Now that I’m back to work, I realized I needed a better way of getting food on the table than just getting groceries or ordering out whenever I was hungry. I also wanted to cut back on food waste, and stay on a reasonable Bay Area food budget (it’s wayyy too easy to spend mindlessly on food here). At the same time, I didn’t want to compromise on food quality, since I’m nursing an infant, and have a growing toddler to feed.
I decided I needed a PLAN. A meal plan. My goal was to spent less than $200/week on lunch and dinner for my family without having to clip coupons or go to multiple stores for the best deals. It’s been exactly one week since I started, and I’m kind of surprised by how well it’s worked out. I spent just under $140 on groceries for the week, and had more than enough to serve up nourishing, hearty meals for everyone.
Total cost breakdown came to under $20/day for two adults and a toddler (she eats a lot; I count her meals as equal to half an adult serving), or about $4/meal. I used all organic produce and meats, so this tab is honestly amazing, given the quality of the ingredients used.
Note that I had most of the seasonings and pantry staples already (rice, flour, soy sauce, etc), so if you have to stock your kitchen, it will cost more at first, but incremental meals will be cheaper.
Also, sorry I don’t have photos of everything (IDK about you, but when I see a recipe I don’t even feel like scrolling down to read it without a photo first). I wasn’t actually planning to do a post about this whole experience, but the mood hit me while the kids were napping. So here you go!
It really helps to have some healthy “fillers” on hand to stretch your meals throughout the week. Mine were a big pot of Rancho Gordo cranberry beans (made in a slow cooker with a bay leaf), 2-3 batches of freshly cooked sticky rice (I served this with several dishes, and used leftovers for rice porridge), and steamed broccoli.
- I used 2 lbs of boneless skinless chicken thighs instead of the drumsticks, and served with steamed broccoli. This recipe made 4+ generous servings, with enough left over to make seaweed wraps (see below).
- Cost: $20 ($5/meal)
Gochujang Chicken and Rice Seaweed Wraps
- 2 leftover gochujang chicken thighs, cut into small strips
- 1-2 cups cooked sticky rice
- 3 sheets of roasted, salted seaweed (the big ones, which are a better value than the small packs)
- Cost: $0 (I had all the ingredients already)
- I used 2 lbs of grass-fed boneless chuck (vs 1.5 lbs) to get a greater yield.
- I added 8oz of sliced crimini mushrooms.
- I added a bag of frozen peas at the end to get more veggies in there.
- Served with rice vs noodles.
- This recipe made at least 8 servings – way more than expected. We were basically eating this stew day and night for 2 days straight. It was hearty and delicious.
- Cost: $40 ($5/meal)
In addition to the leftover stew, I made a classic Asian rice porridge (jook), which is especially great if you have a cold.
- I didn’t use a recipe, but I made something similar to what’s linked above.
- Ingredients: 1-2 cups cooked white rice, 1 boneless chicken thigh, an inch of finely chopped ginger, one garlic clove (sliced thin), green onion, an egg, salt and pepper.
- Serves 2-4, depending on how much rice you use
- Cost: $3 ($1/meal)
Coq au Vin (adapted from Melissa d’Arabian Ten Dollar Dinners)
- 2.5 lbs bone-in chicken thighs (8-10 thighs)
- 1 onion, chopped
- 4 whole cloves
- 1 tablespoon dried Italian seasoning (or dried thyme)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1.5 teaspoons kosher salt
- 0.5 teaspoons black pepper
- 2 cups red wine (highly recommend getting boxed wine and storing it in the fridge for cooking/sipping!)
- 4 bacon strips, chopped
- 2 cups frozen peas (optional)
- 0.5 lbs sliced mushrooms (optional)
- Vegetable oil
Place half the chopped onion, cloves, Italian seasoning, bay leaf, 1 teaspoon of salt, pepper, and wine in a gallon Ziploc bag. Add the chicken and make sure the marinade covers all the pieces. Put in the fridge 8 hours or overnight.
Note that you need to SAVE THE MARINADE! Don’t throw it out!
Heat some vegetable oil in a dutch oven over medium/high, and cook the bacon pieces until cooked through and browned. Remove the bacon from the pot and set aside for later.
Brown the chicken thighs in batches in the pot, about 3-4 min per side. Transfer the browned thighs to a big bowl or plate for later.
Add a little oil to the pot if needed, and cook the onions and mushrooms (if using), along with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook until the onions are nice and soft, about 10 minutes.
Return chicken to the pot, and pour the marinade on top. Raise the heat to high, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer with the pot partly covered until the chicken is fall-off-the-bone tender, about 1 hour.
During the last 5-10 minutes, add the cooked bacon and stir in frozen peas (if using).
Serve with rice or pasta.
- Cost: $36 ($6/meal)
Leftover Coq au Vin
Ginger Chicken Jook (see above)
- Cost: $3 ($1/meal)
Slow Cooker Chicken Soup
- 2 bone-in chicken thighs
- 1/2 onion, quartered
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 carrots, diced small
- 2 cups cooked beans
- 1 cup frozen peas
- Salt and pepper
Toss the chicken, onion, bay leaf, and a teaspoon of salt in the slow cooker with enough water to cover everything (~8 cups). Cook for 6 hours on normal.
Remove the thighs and drain the broth into a dutch oven. Add the carrots and bring to a boil, then simmer until carrots are cooked, about 10 minutes.
In the meantime, shred the thigh meat and reserve for later.
Add the beans and peas, and whatever produce you have leftover that looks good. Add the reserved chicken, and season to taste.
- Cost: $5 (~$1/meal)
Cheesy Baked Potatoes with Broccoli
- 4 baked potatoes
- 2 cups shredded cheese
- 2 cups steamed broccoli florets, cut small
- Salt and pepper
Melt cheese with a tablespoon or two of milk in a saucepan until it’s the consistency you want. Mix in broccoli.
Cut open potatoes and top with cheesy broccoli.
- Cost: $10 ($2.50/meal)
Leftover chicken soup (see above)
Wild Mushroom and leftover Coq au Vin pasta
I haven’t made this yet, but the plan is to shred up the remaining 2 chicken thighs I have from my Coq au Vin recipe, and add it to a mix of wild mushrooms and a cup of cooked beans, and serve with a lot of parmesan cheese and olive oil. Then serve it all up over some delicious fresh pasta.
Cost: $12 ($3/meal)
Week 1 isn’t even done yet, and I’m ready to call this meal planning thing a success. We spent less than half what we normally do on food for the week (partly because we didn’t need to order takeout at all, but also because we were much more efficient and less wasteful with groceries), and overall ate healthier.
The main drawbacks of meal planning are that it takes time upfront to do, and of course the time to cook is not trivial. The recipes that worked best for me were the ones where I could throw something in the slow cooker before work, then spend 15 minutes putting it together when I got home. So I’ll be looking out for more slow cooker recipes in the future.
Another potential drawback is you kind of get tired of eating the same thing for multiple meals (sometimes multiple days) in a row. Like, by day 3 of beef stew, I was kind of over the whole thing, and I LOVE beef stew. But I’m willing to live with less variety if it means more convenience and greater value for everyone.