How I shop, Part 4.
We lived for awhile in an area with only one store nearby and it wasn't at all feasible for us to drive the additional 19 miles each way once a week to visit other stores. This meant we had to rely on one grocery store for most of our needs. Once a month we did make the longer drive, and we included trips to a bread thrift store and a Goodwill store with it. For regular weekly shopping, though, we actually went to our local store 2 or 3 times in the same week. (Usually 2 of those trips would be my husband stopping there on his way home from work, to avoid using gas unnecessarily.) We did this because while advertised sale prices typically last for a full week, mark-down prices could happen any time. My husband would run in and check the meat aisle for anything marked down and look for any other items he could find, in the produce section and also in the back of the store where the clearance mark-downs are left. These mark-downs might include anything from bakery goods - like hamburger buns; canned goods - dented is fine! Really. You just need to worry about cans that have puffed out; dried herbs and spices; and sometimes non-food items like cough medicine. Because we were there so often, we actually became well acquainted with several of the employees and they were often kind enough to tell us as soon as they saw us about any unadvertised specials. Other than that, we followed the same patterns we do now. We shopped for loss-leaders and built our menus around any good deals we could find.
When we go shopping on Saturdays, between the garage sale/thrift store stops and multiple grocery store visits, we don't get home until lunch and we are definitely hungry! (I should note - we ALWAYS leave the house with bottles of water - not the one-time use only kind; washable bottles refilled from our refrigerator - and some type of snack, such as cookies or muffins. This is to give us a boost at around 10:30 when we might start feeling some hunger pangs and prevent us from wasting money on packaged snacks or junk food.) When we get home, we put the groceries away quickly and have lunch. Lunch might be something that's been simmering in the Crockpot or something quick and easy to fix, such as a salad and microwave baked potatoes.
After lunch, my work begins. First, I have to decide our menu for the week. Yes, I really do this - after we've been shopping. Hee. Obviously, I already have the meals in mind, but now I have to figure out which meal we'll be eating when. I use a simple chart: FOUND HERE to work out our meals. As I mentioned in my MAKING MIXES post, I do a lot of baking on Sundays to cover breakfasts for the week. So typically, my breakfast boxes on the chart simply say "choice" unless I'm preparing something different, like eggs. In the "Snacks" category, I write down things that I know need to be eaten up that week. For instance, if I've got homemade jam I want to make sure is used up, I write that down so I can remember to tell the kids to have toast and jam at least once that week. Lunches and dinners are determined mostly by order in which perishables should be consumed and anything that will have an impact on eating time - like knowing we'll be getting home just before dinner on a certain day because of a field trip.
The next thing I need to determine is what meats need to be cooked immediately. The best way to explain that is by example. This Saturday I purchased 5 lbs of ground beef. It had a sell-by date of the 17th, and so was marked down from over $9 to just over $6. This means, though, that I didn't want to leave it sitting uncooked in my refrigerator all week. Saturday afternoon I made a ground-beef "starter" mix. I put it in a bowl and added one large chopped onion (or about two cups), 1 chopped bell pepper, 3 grated carrots, 4 pressed gloves of garlic, 2 stalks of finely chopped celery and 1 cup of bread crumbs (made by giving a slice of bread a whirl in the blender.) I browned this entire mix in batches and then divided it among 7 different containers. Three of these containers went into the freezer to be used another week and the other 4 went into the refrigerator. One container was used to make the tacos for my daughter's birthday. I mixed it with a can of petite diced tomatoes and some HOMEMADE TACO SEASONING MIX (This recipe is very similar to mine except I don't use the salt or cayenne pepper.) This afternoon, I used some more of the meat mix, as well as some of my pinto bean mix* - a mix that can be used in several recipes, including refried beans - to make chili for lunch. I will also be using the mix in a vegetable beef soup, and the other container will become shepherd's pie.
I also bought a family pack of chicken thighs that was marked down for quick sale, so while I was working on my beef mix, I cooked them in my Crockpot. (Just threw them in with some chopped onion, some dried herbs and a little bit of water.) The chicken was divided into 4 containers and this week will be: Chicken and rice soup, made with a broth from boiling down the bones I kept after picking off most of the chicken; BBQ chicken on a bun - I heat the chicken with some BBQ sauce and serve it on hamburger buns; creamed chicken and peas on potato pancakes, and chicken stir fry. (Because the chicken is already cooked, I stir fry the veggies and throw the chicken in at the last minute just to heat it.)
Normally, I would've also made my pinto-bean mix on Saturday, but as I was busy with also preparing some things for Father's Day, I put that off until Monday afternoon.
I had to buy onions this week, as we were running low, so I also took the time to chop all of them and put them in a couple of freezer containers. This works great. On busy nights, I just have to scoop out whatever I need and add them to my recipes. I don't even thaw them. They cook just fine as is.
I guess you can see what I mean about using lots of mixes! In addition to the ones I've already mentioned here, I also used a Spanish Rice mix last night to serve with our tacos. Sometimes, I think the mixes are just a psychological advantage. For instance, I could probably assemble the ingredients for the taco seasoning mix right as I'm making tacos without really adding much prep-time, but somehow knowing even that one little step is taken care of makes the cooking just seem easier. On the other hand, they really can be advantageous - having my ground beef already browned and ready to go knocks several minutes off prep time and really speeds things up in the evening when I'm getting dinner together. It also allows me to take advantage of bulk item prices when they're a good deal. I bought a 4 lb. bag of pinto beans this week, because I knew I could use them up in my mix and the per pound price was significantly less than the cost of a single pound bag.
*Pinto Bean Mix
This is very simple. I take 2 lbs of dried beans (washed and picked over) and put them in a pot of water. I bring them to boil for two minutes, remove from heat and cover and let stand for an hour. I drain them and wash them in a colander then put them back in the pot. I add 1 large or 2 medium chopped onions (2 cups from my freezer container), two pressed gloves of garlic, and 3 tablespoons of cajun seasoning. I cover this with water and bring back to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for a few hours. That's it. Once they're cooked and soft, I divide the mix among 5 containers and freeze whatever I won't be using that week.
To make refried beans, I mash 1 container of the beans with a potato masher, adding a little water to get the consistency I like and mix in 1/2 cup salsa. Probably that's some kind of terrible blow to real Mexican cooking, but that's how my family likes them. :)
Next week I'll give you a complete breakdown of every item I purchase this coming Saturday and where it will be used.