Down and Dirty of Clean Eating // Meal Planning

//This is the fourth post in a blog mini-series called “The Down and Dirty of Clean Eating.” To learn more about the DDoCE series, check out the intro post here. Previously, we’ve talked about DDoCE basics and the budget. //

When Josh and I were newly married, one of our favorite things to do together was grocery shop. The epitome of romance, I know. Josh was still building his carrier, I was a senior in college and we were broke. Our living room furniture consisted of a few camping chairs and his grandfather’s old floral-print couch. I didn’t know a lick about cooking but every Friday, we would wander the grocery store for inspiration and spend the evening creating a surprise concoction and share a meal on that ugly polyester couch. Eventually, we had to forfeit our Friday night habits because life needs a bit more preparation than what’s found in the frozen food aisle. Now I like to spend as little time as possible in the grocery store with two children who like to pretend they’re Alaskan huskies and Earth Fare is the Iditarod. Once we meandered. Now we’re all Super Market Sweep.

Anyway. I recall those memories fondly but gladly trade the spontaneity of our grocery store wanderings for the structure meal planning provides our current lifestyle.

For our family, meal planning necessary. When you’re trying to eat a clean diet and dealing with multiple food allergies, it’s not as simple as throwing a pizza in the oven or grabbing take out when evenings get hectic. Additionally, it keeps our budget in check and eliminates wasted food. By spending a few hours planning, shopping and prepping, I feel much less overwhelmed which, in turn, makes everyone’s life a bit less tense. Because if Momma ain’t happy…

For simplicity’s sake, I follow three rules for meal planning:

1. Shop the kitchen. 

2. Group meals to maximize ingredients.

3. Plan everything.

I always start by shopping my pantry and freezer. Because buying in bulk and stocking up on sales are key to eating clean on a budget, it’s important that we actually eat what we buy. This becomes the frame work for meal planning. On a regular grocery trip, I don’t want to buy more much more than fresh produce, meats and some dairy.

I take stock of what’s on hand and then I scour Pinterest or cookbooks for inspiration. I shy away from recipes that have a ton of ingredients and try to group meals together that use the same fresh ingredients. If I plan to make Tex-Mex Rice and Black-Eyed Peas on Monday and it uses fresh spinach, cilantro and avocado, I will plan on making a spinach and eggs for breakfast the next morning and taco salads with cilantro and avocado for dinner. I very rarely use an ingredient in it’s entirety so I’m not going to waste money to have the other half rot in the back of my fridge. You dig? This doesn’t happen naturally do you have to plan.

I try to make my menu and subsequent grocery lists as exhaustive as possible. This means I plan three meals for everyone (except Josh, who typically has lunch meetings) and include snacks, wine, special events and splurges. This keeps me honest and prevents overbuying. It also ensures I don’t have an “oh no!” moment when I realize I forgot an essential ingredient. I go to the grocery store twice a week to make sure produce, herbs and meats are fresh and mark each ingredient on my list as either a Sunday or Wednesday purchase.

I have tried so many ways to organize my meal planning and shopping lists. There isn’t a one size fits all method. I have friends who love apps but I like the pen and paper approach. I tried various online templates but found it easier to just make my own. I bought a cheap 3-ring binder and keep my meal plan, grocery list and any printed recipes together ( I know, I’m probably the only person in Internet Land that still prints things).

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The most helpful thing I added to my grocery planning sheet is a column for the girls’ lunches. While I may throw in some chopped vegetables that were left over from dinner, I typically buy food specifically for them. Having designated food just for lunches makes it easy to mix and match items for added variety.

Like the rest of a clean lifestyle, there is going to be trial and error. I try to be as detailed as possible but I’m not afraid to nix a planned meal because I’m exhausted and I’ve decided it’s Josh’s turn to cook. That’s okay. Considering where we started, I’m thrilled to see progress.

How do you meal plan? Are you a pen and paper or list app kind of family? 

The Down and Dirty of Clean Eating // The Budget

//This is the third post in a blog mini-series called “The Down and Dirty of Clean Eating.” To learn more about the DDoCE series, check out the intro post here and the DDoCE basics here. Everything I share here is based off my journey in clean eating. Check with your doc before doing anything crazy. //

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Anything in life that is worth doing requires a bit of hard work.

People in the blogosphere will readily tell you that eating a clean, unprocessed, healthy diet costs just the same as the frozen, boxed and processed version. That simply isn’t true. But that doesn’t mean you need to spend the bulk of your income on food. Making small changes will snowball into larger changes and greater benefits.

Maintaining a food budget has been the hardest part of our family’s clean eating journey. Although I have expensive taste, that part of me usually go hungry because I’m a stay at home momma and we have some very particular diets  and we’ve chosen to make our health a priority.

Eating a clean diet is a choice that you have to make and it will require sacrifices in other areas of your life – namely time and money. Most people can’t find a balance between the two and end up falling short on one or both. If you want convenience in your lifestyle and are short on time, it’s going to cost more money. Conversely, If your budget doesn’t have much buffer, you will need to spend more time preparing and planning to be successful. But it is possible.

We were thrown into a cleaner way of eating because of multiple food allergies so we needed a total kitchen overhaul quickly and easily and as a result, our finances took a hit. Convenience and simplicity was most important. For our family, the initial struggle wasn’t adjusting to a new way of eating but instead working to make this new lifestyle fit within our budget.

There are ways to stick to a budget and make a healthy diet work with your current financial situation. Sometimes this means sacrificing what is ideal for what is still good. I will always prefer to buy local, organic and sustainable foods but there are months when someone needs new ballet shoes and unexpected bills arrive and something has to give. This isn’t failing. It’s making decisions on what’s best for your family and selecting an option that is good, even if it isn’t best. Don’t be discouraged.

So, how do I make it work?

Plan meals – and stick to the plan. The easiest way to ensure I stay within budget is smart meal planning. I write down what’s needed for a week’s worth of breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, late night snacks (ahem) – everything. This ensures that I actually use what I buy with little waste and I don’t wander the store to find inspiration for dinner and impulsively buy half of the ingredients for something I hadn’t planned.

Stock the pantry. When coconut oil is on sale, you better bet your bottom I buy several. Yes, it’s more money upfront so only buy things you know you will use. This makes meal planning easier because I can shop my pantry before heading to the store for fresh ingredients.

Trade convenience for quality. Quality foods that are ready to eat or packaged cost a lot. Make food from scratch. Spend a bit of time cooking, baking and portioning foods instead of buying it that way. I spend a few hours each Sunday preparing breakfasts and grab-and-go lunch items like paleo muffins, cubes of cheese, granola, bread, soups and so on.

Buy in season… It’s apple season here in North Carolina. Guess what we’re eating? Lots of apples. It is not strawberry season in North Carolina and we can’t afford to pay $7 for a quart of organic strawberries. So much to my daughters’ displeasure, we are not eating fresh strawberries.

…And stock up. Stock up on fruits and veggies when they’re in season and preserve them. You don’t need to be an incredible homemaker with an impressive root cellar and canning skills. Freeze berries when they’re in season. Most anything can easily be preserved for later use.

Don’t fall for marketing. Forget about “all natural” and even – gasp! – some organic labeling. There is currently no regulation of the use of the phrase “all natural” on products so don’t pay extra for it. Research companies, check labels and make an educated decision.

Buy in bulk. Costco has an impressive selection of organic meats, produce and pantry items with a far lower unit cost. Alternately, talk to a local farmer and consider buying your meats in bulk. You will pay far less per pound for a quarter or half of a cow than you would purchasing meat a la carte.

Shop local. Truly free-range, organic eggs are ridiculously expensive if you’re shopping in a grocery store. Buy them directly from the farmer and they become much more affordable. Check out farmer’s markets and you-pick farms. If your living situation permits it, put in a small garden or make a home for some potted herbs on your windowsill. Nothing is more local than what comes from your own backyard.

Shop online. I know, it seems counterintuitive to my last point. Nut butters, allergy-friendly chocolate chips, specialty seasonings and oils are usually cheaper online than in your local specialty market.

Eating a clean diet doesn’t have to break the bank. But you do need to consider that real, nutrient-dense food will cost more than processed alternatives. I have found that we actually consume less food now than previously because we’re providing our bodies with the calories and nutrients it can actually use. So we are buying less food which helps offset the increase in prices.

Of all this advice, meal planning has been the best tool for keeping our budget modest. If it’s cool with you guys, I’ll talk more about that next time.

How do you keep your real food budget under control?