Thursday, June 16, 2011

Food will make us or break us.

I know I haven't been posting about my challenge to follow a weekly menu, but here's why: it's been working.  Last month I came in $9.40 under budget!  How great is that?!

I know that we still need to work on a few things to help our budget, so I have some new goals for the coming month (wait, we're midway through, aren't we? darn).

Genuinely limit the frequency we go out to eat.  Once a week is NOT okay.

Going out to eat is a budget buster.  It will kill us (in more ways than one, ha).  Though I did great with the groceries, we were $60 over our eating out budget.  SIXTY. DOLLARS.  Not okay.

The one exception I will make for this rule is for our anniversary next month.  We are going to Houston's restaurant and then to see Les Miserables at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown L.A.  I love Houston's.  Having worked there, I know that they have great quality food and I am okay with splurging a little. Ok, it will be a pretty big splurge, but worth it in my eyes.

My next goal is related to my first goal:

Make easy-fix homemade freezer meals for busy or "do I really have to cook today?" days.

With some planning this shouldn't be too difficult.  Last month I made a big batch of pinto beans and froze the portions.  They were easy to defrost (I stored them in quart-sized freezer bags) and were versatile.  We used them in taco salad, fajitas and bean burritos.  I'm sure I could have thought of other uses but these were simple and (not including the fajitas) didn't take a lot of effort.  I just cooked the beans throughout the day in my crockpot.  Easy.

I need other things like this.  I had a friend who did freezer meatballs, but I am too cheap to buy the ground beef to do this and we don't eat them often enough to make it worth it for me.  Something delicious, but also frugal. Ideas?

The last month has really been an eye opener for me.  Through our (mostly) excellent planning we were able to have a $700 surplus and pay off our debt!

We're debt free!

Phew!  What a relief!  We've paid off over $20,000 in debt over the last two years.  Please keep in mind that we are not wealthy, at least by American standards.  We have one income and live in a relatively expensive part of the country.

The key to it for us was to make paying off our debt a priority.  We set a goal to have our debt paid off by our fifth anniversary (3 weeks from now).  It wasn't an arbitrary date.  We made a budget, determined what our monthly surplus was and started making cuts and asking ourselves a lot of questions.  Did we really "need" all the things we were spending my money on?

All our major cuts to the budget were on food. In the same month last year I spent $527.98 on food.  This year I spent $244.75.  That's a $283.23 difference! Holy cow!  I had to exhibit a lot of self control, especially at places like Costco where many staples (milk, butter and eggs) are cheaper.  We are trying to keep the ball rolling as we now save for a house.

The irony of spending less money is that we've actually been eating better.  I love making things from scratch- just having that knowledge makes me feel empowered and knowing exactly what we're eating feels great.  I've never felt so satisfied with the meals I prepare and the pride I have in our food.

I know I can improve, though. I am trying to slowly phase out processed foods by eliminating or replacing them with ones I make from scratch.  Recently I began making yogurt, granola and granola bars.  They are all very tasty and Stephen now requests granola for breakfast.

So please, I beg of you, what meals do you find freeze well and are good for those times when you can't (or don't want to) cook?


  1. Way to go, you fabulous people, you! Woohoo!!!! :D

    One idea: If you do pulled pork in a slow cooker, that it easy to freeze and doesn't take much space. Then it's easy to throw on buns or rice later on. (And country style pork ribs seem to go on sale super cheap relatively often, so that's nice for making pulled pork.)

  2. I never thought of using country style pork ribs to make pulled pork. What a great idea! That's something I'll try incorporating.

  3. The other day at the grocery store, I spent some ridiculous amount on basically nothing and thought, Alicia would be so disappointed!

    Hope people comment on the frozen meal bit...could use that. I've only just made more than needed and frozen the extra.

  4. You guys are awesome Alicia!!! That is so cool you guys were able to pay that off! I need to be better about a budget and all that! You should post the recipes for making your own yogurt and granola (bars) on here! I would love to try it!

  5. Here is one that I cook a freeze regularly (it serves 4 so when I do it, I split it in half before I bake it and put the one half in the freezer and the other half in the oven - you could definitely do the opposite and double it instead!)

    Chicken Spinach Casserole

    4 chicken breasts, cooked & diced
    10 oz. frozen spinach
    1/2 c. chopped onion
    1/2 tsp garlic powder
    8 oz. sliced mushrooms
    1 c. mozzarella cheese

    Cook spinach, add onions and arrange in the bottom of a 1 1/2 quart baking dish. Layer a sprinkle of cheese, the mushrooms and then chicken. Sprinkle with garlic powder and top with remaining cheese. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.

    This was one of the first dishes I ever used cooked spinach in and it's been a family staple ever since. We actually double the spinach quite often when I get those little frozen packs on sale because we love this one so much! It is super filling and we absolutely LOVE it. Hope you do too!

  6. Kate- Don't worry, we have our moments, too. Last Thursday I went to the store with Stephen with the sole purpose of buying something extra- no staples. We bought pizza bites, a chocolate pie, and some egg rolls. Yummy... we bought those as a celebration for officially paying off the debt. Celebrate the little things, right? :D

    Kasie- Thanks! I'll post them (hopefully) soon. The granola recipe is excellent, but I'm still experimenting with granola bars and tinkering with the yogurt.

    Michelle- That sounds really tasty! I love spinach and would love another way to incorporate it more often, especially in its cheaper frozen form. A few questions: do you sautee the onions first or add them raw? Have you ever made it without mushrooms (we aren't huge fans)? How do you store it in the freezer? I'm looking forward to trying this!

  7. I'm commenting really late - sorry! We've been busy moving and unpacking so I'm just now catching up on my blogroll.

    I'm really loving this book called "Don't Panic, Dinner's in the Freezer" and its second edition, "Don't Panic, More Dinner's in the Freezer." I found them at the library and actually ended up ordering the first one from for $15ish. I still need to order the 2nd one. They have really great tips on things to freeze (and the best way to do it and how long they should last) and every recipe I have tried has been excellent.

    Some recipe ideas are: chicken in marinade (freeze in gallon freezer bags, then thaw and grill or bake, however you cook it normally); soups work really well (freeze in gallon freezer bags... the only suggestion I have is that if it has noodles in it I would leave them out and add them in when you heat it up since they get soggy).

    When you freeze casseroles, enchiladas, etc (I would imagine the same would be with lasagnas but I've never tried them and don't know if the noodles get soggy - you could even put together the filling, freeze it, and assemble later)... it's easiest to line your pan with foil (to create a "sling" to pull it out with) and plastic wrap (to wrap it in once it's frozen), then put your casserole together and stick it in the freezer. Let it freeze overnight and the next day seal the plastic wrap, pop it out, and wrap the foil around it too. Make sure you label it too - they all start to look the same! When you want to bake it, unwrap the frozen casserole and pop it back into the same baking dish to let it thaw, then bake as normal.

    Sorry this comment is so long... I've been working on this as well and my goal is to have the majority of our meals made ahead like this. I'm far from it but I'm learning a lot!

  8. I want to amend my comment about how to freeze casseroles. I think it's easier if you just line the casserole with foil, put it together, freeze it overnight, and then pull the foil and frozen casserole out and wrap the whole thing with plastic wrap or put it in a freezer bag. I'm finding that the plastic wrap can be difficult to remove after it's been frozen (since it gets stuck in the sauces). Or, when you are going to use the casserole, let it sit out for a while to soften the outside up, then remove the wrapping and put it in the baking dish. Sorry about that!