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Friday, March 11, 2011

Prudent Penny: Menu Planning

My lack of a domesticity probably makes me the worst person in the world to write this post--or maybe the best. Who better than a failed domestic goddess to explain how to make the best of a bad situation?

I don't like to cook. I never have. But Greg is rather fond of eating so I suck it up and do the best I can. To limit my time in the kitchen I cook lots of casseroles that I can freeze ahead, and plan my meals with a minimum of ingredients. Martha Stewart I'm not.

And then there's the cost of food. If you want to save money, menu planning is a must.

Here are my quick tips for cost-cutting menus.

• Cook around the sales. Sometimes that takes some getting used to because as consumers we're spoiled. I remind myself that our ancestors had no refrigeration. They ate what was in season and never mind that they might eat the same thing ten days in a row. I don't feel quite so sorry for myself then.

• Cook from your harvest. We'll eat from our garden before we shop. Greg, who is not a vegetarian at all, never gripes about all the veggies because they taste so good. Nothing beats off the vine.

• Eat simply. This one is easy for me because I have no skill for complex meals. A green, a starch, and a piece of meat or fish. I mix and match and don't go overboard on sauces or preparation.

• One pot meals. Casseroles, crock pot meals and stews are generally easy to make and easy on the pocketbook.

• Leftovers. These are fighting words to Greg. He hates leftovers and I'm left having to disguise them so he doesn't think he's eating the same thing. Leftover bread is used for croutons and stuffing. Leftover vegetables go into stews and casseroles. Leftover meat?

Here's an example of a whole chicken for two people.

Day one: Roast chicken
Day two: Chicken stir fry
Day three: Chicken salad sandwiches
Day four: Chicken tacos
Day five: If you're very frugal, you'll use the carcass to make stock.

Since I'm in possession of a very picky husband, I'll only use the chicken for two meals so he doesn't get suspicious. I'll freeze leftover cooked meat and use it when he least expects it.

It's easier with ground beef. I can disguise the meat better.

Day one: meatloaf
Day two: spaghetti with meat sauce
Day three: Mexican lasagna (recipe follows)
Day four: hamburgers
Day five: beef noodle casserole

Mexican Lasagna (feeds four easily)
This is the quick and easy recipe.

8 x 8 glass pan

8 corn tortillas
1 can spicy refried beans (or add a can of chopped chilis and mix)
1.5 pounds ground beef  (Greg likes his beefy)
1 can Rotel
chopped onions
grated cheese

Cook meat and season with cumin, chili powder, garlic, salt, pepper and Rotel.
Fry corn tortillas until they become limp. Drain on paper towels and line glass pan with four tortillas, overlapping as necessary.
Layer generously with beans, meat, onions and cheese.
Add the second layer of tortillas
Repeat beans, meat and cheese

Bake at 350 degrees for about 30-40 minutes until cheese is bubbly. 
Serve with Spanish rice, guacamole, salad, and hot sauce.

(the more complicated method involves making the beans and Rotel from scratch) 

For someone who doesn't like to cook, I tend to collect cookbooks forever looking for that magic recipe that will make me look amazing. My favorite cookbook was the one my mother-in-law used. It's called Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook. The spine is missing, it survived a fire and the subsequent water damage, but it's been my standby for as long as I've been married. If I could keep only one cookbook, this would be it.

The recipes range from simple to complex, but it's written in plain language. Every recipe I've ever tried from there has been successful. And considering my cooking disability, that says a lot.

Do you have a favorite cookbook or are all your recipes in your head? Do you consider yourself a good cook? --I am not too proud to invite myself and ask for lessons. LOL


Darke Conteur said...

Good post!

I don't mind cooking, but I agree with your husband on leftovers. I'm forcing myself to eat them simply because of the price of groceries now.

Sithboy is my biggest concern now. His palet is so limited I'm amazed he even grows anymore.

Lynn Colt said...

I like cooking when I have the time, but I stick to pretty simple recipes. My favorites are the ones I can memorize after one use, where the instructions are along the lines of: dump ingredients into a pan and put in the oven until done :)

Like quiche. You can put pretty much anything into a quiche and it tastes good, so it's flexible, and you can guesstimate ingredient amounts. Perfect! Lol

Joanne said...

I'm not into cooking either. My meals are pretty basic, and I've mastered a few recipes. I don't use a cookbook, but have a small collection of simple, tasty recipes that have become standard fare here. Usually I find them in a magazine or the paper.

Kaye Manro said...

For someone who doesn't like to cook you seem to have it down really well.

I don't like cooking at al and don't do it if I can get out of it. My mate does most of the cooking around here. But he is always asking me what I'd like for dinner. I don't know! I eat mostly because I have to-- that's not to say I don't have some favorite foods I love.

The thing is you are so right. We all need to cut back and save on food costs. This coming from a girl who loves to eat out, but lately has had to curb her desire for it, due to expenses.

Thanks for an insightful post, Maria.

Maria Zannini said...

Darke Conteur: I had kid brother like that. He lived on grilled cheese sandwiches. It was a struggle to get him to eat other things.

Lynne: Your quiche is my quesadilla. LOL. I make all sorts of strange combinations.

Joanne: I am a sucker for magazine recipes. I guess it's all those pretty pictures. I clip those recipes and store them in plastic sleeves inside a binder.

Kaye: Ha! That's 35+ years of practice.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

ooh, everyone in our family loves to cook. Needless to say, we eat pretty well.
MMMM, food.

Renee Miller said...

Hey, we make a similar version to your mexican lasagna. My kids call it taco pie. taco pie. Anyway, I am a cookbook addict. I have two shelves of a cupboard filled with cookbooks. Just counted, six of those are crockpot recipes only, three are casseroles. Why? Cheap. It might seem like a lot of crap going into them, but you can make the recipe, freeze half of it, and get two dinners. They're filling too.

Kurt's a meat and potatoes guy though, so I tend to cook a lot of those types of meals. I used to love cooking. Now it's a chore. Plus 'what to make for supper' is my question every damn morning.

To cut costs we use local butchers (big farming community so it's really cheap) and buy our meat in bulk. Vegetables? My thumb is black, so no garden. I just kill them. I use farmer's markets when I can and try to freeze that for the winter. I usually forget though.

We spend the most on snacks. I'm a bad influence, so my kids are huge snackers. The cheapest snacks are the ones you make yourself. Cookies, squares, even homemade chips and snack mixes.

jackie b central texas said...

I love to cook, at holidays mostly since that is the only time that my husband is not going to bolt his food and then run from the table like it is on fire!

I am also a lover of hoarding cookbooks, do not use them anymore as have learned to make some of my own variations on tried and true favorite foods over the years... My all time fun thing besides crock pot cooking is baking slowly in the oven for 6 or so hours, not only does this work with the meat but you can add the other side dishes in at low temp cooking and let them get cooked too...

We do love gardening, fresh from your own backyard tastes better than grocery store any day... When my better half retires we will be able to set it up and enjoy the fruits of his labor as I am neither able to do the hard labor nor do I enjoy the planting and taking care of the stuff... (My husband on the other hand will live in the garden when he gets one going)
I like cooking it and eating it though!
I am going to cut and paste and email myself a copy of your recipe Maria, sounds yummy!

Mike Keyton said...

Two meals you've left out with stale bread and chicken or roast left-overs.
1)Bread and butter pudding is the ultimate comfort food. Recipe available if needed.
2)Now, don't grimace - toast and dripping. When you roast a meat I always keep some of the fat and juices back and let them grow cold in the fridge. The result is a bowl of hard fat on the top, and below a beautiful meat jelly. Spread that on hot toast with a pinch of salt. (the fat optional depending on taste). It's food from the gods.

And yes I have a secret recipe book

Jennifer Shirk said...

I do love to cook--when it doesn't interrupt my writing time. :)

I do have a few favorite cookbooks but I tend to subscribe to food magazine and try different recipes every week. If it's a keeper, I'll rip it out and put in a folder.

Maria Zannini said...

Sarah: I eat far too well myself--despite my lack of a cooking gene. :)

Renee: Lucky you to have a butcher coop. I wish we had one.
Ref: snacks
The way you go through Doritos, I ought to buy stock. ;-)

Jackie: I hope your hubby retires soon and he gets his garden. It's a very relaxing pastime.

Mike: Ref: The result is a bowl of hard fat on the top, and below a beautiful meat jelly.
I guess the real sacrilege is that I give that part to the dogs. (Don't hit me.)

I love to browse magazine recipes too! Though for some reason my finished product doesn't look like theirs. lol

Mike Keyton said...

But do the dogs have it hot toast with a pinch of salt? It what separates dogs from us humans

Maria Zannini said...

Mike: That and opposable thumbs. :)

Lydia K said...

I love using leftover baked chicken to make stock. It's way better than store bought stock, for sure.

You've made me hungry!

Shelley Munro said...

Both hubby and I love to cook but we tend to follow your advice pretty much. At present we have so much basil we're researching as to how to use it. One can only make so much pesto.

My mother taught me to cook when I was very young so a lot of recipes are in my head. I do enjoy browsing recipe books - usually from the library because they're so expensive. I also get lots of recipes from cooking shows.

I definitely agree with Greg about leftovers. I don't like 'em! Usually hubby takes leftovers for lunches so it all works out and saves money on lunches.

Angelina Rain said...

I don’t think you’ve ever seen a bad cook until you see me. I’m horrible. I could write a whole comedy just based on my cooking disasters. A few weeks ago, I made BLT sandwiches for dinner and decided to save the bacon grease for biscuits and gravy. The next evening, I tried to make the gravy for dinner when I noticed it just wouldn’t get thick. After I fussed over the stove for like an hour, my husband asked if I remembered to put the flour in there. Needless to say, he will never eat B&G that’s made by me.

Dru said...

I don't like to cook. As it's only me that I have to think of, if I can make it with no more than 4 ingredients and put it in the oven for at least 45 minutes, then I'm happy. More ingredients and longer cook time, will cause me to say "take out."

Sherri said...

I freeze most of our leftovers so that there's a bit of time between eating the same thing. I've got not one but five picky eaters!

Have to try that recipe out on the boys.

My hubby is the master at getting deals on meat and these days I've just made sure I'm well stocked so I can plan meals around whatever deals he brings home.

Great post.

Clarissa Draper said...

Cool! I'm a real fan of my slow-cooker. I do a lot of meals in it. Thanks for the meal planning and recipe.

Maria Zannini said...

Lydia: The best stock I ever taste came from my chickens. I didn't realize it could taste so good.

Shelley: So your hubby disposes of leftovers? :) I have to admit, I tend to eat most of ours too. I'd rather eat leftovers than make something just for myself.

Angelina: This just made me smile. In 30 years, you'll laugh about those early meals.

Dru: I'm with you. If we lived closer, we'd always be eating out. lol.

Sherri: How do you have leftovers with that many boys. I shudder to think what it'll be like when they become teenagers. They'll eat you out of house and home.

Maria Zannini said...

Clarissa: Hope you like the recipe. It's a standby at our house.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I like cooking when I have time but when I'm busy I cook like you. I always brown more than one meal's worth of hamburger or cook extra chicken and then freeze it so I can thaw it later for in casseroles or salads.

Linda Leszczuk said...

I have it great. Not only does my hubby like to cook, we both love leftovers. In fact, I think lots of things taste better the second day.

The Mexican lasagna looks good. I'll have to try it. We do a crispy version - layer of Dorito chips, covered with a layer of ground beef browned in taco seasoning mix, topped with layers of lettice, grated cheese and what ever topping are handy (tomatoes, onion, black olives, banana peppers, etc.)

Darn it, now I'm hungry.

Cathy in AK said...

I enjoy cooking and haven't poisoned anyone yet, so I'll assume I'm good enough for the family : ) Some recipes are in my head or I just wing it, depending on what I take out of the freezer. I also have gobs of cookbooks but really only use a few on a regular basis. There's a rib recipe by Alton Brown (Food Network guy) that I adore. It is all kinds of bad for my gall bladder, but well worth the pain : )

Maria Zannini said...

Susan: The nice thing about cooking meat is that it's ready so much faster when you make the next dish.

Linda: That settles it. You're just going to have to move to Texas. I'd move to Ohio, but Maria don't do cold. :grin:

Cathy: You are the epitome of a foodie--willing to suffer for good food. I am not that selfless. LOL.

Liz Fichera said...

I think the crock pot is one of the world's greatest inventions. If I didn't have one, my husband and I wouldn't be eating very much. ;-)

Sherri said...

Well, I do things like make two lasagnas at a time, or double a chili recipe, etc. Then of course there are the meals the picky eaters won't touch with a ten foot pole, LOL. And when I pick up roasts I get the biggest one I can so we have a roast one night and sandwiches another.

Robert Guthrie said...

Lunch today - scrambled eggs over cornchips and black beans from a can. If anything takes more than 10 minutes, I don't cook it.

Jayne said...

'When he least expects it' - haha, I know that tactic well!

I'm not much of a domestic goddess, but I blame it all on not having the right spoon. Of course, when I have the right spoon I blame it all on not owning the right pan. :)

Marianne Arkins said...

Leftovers. These are fighting words to Greg.

My DH hates them too. What's WITH that? Drives me nuts...

Did you ever read that book by Barbara Kingsolver, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle"? If not, you should. You, of all people, would truly appreciate it.

Maria Zannini said...

Liz: I still tease Greg that the very first Christmas present he gave me was a crock pot.

Sherri: You're my hero. :grin:

Robert: You're a man after my own heart. I might not like to cook for other people--but I am far more lazy with myself.

Jayne: I'm going to start using your excuses. Sorry, hon. I don't have the right spoon. Guess we'll have to eat out.

Marianne: Because I am so lazy, I would much rather eat leftovers than cook something new.
Ref: book
I need to look for that book.

Marguerite Butler said...

Oh boy did this strike home, Maria. I love to cook, but recently we processed one of my son's show turkeys. The dressed weight on that gobbler? 42 pounds. Took us seven hours to roast him. He barely fit in the oven.

What does one do with 42 pounds of roasted turkey? Turkey enchiladas, turkey pot pie, turkey and dumplings, turkey tetrazini and lots and lots of turkey sandwhiches!

Maria Zannini said...

Marguerite: Holy mother of God! 42 pounds? If he was any bigger, you'd have to cook him in an outdoor pit. I'll bet he was tasty.