After 18 years of cooking for a family, I’m now living solo for most of the year while my son is at college. It’s taken some adjusting, but perfecting my food preparation routine in January netted me a total grocery bill of $55.26.
I know a lot of us that work full time outside the home have learned the time-saving trick of batch cooking, but I’ve come to realize the true magic of batch cooking for just myself: It’s ok to be boring!
I cook all my meals at home and during the workweek take breakfast and lunch to work. I have endocrine issues that require watching my food intake more carefully than I did years ago, and my body greatly prefers I avoid all grains and processed sugar. In the last four years I’ve radically changed both how I cook as well as what I cook, and to say it’s been a learning curve is an understatement — as my inflated grocery budget can attest.
Meal planning was never my strong point, especially when I lived less than five blocks from three different grocery stores. In the past six months, however, meal planning has gotten easier and easier and I’m learning how to streamline every step, from grocery shopping to food prep to cooking and packing my lunches.
I thought I’d lay out step by step what I’m currently doing, in case there are any others out there for whom kitchen skills are lacking 😉 and also to hopefully be able to look back in a year and be proud of how my planning and executing skills have grown!
My first big change – I stopped grocery shopping on my way home from work.
When I started riding my bike to work last summer, I realized I’d either have to detour off my bike route and fill up a backpack or change the day I did my shopping. At the time my routine was to cook dinner each night and take leftovers for lunch the next day, so I’d buy two or three days’ worth of food at a time. I started shopping on Saturdays — at first I was terrible at getting this accomplished before Sunday, and I wasn’t great at planning out my meals past my weekday off work.
Why this habit change helped my frugal ways – Stopping on the way home often led to impulse temptations, and created a habit of stopping for “just one thing” on the days I drove to work.
My second big change – I started meal planning for the entire week.
I started with tried and true family recipes that I loved. Breakfast I kept simple with either eggs and veggies or eggs and yogurt. Starting in January I’ve been making simple egg bakes that will last me my four work days. I take whatever leftover produce/veggies are in the refrigerator, top with 6-12 eggs, a layer of cheese and spices, then bake for 30-50 minutes (I check at 30 minutes and increase as needed). If I have any meat leftovers I’ll throw that in the bottom layer. I’ve also started planning for bigger dishes (casseroles, one pot meals) and use the leftovers all week.
Why this habit change helped my frugal ways – in theory I’m more mindful of food waste – sticking to the meal plan definitely helps prevent wasted ingredient purchases that languish in the back of the freezer.
Something I’ve done for a while but am getting much better at – a big cookup on Saturdays.
This week before I went to the grocery store I took note of what should be used up soon in my fridge – some carrots/celery and a couple of avocados. Apples were still good, as were sweet potatoes, onions, and a spaghetti squash.
I planned on making sweet potato salmon patties (canned salmon in the pantry), a pork roast (on sale and my favorite dish), an egg bake, and salads.
When I got home from the store I first put two whole sweet potatoes in the pressure cooker with a cup of water for 10 minutes, then walked the dog. When we got back I took the potatoes out to cool, then halved the spaghetti squash, and tossed it in the pressure cooker with leftover potato water for 8 minutes. While that was cooking, I mixed the salmon patties and put that bowl in the refrigerator for a bit. The skin of the sweet potatoes peeled off easily with my fingers, and I cut thin disks, arranging them on a baking sheet.
Once the spaghetti squash was done, I scooped out the threads into a baking dish, looked in the freezer for veggies (an open bag of spinach! hurrah!), added a bunch of eggs and half an onion and mixed it all together. Topped with cheese and paprika, then put it and the potato slices into the oven for 35 minutes.
The salmon patties could also go in the oven, and during the summer if I need to bake I definitely do everything at once. I turned back to the pressure cooker and started searing all sides of my pork roast. While it was browning, I cooked the salmon patties in my waffle maker. Once the roast was browned and salted (applewood smoked salt or red Hawaiian salt, whichever I have on hand), then stuffed with garlic cloves, I set it to slowly roast overnight.
I mashed an avocado with the other onion half, squirted in some lemon juice, red pepper flakes, and garlic, then topped a couple salmon patties with some of the lazy guacamole. The rest was saved for the sweet potato chips.
Once the egg bake and chips were done, I packaged everything in containers for the fridge and for work. In the morning I shredded the pork, took some to top a salad for lunch, and put the rest in the fridge.
Snacks this time of year are mostly veggies and nuts but I’ve been buying fruit every couple of weeks to supplement my apple and berry stash from last summer/fall. These same meals will be on repeat for the rest of the workweek, then I’ll do it all again with a slight variation for next week 🙂
I used to struggle with meal planning – deciding ahead of time what to eat every day was difficult when I hadn’t done it before, and then actually making those dishes on schedule was even more challenging on days by myself where I’d eaten a late lunch, or ended up working on call and didn’t get home until midnight, for instance.
Why this habit change helped my frugal ways – Simplifying my meal prep is helping me to relearn the basic meal-planning skills I lost somewhere along the way – checking what I have on hand and basing meals around those ingredients, for one.
Putting my menu on repeat is saving me a lot of mental time, and by streamlining the whole process, is also saving me money.
What were your biggest challenges when you first started cooking for either a family or just yourself?