At the start of Winter break we were staring at nearly 2 full weeks home together, three square meals a day (excepting holiday events) for 2 adults and 2 kids (who mostly eat like adults). Instead of running away screaming I took a deep breath, enlisted our oldest in coming up with meal ideas, and came up with a plan. I do the majority of the planning and cooking in our house, and I don’t mind it one bit – I LOVE cooking. In another life I probably would have been a chef. And plus, I don’t have to do the dishes. The rule in our house is if you cook, you don’t have dish duty. When we were done with our plan I wrote it on our large chalkboard wall in the kitchen, and posted a photo of it to my personal Instagram.
The plan worked out well, with a few adjustments made along the way, and it gave me a renewed passion for the art of menu planning. That, and, we’re really trying to buckle down on our budget this year. Mainly so we can sock more money in to savings (yay security!), and so we can make investments on farm improvements –duck fencing, deer fencing for the garden, outdoor kitchen space, bees, rabbits, etc. Many think we are crazy, but these are our priorities! We are not lavish people, and we have implemented a lot of budgeting ‘tricks’ over the years. We don’t have cable. We don’t have a home phone. We shop second hand for what we can. We mend and make do (country livin’!). We’ve cut a lot that could be cut. Yet, in recent times our food budget has crept, and crept some more, and a little more. We are certainly not going to go back to our early married days of eating more boxed and prepared foods in an effort to save money. And I’m not a big couponer because frankly, there aren’t a lot of coupons for the things that we buy. So if we want to save money on our food budget that means being smarter about our menu planning.
Our main approach to meat is it is sourced either on farm or from farmers we know to the largest extent possible. This isn’t always practical, and it certainly isn’t cheap, but it is where our priorities are. Regularly, usually once a year, we buy a share of a grass fed cow. Same for pig – sometimes more often than once a year, as there’s not as much of a pig as there is a cow. Buying a share of an animal can mean considerable cost savings per pound over what you’d pay retail. You just need freezer space. That said, it is a large, and I mean large, chunk of money at once. How do we afford this? Well, we set aside money. This year a large chunk of our Christmas money that we received is going towards the pig we will be getting from the butcher in a few weeks. Yay, pastured pig! We raise and butcher our own chickens on the homestead. I’m not going to lie, as a former follower of the low-fat diet ways of the 1980s and 90s it has been an adjustment learning to cook whole, skin-on, bone-in chicken. It is so much tastier and better for you than boneless, skinless chicken breast. If you haven’t already, read Real Food What to Eat and Why by Nina Planck. It will completely rock your food world.
We usually make a whole chicken REALLY stretch in to at least 3 meals, plus broth for soups or cooking grains. As the farm grows we will have goat meat to eat as well as lamb and rabbit. As a reformed, long-time vegetarian it is important to me that the animals we’re eating had a good life. And that they spent their days being the animals that they are, eating real food. And that they have a humane, respectful death.
We also buy other items in bulk like grains and dried beans. There is considerable cost savings in buying bulk and unprocessed grains and beans. Take canned beans at say 90 cents a can (approximately 2 cups) versus what 80 cents of dried beans gets you in volume, the difference is astounding. Every so often I make a large batch of beans in our Instant Pot. This large batch of beans (usually cooked in homemade stock) gets cooled and divided up in to smaller portions, and frozen. I LOVE, and I mean love, the Instant Pot. Pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, yogurt maker, all in one. It is a workhorse in our homestead kitchen and is used at least once a week. We make delicious bone broth, rice, all manner of slow cooker recipes, and quickly cook beans, roasts and veggies in the pressure cooker.
My general approach to meal planning for dinners is a list like the following. I’ve included some tried and true favorites as examples. These are rotated to provide balance, take advantage of leftovers and seasonal fruits and veggies.
- Pasta or grain dish – quinoa, noodles, kamut, etc.
- Egg dish – eggs in hell, breakfast for dinner, quiche, mini egg pizzas, breakfast tostadas (these are amazing on homemade tortillas)
- Meatless dish – beans, lentils, dairy based dishes, occasionally fermented soy – we steer clear of meat analogs as their nothing more than highly processed franken-foods.
- Beef – super tasty roast beef, mexican beef & potato melt
- Pork – egg roll in a bowl, Kalua Pig, pork and kraut, pork chops with garlic
- Chicken – chicken and rice, curry chicken salad, chicken burrito bowls, bacon siracha chicken skewers
- Soup – possibilities are endless, though chances are 100% it involves homemade stock. Either chicken, beef, pork or veggie. Though, this is a BIG favorite – red lentil and rice soup
- Meat as flavoring dish – bacon and egg fried rice, beans made with scraps of meat – basically, using scraps and bits of meat to add flavor and healthy fats to basic vegetarian dishes.
There is an absence of fish in our general approach. It isn’t budget friendly in land-locked Oklahoma. And while there are fishing opportunities nearby we have yet to venture down that stream, as it were. Most seafood available in stores is farm grown with questionable feed and raising practices. So we steer clear. Occasionally we eat canned tuna and salmon – usually as salmon cakes, tuna salad, or tuna/salmon melts (quick and easy weekend lunch). One of our longer term homestead and farm goals is to set up a sustainable fish farming operation. There’s a lot of logistics to work out, and more pressing projects for us at the moment. Perhaps in 2017 you’ll see a blog post about aquaponics.
Breakfasts are an even simpler list
- Eggs (hardboiled and mashed on buttered toast with salt and pepper is to die for!)
- Oatmeal (with all manner of creative add-ins, nuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit, nut butters, jam, maple syrup)
- Smoothies (we have our favorites Chocolate Monkey, Blueberry Avocado, and sometimes I just wing it)
- Cream of Wheat (similar to oatmeal with the add-ins, but my favorite is peanut butter and maple syrup)
- Yogurt with fruit and/or granola (or jam and nuts)
- Homemade Larabars
- Muffins…you get the idea
A word about grains. We are not on a Paleo or grain free diet at our house, we try to eat everything in moderation. Whole grains are a source of vitamins, minerals, fiber and yes, protein. We grind our own flour (by hand…I’m pushing for an electric grinder) and bake our own bread. This doesn’t always happen, and we have loaves of store-bought bread frozen for times of ‘emergency’. We do use our freshly ground flour for pancakes, waffles, muffins and other baked goods (usually made on the weekends when we have a little more time to spend in the kitchen). This is a cost saving measure as, just like dried beans, whole grains are cheaper than pre-ground flour. And just tastes better! Plus we get to experiment with different combinations of grains – rye, winter wheat, soft wheat, spelt, teff, etc.