Monday, July 23, 2018

Being OCD With Your Refrigerator Puts Dollars in the Bank

Today I thought I'd share one of the ways hubby and I are able to pare our grocery budget down to around $200 a month. This amount includes toiletries, and encompasses approximately 90 meals, because I pack a small breakfast and lunch for hubby nearly every day. (And those 90 meals are just for him...actually double this to 180 if you really want to get an accurate picture of our household.)

I have truly tried, but I just am not a coupon-clipper. No offense to those whizzes out there who have shelves upon shelves stocked with paper towels, toothpaste, and cereal, but I either lose the coupon, spend all my time organizing them, or most often, forget to use them entirely. I am a devoted buyer of generics, and except for the occasional box of macaroni and cheese, box of jello, or can of tuna fish, I really don't buy anything labeled a 'convenience' food. I buy the most basic products I can, and make my own salad dressings, pancake syrup, among a host of other things. I'll go into this more in a later post.
A spotless and organized refrigerator will save you serious bucks, and is always a delight to open. I have even read of interior designers putting a small bouquet of cut flowers in their fridge just for a little bit of decoration, but I can't say I've ever gone that far.

I go through mine about twice a week, looking at what leftovers I have that are usable, and putting them together in new combinations. Anything that is spoiled is of course discarded, but this kind of approach usually results in very little food waste. A bit of cold chicken in one container, a spoonful or two of green peas, a cut-up onion, and some leftover pasta, and you're well on the way to a fine comfort-food casserole--just make up a seasoned white sauce or add a cream soup as a binder. Or you might have the makings for a pleasant main-dish salad with the same ingredients...and all you've done is clean out your fridge. Get creative, a few extra tortillas, some beans and rice, a quarter of a green pepper, and a little bit of cheese can make several lunches of freezer burritos, all from a few odds and ends from last night's Mexican meal. I used to have days where I put together freezer meals, but now I simply double up on dishes that I know freeze well, and usually have something to pull out for a quick dinner in a pinch.

Another trick I learned from the chef in the book, "An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace" by Tamar Adler is to always put leftovers in a container where they fill it in an appealing way. For example, if there is only one serving of rice left, put it in a small one-serving container. This has a psychological effect, and seems to make the food look less 'left-over', than if it is just puddled at the bottom of the original bowl. I have been known to take a little leftover entree and sprinkle it with a new topping of cheese or parsley and put it in a new bowl. It's much more tempting for lunch the next day that way.

Right after a shopping trip, or at the latest, the next day, I 'process' all of my perishable groceries. This means that a head of lettuce will be washed, torn up and put into an air-tight container, so that I can easily make a salad or add a leaf or two to a sandwich. Hamburger bought in bulk will be divided into sections and wrapped up for the freezer. Grapes are washed, taken off the stems and put in an appealing bowl. I might see that I have a great deal of eggs, and hard-boil a few for a quite protein snack. A little bit of leftover applesauce, spaghetti sauce, chili, grated carrot or any other leftover that I know is freezer-worthy will be popped in there--dated of course--and sealed to be used at another time. That big hulking watermelon that takes up an entire shelf will be cut down to size and chopped into delicious, help-yourself chunks. I'll move all the leftovers that need to be eaten right away to the front of the shelves so they can be quickly grabbed, and will arrange 'like thing with like' such as all my dairy products together, so that I can better see what I have too much of, and what we're short on.

 I have some pottery bowls that have a hand-painted Italian look to them, and it is so fun to pile rosy apples in one and onions and carrots in another. Below was a photograph taken a few years back, same dishes filled with garden tomatoes. Someday, I'm going to make a still-life painting of this. :)

My husband loves stir-fries for his lunches, so I will make up a huge pot of rice, portion it into small plastic containers, and do the same for the stir-fry itself. (Stir-fry, by the way, is an excellent way to use a bunch of leftovers, as well.)   He also loves rice and milk for breakfast, so I will make up containers of cut-up apples and raisins and pack those with a container of rice. (Hubby has a carton of milk in the office fridge.) These are meals that are ridiculously cheap, and have nourished people all over the world for hundreds of years.

The goal is to see your groceries as precious things bought with your hard-earned money. It is also important to make everything in the fridge as 'ready-made' as possible, whether as a quick snack, or an ingredient for that next gourmet delight. I like to have lots of cold finger foods and produce ready in the summer, and conversely an array of quick-microwave-meals in the winter.  It delights me to no end to be able to say, "foods are in the fridge, help yourself." 

And of course, it is so nice to wipe the fridge out as one goes with just a bit of hot water and dishwashing soap, so everything is always sparkling and sanitary. This is no zone for moldering science experiments here!

At $200 a month for groceries, we are all already below the USDA Official Food Plans  lowest average for a comparable family by $161. So already, we are spending almost half of what the government believes an average family of two spends, and our budget includes toilet paper, toothpaste, and the like. So, right off the top, we are saving almost $200 a month. Cleaning my refrigerator and using up the leftovers is quite literally saving me about $2400 a year, and that's a conservative estimate. It really could be more.

Every fourteen day pay period I make up menus for seven days only, counting on the fact that we almost always have leftovers for a second day. If you factor in the other unplanned dishes I throw together from odds and ends towards the end of the pay period, that radically cuts the cost down per meal even more.

$200 divided by 180 meals equals roughly $1.10 a meal. (Remember three meals a day for two people equals six meals a day x 30 days a month.)
I estimate with the extra cooking I do that we actually get things down more to about 80 to 90 cents per meal per person.

In our society, being orderly and exacting about things is often viewed as being compulsive. Our ancestors would have simply thought it was smart and resourceful. Value and use what you have to its fullest, be creative, avoid waste like the plague, and you will find prosperity in hidden places.

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