5 Easy Steps to Meal Plan Successfully

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My family doesn’t like to make decisions and meal planning helps us avoid time wasting conversations. It takes the What do you want for dinner? back and forth convo out of our evenings (and we used to waste a lot of time on these conversations). Now, we have a menu scheduled out at least 2 weeks at a time, and we’ve found that we really enjoy having a plan. It allows us to get right to cooking and have dinner over with earlier in the evening, leaving us more time to spend together. And now, if I ever ask my husband what he wants for dinner he looks at me and says You’re supposed to already know! We’ve gotten so used to meal planning now, we don’t want to do dinner any other way.

It also saves us a ton of money.  Before we sat down and planned our meals, we would just buy aimlessly at the grocery store and spend more than we needed. And without a plan, we would end up going out or picking up food because we wouldn’t decide on what we wanted to make, which caused us to spend more money and waste the food we bought. It was a vicious cycle but meal planning put that to an end.

Meal planning isn’t easy at first, but after a few months it becomes second nature. Sometimes now I forget how hard the beginning was, so I wanted to write a post about the first steps of meal planning. I know it’s intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be! And I want to help any family out there struggling to eat at home, plan their meals, or save money on food.

So here is a step by step plan to getting organized and start meal planning today:

Step 1:  Make a list of meals!
Write a list down of 8-10 dinners that you and your family would enjoy eating. This doesn’t have to be fancy–if it’s simple spaghetti and hamburger helper, that’s okay! Be realistic in what you’re going to want to cook and what your family is going to eat, especially in your first few weeks giving meal planning a try. If you jump into complicated dishes that you don’t have experience with, you’re going to have a much harder transition into meal planning.

You also want to consider coming up with meals that use similar ingredients. For example, a lot of our meals use similar meats and veggies. We use a lot of cauliflower, ground beef, steak, chicken breasts, sweet potatoes, salads, fresh fruit and you’ll see other repeated ingredients in our meal list. This is crucial to saving money–you don’t want to waste anything! And buying in bulk will save you money, too.

So here is our list of 8 meals that we enjoy to rotate through. We eat “Paleo-ish” but this could easily give you ideas for all kinds of diets.

Steak and Cauliflower Mash
Bun-less Burgers and Sweet Potatoes
French Onion Soup (no crouton) with a Side Salad
Steak Stir-fry with Cauliflower Fried Rice
Taco Salads
Oven Roasted Chicken and Potatoes
Bacon and Eggs with fruit
Pulled Pork BBQ with Cole Slaw

Step 2:  Figure out what meals are your quick and easy meals!
This will come in handy for when you plan meals on the busier days for your family. For us, Oven Roasted Chicken and Potatoes is our easiest meal, so if we have a lot to get done one night, then I can just toss it in the oven and forget it. Crockpot meals are great examples of easy meals! However, Taco Salads is our fastest meal, so this comes in handy when we get home later than usual and we want something made quick because I know I can whip it up in about 15 minutes.

You want to keep the time and effort each meal takes because you want to be successful with your meal planning. If you schedule a complicated meal on a busy day, you’re not going to feel like cooking it.  So keep that in mind when writing your list of meals. Step 2 is all about figuring out what meals work best with what days of your family’s schedule.

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Step 3: Grab that calendar and start planning!
Take it one week at a time. Match those quick meals with the late nights and the easy meals on the busy days. Then look at your next week and do the same thing.  Leave blanks for the more open days–that’s where you’ll put the more time-consuming meals. Here is an example of what our average two week plan looks like after I match up the quick and easy meals with our schedule:

M~ Dylan working late ~ Taco Salads
T~ Dylan working late ~ Bacon and Eggs with fruit
W~
R~ Laundry day ~ Oven Roasted Chicken and Potatoes
F~
S~ Birthday party Bun-less Burgers and Sweet Potatoes
S~
M~ Dylan working late ~Taco Salads
T~
W~Dylan working late ~ Bacon and Eggs with fruit
R~ Laundry day ~ Oven Roasted Chicken and Potatoes
F~
S~
S~ Visit family ~ Bun-less Burgers and Sweet Potatoes

Step 4: Fill in the blanks!
Take the rest of your meals (the more complicated of the bunch) and match them up with the days that are less eventful. And make sure that you don’t schedule your family to eat the same meal two days in a row (because nobody wants to do that).

M~ Dylan working late ~ Taco Salads
T~ Dylan working late ~ Bacon and Eggs with fruit
W~ Steak with Cauliflower Mash
R~ Laundry day ~ Oven Roasted Chicken and Potatoes
F~  Steak Stir Fry with Cauliflower Fried Rice
S~ Birthday party ~ Bun-less Burgers and Sweet Potatoes
S~ French Onion Soup and side salad
M~ Dylan working late ~ Taco Salads
T~ Steak with Cauliflower Mash
W~Dylan working late ~ Bacon and Eggs with fruit
R~ Laundry day ~ Oven Roasted Chicken and Potatoes
F~ Pork BBQ and Coleslaw 
S~ Steak Stir Fry with Cauliflower Fried Rice
S~ Visit family ~ Bun-less Burgers and Sweet Potatoes

Step 5: Make a grocery list and utilize your freezer!
Make your grocery list, and make it happen. We are able to buy majority of our groceries 2-3 weeks at a time by utilizing our freezer space. We buy all our meat in bulk, separate it into portions, and pop it into the freezer. So for example, we weigh our ground beef into half pound portions so that for each meal I can just pull out what we need and defrost it to cook. Frozen fruit and veggies are also great for meal planning, and save a ton of time as well. The only thing we do make additional trips to the grocery store is fresh produce, but that’s usually only if we try to make our groceries stretch for 3 weeks.

Remember, it helps to plan meals that use similar ingredients because this will save you money and keep you from wasting food.

What about breakfast and lunch? 
Meal planning for breakfast and lunch are just as important as dinner, but tend to be a bit easier. Most people don’t mind eating the same things for breakfast and lunch each week, but having options is important to keep you out of the drive-thru line. So we plan 3-4 options for each meal to have on hand:

Breakfast: 
Oatmeal
Cheerios & bananas
Bacon and eggs

Lunch:
Grilled chicken and veggies
Chicken Salad
Broccoli Cheddar Soup
Leftovers

Leftovers are huge for us as well and they can be so helpful in stretching that dollar at the grocery store. Meal prepping can help you and your family be successful with meal planning as well. I will often send my husband to work with lunch made or sometimes he will come home to make something. Whatever keeps his butt out of the Chick-fil-A drive thru makes me and our bank accounts happy.

And there you have it! Five easy, peasy steps for you and your family to be on their way to becoming meal planning pros. Meal planning has saved my family so much in time, money, and stress, and I hate that it has such a reputation of being hard because it really is simple once you get the hang of it. So don’t be intimidated and give it a try to see how much it saves your family.

Do you meal plan? What works for your family? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

Xoxo, Sarah.

Five tips to eat more at home

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I have a lot of my friends ask how my husband and I manage to not eat out as often anymore. Especially because we live in the city, eating out, whether that be fast food, takeout, or going to a restaurant, is such a convenience. I totally get that. Making every meal at home takes a lot of time, preparation, and energy; I totally understand why people pick up food for a lot of their meals.

My husband and I used to be those people. We didn’t like to stay in and cook because it took too much time and we wouldn’t really like what we would fix when we stayed in. We were addicted to the convenience of eating out and, of course, the taste of it. We had our “usuals” at our favorite restaurants, and we always wanted them. We’d go through spells of “Doesn’t this restaurant sound so good right now? And then, even if we had plenty of food at home, we’d go out to eat simply because we had cravings.

But now if we do decide to go out to eat, we can never decide where we want to go because none of it sounds as good. We’ve gotten so used to our own cooking, we actually like to stay in and make our own meals now.

So how did we get here?

Well, a financial hardship. We HAD to start eating every meal at home because we were pregnant and we weren’t making enough money to eat out and prepare for our baby. I had to sit down and figure out what our cheapest meals were, what my picky husband would actually eat every week, and how much we could save to put towards baby necessities. Even though there were only two of us to feed, we could feed ourselves much, much cheaper at home than by eating out, even with fast food.

I would never wish a financial hardship on my worst enemy, especially when children are involved. I was so scared we wouldn’t be able to provide for our baby. It was damn good motivation to eat at home–and because of it, we’ve discovered how many benefits there are to eating at home. And I want to share them with everyone. I want everyone to understand the value of eating in, making your own food, and putting the money saved in other places, like a savings account. Our bodies feel so much better than they did when we ate out all the time AND our bank accounts look so much better too.

So here are 5 tips I have that helped us stop eating out routinely:

  1. MEAL PLAN.  I cannot stress this one enough. I sit down with our family calendar and figure out what we will be having for dinner two-three weeks in advanced. If we have a lot going on during the week, we will have simple and quick dinners. Not so busy nights is when we make the meals that take a little longer. Once you make a plan, you will no longer have those dreadful, back and forth conversations of “What do you want?” “I don’t know what do you want?” until it’s 8 o’clock and “too late to cook.” I’ve been there. I completely understand how frustrating it is and it’s 100% why we meal plan. When Dylan asks me what is for dinner, I know exactly what we’re having. It gives our dinner time structure–we no longer waste time with “I don’t care, you pick.
  2. Find the right recipes. This was very important for me because I have the pickiest husband to ever exist (I’m not kidding … I’d break down how picky he is, but it’s probably it’s own post at this point). But, I had to find the right recipes that he would enjoy eating at home and eating often. Of course we have those meals that are pretty basic dinners, but we also have meals that he gets really excited about. Sometimes he even lets out a big Yesssss! when I tell him what we’re having, which is exactly what he would’ve done when we finally decided on his going out to eat at his favorite restaurant. Now, he gets excited about the meals we make together. Find the right recipes–the ones that will make your family excited to eat– and stick with what works.
  3. Try new recipes. Of course, find the right recipes, but also try new ones. The same menu over and over again gets boring. We try to aim for three new recipes a month. That way, if it’s a total bust, we don’t waste too much money. This is where a lot of my friends go wrong with meal planning: they try too many new recipes that they don’t like and then they feel like they wasted money on the meal. Don’t go overboard with trying new things (if you’ve never made lasagna don’t make it your first week meal planning). Save the new recipes for when you need a change of pace. You’ll be more inspired and excited to make it, anyways.
  4. Recreate your favorite restaurant’s dishes. When Dylan and I first started eating at home, this especially came in handy. If I was craving something from a restaurant (like fried pickles… yum!), Dylan would look up a recipe and we’d make them at home for much, much cheaper. Same for him: he loves a BBQ chicken wrap from Red Robin, so we make a similar one at home for dinner. This will help you fight those cravings while not messing up your meal plan. Plus, they’ll give you great new recipe ideas!
  5. Remember why you started. This is important because there will be times when one person wants to go out and can easily convince the other they should. This is usually me and Dylan is the one to say “We don’t need to.” “We can’t afford to.” Whatever your motivation is to eat at home, write it down and remember it in moment when one of you feels the urge to order takeout. Dylan and I spent the first two years of our relationship eating out too much … breaking the habit is hard but it’s important to remember why and where you started.

These are a few of the things that we have done to break our habit of eating out. Now eating out is a treat for us; something we do for an occasional date night, when visiting family, or special events. I love that eating out is special again. It was, at one point in our relationship, a normal thing. But now eating at home is our normal and eating out is a treat. We save money, we spend more time together cooking ourselves, and we eat more healthily with our meals at home. It’s an all around win-win, and I hope this post has helped any families who struggle with eating out, taking out, or picking up fast food too often.

What’s worked for your family? I’d love to hear about it! Thank you for reading. XOXO.

How to Create a Paperless Kitchen

Dylan and I have worked very hard to spend as little money as possible these past few months, and I’ve got to say, we’ve come a long way! I was pretty inspired by the calculations I made of how much we will be saving by using cloth diapers and wanted to see if there was anywhere else we could use reusable cloth items to shed a few dollars from our budget.

I noticed we were going through a TON of paper towels. We moved into our new apartment in the middle of May and we bought two of the large packs of paper towels and by the end of June we were running low again. We stocked back up in July and again by the end of August we only had a few rolls left. When you’re already stretching every penny you have, dropping $30 on paper towels every month and a half or so is really hard. I remember thinking, “Well, this is something we need, so we don’t have a choice.” But we did!

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And a paperless kitchen is what we chose! So far, it honestly hasn’t been a hard transition at all. It only took a few things for us to prepare/get stocked up on and it’s been smooth sailing ever since.

So how do you complete the transition, too?

  1. Get your family/roommates on board. I was very surprised by how supportive Dylan was when I mentioned the idea of a paperless kitchen to him. We both knew it would come with more laundry, but if it would ultimately keep more money in our bank accounts then we were okay with the extra work. But, had Dylan expressed any kind of disinterest or annoyance with the idea, it would’ve made things harder. I told him the minute I bought all the napkins that it meant that we had to be 100% committed. We were not in a place to waste money, and if you’re looking to switch to cloth for budgeting purposes as well then I doubt you are either. Get that commitment from your family and others you live with so that you don’t buy napkins and have everyone not use them.
  2. Calculate how many napkins you will need. This is all based on personal preference. We wanted to do laundry at most 2 times a week, so with there being only two of us I figured we’d use about 6 napkins a day (this might seem like a lot, but we eat every meal at home) and so I knew we would need at least 42 napkins a week. I cut that right in half and bought as close to that as possible. The napkins we decided on came in packs of 6, so I bought 4 packs and have a stock of 24.
  3. Decide what sizes napkins you want. We decided on two different sizes: smaller, wash-cloth-sized napkins for meals (the 24 I mentioned above) and larger, kitchen towels for drying our hands after dishes, rinsing food, etc. The larger kitchen towel is changed every day and so I purchased six of those. In retrospect, the kitchen towels are not a necessity, but they do make things easier when you want to dry your hands somewhere but don’t want to use a napkin that you’ve calculated into your daily meals.img_5651
  4. Think about how you want to store them. You want them to be in a location that is both convenient and also a reminder for your family as you make the transition. I will say that learning to reach for a cloth napkin and not the paper towel roll is a hard habit to break. Dylan and I used to catch each other mid-rip when we were in the early stages of our transition, and so you’ll definitely want them to be in a convenient location. We had a lined basket from our wedding that we washed and now store the napkins in, and the basket sits right next to the paper towel holder. We could probably move them to a different location now that we’ve broken the habit, but having them right next where we were used to reaching anyways made things easier. For our kitchen towels, we had extra space in a drawer for them so we just folded them nicely into the large drawer.img_5661
  5. Decide where you want to put the dirty ones. We had another basket laying around (seriously, I’m not even sure where this one is from… but it’s perfect for this job!) and it is our dirty napkin holder. We put it right under the sink so that it’s super easy to discard every napkin after each use. I’ve seen other people use small laundry hampers and laundry bags, and those work just as well! You just want it out of sight so that it doesn’t attract bugs or weird looks from your guests. 🙂img_5656
  6. Buy the cloth napkins. And no, don’t go buy the expensive ones that are meant to be used at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not only are they too expensive, but they are not durable for every day use. Dylan was actually very particular (who would’ve thought!) about the fabric of the napkins. I wouldn’t have minded microfiber cloths, but he was absolutely against them. So we went with good ole wash cloths! I bought the ones that came in a pack of six for about $3 a pack. We got ours from Target, mostly because I was worried that if we ordered some online, Dylan wouldn’t like the material of them. So if you don’t care, Amazon definitely had some good deals! But if you are looking for a specific material, I’d check out some at either Target or WalMart first.
  7. Break the old habit. This one will take time so be patient! We’ve spent our whole lives using paper towels, so that’s not going to change overnight. Just be consistent and encourage each other, and soon it will be like second nature.

Other things to mention:

We do still keep paper towels on hand. BUT in the two months that we have been “paperless” we’ve maybe used half of one roll. We only keep it on hand for drying up greasy foods (like french fries, hash browns, etc.) and for potential guests who may not enjoy our cloth napkins. But on a week to week basis, we don’t use any paper towels for cooking, eating, or cleaning. It’s all cloth!

It’s okay if these get stained.  Because they are going to replace so much of your daily towel use, they are going to get stained, and that’s okay! These don’t have to be the napkins that you serve your guests with, so who cares if they gain a few new spots. It doesn’t mean they aren’t usable anymore.

Think about the colors of the napkins. I chose the colors I did because they matched my kitchen pretty well, but in retrospect, white napkins weren’t my best call. They are definitely going to stain quicker than darker colors. And as stated before, that’s definitely okay! But if it bothers you, get darker napkins that won’t show stains as quickly.

Think about the environment. Even if you’re not on a budget, or if you are and need a little bit of encouragement, just think about how much waste you’re saving the planet! I’m not a huge recycle queen, but I do feel good about myself when I think of all the paper towel rolls we haven’t used just sitting at the grocery store still and not at the landfill. And that makes me feel pretty darn proud.

And that’s all guys! Seriously, only 7 steps. It’s not a hard choice and it’s been a great experience for us thus far. Leave a comment or question below! We’d love to hear about your transition or ideas. 🙂

10 ways to stay on track with your budget

So, with the addition of our first child coming this December, Dylan and I have put ourselves on a serious financial budget. We know a little bundle of joy often comes with a little bundle of debt, so we are doing as much as we can to prepare ourselves financially and mentally for our new addition.

Having a budget is the most important thing we have given ourselves. Before now, we had sort of just spent without thinking… Or without planning, I should say… But now we consider every cent we spend. A few of the things we ask ourselves include: Is this a necessity? Can this wait? Will this help us reach our financial goals?   Though, we are a ways away from meeting our ultimate financial goals, these questions help us stay on track. They especially help us keep each other on track (like when I want a new dress: Sarah, is that a necessity? Or when Dylan wants Chickfila: That wouldn’t be helping our savings account… We both get tempted in different ways, but it is important that we keep ourselves on track and push each other not to spend unless it is absolutely necessary.

Below you will find a list of ways we have been saving money. Some might seem obvious and some might seem too small to make a difference, but it’s the accumulation of all of these efforts have helped us stay on track with our budget and financial goals.

  1. Create yourself a budget binder. I know this sounds super 8th grade, but honestly I use it every week! There are pages in there to track both of our bills and I use it to plan out our meals each week including the cost of each meal. It sits right on our kitchen counter and whenever we need to reference our budget it is right there for us. Writing out financial goals and long-term budgets not only help you better understand what the goal is, but it also acts as a reminder for you every time you see it.
  2. Stop eating out.  Occasionally we will eat out with friends or family and so far it has been either as a double date or when we are visiting with family. But ever since Dylan and I have moved to Richmond (back in May) we have only eaten out ONE time just as the two of us. We plan each week what we will make for dinner. I create a menu and we abide by it–even on the weekend! This has helped us out TREMENDOUSLY. I cannot stress it enough. And sure, it is SO hard to tell friends that we can’t eat and go out because of money, but we have yet to encounter a friend who doesn’t understand. We also have enjoyed preparing meals at home, and have pushed ourselves to try a new (budget friendly!) recipe each week. This week’s is homemade French Onion Soup, Dylan’s favorite. If it goes well then we will certainly share the recipe!
  3. Stop drinking Starbucks. But really you could change Starbucks to every other kind of energy pick-me-up. Dylan had a knack for energy drinks and mine was definitely Starbucks iced coffee. And yes, I know that being pregnant (and having coffee honestly repulse me at the time) gives me a lot more motivation than it might be for others, but it really has saved us a lot. Just $3 a day adds up to over $1000 a year. Even if you only go a few times a week, it still adds up quickly. Making coffee or tea at home has saved us a ton. And, of course, not drinking it every day has saved us even more.
  4. Pack your lunch. I pack my lunch everyday and it probably costs me under a $1 each day. I remember when I used to think that the $8 lunch deal at Starbucks was a good deal, but now I wouldn’t spend that much unless it was a special occasion. I normally take a sandwich, a side of chips, a fruit, and lots of water! It’s nothing fancy but it’s budget friendly. Dylan doesn’t pack his lunch and works close enough to our apartment that he could come home for lunch if he was to get hungry. But he really only eats a few times a day (I don’t know how he does it…) and even when I’ve offered to pack him a lunch, he isn’t interested and usually waits to eat until he gets off of work.
  5. Only buy necessities. Duh, that’s an obvious one! But try and actually apply it… and you would be surprised how much might not be considered a necessity (or at least I was).  When we first moved in 3 months ago, we didn’t have a bath mat for our main bathroom. My first instinct was that we needed to get to Target and pick one out immediately, but Dylan pushed back (thankfully) and we decided that it could wait for a while. It actually wasn’t until last week that I cracked and purchased a $10 bathmat because my cousin brought up a good point that I (especially being pregnant…) shouldn’t risk slipping while getting out of the shower. Now, each time I step on it, I appreciate it so much because it wasn’t there for 3 months. We’ve gotten so good at only buying necessities that the last time we were at Target I was picking up some pregnancy related necessities (mostly I was stocking up on prenatal vitamins) and when the cashier told me that my total was $39, I cringed. I slowly went over everything on my receipt and tried to see where I went wrong and bought something I didn’t need. But I needed everything on there and I didn’t buy anything that wasn’t a necessity, so I hadn’t done anything wrong in regards to my budget. And the double checking is where I went right.
  6. Don’t go where you might be tempted. Before deciding on our budget, I would love a trip to the mall just to browse and look around. I might buy something small here or there, but I loved walking and spending time with Dylan more than I did actually purchasing the things I purchased. So now Dylan and I still take those leisurely walks, but not around things that might tempt us. We walk around the neighborhood, or go to a park. I’m impulsive and I needed to understand that being arounds things or places that might tempt me would not help my budget or financial goals.
  7. Buy off brands. We honestly haven’t missed a thing! Dylan was nervous when I suggested he get the bagged cereal instead of the more expensive boxed cereal, but he so far has enjoyed it! Honestly, Aldi’s has helped us tremendously. Their prices are so low because it is all their own brand, and we haven’t even noticed a difference. Sometimes the off brand is as much as half the price as the regular brand price. And if we did taste a small difference, then we would suck it up for our goals.
  8. Shop around for the best prices. Right when I started our budget binder, I went to all of the area grocery stores and wrote down their prices to compare to each other. What I noticed was that they all varied in prices for everything. Some stores would have steals for some items yet other items would be more expensive than at another store–which is why we shop around. I know where the best prices are for the things we need and I go to that location. It might be only a few dollars that I am saving, but I am saving nonetheless, and since we live pretty close to all the grocery stores (suburban life right there) we don’t spend much, if any, extra on gas to do this.
  9. Use coupons and fuel points. We mostly do our shopping at Kroger and Aldi. Aldi has off brand prices that are just unreal and I go there for a lot of our commercial items that we might need. However, Kroger has awesome specials and coupons on their Kroger App that allows me to compare to Aldi’s prices. We love coupons and hate “paying full price” for anything (yes, we have become those people), and our financial goals thank us for this!
  10. Stop using credit. Unfortunately, we both have credit cards and loved using them in the past. However, we have learned the hard way that using credit may seem like a get-out-of-jail-free card for now, but it always comes back if you don’t take care of it. So we are taking care of ours! We’ve locked whatever cards we can away in Dylan’s safe and don’t plan to use them anymore. Part of our longterm financial goals are to not owe one cent on credit card debt, and we will get there–one way or another.BONUS!
  11. We plan to cloth diaper our baby. We have gotten a lot of strange looks from people when we tell them this, and even some “you’re crazy” comments, but we view it as our chance to save some waste for the planet and also save some cash for our wallets.  We are going to attempt it, and if it doesn’t work out then at least we’ve tried! More to come on this later (clearly, when there is said baby present). Any encouragement and/or advice would be greatly appreciated!

 

I hope these were helpful to any families out there struggling with money problems. I hate that money is something Dylan and I talk about regularly, but it is a big part of managing a family. We cannot wait to meet our little babe and we want to be as prepared as possible for him or her!