No Buy August: Using What’s In Your Cabinets to Save Money

I’ve been struggling to save money on my grocery bill for a long time. Actually, probably my entire adult life. If you’ve read my post on “shopping from your pantry first” you’ll know that I’ve written about this before and that I use to spend upwards to $700 a month on my grocery bill. This is crazy to me now, especially considering I am still in student loan debt. You’ll be happy to know that I’ve pared my grocery bill down to a mere $265 a month, but I still have a stock pile of food in my pantry.

So with the intent to save money on my grocery bill, while also utilizing the groceries I already have in my pantry, I’m starting a “No Buy August”. This effort is mostly to help reign in my overspending, while also addressing my food hording problem. Hopefully when I’m done, I will have an empty pantry just waiting to be filled with fresh, new foods.

I’m starting this journey in August, but this post will probably be published sometime in mid-late August. You can start this challenge anytime you like. It just so happens that I was $125 over my grocery budget in July and wanted to do something about it next month. Hope you’ll Join me : )

The Goals, Save Money, Use Up Old Food Items

In recent months, you’ll be happy to hear that I’ve been much better about my grocery buying habits. That being said, I still have a jar of potato starch that has been in my pantry for a few years. I most likely bought it for one recipe and used it ONLY for that recipe. Then the rest has been sitting in my pantry, waiting for the day it will be put back in the game.

So the first step for me was, to go through my cabinets and find what needs to be used. I started with some easy ingredients. I have two jars of shitake mushrooms that need using. So it looks as though vegetable ramen and risotto with caramelized shitake mushrooms will be on the menu. Risotto is another ingredient that made the list as well which means I’m finishing off two ingredients with that recipe.

So ingredient by ingredient, I’m going through my pantry, finding what needs to be used. Then I take those items, go to my favorite recipe sites and search their site by ingredient. A pretty straight forward plan. Full disclosure, I did go a little over my food budget this month knowing that I wouldn’t be going to the grocery store next month at all if things go as planned. I made a Costco run and got a few extra items at Market Basket in preparation. But it’ll be worth it to save almost 2/3 of my grocery bill next month. Money that will go straight to paying off my student loans : )

Search for Recipes, AKA Plan Ahead

The next step for me was, to look up recipes I had with the limited amount of ingredients I had on hand. I use Minimalist Baker’s site for most of my recipes. But Love & Lemons is also a great site and one my boss swears by. But cooking is as unique as the individual. So find a site you like. Or maybe you have a favorite cookbook or some family recipes. The point is to find what makes you happy. Cook from a book, site or recipe that you know you’ll enjoy the food you make.

Yeah, we want to save money, but we also want to enjoy what we’re eating. So searching for recipes by finding your favorite recipe sites and cookbooks is essential to making cooking for yourself an enjoyable experience that you want to keep coming back to. For example, I have my grandmother’s baked beans recipe that I’ve been making for years. I had to make them vegetarian, but they’re something I keep coming back to.

Also, I have a few staples from the restaurants I’ve worked at in the past. Recently I’ve been making a black bean soup recipe that I picked up in a Mexican place I’ve worked. I got the idea from Dave Ramsey when he says to eat, “beans and rice, rice and beans”. The recipe is fantastic and the price of rice and beans are super cheap. So if I eat black bean soup with rice every other meal, it only costs me around $10 a month. That’s half of my months grocery cost and is kind of incredible.

But Where’s the Varity?

People have gone to some extremes, all in the name of saving some money. And I suppose that eating half of your meals in the form of beans and rice is up there. But it’s not something I plan on doing forever. As soon as I pay off my student loans, I plan on cooking more of the foods I enjoy. Eating well will come with being debt free. After all, I got into debt by spending money at restaurants in the first place. It only makes sense that I now reign in my spending on what I used to have poor boundaries around.

But there are also other places in my meal plan where I work in some variety. For example, my self-care dinner is usually a new to me recipe. Something I find during the week that looks appealing. Also, family dinner Fridays are usually a pleasant surprise. We take turns choosing recipes for the week to keep the meals fresh and new. As I’m writing this, we are currently preparing a lentil curry dish that I found scrolling through my bookmarked recipes.

But even while I’m picking new recipes, my goal still is to save some money. So I’m choosing ingredients from my pantry first, while also seeking out recipes with cheap components. You’ll notice that the above lentil recipe has frozen peas and lentils as their staple ingredients. Both are cheap buys at the grocery store, making this meal budget friendly. So just because you’re looking for variety, doesn’t mean you need to spend loads of cash.

What am I Eating

Maybe you’re looking at your cabinets or eating habits and came to the same conclusion I have. That something needs to change. Also, if it’s one thing I’ve learned from dating site profiles, it’s that people spend a lot of time thinking about what they’ll be eating next. Which raises the question, what will I be eating throughout the day? Below I’ll go over a short list of the meals I usually prepare for myself. Or what a usual week looks like for me. Let’s start in the morning.

Brekkie

Coffee

A sure way to save money while deciding what you’ll eat for breakfast is, stop eating out. Yes, even the coffee you grab on the way to the office. If you were like I was, I was drinking upwards to 7 lattes a day. That’s a lot of coffee! I did work at a bakery where coffee was free at the time. So I wasn’t paying for all of my coffee consumption. But even if you’re only getting one coffee a day, the money still adds up.

Let’s say you buy one latte a day at $6. Even if you only get one a day for five days a week, making coffee on the weekends, the total for the year would add up to $1,560! That’s a lot of money for coffee. But if you make your own espresso, it’s about 45 cents for a double shot. using that math, the same amount of coffee would cost you $117 annually, not including the cost of milk.

If you add a gallon of milk a week to your shopping list at $3.19 a gallon, you’d still only be spending a grand total of $282.88 a year. Coffee and milk. That’s 1/5 the cost you would be spending if you bought out every day. And if you drink tea, it gets even cheaper. So stop buying coffee out! Buy a quality coffee thermos, I like this one by Yeti, and make your own. You’ll be saving loads of money in the long run. Also while cutting back on your plastic or cardboard waste consumption.

Breakfast Foods

If you’re not on a liquid diet, (and I definitely recommend that you not only drink coffee for breakfast) then you’ll be needing some solid foods to compliment your coffee. Processed cereals cost a lot of money. And we’ve already covered eating out. So for the price, you can’t beat oatmeal for the most cost effective meal.

I usually make overnight oats. I mix a large batch of the dry ingredients in a container and make them each night before work the next day. They usually consist of oatmeal, flax meal or chai seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, a pinch of salt, maple syrup and then I top it off a plant based milk (I add the flax or chai seed after so it doesn’t sink to the bottom of the container). I shake it all together in a pint sized mason jar and refrigerate overnight. I could use water and save some more money, but I like the creamier texture it gives. Also, you can add whatever you’re craving or what’s in season to the oats. Giving you some variety to your first meal of the day.

Lunch & Dinner

I group lunch and dinner together because I usually end up eating the same dishes for both meals. Whatever I’m eating for dinner, I usually eat as left overs for lunch. This way I don’t have to buy meal specific ingredients other than for brekkie. So what am I making for dinner?

As I said above, I’ve been making black beans and rice for half of my meals. But I find that I usually have a jar of lentils in the cupboard. Or like this month, for some reason I have two jars of cornmeal. So to save money in No Buy August, I’m making polenta.

This meal hits all the right notes for me. It’s cheap, simple, I almost always have cornmeal on hand and it pairs well with roasted vegies. And with the variety of veg you can roast, there are loads of possibilities to try. While we’re on the subject, simple, for me is usually best when it comes to preparing meals.

Minimalism in the Kitchen

One of the reasons I like Minimalist Baker so much is, Dana doesn’t use a lot of ingredients. And to make great tasting food, you don’t need a lot of expensive ingredients. Simple is usually better. Lately, my favorite combo of flavors is ginger, garlic and onion. If a dish has these three, I’m more than likely going to enjoy it. Throw in some coconut milk and in my opinion, there’s nothing better.

That was one of the reason the above lentil dish was so appealing to me. Curry, mixed with the magic three and lentils, that’s a win in my book. Plus I save money because all the items on my shopping list are super cheap. Or I already have them on hand, helping me to clean out my pantry. Win win.

And this is something I plan on making a new habit. I want to do a No Buy month maybe twice or three times a year. This way I can make sure I’m rotating through my food stores, but also save money while doing it. This way nothing goes to waste and I’m also finding new recipes and enjoying the food I’m making.

I’ll leave you with a burrito recipe that has the black beans I’m making in them. The burrito is great if you’re a meat eater. The beans are even better : ) Peace and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: Adam Sergott

Heading Image Credits: “Colorful veggies for sale in Daley Plaza” by wsilver is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Home Cooked: Why Does Cooking For Yourself Feel So Satisfying?

Home Is Where The Heart Is Or The Kitchen Is The Heart Of The Home

Every time I step into the kitchen to cook meal prep for the up coming weeks, I get a little excited. The atmosphere is soothing, with music playing quietly in the background while I’m burning a candle and the lights are dimmer than usual. The setting is cozy, warm and inviting. This is my image of what the Danes call, Hygge. Not to mention all of the delicious meals I make!

And there’s also a similar feeling when I cook dinner with my family on Friday family dinner night. It’s a little different, we all pitch in and lend a hand so the pressure isn’t all on me to get it done. But the feelings of creating something tasty together are the same, with the added bonus of good conversation. The music still plays in the background while a candle is burning, adding the “cozy” or Hygge to the night’s event. All in all a great experience.

So I wasn’t all that surprised when I came across this article on “The Good News Network” about how taking a cooking class has a magic pill like effect on our physical and mental well-being. This was great news, and collaborated on what I was already feeling about the experience. It got me thinking about what are the elements that come together to make a house a home? And how do we create those elements for ourselves? I’ve got a few ideas on the matter. Let me show you what I’ve come up with.

The Basic Elements Of A Cozy Home Start In The Kitchen

As I’ve said above, there are a few important components to building a comfortable, inviting home. For me, the number one element is cleanliness. If my living space isn’t organized and clean, then my mind isn’t able to rest. I keep focusing on the different aspect of what’s bothering me, what’s out of place.

For example, if my bedside table isn’t clear of clutter, I feel ill-at-ease. When things feel like they are just kind of drifting around my living space without a home, that’s when I know I need to organize.

Clean, Not Sterile

And that’s not to say that I’m so obsessed with cleaning that my environment is sterile. I’ve known people who clean to the point of sterility and this carries with it almost the same ill-at-ease feelings that living in a messy or dirty environment brings.

A good example of this is that when I make my bed, I don’t pull my covers taut over my mattress. I have a neatly folded duvet on the left side of my bed and I only sleep on the right side of my mattress. So making my bed proper would take a considerable amount of time. And this is time I just don’t want to spend making my bed.

So instead, I loosely lay my blanket on top of the side of the bed I sleep on. So my bed never looks neat and tidy as a bed with tightly formed hospital corners would. Instead it has a neat yet lived in feel. As though the room is thoughtfully cared for, but still embodies the character of something that’s been utilized, loved. Clean but not perfect. And all this to say that living in a sterile environment isn’t ideal.

How Clean Is Your Kitchen? You Can Usually Tell By The State Of Your Cutting Board

I use the same methodology when it comes to cleaning and caring for my kitchen. And the same way some people feel about making your bed every morning after you wake, I feel about cleaning my cutting board after I’m done with it.

The kitchen is where we spend a lot of time in our homes. It houses most all of our nutritional needs. We create or favorite meals there and it’s the place where we get clean water from. For staying hydrated throughout the day or to clean with, water the plants, the kitchen is literally where life is sustained.

So it stands to reason that if you neglect this room of your house, you are neglecting a large part of who you are as a living being. Food is so integral to us bonding with one another, as well as connected to our own and exploring other cultures, that it’s hard to imagine a life void of this type of expression.

For me, this is most noticeable on the cutting board. The cutting board is the hub of the kitchen and where almost every aspect of our meals come together. We process almost all our foods on it, use it as a holding place for most all our ingredients while getting our recipes prepped for cooking and it is paired with arguably the most important tool in the kitchen, our knife.

For these reasons, when I step up to my cutting board and see a stain from a recently cut tomato on it, or crumbs from a cut sandwich or piece of toast, I think, “what type of animal would disrespect the kitchen in this way?” This is hyperbole, but when I see a dirty cutting board I feel that there’s a little bit of neglect happening when it comes to respecting the ways we nourish and care for ourselves. Also, I don’t want to cut a fresh piece of melon on a spot where an onion and some garlic were recently diced/minced. Garlicy honeydew, no thank you.

Also, I’ve recently been oiling my cutting board and it’s never looked better. If you have the means, or already have a wooden cutting board, I suggest you get one and/or oil it regularly. It protects the board from water damage while also giving it a warm glow that looks amazing.

My cutting board after some much needed maintenance.

How Organized Are You? It Matters

Organization is an important part of the experience as well. For the same reasons that I feel ill-at-ease in cluttered surroundings, when I’m not sure where my kitchen tools or ingredients are, or have foods that are past their expiration date, I feel as though I’m neglecting an important part of my life.

For example, I work at a family homeless shelter six days a month. A few weeks ago I decided to organize the kitchen cabinets. I jumped right in and took a look at the state of the cabinets before I started. It was pretty bad. It looked like a bomb had gone off in the cabinets, scattering food debris all over the shelves in no particular order. I opened one cabinet to find that it was housing three plates. That was it. Not to mention all the food that was expired that I ended up tossing.

So I started asking the families what they would use more of if I brought food stuffs up from the pantry? Their answers? The most common one was, “I don’t eat the food from here”. This made me sad. We had neglected the food and kitchen so badly that people no longer wanted to use the incredible amount of free resources we had for them. And there was a lot of food that needed to be utilized.

And I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t want to cook in that kitchen the way it was either. And they’re not any less deserving of a clean, usable kitchen just because they’re homeless. That’s when I got to work. Tossing the old, out of date items and filling the cabinets with fresh stores, the way they’re displayed in a grocery. While I was organizing, I left the cabinets open to not only to keep track of my progress, but also to show the families that we have items for them to use, so jump in.

When I was done stocking the cabinets, everyone was excited. Even those who said they didn’t eat the food there were interested and using what I was bringing up. The kitchen now looks clean and inviting, more home like. And people are now gathering in the kitchen, cooking meals and connecting. The kitchen no longer resembles that of a twenty-something’s party house that maybe had a bag of stale chips and a can of dated beef stew, with a sink full of week old dishes. No bueno.

Rotating Your Stock to Stay Organized, Fresher Is Better

Next on the agenda was to take care of the root of the problem, the pantry. While I was going through the pantry to find goods for the cabinets, I was startled by how many food items had met their expiration dates. There were bins of half opened cases of food with expiration dates later than some unopened cases. Whole cases of canned goods and other items were past date. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

I went through each item, checked their date and found a place for them on the shelves. I was rotating the stock, breaking down boxes, discarding the old, it was a dramatic shift.

I felt bad about throwing out some of the canned goods that were past their expirations by only a few months. This was because a quick google search tells me that they’re still viable usually for a year or two after the date on the can. But the more I thought about it, the more it felt like a psychological issue of using expired goods.

Imagine you’re in a homeless shelter. You have a mountain of problems and issues to get over and that’s not including taking care of your basic needs like doing your laundry, cleaning your living space and cooking meals. Also imagine that you have one or two children in tow, or are pregnant. Now it comes time to make dinner and you ask for a can of carrots because you don’t have a car to get to the closest grocery store which is only two miles away but a long walk for somebody with a child and arm loads of grocery bags. You get the carrots only to find that the expiration date is marked for nine months prior and you don’t want to dig around the cabinets that look as though an animal has nested in them. How do you feel then?

I’ve never been in that situation before, but I know for sure that it can’t be a good feeling. Feeling as though someone else feels that you’re not worth the effort of fresh food sounds like a difficult place to be. That’s why organizing and rotating your food stores is so important to feeling a sense of ease and comfort in your kitchen. For me, knowing that I can grab anything off the shelf and use it without worrying about whether it’s turned is an act of self-care.

Creating Hygge, Bringing It All Together

Once You’ve brought all the elements of the physical space together, then it will be easy to bring friends and family together, while adding the final touches to the space. I usually have a candle and some music playing while I’m bring meals together. The soft lighting from the candle and soothing sounds help to bring an element of calm to the kitchen and allows me to slow down a bit and relax.

All that’s left is to find what makes your space, more you. Maybe you have a favorite drink you can prepare for yourself to help unwind. Do you use a diffuser? Find a scent you enjoy and fill your space with. My go to is lavender oil. It brings a soothing quality to the room while not overpowering what I’m cooking.

And don’t forget the conversation! Invite a few friends over or start a family dinner night. This can be a great time to connect and get to know each other a little better while creating new memories. And don’t forget to relax. Go slow and take your time. There’s no rush and there’s something to be said for enjoying the process. I usually do just this when I’m cooking my self-care dinner on Tuesday nights now. You’ll def feel better about yourself and your surroundings. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Day 69: Inspiration” by protoflux is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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