In my first installment of the Meal Planning 101 series, I wrote about reusing versatile ingredients, which helps to tighten parameters, develop one’s palate, and save time and money. Truth be told, in response to my recent week-long “funk,” I went all out and spent way too much money on groceries for last week’s menu. I tend to function like a pendulum –either I’m on one side of an extreme or the other, and if I’m not, I’ve stopped moving and am probably dead. In any case, I thought it would be helpful to talk about budgeting. As you likely know by now, I like to impose limits and parameters on everything that I do, because the burden of choice can be too much for an anxious person like me. A budget is one of the most important frameworks, and can be really annoying to navigate when you’re a cravings-centric person like I am (lobster all the time, dammit!).
So, I’m not going to go through exactly how to budget one’s meal, because I think that the process, amount, and priorities are different for everyone depending on circumstances and preferences. What I’ll do, instead, is walk you through my general approach to choosing ingredients and meals based on a budget. To be clear, this post is not primarily about creating a menu based on a small/tight budget. I’ll do that another time.
Typically, I’m okay with spending an average of $14/day per person on groceries, and maybe a tad more when we host dinners with friends. Keep in mind that my husband and I rarely eat out or get delivery, even for lunch. This will cover breakfast, lunch, dinner, and when I’m feeling especially naughty, desserts and snacks. And, for the most part, my husband and I eat really, really well. There are definitely occasions when I need to spend less on groceries, whether it’s because I’ve just made a big purchase, and really need to replenish my piggy bank, or, those fleeting moments when I realize that I should have a LOT more dough stashed in a retirement fund, or when things are just generally tight. When that happens, here’s what I consider:
What can I spend?
The easiest and most important parameter is the actual budget. What can you/are you willing to spend on groceries, this week? This week, I gave myself a $120 budget.
What essential ingredients should I have in stock?
You may want to consider joining a place like Costco or Sam’s Club to stock up on essentials. Canned tomatoes and beans are always good to have on hand and are probably cheaper when buying in bulk. You can also grab important items like olive oil, vinegar, soy sauce, and other condiments when they’re on mega-sale somewhere, so you don’t have to constantly add these things to your grocery list.
What are some cheap go-to meals?
It’s always good to have some inexpensive meals in your pocket. I always make sure to have a pile of canned goods (tomatoes, beans), a variety of pastas, and rice. Also, I always have in stock essential items like onions, garlic, crushed red peppers, and anchovies. With these in place, I’m poised to make a cheap (and usually, quick) meal. Some of my go-to meals are: spaghetti aglio e olio (garlic and oil), pasta all’amatriciana, rice and beans, and pasta al pomodoro. This week, these dishes include a pasta al pomodoro, and a pickled egg salad.
What are cheaper ingredients?
When thinking about your meal for the week, it’s good to already have a sense of what foods are generally less expensive. For example, if you’re a meat-eater, chicken and pork are usually the cheaper options. Within the poultry category, dark meat is usually more affordable (and delicious), and bone-in cuts are generally even more forgiving on your wallet. I bought boneless/skinless chicken thighs for a katsu, and didn’t have to spend much dough for what will be a super filling and hearty meal. Consider the same thing with vegetables/produce, which are sadly often even more expensive than meat (thank the government’s insane subsidization of the meat industry) – generally, potatoes, cabbages, onions, carrots, and cauliflower are on the cheaper side of town. This may seem like a bummer, but there are so many wonderful things you can do with each of these ingredients. Cabbage was a good bet, and I’ve been enjoying a simple summer salad with raw red cabbage, carrots, and edamame.
What’s on sale?
Sales. Duh. Look at what’s on sale, see if anything is calling to you, and try to use those items as the basis for your menu. I saw that mussels were on sale, this week, and bought 2 pounds for a nice Moules Marinieres dish, that I’ll have with bread and a cabbage salad. Also, I got some beautiful branzino for roasting, which was only a whopping $5.99/lb.
Are there any foods/meals I MUST have, no question?
Admittedly, this isn’t always something we can ask ourselves when meal planning. I could say “I’m on a budget, but I must have caviar for breakfast every morning,” but that would be insane. However, if you are very in tune with what your body, heart, and soul crave, it can be helpful in setting more parameters for the rest of your meals. For example, this week’s menu is cheaper on the grocery-front, but I made sure I could still eat seafood, because that is what I’ve been craving. After purchasing crab meat, branzino, and mussels, it became clear that I had to be very mindful about the cost of ingredients for side dishes and the other meals. Though quinoa isn’t the most affordable grain out there, it was on sale, and I could combine some cheap canned goods (artichoke hearts and chickpeas) and some fresh vegetables for a hearty, filling, and relatively inexpensive meal/side dish.
Using these questions as a guide, here’s the menu I’ve come up with for the week (items in italics were on sale)
Monday, August 17
- L: Salade Nicoise
- D: Moules Marinieres (mussels cooked with garlic, shallots, white wine, and broth) + red cabbage, carrot and edamame salad + toasted bread
Tuesday, August 18
- L: Quinoa salad w/ edamame, artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes, yellow peppers, and chick peas
- D: Roasted branzino + quinoa salad + asparagus
Wednesday, August 19
- L: Leftover branzino w/ jasmine rice
- D: Kimchi pancake + chicken thigh katsu + jasmine rice + red cabbage, carrot and edamame salad
- Dessert: Homemade oreo ice cream sandwiches
Thursday, August 20
- L: Chicken katsu sandwiches
- D: Crab-fried rice + red cabbage, carrot and edamame salad
Friday, August 21
- L: Pickled egg salad sandwiches
- D: Spaghetti all’amatriciana
Saturday, August 22
- L: Leftover pasta
- D: Visiting family in NJ
Including breakfasts, which usually include toast, or granola + yogurt (not worthy of listing above), my husband and I spent a total of $24/day for what’s still a relatively happening menu. This also factors in extra groceries for certain meals since we will be hosting guests. I totally acknowledge that what I’ve spent is certainly not nothing, and that it may not be a reasonable budget for many. But, the questions I posed above can help someone navigate a budget of any size.
And now, for my favorite egg salad recipe.
- ½ cup apple cider vinegar
- ½ cup distilled white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more
- 8 large eggs
- 1/3 cup mayonnaise
- ¼ cup finely chopped fresh chives
- ¼ of finely chopped fresh parsley
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Bread for serving
- Serrano ham or prosciutto for serving (optional)
- Bring vinegars, sugar, 1½ tsp. salt, and ½ cup water to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Let cool.
- Meanwhile, place eggs in a medium saucepan and add water to cover by 2”. Bring to a boil, cover, and remove from heat. Let sit 10 minutes. Transfer eggs to a bowl of ice water to cool. Drain, peel, and return to bowl. Add pickling liquid; cover and chill at least 12 hours. Remove eggs from pickling liquid. Coarsely chop; mix with mayonnaise, scallions or chives, and parsley in a medium bowl. Season with salt, pepper, and some pickling liquid, if desired. (I used about 2 teaspoons.)
- Top bread with pickled egg salad, some chervil (if using), and a slice of ham or prosciutto (if using).
- Do Ahead: Eggs can be pickled 1 week ahead. Keep chilled.
Coming up on the Meal Planning 101 Series: On Navigating Time Constraints