Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Eat In, Eat Real, On Budget & Ranch Dressing

I have always been quite frugal. As a child, I managed to keep my Christmas candy until almost Easter, my Easter candy till at least June, and my Halloween candy till Christmas. I managed this great feat not because we were given so much, but because I savoured each piece and wanted to make it last. Later, this saving thing extended to my piggy bank and ultimately to my bank account. I have always been budget conscious and not one to spend more than I made... I am a real saver, sadly, sometimes to a fault, but that is another story!

During my starving student days, I learned that cooking at home was far cheaper and better for me than eating out, despite the fact that my mom told me so, I had to discover it for myself. Stretching a dollar in the kitchen while not losing out on the quality of my meals became a badge of honour, even way back then. Now, while all grown up, with a family income far better than that of a starving student, my budget conscious self reigns supreme in my kitchen. I don't have to use a calculator while grocery shopping anymore for fear of spending more than the actual cash in my wallet, but I work diligently to stay within my budget while providing healthy meals and snack choices for my family.

Groceries are expensive and we have seen a drastic increase in the prices of real food. Sadly, a couple of red peppers, organic or not, cost more than the cardboard, sugar and chemical laden Pop Tarts in the breakfast aisle. Because my health and well being are important to me, I prefer to eat whole foods found in the perimeter of the grocery store. I buy very few processed, made for me foods, but when I do, I try to minimize the chemical additives and make sure these items have good nutrition profiles. Some of my go to products would include coconut, olive and grape seed oils, some breads, pitas and wraps, plain yogurt and a few condiments.

Given that food is becoming more expensive, I try very hard not to waste any of it. If I buy it, I want to make sure to eat it. Not wasting is one of my strategies for staying on budget. Buy it and use it, or just buy what you need. "Waste not; want not", I believe is the saying, and it is as relevant today as it was years ago when my parents used to say it to me. Mom and dad, I'm not rolling my eyes anymore!

Over the next few blog posts, I will share my favourite budget and time saving tips for eating real, not made in a factory kitchen, food. If you are the person in charge of meal making, and would like a glimpse into how I stretch a dollar in my kitchen and make time to prepare mostly real food, the next few posts are for you! Let me share my time saving and budget friendly tips with you.

My Top Tips To Eat Well and Stay on Budget - Part 1

ONE: Set A Budget
Set a monthly and weekly food budget. Your food budget is part of your variable household expenditures and the amount you set is dependant on how much of your family income is left after fixed costs like rent/mortgage, utilities, house insurance and car payment and insurance. The remainder of your monthly earnings is divided amongst variable expenses like transportation, groceries, medical/dental, clothing, entertainment/eating out and miscellaneous/other expenses like pets, charities, interests and hobbies. For more information on setting budgets, please visit my budgeting and family financial hero Gail VazOzlade. She has an excellent web site and some excellent books on balancing your budget, getting out of or staying out of debt!

While on the subject of budget, you should also get a feel for the cost of your usual grocery items. I know prices change, but getting a "feel" for how much your groceries cost will help with your budgeting process. Decide ahead of time what items need to be organic, or fair trade, or just conventionally grown/raised. Know that organic or fair trade will cost a little more, so it is important to take this into consideration. Realistically, a family of 6 will need a higher food budget than a family of 3. If you are dedicating most of your grocery dollars to real food, little to no money on take out or convenience items, you should be able to meet budget requirements if you work hard on getting the most bang for your buck by shopping the sale items, buying budget friendly foods (for example, ground beef instead of steak or house brand vs national brands for the occasional made for you products) and buying only what you need.

TWO: Know What's In Your Culinary Toolbox
Take some time to write down all the meals in your cooking repertoire. Prioritize them based on how much your family enjoys them and how long it takes to prepare. For example, the best loved and the speediest to make should be at the top of your list. You should also categorize these best loved meals based on weekend vs weekday meals, make ahead or make ahead components or super speedy (30-40 minutes, start to finish), and of course low, medium to high price points. It is also helpful to know which meals you can throw together off the top of your head. These are the meals you reserve for nights you need to be fast if you haven't got a made ahead meal or some of the components ready ahead of time and in the fridge. I have always found making a meal referencing a recipe takes a little longer to prepare than the ones I have committed to memory. If you have meals that you use a recipe for, I recommend that you copy them onto recipe cards or recipe binder and stored in one place. This will make your recipes easily accessible when you need them and assist in your planning process and during preparation time.

I do a general repertoire for breakfasts, lunches - both packed and stay at home lunches as well as snacks and desserts too. The better you know ALL the meals in your arsenal, we can call this your "culinary toolbox", the easier it will be to make your meal plans, prepare your meals and stay within budget.

THREE: Simple Can Be Better
When figuring out your meal repertoire, don't underestimate how simple meals can be satisfying and tasty. More importantly, cooking simple meals may also help keep you on point sot that you cook real food and are not tempted to order in because time is short. Healthy and satisfying meals don't have be fancy and all gourmet like on those cooking shows either, they just need to taste good and be nutritionally sound. Sometimes a simple meal of a roasted chicken leg or broiled pork chop served with two steamed veggies (at least half your plate for veggies) is all that you need. You can fancy it up a bit with a quick spice rub or condiment for the meat, perhaps some apple or cranberry sauce, or a dollop of pesto. Even some leftover gravy can make a bare bones meal feel like Sunday dinner! Don't forget, a hearty soup and sandwich or salad can be most satisfying too!

FOUR: Prepare A Weekly Meal Plan
Once you know what's in your culinary tool box, your next step is to make a meal plan for the breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks. Create a weekly meal plan based meals in your culinary tool box AND the whole food items on sale in your grocery flyer and the items you already have in your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer (always shop your pantry first!). Choose your favourite store or the store offering the MOST deals that work with your menu plan. I know some folks visit a variety of stores but I think the extra gas to drive around and value of my time to shop in a number of stores just chew away any money saved.

Below, I have prepared a sample menu plan for a week that was based on the items on sale in my favourite grocery store and the items I already have in my pantry, fridge and freezer. This allows me to put only the items I need on my list. Also, remember that your meals can be warmed up versions of a previous meal.  For example, in my Sample Meal Plan, one of the breakfasts was warmed up pancakes from a previous Sunday breakfast. I am assuming that I made a really big batch and froze enough pancakes for a quick week morning breakfast. I can also do the same for the Sunday French toast breakfast on the Sample Meal Planner. You could also make a bunch of extra pita pizzas and freeze them for a future boxed lunch for the kids too.

FIVE: Weekend Prep
Spend some time on the weekend to prep your meals or some of the components. If you have something that requires lengthy simmering like a pasta sauce or some assembly like a lasagna, or even the sauce or marinade for a stir fry or slow cooker recipe, take care of some or all the prep on the weekend. The more organized you are for the week means that meals can be put together quickly and easily so you won't feel the need to do take out or eat factory made food to simplify your life.  

Some of my examples for weekend prep include:

Plan to make a batch of easy cookies, quick bread, muffins or granola bars for the week. These are excellent in lunches and freeze well. No need to buy the icky junk in the grocery store bakery or the boxed cookies.

When I have bananas that are really spotty, I will make banana bread to freeze for the upcoming week. My family loves banana bread for a lunch or anytime snack or dessert. In fact, I think my family ignores the fresh bananas on purpose, just so I will make it!

Making sauces, marinades and condiments like apple or cranberry sauces or pesto ahead is a great time saver. For instance, I like to make my stir fry sauce and store it in one of my many 500 mL mason jars. This way, all I need to do is give it a shake and pour it into my stir fry! Who needs bottled sauces? Sorry VH!

I often make a batch of my favourite spaghetti sauce and then transfer the finished sauce to a plastic container or a 750 mL mason jar. If refrigerator space is tight and spaghetti isn't on the menu until Thursday or so, I will often freeze my sauce. If you decide to do this kind of thing with your make ahead meals, make sure you allow for the appropriate head space in your freezer containers, especially if you are using jars. I generally leave at least 1.5 inches to prevent the jars from breaking.

My family loves a Canadian Living recipe for Slow Cooker Pulled Pork which I serve on top of brown rice instead of a bun. As an aside, slow cookers are another great way to make sure you eat home cooked meals. Is there anything better than coming home to the smell of dinner already cooking? Anyway, the recipe has a sauce which I prepare and refrigerate in a mason jar.  In the morning, I do a quick sear on the meat (if I have time, but it's not critical in my opinion), pour some sauce in the slow cooker, plop the meat in and smother with the rest of the sauce. I use wide mouth jars so I can get a rubber spatula in to scrape out every bit of sauce. 10 minutes in the morning, and dinner will almost be ready when I get home! Make the rice, chop the raw veggies garnish and prep my steamed green veggie and dinner is on the table in 30-40 minutes (faster if I've cooked the rice on the weekend!).

If a soup is on the menu, I make it on the weekend and store it in a glass jar. Then all I have to do is warm up the soup and whip up the side - maybe a sandwich or salad and biscuits! "Easy peasy, lemon squeezy"!

Pictured below is a sample dinner of broccoli soup (made in advance and warmed up) with a little cheddar cheese, a mixed green salad with strawberries, sliced almonds and a little goat cheese (I freeze smaller chunks of goat cheese to thaw and use as a salad garnish), and some seasoned cheese drop biscuits (measure the dry ingredients on the weekend and store in a sealed container for when you need it).

I try to have a salad at least twice a week with dinner. Greens, organic if you can, are so good for you! Add extras like red pepper, grated carrot or not! Even a handful of raisins, dried cranberries or some fresh fruit make the salad a little more special. I also find the addition of dried or fresh fruit helps to encourage the kids to eat their greens!

I haven't purchased bottled dressing in over a year now because I have found that with the right recipe, homemade is so much better. To make it a little more convenient, I make up a couple kinds and store them in my mason jars. It only takes about 5 minutes per dressing and then you have the convenience of ready made that tastes a whole lot better with fewer or no chemical additives. WIN-WIN-WIN, hurrah!

Homemade Ranch Recipe

My husband and youngest are big fans of Ranch Dressing. This being the case, Ranch Dressing was the first dressing I worked on. The catch was to make it "taste" as close as possible to the Kraft version to appease the taste buds of my fussy teen. I've come pretty darn close. You will see that I use store bought mayo in this recipe, but it is something I have not been brave enough to try, especially since it requires raw eggs. Perhaps one day I will give it a go. I also use plain organic 2% to 3.5% fat organic yogurt. I find it makes for a lovely dressing and also some amazing homemade fruit yogurt cups for lunch.

I store the dressing in my 500 mL mason jars and pour from them too at serving time. If you want to make serving time a little more pretty, use a little jug or a put a small ladle in the jar. In the picture, I made a half recipe of the Ranch Dressing and used a 250 mL mason jar.

1/2 cup good quality mayonnaise, regular fat is best
1 cup plain yogurt
2 pinches of onion powder
2 pinches of garlic powder
1/2 tsp dried dill or 1 tsp fresh***
1 tsp, heaped, dried parsley
1/4 tsp Himalayan pink salt
A few grinds of pepper
4 tsp water

Put all the ingredients in a 500 mL wide mouth mason jar and whisk well. If necessary, add a few more drops of water to get a pourable consistency. It's THAT easy!

This dressing will need at least an hour for the flavours to develop. If you want a more pronounced flavour, add a little more of the seasonings after letting the dressing sit for a few hours. You can always add more onion powder, garlic, parsley or dill, but do so gradually. I learned the hard way not to add too much garlic or onion powder, because the dressing got stronger in flavour after chilling over night. Keep in mind that the shelf life of your homemade dressing will depend on how old your yogurt and mayonnaise are. If your yogurt and mayonnaise are fresh, your dressing will last for 7 days, but because it is homemade, try not to let it hang around too long. Make what you need for the week.

Feel free to play around with the quantities of seasonings. Make the flavours more pronounced by increasing the amounts of seasonings. You can make it yours. My recipe was designed to mimic the bottled stuff... A win for this mom, but perhaps not flavourful enough for your tastes.

Sometimes I have fresh herbs like thyme, parsley or dill in my fridge. If I don't think I'm going to use them before they spoil, I carefully dry them on a clean dish towel and then store them in a freezer bag in the freezer. I can grab what I need when ever I require that particular herb.

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