My biggest tip for you is to stop buying prepackaged meals and snacks. You're probably saying, "Oh, it's only $2 for this box of granola bars." Or, "These fruit snacks are so cheap and my kids love them...." However, you are going to spend much more money for the month compared to making your own!
I also stopped buying cereal for my three kiddos because they would each eat 3+ bowls per morning, meaning we'd go through about a box every couple of days (not to mention the extra milk we were consuming). That was a LOT of extra money in our budget, so I switched us to more filling breakfasts. Yes, it means I spend more time in the morning, but it saves us so much it's worth it.
Now, here's some staples you should keep in your pantry to save you money:
- dry beans. They are cheap! Buy organic, and plan ahead. If you give yourself enough prep time, you will save so much money over buying canned! I also like to make my own bean sprouts from dry mung beans. It's SUPER easy (just google the directions) and a bag at the health food store only costs $4. Bean sprouts are great on salads, in stir fry, or in homemade Thai spring rolls.
- canned goods. You'll especially want to have beans, tomatoes and fruit. Having a couple cans of each of these will keep you from running to the store when you just need to pick up "one thing."
- flax seeds. If you can find them ground, that's best because they don't digest well. But I found packs of them at the Dollar Tree and stocked up! I just put them in my Vitamix to grind them and store them in the freezer. Adding these to your baked goods & smoothies will help keep you full (& regular, if you know what I mean!). I also like to use them in my homemade cracker recipe.
- rice. It's inexpensive and can be used to stretch so many meals from chili to sushi and even faux quiche! My favorite is jasmine, but brown is the healthiest. Even if you spend a few more dollars on organic, it's worth it for your family's health!
- organic cinnamon. It makes almost anything taste better! I use it in my coffee (with almond extract, it makes for a cappuccino flavor with NO calories!). The organic cinnamon I bought tastes WAY better than the cheap stuff I was buying before.
- powdered milk or canned milk. How many times have you gone to bake and found you're out of milk? If you run to the store, you are more than likely to buy more than just that gallon of milk! This is not the healthiest milk by any means, but it'll do "in a pinch."
- popcorn. I buy organic popcorn in bulk at the health food store, but this is an item you could use coupons for. Do NOT buy the microwave bags anymore! You can make your own by putting 1/4 cup popcorn into a brown paper bag and microwave it yourself. Without oil and butter, it's a healthy snack for you AND your kids!
- whole wheat pastry flour. This is SO much better for you than all-purpose flour, and the pastry flour is fine enough to handle baking.
- sugar in the raw (or turbinado sugar). Stop buying sugar free sweeteners and switch to the real thing; just consume less. I also avoid "regular" white sugar as much as possible.
- nuts. Yes, they're expensive. However, you can add them just a little at a time to your baked goods, grind them and use them in oatmeal to make it more filling, or eat just a couple for a healthy snack. If you buy them in bulk, you'll save money.
- local honey. I have found great success in taking local honey to help with my seasonal allergies. Some will say it's been disproven, but it has worked for me and my children! I use it in place of sugar in some of my recipes.
I have a very small freezer (the top kind) and managed to make do with that. But we finally broke down and bought a deep freezer off Craigslist for $50. We put it in my husband's art studio (aka the shed) since we don't have a basement or a garage. It's not a pretty freezer because they kept it in the garage, but it was cheap and it holds a lot.
Keep these things in your freezer:
- bananas & other fresh fruit. You don't need to buy organic bananas because of the thick peels. But buy enough for the whole month (especially when you can find them discounted!). Bring them home, peel & slice. Put one banana per snack size ziploc, and store all of them in a large freezer ziploc. Really makes for great smoothies and oatmeal!
- homemade muffins & other baked goods. If you make a double or triple batch of muffins (or any baked goods), stick them in freezer bags and throw them in the freezer. They will last longer than if you had them on the counter, and they keep very well. This one tip, believe it or not, will save you a lot of money and time! When I stick baked goods in the freezer, the kids don't think about them and devour them all in one day.
- bread. I just haven't started making my own bread yet, although once I save enough money for a grain mill, I will. For now, though, I buy Nature's Own bread at the Dollar Tree! Walmart sells this bread for almost $3/loaf. I buy as much as I can, or have room for, and then freeze it. (They usually get shipments twice a week. Call ahead to find out the day and time so you can stock up!) It defrosts well in the toaster or fridge.
- homemade freezer meals. When you make a meal, double it and freeze the extra meal for later in the month. (Just be sure to label it with reheating directions.) Having a ready-to-bake meal in the freezer will save you from eating out. I used to buy skillet meals to have on hand, but now I make my own. The ones I make have much more flavor than what I used to buy, and they are so much healthier (and cost effective!). I've done once a month cooking, but I find that making double batches of meals for two weeks and freezing the second meal is a better plan for me.
- homemade soup starters. Use what you have on hand and make up a few batches. Especially since fall is here and winter is coming, you'll love how easy and economical it is to whip up a batch of soup. Make a large batch and freeze it! If you get those freezer canning jars, you can freeze individual servings of soup for work/school.
- homemade chicken stock. I like to buy a whole chicken from our local farmer. It's approx. $13 for the whole chicken which is organic and much healthier than what you can buy in the store. One of my favorite ways to cook it is to brine it in a simple salt solution for 5-6 hours, then smoke it for approx 2 hrs. YUM! Then I can use the chicken in my recipes for the next week or two. After I've picked all the meat off the bones, I boil it with water and a few seasonings. This makes a LARGE amount, so I store it in the freezer in 2 cup batches (because that's what most recipes call for). **How to brine a chicken: Put the chicken into a large bowl or pot with enough water to cover it, and about 3/4 cup kosher salt or sea salt (regular table salt works too), then you can add just about anything, depending on the extra flavor you want. You could add 2/3 cup sugar + 3/4 cup soy sauce + 1/4 cup olive oil. OR, you could add freshly ground pepper, coriander seeds, and any other seasonings you have on hand. Cover it and let it sit for at least 3-4 hrs (you can do it overnight if you want). Then cook the chicken however you'd like!
Coming next......my monthly dinner menu plan!