Our approach to cooking healthy, cheap & delicious meals is fairly simple. I’ll explain our methods below in detail (with some tips along the way) and perhaps it might help you with planning, saving time, etc. I will say our plan won’t work for everyone – but perhaps pieces of our approach may be valuable for you. The biggest thing about our approach is the commitment to pre-planning and consistent grocery shopping!
Pick Your Meals
dReJ Tip: It’s good to find a few meals that may have common ingredients (just a few commonalities go along way in money saving!) if you can. For instance, if we decide to make a casserole that requires carrots, we’ll make sure that we can add carrots as a side to another meal – or incorporate it as one of the vegetables in a salad, etc so we can use the whole bag of carrots instead of just a few.
Make a List – Check it Twice
Be sure to make a grocery list that reflects the ingredients in your 4 recipes you’ve selected. Again – make note of when 2 recipes both require a 1/2 a green pepper, or 1 cup of onion – make sure you know how many vegetables you need to get, and think about the size of the vegetable. For most recipes, it’s not going to make or break it if you have a 3 less green pepper strips than it asked for. Use common sense to save money. Buy the bigger onion so it will go farther in your recipes if several call for onion.
dReJ Tip:If your recipes require pasta – what kind of pasta do you already have hanging out in your pantry? Does it really matter that it asked for penne and you have bowtie pasta? It’s all pasta – use what you have first. If you picked two recipes that utilize pasta noodles – just buy one box and use it for both recipes, no sense in buying twice the amount you need just to get a different shape.
Commit to Grocery Shopping Once a Week
I know a lot of folks who will go to the store almost every time they decide to cook at home. This is a bad idea if you are trying to save money. By picking your meals in advance, having your grocery list in hand – you can get all the meals you need for the work week and those around the house items, too. On average – RJ & I spend between $45-60 a piece at the grocery store (we always just split the bill!). A lot of people don’t believe us but we’ll scan you our receipts! This usually include 8 lunches and dinners, breakfast for 2 people for 5 days, snacks, house hold/personal items, and at least one weekend meal, and well – a 6 pack of beer.
dReJ Tip:RJ & I grocery shop every weekend together. We shop at Harris Teeter, and we signed up to receive discounts with a VIC card. Most grocery stores have similar value saving cards. Be sure to utilize them! We have saved up to $60 in one shopping trip by planning our meals around the deals for the week at the grocery store. We receive a weekly email that tells us the discounts for the week – many times the sales influence what type of meat we might include for our recipes. If shrimp is on sale and chicken is not – we very well might change our Chicken Caesar salad idea to a Shrimp Caesar. Be flexible!
Prepare Lunches in Advance
When RJ & I first started this adventure, we didn’t live together and we had different work schedules. So i was working the 8-5 gig, and he was working 2pm-11pm. So in the beginning we made ALL four recipes on the weekend and put individual portions in Tupperware ready to be reheated for lunch and dinner. Now that we are both on the same schedule and we live together – we make our lunches in advance and we make dinner when we get home for the most part.
dReJ Tip:We try to pick recipes that don’t take all day to make. Be aware of this when choosing recipes. We are both impatient people, so picking a meal that takes 4 hours is a turn off for us. But in the past 2 years – we’ve managed to avoid those recipes and still had delicious meals!
When we choose recipes, we typically think of two of them as more lunch appropriate (because we will be bringing them to work vs cooking them & eating it immediately) and the other 2 as more dinner worthy. When we used to make all our meals in advance – we had more variety in “which meal and which time” – so pick a way that works best for you. If you are super busy during the week – maybe taking 2 hours from your weekend to prepare all your food is worthwhile to keep you on track during the work days.
When You Make it – Eat it!
I used to be terrible at this before we started making our food in advance. I would go to the store, buy a bunch of random things in hopes I would figure out meals with it later. Then I’d come home and be tired and frustrated by random food so I would end up calling a friend to see if they wanted to go out to eat. That was a big waste of money because I was spending money on groceries, not eating them so they’d have to be thrown away and spending money again on dining out. Not to mention, super unhealthy to eat out that often!
dReJ Tip: You have to make a promise to yourself that you are going to eat 8 meals that are “home cooked.” We give ourselves 2 meals a week to go out – whether that’s due to a work lunch, dinner with a friend, or a fun date night out for us – this gives us some freedom to still be spontaneous during the week. I LOVE to eat out – so this is a great compromise for me. I can still be on track with the majority of my meals during the week, and I can still participate in lunch with co-workers or when my friends get together.
So What About Breakfast & Weekends?
You might have noticed that we have only talked about lunch and dinners during the work week. Here’s our deal for breakfast and weekends:
Breakfast: We trade out breakfasts every 2-3 weeks depending on what we are in the mood for. Our general rotation is:
1) Whole Wheat English Muffin with a slice of reduced fat cheese & 1 turkey sausage. Delicious homemade breakfast sandwich that’s under 300 calories. Super quick, too. I bring my bread, cheese and turkey sausage for the whole week with me on Mondays and make it when i arrive at work. RJ makes his at home before we leave.
2) Shakeology for Dre, Power Bar & Piece of Fruit for RJ.
3) Healthy Cereal with Vanilla Soy Milk (we use Silk)
4) Updated since August 2012: Since we doing a more Primal Diet now (no wheats/grains) a lot of the above choices aren’t in our regular rotation (although can still be good options if you DO want to eat grains/wheat). Now we do things like omelets, eggs & bacon, or we make breakfast casseroles in advance so we can just heat and eat in the AM.
dReJ Tip: We go back and forth so we don’t get bored. We always discuss what we want to do for breakfast before we go shopping so we aren’t tempted to overspend on breakfast items. Also – we make the commitment to eat the same thing for breakfast all week long.
We also discuss weekend plans before we shop. Since we shop on the weekend – it’s usually easy to anticipate if we have plans to eat out or do something with friends since it would either be that same evening or the next day. This is one of the few times that we will buy a meal just for one time (something that doesn’t make 4 servings).
dReJ Tip: Try to incorporate the sides or meat that you may have left over from the work week meals in order to save money. For example, if the special that week is Crab Cakes – we might grab a few of those and make a side out of the leftover squash and carrots we bought for another recipe. Use what you are already buying so you don’t throw away your food!
Since we pick recipes that are lower in calories (we try to pick recipes that are 500 calories or less per serving), you are going to want snacks especially if you are working out! Here are some of our favs:
Fruits: Bananas, Apples, Strawberries (whatever is in season)
Chips: 100 calorie packs of Smart Pop White Cheddar Popcorn, 100 calorie Sun Chips, 100 Calorie Pringles (we don’t ever buy a whole bag of chips. this is when the 100 calories servings really help us out!)
Sweet/Salty: Chex Mix (the reduced fat kind), 100 calorie white chocolate pretzels, 100 calorie ice cream sandwiches, Chocolate Goldfish, Luna or Clif Bars
dReJ Tip: Snacks shouldn’t be more than 200 calories a serving. So make sure if they aren’t already in portion size bags that you do this yourself.
Post Paleo/Primal Snacking:
Obviously a lot has changed over the years – and one of those things is a major shift in what we snack on. For one – I don’t snack nearly as much as I used to. When I do, I choose unprocessed items as often as possible.
Fruit (pick what’s in season!)
Raw nuts (cashews, almonds, walnuts, macadamias) – Don’t get the kind that have been roasted, salted, etc – too much junk added. Go to a specialty store where they have bulk nuts – and you can find a lot of varieties there! Don’t go overboard – try to limit yourself to 2oz per day especially if you are trying to lose weight!
Greek Yogurt: I buy full fat Greek yogurt and add a little bit of fresh honey to it. It’s just sweet enough to curb any cravings I may have (which aren’t many these days!)
Kind Bars: This is one of the few “packaged things” we buy. They are fruit/nut bars and all natural ingredients. They aren’t PERFECT, but they are way better than granola bars for you!
Olives: I love olives. Green, kalamata – give me more!
Cheese: This is an in moderation snack – don’t go overboard. Choose high quality, non processed when possible. Avoid the fat free/low fat types – they have filler ingredients that you’d be better off avoiding.
Summing it Up
This approach is pretty simple to do once you make the commitment. Of course, there are weeks when I’m away for work or RJ is on a trip – and we figure it out as we go during those times. But the majority of the time – this works for us. And we’ve seen results! Our weekly blog will do a lot of the work for you if you have similar tastes! We’ll show you the recipes we picked, tell you how much we spent, take pics along the way and whether we liked it or not. Let us know what information would make YOUR life easier and we’ll be happy to include it.