My Beautiful Struggle + [story]

Fridge Wars

When JJ and I first discussed my exit from formal employment, I took a look at our books and knew I had to get the grocery bill under control. We'd just come off a season of "laking" - which meant multiple trips to the store: one before the the trip and one after when you didn't bring anything home. And we eat well at the lake, often feeding many, so the bills were high anyway. So I set out to build in a few routines and practices that have dramatically lowered our bills. We spend no more than $200 each week on food, often with weeks interspersed that only come to about $100. (A huge variable is buying paper products, so the switch to cloth diapers more full-time made a big BIG impact on the bills. I can't wait until Miss M can go the night without such protection.)

1. We stick to one store and utilize loyalty. In our case, it's Meijer (I totally justify the big box nature in that it's a regional chain, limited to parts of Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. Maybe Kentucky, I'm not sure. But it's not nationwide). We do mPerks, which is sort of online couponing, but I'm no coupon-er. I just clip what I know we need or will need in the near (next month) future. By doing this, we get a reward every few months that drops 20% off the total bill on a visit. We also get gas perks through mPerks, which saves $0.10/gal. I should disclose that the Meijer is practically next to my house, so filling up and going to the store is convenient as well. Tears of pity for those who don't live in such luxury. I've been there.

2. I menu plan. By this, I mean I come up with 3-4 dinners and 2 lunches each week that I'll prepare. I always try to cook for leftovers and give myself flexibility with when each meal is made - if I don't feel like fajitas on Monday, they show up Wednesday. No need to call in the law.

3. When I menu plan, I use flyers. Since I'm not going to 8 different stores, I browse the Mejier weekly to see what's on sale. Usually I allow the staples to direct my planning. If peppers are on sale, fajitas show up. If pork is discounted, we get BBQ. It also helps to add variety and challenges me to be creative. How can I use a split chicken breast? To the Pint, we go.

4. I try not to buy anything without knowing its intended use. I broke this rule this week when I bought 2 heads of broccoli. I have no idea what I'll make with broccoli this week. But I felt like our cart was light on veggies, so I bought it (and one head is never enough). JJ did something similar with a head of cabbage last week when he had store duty, probably because he's in love with this fried cabbage with carmalized onions and bacon we've done a few times. But now, I've got to concoct a broccoli cabbage stew. Sounds delightful, no?

5. I don't keep a full fridge. Even though there are 5 very active eaters in this house, we simply don't eat a fridge full of food every week. The amount of waste is disturbing. Instead, I like to see empty shelves. Some people might not like the limiting feel to this, but I find I rise to the challenge. It gives direction where I normally fall to routine. When we need dinner on a given Friday and all I have is ground beef and 2 heads of broccoli, I head to the Pint. Ah, chinese-inspired Beef Broccoli? Sure! We've done this long enough - and have tried to keep a good enough variety of flavor - that most staples are in our pantry, even seseme oil and fish sauce. So this approach rarely scares me. And if I don't have an ingredient? I do without or google a viable substitute. We live - nearly every time.

6. I force my kids to actually eat meals. I know, I know. Mean mom. But I refuse to prepare good food and let them toss it in the trash so they can beg for raisins 2 hours later. I've very careful not to make foods they strongly dislike (in fact, I've got a good bunch of eaters and I can't name anything that any of them hate. Well, H Boy dislikes mushrooms. And C refused the cantelope the other day. Neither of those make me do somersaults, so my feelings weren't hurt). If there's an ingredient they don't enjoy, they're allowed to pick around. And they don't have to "clean plate" - just eat enough that they're satiated. If they opt not to ingest, it waits on the kitchen table (or in the fridge if I'm on top of my game) until after their nap and it becomes their snack. I ask and try to make their favorites while offering a good rotation of variety. This comes across quite harsh, and maybe it is. I hope I don't give my kids food complexes about having to lick their plates clean, but the fact of the matter is: food is too expensive for us to waste. And I feel that choice and pickiness is a 1st world luxury, not a right. So I just choose not to feed into that. If they opt not to eat a meal, and forgo snack, that's fine. They'll still get the next meal. They know that they're choosing between dinner or hunger, but they never go hungry for long. They're all a nice healthy weight. (Watch, God will give me one with "issues" this next round and my theories will go to the wayside....)

7. We spend our money on whole foods, not fillers. We do spend a lot of money on our staples: meat, fresh & frozen veggies, fruit, oatmeal, eggs (oh! the eggs... so many)... but we buy very few packaged goods. We keep stock of raisins, nuts, trailmix, JJ's crackers (it's a compromise), peanut butter, tortilla chips (Xochil, the best chips EVER) and some sort of fall back, be it gluten free pretzels, a chex cereal, or some other carby-like substance. But we ration that last category like crazy. So the money we could have spent on boxes of cereal (and that stuff is expensive!) and snacks in a box goes toward our staples. It balances out. We drink mostly water - kids get OJ on the weekend when we eat breakfast as a family - and a glass of komboucha tea each day. Well, yes, we also have some adult beverages available as well, though we try to ration that as it's more expensive than cereal.

8. Only one trip to the store each week. Period. Running to the store for a block of cream cheese will cost us $50 and it's nothing else we can't live without until the next trip. It's the end-cap and incremental purchasing that will do us all in. By implementing the one-trip rule, it mandates that we get creative. No cream cheese? Sub sour cream (I promise, it works). Or mayo. Or ranch. Surely something works. Or go with a recipe that you have all the necessary ingredients. We keep far too much food in our house to really be "out" - I found that more often, I wasn't out of food, I was out of ideas. Just admitting it was really the hardest part.

I realize that some of what I do to try to keep bills low comes only with the luxury of time at home. The home at 5:30, trying to make dinner by 6 scramble is no fun and there's no easy way to cut out conveniences, save the slow cooker. So, no shame to survival. We wise women must pick our battles. Now that I'm home, it's time to put that brain to use in other ways, and for us it came out in the grocery bills.

I'd be interested to hear what ways others have trimmed their bills....