Illustration by Daniel Vasconcellos, vasky.com.
If summer really is lazy and hazy, then fall is frenetic and full of constraints on our time and budgets.
The reason is obvious if you have children and, like me, the thing uppermost in your mind is how busy life will soon be. Soccer is starting, homework is on the horizon, and there will be many school-related meetings and obligations. Even if you don’t have children or yours are grown and gone, fall usually marks a return to all the scheduled parts of life that break for the summer. Now that you’ve used your vacation time and budget, it’s back to the routine.
My No. 1 suggestion for saving both time and money right now is to create and use a menu plan. This is a huge money saver because you are less likely to stop for fast food or to dine out if you already have your meals planned. Better yet, if you take advantage of freezer cooking you will also already have your meals prepared. That will make you even less likely to dine out on those nights when you feel too tired for the all the preparation and cooking needed to get dinner on the table.
Menu planning and freezer cooking have another benefit. They will help you stay healthy. If you know what you are preparing for dinner in advance each night, you are more likely to stick to a sensible approach to eating that does not involve fast food French fries, even the gluten-free ones.
Involve your family in menu planning, something I started doing in 2006. I keep flexible by flipping what’s on the menu from one day to another if necessary. We rarely go out to eat because we know what’s for dinner, and we have all the needed ingredients ready and waiting. Nothing will prompt surrender and a trip to a local restaurant quicker than having to run to the supermarket before you can even start dinner. A menu plan also helps with savings because you know what you need over a period of time and can stock up when things on your list are on sale.
Variety will help make menu planning successful, too. I like to include one food from every food group, with meals centered on the protein (this can also be dried beans). Include foods with different textures, shapes, colors and temperatures in your plan. You can also sneak in veggies, as I do with an easy homemade marinara that my family loves but has no idea how many veggies it contains.
Begin the menu by writing down all the meals that you know how to prepare and your family likes to eat. Then fill up the calendar with these meals that you know best. Next look for low-cost recipes to add to your menu. Check blogs and Pinterest for easy recipes.
Ask your family what they would like to see on the menu plan and be sure to include a family favorite each week. This gives everyone something to look forward to. I always include a leftovers night, too. This gives me a break from cooking and allows us to clean out our fridge, saving money instead of throwing away food left so long it’s spoiled.
Especially in the fall, my Crock-Pot™ is my saving grace. We are so busy that putting ingredients in the slow cooker in the morning is sometimes the only way we get a decent dinner. If you plan ahead with a weekly gluten-free menu and shop for your groceries over the weekend, you will be stocked up and able to keep yourself on track.
Freezing meals can help a lot, too. The best way to get started with freezer cooking is to spend one day each weekend cooking meals that you will freeze and reheat at least a few nights each week. After you master this process you can extend your prep to create enough meals for two weeks and eventually a month. When you prepare 20 meals in one day of cooking, you are set for a full month of menu planning. That one day of work will really pay off in terms of saving time and money even if it seems a little intimidating at first.
Part of the secret is doubling or tripling recipes. It does not take any longer to prepare enough ground meat for three recipes than for one, not to mention the time you save by having to clean up only once. You can prepare a large quantity of many meats and vegetables and use them in a variety of dishes. Keep in mind that some ingredients don’t freeze well, including mayonnaise and sour cream, cabbage, celery and cucumbers.
A vacuum sealer or freezer bag makes it much easier to store your meals in the freezer. Make sure you label and date your food. And remember that freezing will work best if you are organized, shop one day, and prep and cook on another.
If you’ve been thinking that this all sounds like too much work, reconsider. You’ll be surprised by how much time and money you can really save.
Melissa Jennings, who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2011, is the author of Savvy Saving, Couponing Secrets from the Stockpiling Moms and co-founder of stockpilingmoms.com.