Batch Cooking For One

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!

sweet potato salmon patties

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 ūüėČ and also to hopefully be able to look back in a year and be proud of how my planning and executing skills have grown!

cutting a spaghetti squash

My first big change РI 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.

squash in the pressure cooker

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  Рsome 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.

cooked squash (oh how I detested spaghetti squash when I was a kid!)

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.

found bag of spinach!

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.

egg bake ready to be cooked

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 ūüôā

sweet potato chips

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?

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Why Tips About Getting a Partner On Board Financially Will Help You If You’re Single

I’ve been plugging away at the Frugalwoods’ Uber Frugal Month Challenge, and one of the daily prompts is about discussing financial goals with a partner. ¬†I am not currently in a relationship, but the writings on this theme have actually helped me in a very concrete way as I head down my road to financial freedom.

I’ve only begun to dive into the world of personal finance blogs, but there is a ton of supportive, encouraging advice to be found. ¬†In just my recent readings, I’ve come across a number of posts about discussing finances with a partner:

 

Why exactly will these tips help me, a single mom of a young adult, get out of debt and onward to financial independence?

Because I’m up against 30+ years of¬†a different mindset toward finances: ¬†Myself.

It wasn’t until I started looking at my financial habits from a different perspective that I was able to truly identify ways I could move forward. It’s not that I didn’t want to change before now – but it was too easy to slip back into old patterns a time or two. Thinking about my financial goals as if I’m talking to a different person (and am a different person) has been crucial to the ease with which I’ve changed my former attitude towards “a coffee” here or “a new notebook” there.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when talking with a partner about money is to just start talking about it.

For myself, thinking about my finances¬†in vague terms and having a very general idea of what I owed wasn’t getting me anywhere. I had to sit down and examine¬†every penny of my debt to see the true picture. This meant a good day of looking up online statements, writing everything down, and being a bit horrified as the numbers kept adding up. But as they say, knowledge is half the battle, and instead of a vague “pay off debt and be freeeee” idea floating about, I now had a very concrete number to begin to tackle.

I’m aiming for more of this, less of the timeclock punching city life.

It’s not enough, however, to just lay out numbers and hope for the best. It’s also not enough to lay out numbers and make a plan for killing the debt. ¬†Figuring out why you want to be debt free or financially independent¬†is key to being successful. Having a visible goal gives me motivation to slog through the boring times, after the thrill of finding a new project to tackle has worn away to a mundane routine. This has been the hardest piece for me in the past; I couldn’t see past the motherhood/scrimping/paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle I’d been in for some fifteen years. The reality of my son moving on with his own life gave me the push to really evaluate what I want out of my own life, and I realized it’s not punching a time clock 50+ hours a week for the next 25 years!

 

Among successful marriages and partnerships, checking in with each other regularly is a common practice. I actually think this is even more important when you are solo. There isn’t anyone else to pick up the slack or give you a gentle reminder that you’ve gotten off track a bit, and before you know it, you’re back in a hole. Last year I was pretty smug about my financial outlook — I’d managed to pay off all my credit card debt and had recently financed a vehicle (for the first time ever) which I was not happy about but it was a great rate through my credit union and was easily within my budget.I’d also refinanced my mortgage to a 15-year rate, dropping PMI and at 1.75% less than my previous mortgage but with a slightly higher monthly payment – also within my budget.

Over the course of the year, however, I was still spending as if I had the same wiggle room in my budget as the previous year. I started dating someone and didn’t pay attention to my food and gas expenditures climbing rapidly – we were both pretty frugally minded and enjoyed hiking and cooking from home, so I didn’t think twice about the impact it had on my finances.

The life-changing vacation that led me to really evaluate my finances.

Then my family had multiple medical procedures including one urgent surgery, and instead of really buckling down and looking at the true numbers, I let the credit card balance float while we were on vacation. In my head I thought it was maybe $1000 and I’d get that paid off no problem over the summer – my property tax refund would cover the amount if I didn’t. I was still sticking to my “regular” budget, but just the act of ignoring that one debt meant that by the time I actually sat down to figure out my plan for the year that debt had climbed to a LOT more than $1000. A lot. It was used only on vacation, and on nothing extravagant – gas, cheap diners, road tolls mostly – but holy crap, mindless spending adds up fast.

If I’d had a plan and checked in with myself regularly, instead of just assuming things were chugging along happily, I would have seen that pattern emerging much sooner and could have stopped myself in my tracks. I’m not dating at the moment and even though that external motive to spend money is now gone, I constantly have to make sure my internal motives are in line with my new ultra-frugal plan.

The reason I’ve stuck to my new plan¬†for over two months now, through the holidays!, is that I check in with myself weekly. Once a month wasn’t often enough to truly evaluate my progress. This will likely change as my frugal ways become more of a habit, but right now it’s both necessary and fun.

For couples who are on very different ends of the finance spectrum, acknowledging those differences and making allowances for them is often successful. For me, this means that even though I’ve become Uber Frugal and have found it increasingly easy to say no to impulse purchases, I allow myself the room to Say Yes. Being single, my relationships with friends and family are my primary relationships (although I’m sure my pets disagree!), so making allowances in my budget for activities and time with people I love is an important piece of maintaining those relationships.

….his Say Yes To A Walk Plz face

 

Ok, so this advice so far isn’t so different from advice given to individuals. ¬†What’s the big change in my thinking, then, that comes from reading advice targeted at couples?

I evaluate my decisions as if I am speaking with other people: my Past Self and my Future Self. 

This might sound a bit nuts, but it has been the biggest factor in my ability to shift my thinking to a goal-oriented mindset rather than constantly trying to make up for the past.

It’s made such a big difference to my emotional progress around handling money that I even label my debt in my budget as payments to my Past Self. I’ve made a commitment not to just¬†do differently with my money this time, but to be different. I’m no longer a person that feels guilty she financed a car, because my Future Self will be able to pay cash from now on. I’m no longer a person that buys a fancy latte on payday as a treat, because my Future Self would rather work less and play more. I’m no longer a person that feels the need to live for the weekend, because my thinking is already shifting to my Future Self’s life unencumbered by a traditional workweek.

Thinking of my past choices as if they were made by a different person has also been helped by marriage advice:

Appreciate each other’s differences, even as you each change and grow in different ways, and be Gentle in understanding each other’s mistakes.¬†

I am not the same person that I was 20 years ago — none of us are! Being able to grow and learn and change with a partner is one of the greatest gifts we have as humans. It was while reading a Frugalwoods post on their marriage that the concept of my Past Self really clicked. I can’t change the choices I made, but all those choices have led me to this spot right here, where I have some pretty amazing people, critters, and even “stuff” in my life. Historically, feeling bad about my decisions was a big percentage of my thoughts on my finances. But if I were hearing the same story from a friend (let’s call her Past Self), would I be so harsh and judgmental? Of course not! Past Self did the best she could, and sometimes didn’t, but that’s OK because she learned to identify patterns and thought processes that weren’t healthy.

 

He doesn’t dwell on the past. Just soaks up the sunshine today.

Forgiving oneself is often much harder than forgiving others. But to me, forgiveness is really just about truly understanding someone else. If we can have true empathy for someone’s actions that hurt us, and really know the why of their actions, well, forgiveness tends to follow on its own. We can acknowledge we were hurt and then move on, building a new relationship.

Looking at my Past Self objectively let me better understand the impulses behind my cyclical debt, and focusing on my Future Self and what her life looks like have both helped me better understand who I am right now. I can move forward, knowing that I made mistakes, sometimes more than once, but my relationship with myself and my money is different now.  

 

How about you? Have you read something intended for a different audience that led to a fundamental shift in your thinking?

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