome church ladies and I can tell you, it's a huge blessing. Cooking ahead has given me the ability to be a blessing to others.
If you struggle with organization, eat out and spend more than you would like or would like to feed the family something other than last minute frozen pizza, give this method a try! It seems far more daunting than it actually is. Peace is a priceless commodity these days and you can have it every night for dinner if you just cook ahead.