Category Archives: Cooking

$200 Grocery Budget

This month, we’re buckling down to save more money and put more aside in savings.  The goal is for the next few months (into the foreseeable future really) to live off of Dad’s take-home pay as much as possible and bank all of mine.  We know that we can’t cover daycare on only one salary, but that’s OK.  Our goal is to save as much of mine as possible – which equates to almost 45% of our income.

The first step is reducing our grocery budget.  We had a budget of $250 on non-splurge months, and now we’re reducing it to $200 on non-splurge months, and down to $500 from $800 on the splurge months (July is looking to be a splurge month based on what’s left in our freezer).  Our grocery budget includes toiletries and paper products as well.  To be honest, we only fell within that previous budget 50% of the time – the rest was taken from other budget line items to make up for it.

It’s been one week (two “trips” to the grocery store), and I’ve spent $141.  Luckily, we don’t expect to need to buy anything but fresh milk, fruits and veggies for the rest of the month.  We needed a few things at Costco (like TP) this past week, so I spent more than planned.  But, I really think we can do this – even if it seems almost hopeless already.  We’ll just have to do without fresh stuff towards the end of the month.  We still have just under $60 left, with three more grocery trips needed – that’s $20/trip.  Milk is just over $3/gallon and we buy it weekly, and lettuce for salads is just over $3/week for us.  Bananas are pretty cheap, and we have *plenty* of frozen fruit and veggies – we won’t go hungry, but Dad might get bored with what we’re eating.

How do you keep your grocery expenses low? 

Zip-top Bag Replacements

We’re trying to be as green as possible in our home, and one thing that we don’t particularly like doing is using the disposable zip-top bags for freezer cooking – not the kind with plastic zippers, but the kind that “lock” together.  But, we haven’t found a great replacement yet.  We’re able to replace some of it with Pyrex dishes and mason jars, but most of the raw meat in marinades haven’t done well in those – the liquid isn’t covering the meat (Pyrex), or the container isn’t big enough (Mason jars).  We’ve looked at several of the zip-top replacement bags available online, but they either close with velcro or a “real” zipper – neither of which can keep liquids in the bags.

The liquids is one of our concerns – we need to be able to remove a lot of air to allow the marinade to touch the meat all around (not just at the bottom).

Raw meat in a container is our other concern.  We generally do not reuse bags that have had raw meat in them because the nooks and crannies are difficult to wash – even for the dishwasher.  We do wash and reuse them for things like bread, waffles, and pancakes, but that’s a *very* small percentage of the bags we use compared to the raw meats.

Has anyone else replaced their zip-top bags with something reusable?

Supplies Needed for Freezer Cooking

It’s now been over a year since we started seriously freezer cooking – we’re in the middle of our 5th session – and I expect to have meals through May/June.  We’re trying almost all new recipes this time, with 2 favorites that we’ve previously made.  Dad is getting two soups for his lunches: Slow Cooked Split Pea Soup and Tomato Leek Bisque.  And I made some Cheesy Breadsticks (almost all of them mad their way into the freezer!) and Garlic Bread for appetizers. The rest of the meals are primarily for dinner.

I’ve talked about the planning and the shopping. But what about supplies?  We cooked and canned a lot prior to starting freezer cooking, so we had many of these supplies already, but you do need larger pots and pans to be able to cook some of these recipes.  We have an induction burner that is our primary burner, so you may not need to spring for the specific versions of things we have as we need the “induction-ready” stainless steel.

  • Large stock pot – we have both a 20qt and a 40qt one.  We need the heavy stainless steel for the induction burner, you might be able to find similar sized ones cheaper (although, those are pretty cheap!).  The 40qt is used for cooking 5 lbs of potatoes at once, simmering soups (and canning).
  • Large mixing bowls – We have a set from Oxo.  The 5qt one is used a lot.  If you try any of the recipes from the Dream Dinners book and triple them, the 5qt will barely hold it all.  You’ll want several mixing bowls in general, of various sizes – we use them to store chopped onions before putting them in recipes, mixing sauces and spices.
  • Measuring cups/spoons – several sets!  We have 3 full sets and one partial set, and we’re still washing measuring utensils all the time.  We use mostly pyrex 1-4 cup measuring cups.
  • Good knives – whatever style/brand you like, you’ll likely need a chef’s knife, a slicer, and maybe a deboning knife or cleaver – depending on the meats and cuts you prefer.  We each have a knife so that we can work at the same time.
  • Onion Goggles – seriously, just get them (or come up with some other way to chop 10+ lbs of onions without crying).
  • Saute pans – We have a 3qt one, and wash it often.
  • Sauce pans – You’ll want at least a 2qt one, but the stock pots can replace sauce pans for the most part.
  • Dutch oven – Several recipes want a dutch oven rather than just a stock pot, so you’ll want one – at least a 7qt one. It needs to be able to go from stovetop to oven.
  • Crock pots – If you’re just doing single batches, you can get by with the standard 4.5qt crockpot.  If you double or triple the batches, you’ll want the smaller one *and* a larger 6-7qt one.  We have both because you want the crock to be at least 3/4 full of “stuff”, if you don’t have that much, the larger crock pot will be too big and burn your food.
  • Freezing containers/bags – we’d like to use less zip-top bags for freezing, but we haven’t found a great replacement yet.  We use the no-leak Pyrex (buy at for better prices) where possible, but for marinades, the bags are still the best.  For soups, we use wide-mouth pint and pint and a half jars with storage caps. (Buy those at your local hardware store, much cheaper!)  We even tried marinades in the mason jars once, but it didn’t work out so well.  For casseroles, we use foil pans covered with foil (half-size chafing pans from Costco, once rinsed and clean, we can recycle them).

Much of this you probably already have in your kitchen.  You may not have the large sizes that I mention here, but you can always reduce a recipe to fit whatever you have, instead of trying to make it all at once.

Shopping for a Freezer Cooking Session

I arrived back home on a red-eye flight form San Francisco this morning, so I slept in and didn’t go to work (hey – I was “working” on the flight home!), so I went grocery shopping for our freezer cooking session.  I had already put together the shopping list in plan to eat, so I was ready to go – along with other errands that needed running.  I first looked at the All You grocery circular tool, and discovered that boneless, skinless chicken breasts – of which I needed almost 30 lbs – were $1.99/lb.  Not the absolute best I can do ($1.98/lb), but better than Costco – and hey, it was at the local Wal-Mart – which is our “normal” grocery store.  So, I stopped there first, to check out the quality of the chicken breasts as well as buy the rest of the items I needed in smaller quantities.  The quality looked good, so I bought them out of chicken breast packages (6 5lb packages).  I also picked up almost everything except the other meats and the hard liquor we need (blackstrap rum for a molasses/rum chicken).

After running some other errands, I went to Costco to get the rest of the meat – and a bunch of things we’d been putting off until the beginning of August.

Wal-Mart grocery receipt

Wal-Mart grocery receipt

At Wal-Mart, almost 100% of what I bought was for cooking, there were a few spices that Dad needed for his pickling habit, and some Picante sauce for our taco nights (and we really didn’t need an entire box of Chardonnay for cooking, but Dad requested it).  I ended up spending $141.94 at Wal-Mart – for a cart full of stuff.



Costco receipt

Costco receipt

At Costco, almost everything I bought was not related to our cooking session – not even all the meat.  I have a particular fondness for Filet Mignon, so I tend to buy some at Costco when I go – very high quality and not too expensive ($13.99/lb).  We also bought some ground beef for a BBQ we’re hosting next weekend, and anything left over will become tacos for dinner.  Our total Costco bill was $257.97, but only about $99 of that was related to our freezer cooking session.

Tomato-Basil Soup before its blended

Tomato-Basil Soup before its blended

We’re going to have an estimated 280 servings (140 meals) out of all of this.  Tonight, we started the Tomato-Basil soup – which is the only recipe we have to actually cook before freezing.  This picture shows it before it’s made its way into the blender.

Freezer Cooking Planning – Take 3

Now that this is the 3rd time we’re planning on doing a massive freezer cooking session, I think we have the system down. Planning out a full menu for a few months just doesn’t work for us, so we’re picking the recipes we like (or might like), and making them, putting them in the freezer, then planning as we go.

Our freezer after our first freezer cooking session

Our freezer after our first freezer cooking session

The first few steps of freezer cooking planning are the same, but after things are placed in the freezer, we’re just going to look at the freezer inventory and pick recipes for the month as it comes up.

I don’t like using the oven during the summer, so we’re picking recipes that can all be grilled or put in the crockpot.  I know summer’s more than halfway over, but it stays hot here until about mid September, and we’re planning for enough food to get us into October, when we’ll make more “comfort” food.  I’ve also selected more simplified recipes, so that we don’t need that many ingredients.  We actually have a good bit of the ingredients for these recipes in our pantry.  Most of the recipes are from Fix, Freeze, Feast, with maybe a few adaptations – for example, I don’t like chicken thighs, so the Chicken Peanut Satay we’re going to do is going to use chicken breast.

I’ve already done most of the planning, and I have a shopping list, but we have budgeted the large grocery bill in August, so I’ll be shopping and preparing the first weekend in August.  Some of the recipes have the estimated per serving price listed in plan to eat, but not all.

Have you done once a month cooking or the freezer cooking that we do?  How has it worked out for you and your budget?

The Recipes:

July Challenge – do not eat out

Dad and I are challenging ourselves for the month of July – do not eat out except for date night provided by Grandma on July 5.  We’re quite guilty of taking Daughter Person out for lunch on the weekends.  We all get out of the house, she’s entertained, and we all get fed.  Our restaurant spending has been creeping up the last few months, so the goal is to eat out once (about $50-$70) in July.  Can we do it?  I have no idea – given that our latest restaurant spending has been about $400 per month, I hope so!

There are already several issues we have to work out though: I’m traveling July 15 – 18 (to Palo Alto, CA), but my company picks up the tab for that, so I’m not counting it. We’re going to Grandma’s for the July 4th “weekend”,  a family reunion in Parsons, WV the following weekend, and we’re almost out of food from our last cooking session.  We’re planning a cooking session in the next week or two (whenever we can get it in given our traveling schedule), and it’ll be almost all grilled food to avoid heating up the kitchen.  We’re working on planning more lunches in the recipes we’re making, so we’ll see if we meet our challenge.

Do you have a challenge for July?

More Freezer Cooking taste results

We’ve now eaten everything that we’ve made at least once in the previous freezer cooking session, and we have several keepers, and several “please don’t make that agains”.  I’ll start with the never agains:

  • Wild Rice and Nut Bake – Dad thought it was too nutty.  Said it was OK, but not really a keeper
  • Vegetable Chili (Dream Dinners) – Dad thought the taste was a little too bland, he prefers the chili from Fix, Freeze, Feast
  • Penne w/Rosemary chicken is OK, but not a favorite, so we won’t be making it again.

Definite Keepers:

  • Provencal Flank Steak (the last one we tried Saturday night – OMG good!!)
  • Pork Tenderloin with Pears
  • Port BBQ Chicken (needs a little less spice, but otherwise good)
  • Chicken Curry

We’re already starting to think about our next cooking session, which is likely to be in July.  Of course, our freezer still looks completely stuffed at the moment.  We’re trying to finish up all of the meals that require the oven before the heat really hits, so that we don’t have to be heating up the house too.  The next session is likely to be almost all grilling/crockpot recipes, just because that’s what’s easiest in our house in the summer.  We probably won’t try too many new recipes, but I’d like to try a few new ones so that we can keep a good variety.


Massive Cooking Session – how’d it work out?

Now that the weekend is over, I wanted to report back on how well (or not) our cooking sessions have worked.

First, the plan was to do some chopping and prep work on Friday – I managed to get to Costco and the grocery store, and not much prep work was done except getting the beans soaking overnight.

Saturday, Dad and I worked during Daughter Person’s nap (2 hours), and we were able to chop quite a bit of veggies and cooking the beans.  Then, we worked after she went to sleep for about 3 hours.  We put aside 25 meals: 15 Ginger Beef, 4 Black Bean and Vegetable Chili, 3 Vegetable Chili, and 3 Wild Rice and Nut Bake.  (I also made 2 batches of Basic Red Sauce in there, but those aren’t meals…)

Sunday, we were at a birthday party during naptime, so we didn’t start until Daughter Person went to bed, and Dad was tired, so we put up shop at about 9:30.  We got 23 meals/sides put aside: 4 meals Beef Barley Soup, 3 of Penne with Rosemary Chicken, 16 of Rice Pilaf.

Dad is not working on Monday and Daughter Person is at daycare, and he’s supposed to be making the Chicken Curry and the Port BBQ Chicken during the day since those need cooked and cooled before they can go in the freezer bags.  Once that’s done, that’ll leave us with 6 recipes to finish.  Which is good since I’m working on Daughter Person’s birthday cake as well (2 years!) for Tuesday night.

We’re going to shoot for the Baked Ziti (and another batch of Red Sauce), Swiss Chicken, and 3 cheese spinach soup tonight.  And if we’re doing well, we can get the pork tenderloin with pears and provencal flank steak.  Maybe getting the corn muffins too, since they’re just throw stuff in the mixer (and hope the mixer is big enough).

One of the lessons we’ve learned this time around is that the Dream Dinners recipes are *huge* and our biggest mixing bowl is *not* big enough to hold a triple batch.  That makes it a little more difficult to mix since we have to break them down into 3 separate mixes.

Also, Onion Goggles are apparently pretty awesome.  Dad bought a pair, and he chopped all the onions with them – while I had to leave the room since even my eyes were tearing and I wasn’t chopping the onions.  They don’t fit my face very well, and Dad wanted to try them, so while I’ve put them on, I haven’t tested them yet.

Freezer cooking 3: Planning cooking session and shopping

After you’ve planned your meals and when you want to have them, comes what I think is one of the harder parts of massive freezer cooking – planning your cooking session and shopping session.  We’re going shopping this weekend, so now it’s time to get all this done.

Cooking Plan:
Time will tell if we follow this, but this is the plan. If things go beyond Sunday, we’ll be working in the evenings.

Friday night: Dice/chop/mince all produce, cook beans (we’re using dried instead of canned)
Saturday morning: Put ziti together, Put soups together, lay flat to freeze.
Saturday night: wrap ziti in saran wrap and remove from dishes. Cook rice pilaf while putting together ginger beef. Put Penne with Rosemary chicken in dishes.
Sunday morning: wrap Penne with Rosemary chicken and remove from dishes. Put Swiss chicken in casseroles.
Sunday night: wrap swiss chicken and remove from dishes. Put together remaining marinades/dishes.

Grocery List: (generated by

No Category
Low-fat shredded cheese blend  3 cup

Seasoned dry stuffing mix  6 cup

Beef bouillon granules  ¾ cup
Cayenne pepper  1 1⁄2 teaspoon
Cornmeal  3 cup
Dry mustard  1 1⁄2 tablespoon
Flour  5 cup
Honey  1 cup
Molasses  1 1⁄8 cup
Paprika  1 teaspoon
Pecans  1 1⁄2 cup
Salt  1⁄3 cup
Vegetable oil  5⁄8 cup
Walnuts  1 1⁄2 cup

Canned Goods
Black beans  105 oz
Chicken broth  10 cup
Cream of chicken soup  97 1⁄2 oz
Hot pepper sauce  ¼ cup
Kidney beans  165 oz
Marinara sauce  9 cup
Pear halves with syrup 45 ounces
Tomato paste  24 oz + ¾ cup
Tomato sauce  56 oz

Buttermilk  3 cup
Cheddar cheese  10 cup
Eggs  18 ct
Milk  10 cup
Mozzarella cheese  3 cup
Non-fat cream cheese  3 cup
Nonfat cottage cheese  1 1⁄2 cup
Nonfat milk  12 cup
Nonfat sour cream  1 1⁄2 cup
Parmesan cheese  1 1/2 cup
Provolone  8 oz
Swiss cheese  1 lb + 3 cup

Dry Goods
Baking powder  2 tablespoon
Balsamic vinegar  1 3⁄4 cup
Black pepper  3 7⁄8 tablespoon
Bulgur wheat  1 1⁄2 cup
Chicken bouillon granules  ¾ cup
Chili powder  5⁄8 cup
Curry powder  ¼ cup
Dried basil  2 1⁄3 tablespoon
Ground cumin  3 tablespoon
Ground nutmeg  2 teaspoon
Italian seasoning  1 tablespoon
Oregano  2 2⁄3 tablespoon
Pearl barley  2 cup
Penne pasta  3 lbs
Pepper  2 1⁄2 tablespoon
Pine nuts  2 cup
Red pepper flakes  1 1⁄2 tablespoon
Rice  24 cup
Sea salt  1 1⁄3 tablespoon
Soy sauce  5 1⁄4 cup
Thyme  2 1⁄3 tablespoon
Wild rice  3 cup
Worcestershire sauce  ¾ cup
Ziti pasta  3 lbs

Port  1⁄3 cup
Red wine  1 cup
White wine  9 cu

Beef, flank steak  6 pounds
Chicken breast  16 1⁄2 lbs + 12 oz
Diced cooked chicken  3 lbs
Ground beef  3 lbs
Italian sausage  1 1⁄2 lbs
Pork tenderloin  4 1⁄2 lbs
Stew beef  30 lbs

Ketchup  2 cup

Button mushrooms  3 cup
Carrots  23 cup
Celery  22 cup
Diced tomatoes  101 oz + 8 cup
Dried cranberries  ¾ cup
Garlic  1 tablespoon
Ginger  5⁄8 cup
Ginger Root; minced  2 tablespoon
Green bell pepper  4 each + 1 1⁄2 cup
Lemon juice  2 tablespoon
Mushrooms  1 lb
Onion  31 3⁄4 cup
Parsley  7⁄8 cup
Red bell pepper  1 1⁄2 cup
Rosemary  1⁄3 cup
Scallions  3 each + 36 ct
Shallots  12 + 5 oz
Spinach  30 oz
Zucchini  3 cup