The words “food” and “budget” probably bring a few images to mind: macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, and spaghetti. While all three of these items may have been a part of my toddler’s meal in the past few weeks (with veggies, of course), as a mom I try to balance what my family eats and find meals that are simple, (relatively) healthy, and budget friendly. And that also save me time and unnecessary stress.
Mealtime in and of itself can be a stressful event: catering to individual needs, figuring out what to make, and finding the time to make it. As a working mom, I do enjoy cooking and trying new things, but I also need to be realistic about what I have the time and energy for. Most days when I get home from work, I’m not ready to cook a gourmet meal while entertaining a toddler until my husband gets home. And you know what? I don’t feel guilty about that – I’m doing what works best for me and my family. And maybe some of these tips will help you, too.
I have found a few great ways to save my sanity – and my budget – when it comes to preparing meals for my family:
1. Meal planning.
As a Type A person, I love lists and plans. Putting together a meal plan is a great way to not only keep myself organized, but also to keep my budget in check. I like to plan at least a week, usually two weeks, in advance. This saves me from the “What am I going to make/pick up/drive through for dinner?” question. I know what we are having each day of the week. Even down to the leftovers. I have written it down, and I stick to it.
2. Making enough for leftovers.
This is my biggest sanity saver. I love to cook big meals on the weekends, usually enough that provides leftovers for a couple nights during the week, and sometimes to freeze and save for when we need a quick meal to thaw. We eat a lot of casseroles, soups, Mexican, and pasta dishes, and now grilled items since it’s finally(!) summer.
3. Meal prep.
Not only do I like to cook on the weekends, but I also try to make the most of a few free minutes and prep for dinner, whether cutting veggies, browning beef, or cooking rice to mix with a casserole dish. This makes actually preparing dinner go so much faster, so I can simply throw in items. You can prep for dinner that same night, or if you have time, even the week ahead.
Pro tip: Freeze portions of fresh, cut veggies (note: some you may need to cook before freezing – Google is your friend) or even cooked meat when you buy in bulk and you know you’re not going to use it all. Then, simply thaw the day you are ready to use for your meal. In the winter, a slow cooker is one of the biggest time savers ever – with a little prep, you can come home to dinner being ready when you walk in the door.
4. Expanding my horizons, but limiting my options.
I love to try new meals. I get bored eating the same things, but I also like routine. I like to find new recipes to try that I can throw in to break up our routine, and also to expand my family’s tastes. I love introducing my daughter to new foods, and I’m pretty lucky that there is hardly anything she doesn’t like. My budget-friendly, new-recipe goal is to find meals that don’t use a ton of ingredients, or a little bit of an ingredient that will go to waste. Google, allrecipes.com, and Iowa Girl Eats are my go-tos when trying to find new recipes. Oh, and a site called Yummly, which can email you popular recipes from around the web.
5. Make the most of what you have.
For me, this is twofold. First, I have a toddler who usually likes to be mommy’s “helper” during mealtimes. I make the most of it by letting her stand on her chair while mommy cooks, giving her big spoons and plastic bowls to play with, along with letting her “help” me add ingredients and do the occasional stirring. Second, I try to make the most of my existing ingredients and what I have in my house. I do like to stock up and buy things on sale that I know I will use, but at the same time I try to avoid purchasing something just because it’s a good deal. I like to stick to my meal plan and grocery list as much as possible, but leave room for the occasional treats and binge bulk purchases to fill my deep freezer.