April 23, 2015

lazy lady menu planning (and 8 of my favorite simple dinners)...

lazy-lady menu planning (and 8 of my go-to easy meals) | yourwishcake.com
If there's one thing I've learned when it comes to saving money on groceries, it's that couponing is actually not as scary or difficult as I thought it was going to be. And if there's another thing I've learned, it would be the value of jotting down a menu plan every week—whether you want to be detailed or more carefree, it doesn't matter. The benefit comes from simply having that weekly outline to guide your daily dinner-making.

I've only been actively meal planning since early this year, and I really had no idea how much of my sanity it would save. I now try to jot down at least 2 weeks worth of dinners in advance (being intentional about "shopping" our fridge, freezer and cabinets so I make use of items I already have on hand!) and then each week I know what to add to my grocery and Costco shopping lists. I've cut down on what I spend each week significantly because of this. There have been weeks here and there when literally the only things I needed to buy were produce, dairy and a couple other pantry items that were very, very much on sale.

There's something about spending less than $30 on groceries in one week that makes one sold on the idea of meal planning. Can I get an amen?

In order to make this work for us, the thing I've had to cut back on is trying new recipes. I found that when I was searching for more unique, random recipes just to throw something exciting into the mix, I ended up with leftover ingredients that I had to find use for (and, consequently, more new recipes I'd never tried). During this season of life, I'm actually pretty happy sticking to about a dozen things I know how to make well, are easily modified to be a little different here and there, and that I know my family likes to eat. I'm sure there will be time down the road when I can be fancy-pants with the weekly menu, but for now? I mostly stick to what I know.

Enter: lazy-lady menu planning! Every weekend I jot down the next week (or, if I'm ambitious, two weeks) of meals and go from there. I rarely stick to the actual day that I write the mail down for, but at least I know I have one of 7 options to choose from every week. It's worked out rather nicely.

I thought I'd share a list of the recipes that show up most often on our weekly rotation of meals!

Keep in mind that the list is specific to my own family's shopping habits, food preferences and my personal level of culinary skill (which is not at the Iron Chef and/or food blogger level, let's just say that). Although we do eat fish (and are social carnivores), we stay almost completely meat-free here at home—both for budget and health reasons. However, all of these recipes are easily modified to include some sort of meat, if that's your preference.

For the record, these "go-to, easy dinners" have the following qualifications:
  1. Relatively low cost
  2. Most ingredients are items I typically have on hand or buy often
  3. Quick-ish prep (even though some require veggie chopping, which I personally enjoy)
  4. Fool proof (meaning it's simple to prepare—probably with a 3 year old constantly underfoot!)

8 Favorite Go-To Easy Dinners

Taco Soup (from this book; recipe found online here)
This one is so easy, it's a little ridiculous. We use Morningstar veggie crumbles instead of ground beef or chicken, and it's just as tasty. The leftovers are divine, and this soup also freezes well!

Black Bean and Avocado Enchiladas (via Budget Bytes)
Everyone I've recommended this recipe to has loved it, and I'm sure they also felt impressed with themselves when they made enchilada sauce completely from scratch! (Never mind how simple it actually is. That's our little secret.) I could eat this every week and never tire of it. I've also started freezing a portion of this recipe whenever I make it (since this is one Eisley won't touch and Jay and I are the only ones eating it) so I have another dinner ready to go down the road.

Tofu and Veggie Curry with Rice
This is one of those throw-whatever-the-heck-you-want-in-the-pot sort of recipes. We use this curry mix (someday we'll learn to make it from scratch!) along with tofu, onions, potatoes, carrots, bell peppers, celery, and any other veggies that tickle our fancy. It's a very inexpensive, simple meal that both Jay and I love (this is another one Eisley says is "too spicy") and we always look forward to the leftovers.

Ravioli Lasagna (via Taste of Home)
This is one my mom used to make when I was growing up and I still love it. We buy spinach and cheese ravioli for cheap at Costco, and the only other two required ingredients are mozzarella cheese and one jar of pasta sauce. We forgo the meat and usually pack the middle layer with some extra veggies (spinach and mushrooms). This is one Eisley loves to help me to prepare, which is an added bonus!

Tofu Stirfry
This is another favorite, inexpensive meal that we usually have once every week! We buy a huge bag of stirfry veggies from Costco which seems to last forever, and sauté the pressed tofu in this sauce (we purchase it from Costco). We usually serve the veggies and tofu with noodles or rice. PS: Eisley actually loves tofu (she even begs to eat it raw, which blows my mind).

Bertolli Frozen Meals
I love having a few of these tucked in the freezer for those days when I go to make dinner and am all, "Yeeeeeeah…no." These are the best tasting skillet meals I've had, and their seafood options are great. To make myself feel better, I usually throw extra veggies (fresh, canned or frozen) into each meal, depending on what it is. (I also love that I can sometimes get these for less than $5 each when there is a good sale.)

Fish "Burgers" or Tacos
I never thought I'd be an adult fan of fish sticks, but these from Costco are so good. I rarely serve them plain, but like to put them on a bun for fish "burgers" or with sautéed veggies, avocado and other taco toppings inside flour tortillas. Cheap, inexpensive and delish!

Almost-From-Scratch Pizza
I call this almost from scratch because although I don't make the dough, it's still a bit more effort than buying frozen cheese pizzas from Costco and topping them with a bunch of veggies (which we've done a lot in the past, and still fully endorse). Trader Joe's has pizza dough for ridiculously cheap (just over a dollar—our favorite is the garlic and herb!) and when I can get mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce for a good price form the grocery store, it makes this an inexpensive and delicious dinner. We top our pizza with a bunch of veggies and a sprinkling of dried basil, and recommend using a pizza stone like this one that we have.

Now it's time for you to give me some ideas to add into the mix. What are your favorite easy dinners? Anything I have to try? I'd love to add in some new recipes here and there.

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  1. My favorite easy meal is combining a serving of whole grain noodles with an entire package of frozen broccoli and cheese. Not very elegant, but definitely amazing. If my boyfriend decides he wants some, I just double the recipe.

    Thanks for sharing all the recipes!

    1. Oooh, thanks for sharing! That sounds right up our alley, and I know Eisley would love it, too. Do you have a favorite brand of whole grain noodles? As much as I like to stick to whole grains, I find that noodles are sometimes too grainy and they kind of bum me out. ;) I'd love to know if you have a specific kind you like!

    2. We buy the whole grain pasta (on sale) from Golden Grain! We used to buy Barilla, but found the whole grain version to be too "grainy/chewy"(whatever you wanna call it). Maybe give Golden Grain a try?

  2. I loved reading about how you meal plan and how you shop and what you actually cook! (Watch out for a similar post with all my secrets and tried recipes! ;)).

    I do struggle with my grocery budget although I do buy very consciously and look to combine sales and coupons when I can. We do eat meat and a lot of dairy in my house, which I know makes things more expensive. May I ask what your monthly budget is?

    Thanks for recommending the fish sticks. I need to try these when I go to Costco again!

    Some of our go-to meals: spaghetti with Italian sausgage meatballs, veggie quesadillas, baked salmon with rice, ground turkey burritos, baguettes, one-pot pasta, mixed salads.

    1. Thank you so much, San! I could read posts like these for days, so I'm excited to read yours, too. :)

      As far as budgeting goes, the best I can guess is that we hover somewhere around $250-$300ish every month, but that is just an estimate—my newest goal is to actually come up with an actual budget and keep track of spending and saving goals. Since Jay and I aren't impulse shoppers (generally) and don't overspend, we've never had an issue with spending too much and have been lazy when it comes to actual budgeting! But I know we could be even better with our money if we had actual numbers in mind.

      And thanks for sharing some of your go-to meals! I could LIVE on baked salmon…yum. And there are so many one-pot pasta recipes out there on the internet, I really need to try out more! There's hardly been one I've tried yet that wasn't a hit.

    2. Our grocery bill is about 2x of yours... *eep* I am shocked to admit that (and we meal plan, don't really buy anything that's not on the list and combine sales and coupons!). I don't have a set budget either, because like you and Jay, we generally , aren't impulse shoppers and never really had to set a budget for ourselves (in any area of our finances), but I would also like to get into it and get a better sense on where our money goes. Some people have raved about "YNAP"(You need a budget) and I think I wanna try this out (maybe).

  3. Thanks for sharing these! I pinned the enchiladas and had no idea making enchilada sauce was so easy. We do fish tacos a lot using frozen fish - that's one of Eli's favourite meals. We like tomato soup with grilled cheese or quesadillas because it's so easy to customize them (Pete and I like extra veggies, Eli likes his plain). Some other quick dinners that make a regular appearance at our house are veggie burgers with sweet potato fries, falafels with pita bread and greek salad, burrito bowls made with rice, beans, and tofu or chicken, and spinach lasagna rollups.

  4. the first photo looks delicious!


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