Maximize your Time & Minimize your Waste in the Kitchen

I have never been one of those people that could have a marathon cooking day once a week and freeze meals in advance. I just don’t think I’m organized enough for that. Honestly, I don’t usually have that much time carved out in one day either.

But today I probably got the closest I ever will to that concept. (And it felt AWESOME!)

You know if you read the blog frequently that I almost always make substitutions on recipes from my OHI (On Hand Ingredients), for two main reasons:
1. To use up an OHI before it goes bad
2. To prevent purchasing an ingredient solely for the purpose of one dish, thus increasing savings

I have a hard time buying fresh herbs for this reason; I generally don’t need an entire bunch of a particular herb for a recipe – it usually only calls for 1-2 sprigs, or a handful of leaves, etc. And then I throw the rest away once it has been sitting in my fridge long enough that it goes bad.

But – with proper meal planning, and by beginning to make more things from scratch, I think I’ve begun to master the art of using all parts of every ingredient.

Prepping station!

Prepping station!

With just a few hours in the kitchen today, I made:
*Grilled Chuck Steak
*Chimichurri
*Quinoa with celery, corn, and parsley
*Creamed spinach
*Prepped veggies for chicken noodle soup
*Prepped veggies for homemade vegetable stock
*Celery sticks for snacking

From left: Veggie Stock ingredients, Veggies for chicken soup, chimichurri, quinoa, steak

From left: Veggie Stock ingredients, Veggies for chicken soup, chimichurri, quinoa, steak

Not only does this save me time for tomorrow because I did all the prep work at once, but I used up every part of the celery and parsley and used almost every other ingredient in more than one way.

Here’s the meal and prep plan.

DINNER, NIGHT 1:
Grilled Steak (cut and season)
Chimichurri (parsley, cilantro, garlic, EVOO, RW vinegar, jalapeno, oregano, S&P)
Quinoa (corn, parsley, celery, lemon juice, EVOO, mozzarella, salt)
Creamed Spinach (frozen chopped spinach, cream cheese, half and half)
Avocado (I like it with my steak – it cuts the saltiness of the chimichurri)
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OVERNIGHT STOCK:
Onion
Carrots
Celery
Parsley
Garlic
Asparagus (which was almost ready to be thrown out)
*Stock to cook in crock pot overnight

LUNCH, DAY 2:
Steak wraps with chimichurri, cheddar, lime, avocado, tomato
I might even try the leftover quinoa IN the wrap… I’ll let you know how that goes


DINNER, NIGHT 2
:
Homemade stock (from crock pot)
Chicken
Prepped veggies (carrot, parsley, celery, onion)
Homemade whole wheat bread
*Soup to cook in crock pot all day, after straining veggies out of stock

So, when you’re doing your meal planning, think about multiple uses for each item you’re buying – especially produce, since this expires quickest.

The steps below outline my thought process for meal planning to maximize your time and minimize your waste. Give it a try and let me know if it works for you!

1. Choose one night to try a new recipe and/or a new ingredient.
2. Think of other ways to use the ingredients in that recipe, or a different way to use that new ingredient. Implement meals according to those thoughts.
3. Always keep in mind ideas for leftovers so you’re not just reheating old meals, but you’re also not throwing things away.
4. Do prep all at once, as much as possible.
5. Research ways to use the ‘throwaway’ parts of produce and protein.

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Quick Tip: “Multiple Meal” opportunities

One of the things I’ve learned to do to save myself time and money is to re-purpose a grocery item for more than one meal. I almost always buy family packs of meat and break it into 2-3 dinners. Most times I’ll even take leftovers from those dinners and make an entirely different meal. I suppose if I had a motto in the kitchen, it would be, “Use what you have”. And along with that, “Save everything!” (until it goes bad of course) You never know what could come in handy!

So when I am meal planning and grocery shopping for the week, I always ask myself if I can re-purpose either the leftovers, or the other half of the protein that I don’t use. Actually, more often than not I do plan my meals with leftovers in mind. That’s what I call a “First Meal”: one in which you purposefully make more than enough, with a plan to use the leftovers for another meal – whether that be breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a side.

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Weekly Meal Planning – On a Budget!

So. This week my grocery budget is a little less than 1/2 of what it is normally… Ever been in a similar situation? For whatever reason, you’re a little tight that week? What’s a momma to do?! At this stage in our life, we do ONE TRIP PER WEEK. Here’s how to maximize your budget and your OHI.

Step (1): Take stock of your OHI. What do you have that you can make meals of already? This particular week I have plenty of lunch meat, some frozen ground beef, enough quick meals for my 3 working night dinners, some fresh produce, and a few other things that I was already planning on using in dinners.

Step (2): What ESSENTIALS do you need to replace? Mentally go through all the categories: paper products, cleaning products, laundry supplies, baby supplies, then all the grocery items (Dairy, frozen, produce, dry goods, you know the drill). This list should be limited to only what you know you cannot get through the week without. Things you will MOST CERTAINLY run out of if you don’t purchase it in the next day or two. For me this week, the only things I knew I’d need for SURE were eggs, milk, butter, frozen veggies, jelly, bread, bananas, and tomatoes. *Remember to consider every meal and snack time too.

Step (3a): Go through your local grocery ad. What’s on sale? This week what stood out to me was Meijer Steamable frozen veggies, country pork ribs, Peter Pan PB (my fave!), Meijer Naturals Chicken Stock, Sargento Cheese, Spaghetti O’s, Creamette Pasta, my favorite yogurt Fage, and On the Vine Tomatoes.
(3b): Check for coupons for your essentials and the sale items. We shop at Meijer because right now, in our area, they offer the best coupon “double dip” opportunities (a double dip is where you might get something on sale with a coupon, or be able to use multiple coupons on one item, or use coupons in a quantity or sum qualifying sale [i.e. ‘buy 6, save $5’]). I search two different places for coupons: Coupon Tom and mPerks. Coupon Tom is a cross-referencing site where you can type in the product and it will pull up corresponding coupons for that item. This uses Jill Cataldo’s coupon organization method. (You can visit her free blog here for the best deals at grocery stores in the Chicago Suburbs and to learn more about smart couponing.) To check mPerks, you sign in using your phone number (Don’t worry – no spam texts or calls!) on the website and at the register using your PIN. Signing up allows you to choose from hundreds of coupons for their store brand products as well as name brand items. They have great coupons on here and lots of opportunities to save. (Last month I saved about $200 – average $50 a week – by combining sales and multiple coupons.) Bonus, they have lots of produce coupons – hooray!!
I found coupons for these items: butter, Sargento shredded cheese, Spaghetti O’s, bread, organic Portobello mushroom caps.

Step (4): First total. Using prices from the ad and your best estimate from your smart shopping in the past, add up to get the total of all your items on your list. If you’re not sure, always round up. Then make a meal plan for every day that week (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks) and make sure you don’t have any gaps. (If you do, can you fill them with something you already have? Or do you have to add to your list?)

Step (5): Adjust. Are you above your budget? Below? Can you add some more healthy items? Do you need to adjust quantities of something? Is there something you can do without? At this point I went through the ad again to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. ***TIP: Any time a manufacturer puts out a new product, they almost ALWAYS put out corresponding coupons to get you to try it.*** I ALMOST looked past the Marie Callendar’s Easy Sides. ALMOST. But – They were 4 for $5 (not fantastic by any means). But if you bought 4, you got $1 off instantly = 4 for $4. I checked Coupon Tom. Yes! There was a $.75 off 1 coupon. Score. I get 2 papers, so I can use two of those coupons. But wait, mPerks also has a coupon: $1/3. So if I buy 4, it’s actually cheaper to use the $1/3 plus one $.75/1 coupon. ARE YOU WITH  ME?!? Instead of paying $5 for 4, I’ll be paying $2.25. Yes, for that price, I will try this new product. Even on a tight budget week.
And then – Wait – WAIT. Mahi Mahi was featured at $6.99/lb. Hmmm…. I really didn’t need the yogurt as I still had a few left. I really don’t need the pasta either. Spaghetti O’s?? I really only put them on my list for nostalgia’s sake anyway. I nixed a few items to free up the $7 for some Mahi Mahi – which for some reason sparked another idea… mango salsa… I googled ‘Mahi Mahi mango salsa‘ and pulled up a recipe. Well, I may not have all the items on that list, or the budget to buy them, but I CAN make some substitutions and buy a few of the cheaper things – especially since I know I can get multiple uses out of something like a lime or a red onion.

Step (6): Double -Check and prepare. Make sure you have everything you need and you’re a couple bucks under budget to account for miscalculation and tax. Usually when I’m estimating I only count my PRE-coupon total (unless its a big baby sale and I’ll be saving $10 or something). Make sure all your coupons are loaded to your mPerks, or shopping card, or printed, and that all the paper coupons are cut and ready with your list.

Now, you thrifty little shopper you, go out and conquer that grocery store!!!

Here’s an example of a working meal plan for the week. Excuse my scribbles 🙂
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Pantry organization, Meal planning, and OHI pars

Dream pantry?!

Sometimes I wish my pantry looked like the one in this picture. Alas, all I have is an abundance of cabinets! Thankfully I do have a lot of them. But at this point in my life, my ‘pantry’ organization is based on what I allow my kids to get into or not. Yes I put locks on cabinets, but not all of them, because it’s way too much of a hassle. I limited myself to locking the ones that have glass or harmful things like cleaning products in them. Part of the reason is, I didn’t want to have to bother opening it myself. However, the biggest reason is this: I do believe, although it’s more work, to use all opportunities possible to TEACH my kids. Also I purposely put their snacks and dishes in low cabinets where they can reach, so they are able to help themselves. (Think cereal, crackers, fruit snacks, granola bars, fruit cups, etc.) Even if they can’t open the packaging themselves, they will bring it to me and ask if they can have it and if they can open it. Our youngest, at 14 months or maybe earlier, would go in the kids’ dishes cabinet and bring a cup over to the fridge if she was thirsty. I learned accidentally that kids are actually a lot more capable and at a lot earlier age than we give them credit for. Another example: when Aubrey (our eldest) was 2 and 3, she wanted to help me with everything: dishes, baking, laundry, cleaning, you name it. At first I kept saying no (which led to big-time disappointment on her end, and extravagant distraction methods on mine). Finally one day I figured, what the heck? I would wash the dishes and she would dry them. When she was 3 I learned she was actually quite good at folding her and her brother’s laundry – they were small enough for her to handle. Ah HA! I thought. A learning opportunity. I can teach her how to do these chores now, while she WANTS to, and I was getting help too. Why be a domestic martyr if it wasn’t necessary? I didn’t have to do everything myself, and she was learning valuable life skills she’d use the rest of her life. Win-Win.
Anyway, I am sure that once my kids learn to suppress their desire to dump my sugar all over the floor and play with it like sand, I will be again re-organizing categorically instead of according to what I can afford them get into or not 😉

That said, as I sit down to plan my weekly grocery trip, I wanted to share with you a list of my essential OHIs. Produce rotates seasonally, so they’re not listed specifically. These things are on the list because I know I can make meals spur of the moment from them if necessary. Here it is:
* 2 dozen eggs
* White and Whole Wheat bread
* Parmesan
* Shredded cheese of some variety
* Some lunch meat & cheese
* Milk, Half & Half, Sour cream
* Butter – sticks and spreadable
* Refrigerated rolls (Grands)
* Various Oils and vinegars
* Salad dressings and/or salad dressing mixes
* Condiments: Ketchup, mustard, low-fat mayo, peanut butter, grape jam, sriracha, BBQ sauce
* Cream of mushroom soup
* Spaghetti sauce (usually Hunts in the can or jarred Prego)
* Canned tomatoes  – various varieties
* Bananas – this is my yearly consistent fruit. We ALWAYS have bananas. Quick for snacks, and great for baking.
* Onion and garlic
* Dry snacks: crackers (wheat or Ritz usually), granola bars, fruit snacks
* Dry pasta (whole wheat when possible): angel hair and various shapes of boxed dry pasta
* Mac n Cheese
* “Cheater” sides: Instant mashed potatoes, Knorr rice and pasta sides
* Rice
* Cereal
* Waffles
* Frozen pizza, frozen chicken nuggets
* Frozen mixed veg, Frozen steamed microwavable veg (Green giant or Steamfresh)
* Hot dogs
* Baking supplies: whole wheat flour, white sugar, cocoa powder, semi-sweet chips, baking soda and powder, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, pumpkin pie spice, allspice
* Seasonings: kosher salt, sea salt, table salt, pepper, pepper grinder, garlic powder, paprika, chili powder, taco seasoning packet, country gravy packet
* Seasonal fruit for snacking: berries, grapes, etc.
* Seasonal fresh veg that I can build a meal around, or build into a meal
* Protein – generally chicken breasts or thighs, some kind of pork, ground sausage or beef, occasionally fish, red meat, or ham

Now I’m going to be straight up with you. I work 3 nights a week at a restaurant. On those nights I allow myself to make ‘cheater’ meals. I have to be there at 5, which means dinner should be finished by about 4:30.  This means a combination of the following items, usually following the ‘meat, veg, starch’ guideline: pizza, fries or tater tots, mashed potatoes, Knorr sides (rice or pasta), frozen steamed veg, raw veg, fruit, chicken nuggets, mac n cheese, hot dogs. I felt really bad about this for awhile, like I’m feeding my family crap. But you know what? Until I don’t have to work at dinner time any more, or we don’t need my income anymore, it’s a necessary part of our life, so I just learned to be okay with it. I don’t have to extend too much mental energy making these things, and they’re pretty much no-brainers. Sometimes if I do have extra time, I’ll make a casserole or maybe a chicken pot pie, something that can be in the oven while I’m getting ready for work. Every once in awhile I’ll do a crock pot meal, but generally I don’t have time to eat dinner before work, and I like to enjoy my crock pot meals, so that doesn’t happen often.

So before I make my grocery list, I take stock of my OHI. I figure out what I need to replenish and then do my meal planning based on what’s on sale that week. That plus coupons determines my list for the week. And that’s another post entirely 😉