Dinner Planning 101

I have found that a sure-fire way to get fat and be broke is to not plan weekly dinners (and lunch if you work in an office or home setting). I’m a teacher, so I don’t have a choice but to pack breakfast and lunch (which is typically leftovers). However, on weeks when I don’t plan and shop for set dinner meals, we end up eating out like 3 of the 7 nights, and eating random junk another 3 of the 4 nights left. Ouch on the abs and the wallet. My pretty fail-proof method is:

1. Pin realistic dinners on Pinterest.
I have a whole board dedicated to dinners, and I have another board called “Meals that Worked.” When one of those Pinterest recipes turns out successful, I move it there. One easy mistake to make is to pin gourmet chef meals that require a lot of time and strange or uncommon ingredients. Chances are, you’ll never actually make it.

2. Each Saturday (or whatever day you pick), access your Pins or your brain for a week’s worth of recipes.
Pick 7 and simply write them down or keep mental note. If you know there’s going to be a few days where you have to eat on the go, then just pick 5 or 6. I always shoot to eat in at least 5 days a week. On the weekends, we treat ourselves.

3. From those meals, make a grocery list.
Check out the Pinterest recipes, or the ones you’ve memorized, and make a grocery list for the meals. I usually make my list on Saturday and shop on Sunday (a.k.a. Sunday paper coupon day). I prefer a paper list over an app.

4. Look at your weekly schedule and place meals on certain days.
Something else to consider is how ling each meal takes to prep and cook. I save quick meals for hectic nights or days I have faculty meetings. This is where crockpot meals come into play, too!

To do step #4, I use the app MealSchedule. I searched through a billion apps that wanted me to enter in full recipes before I could drag and drop them to the weekly menu. This 0.99¢ app lets me JUST plan meals, nothing more, and that’s all I needed. My favorite part is that you can move meals (or just parts of a meal) to other days in an instant. Plans never work 100% when you have a 1-year-old, a demanding job, and a night-shifter husband. This app isn’t a mega popular one, so it’s a little primitive looking, but it functions perfectly! See my screen shot of this week’s meals below. (We are moving Thu/Fri, hence the takeout meals).

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My (Southern) Health Cheats

**DISCLAIMER: The truth is, there aren’t really health and fitness cheats. When you cut corners, you have to expect lesser results, even if just by a tad.**Below are some of my “health cheats” for things I’ve had a hard time giving up.

Sicky-Sweet Sweet Tea = Mio Sweet Tea

By far one of the hardest things for me to give up has been sweet tea. Soda was cake. Sweet tea, I’ve gone down kicking and screaming. I tried green tea with stevia. Not bad, but not even close. You won’t believe my cheat. You read Mio and though “Sweet tea in a little squirt bottle? Ain’t no way.” However, it is the best tasting and most realisticly sweet tea-ish water enhancer I’ve had. It tastes better than instant tea (like the Lipton fountain machine stuff), but of course still lacks the herbal taste that comes with real brewed tea. I’ve considered making green tea and putting some of this in it.

Mayo or Sour Cream = Plain Nonfat Greek Yogurt

Okay, this one doesn’t taste the same, but for the calorie and fat savings, it’s darn close enough! Potato salad, chicken, tacos, creamed spinach, and much more. I replace it all with plain Greek yogurt. If you just can’t do that, try doing 3/4 greek yogurt and 1/4 mayo or sour cream. Any bit counts!

Sugar = Stevia

Stevia is by far the best non-sugar sweetener, at least that’s user-friendly. I even found it in a squeezy bottle (a la Mio) that I take on the go!

Potato Chips and Fries = Sweet Potato Chips and Fries

Even better if you make them yourself. Now don’t get too excited. Sweet potatoes are still starchy veggies loaded with carbs. And anything fried is still a cheat. However, when you look at sweet potatoes and white potatoes side by side, the difference is clear. This awesome infographic from Cleveland Clinic shows you what makes this swap worth it:

Health Hub Knockout White Potatoes vs. Sweet Potatoes final

Spaghetti = Spaghetti Squash

Spaghetti squash is obviously nothing like spaghetti noodles. It won’t taste the same, nor does it have the same texture. However, if you really want to avoid starchy, non-nutritional noodles, try spaghetti squash. This blog article explains how to bake it and extract the “noodles”. You can make it like regular spaghetti with sauce, or you can try other variations, like this garlic and butter version.

Butter = Olive Oil or Coconut Oil

I’ll admit. I rarely replace a recipe that calls for butter fully with EVOO or coconut oil. However, I usually mix the two to cut back on calories. For example, if I saute zucchini, I use olive oil and about a tablespoon of Country Crock Light. Olive oil has a more “buttery” taste that is great with veggies or savory dishes. Coconut oil is good for sweeter veggies or meat preparations. For example, I love to cook Jamaican Jerk chicken or pork chops in coconut oil. Some people claim that you can’t taste the coconut, but I can, so that’s why I only use it for certain recipes with which it meshes well. I get my oils from Trader Joe’s. Best bang for your buck!

Ground Beef = Ground Turkey

These taste similar–not the same. I’ve found that I like to use ground turkey with ground beef recipes that require lots of flavoring. I most frequently use it for tacos and spaghetti. The tons of sauces and seasonings mask the fact that it’s turkey and not beef. Turkey burgers on the other hand, while possibly tasty, just don’t do it for me. Turkey meatballs–not bad. Play around with it and see what you like and don’t like! The other plus: ground turkey is cheaper! Here’s an article by Livestrong that compares the two.

Store-bought = Homemade

I’ve found that one of the best ways to save money and calories is to make things you would usually buy. Many of these recipes still require some buttah and sugah, but what they don’t require are chemicals, additives, or preservatives! Below, click each item to find an easy recipe on how to home-make it!

Ranch Dressing/Dip (Not an exact copy cat, but does the job)

Gummy Snacks (This site has different flavor combos!)

Pop-Tarts

Sloppy Joe (Note: Ground turkey is not meant for this stuff! It’s pretty awful. I tried)

Strawberry Jam in Crockpot (Wonder if purple grapes would work…)

Apple Butter in Crockpot

No Bake Granola Bars

Peanut Butter

 

My “Famous” Roasted Asparagus

…and when I say famous, I just mean one of my beat friends has taken in the recipe as a staple in her house, and other people love it.

I make this frequently, and it’s quite possibly the favorite veggie side in our household. I don’t measure anything when I cook (baking is a different story), so all measurements are approximate!

Serves 4
Prep Time 10
Cook Time 15

Ingredients
One larger bunch of asparagus
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1.5 tbsp minced garlic
2 tsp lemon juice
sea salt
black pepper

Instructions
1. Preheat oven to 400°.
2. Prepare a cookie sheet by lining with foil for easy clean-up.
3. Recommended: Instead of cutting a few inches off of the end of the asparagus, bend each individual piece. It will snap where the hard, stringy end piece actually begins. Toss the ends or freeze them for a soup, etc.
4. Place asparagus in a gallon zip-lock bag.
5. Pour olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic in bag.
6. Shake bag to coat asparagus.
7. Place asparagus on cookie sheet. Try to keep it to a single layer. Some overlap is okay.
8. Lightly sprinkle with sea salt and pepper to your liking.
9. Place in oven on center rack.
10. Cook for approximately 15 minutes, or 20-25 if you want it even softer. The tips will probably be slightly crunchy. They’re my favorite part!
11. Enjoy! Fun Fact: In many places, asparagus is considered a finger food. If you’ve tried eating it with a fork, you can understand why. Try eating it with your fingers!

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My (Affordable) Healthy-Eating Fridge

With clean eating being all the rage these days (which is awesome considering it is beginning to replace fad diets), more and more people are jumping on the…fitwagon…and giving it a go. As a working mom and nightshift cop’s wife, I had to find a way to jump on but still keep my grocery budget in check, as well as my time management. Anyone who has done 100% clean eating knows that (a) it’s expensive, and (b) it takes more time in the kitchen. People have asked if I clean eat, and the answer is no. What I do is healthy eating. Clean eating involves fruits, veggies, proteins, and naturally-found carbs like brown rice, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. And natural oils and spices only. As lovely and skinny-tastic as that sounds, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” So, today’s grocery trip led me to posting about how to HEALTHY EAT (clean eating plus a little more salt, butter, dairy, and bread) while maintaining your budget and time (a.k.a sanity). Below is my menu for healthy eating. Click on items for exact brands/flavors I use. (I buy store brand for a lot of it.)

Breakfast
Whole wheat English muffin/toast + natural fruit jam
Fried or hard-boiled egg (or egg white)
Plain oats + toppings of choice (maple syrup, brown sugar, fruit, peanut butter, etc.)
Fresh Fruit: berries, kiwi, peaches, melon, oranges, occasional bananas, pineapple, apples, green grapes
Nutri-grain Cereal Bars (80-100 cal.)
Yoplait Nonfat Greek Yogurt (love the Key Lime!)
Occasional bran cereal or cinnamon Puffins
Recipe: A whole grain or protein (egg/yogurt) + A whole piece of any fruit

Lunch
My usual sandwich: Whole wheat bagel thin or whole wheat tortilla + 2 slices of roasted chicken lunch meat + slice of provolone + romaine lettuce + spinach + BBQ sauce
Another sandwich: Bagel thin + reduced fat peanut butter + banana slices
Dinner leftovers = my fave
A big salad
Hard-boiled eggs
Recipe: I usually eat one of the above with a piece of fruit or raw veggie

Snacks
Raw fruit (see breakfast for what kinds)
Carrots with Greek Yogurt ranch dip
Cucumbers in apple cider vinegar with chili powder
100 cal. Granola Bar/Cereal Bar
Hard-boiled egg
Sweet potato chip w/ light sea salt
Yoplait Nonfat Greek Yogurt

Dinner
Basic Dinner Recipe: A protein + a frozen or fresh green/leafy veggie + a natural carb
*Click each item for one of my favorite tried-and-true recipes. I often replace calls for mayo or sour cream with plain nonfat Greek yogurt!*
(I do a husband-pleasing dinner involving less healthy foods once or twice a week…like baked spaghetti and garlic bread)
Protein
Grilled/baked chicken
Grilled tilapia (salmon is a rare treat!)
Grilled shrimp
Grilled pork chops
Ground turkey
Green Veggie
Asparagus (fresh)
Zucchini (fresh)
Spinach (fresh)
Broccoli (frozen)
Blue Lake Green Beans (frozen)
Natural Carb
Sweet potato
Red potato
Brown rice
Carrots

(There a thousand ways to prepare the greens and carbs, but when I don’t feel like doing anything fancy, I just steam or roast them with about 1/2 tbsp light butter and sea salt and black pepper.)

Drinks
Water
Green tea with stevia
Almond milk for cereal/oatmeal
(And that’s IT.)

I just spent $146 on a re-stock grocery trip to give you an idea. That includes a value size chicken breasts, pork chops, bacon, frozen shrimp, breakfast sausage patties, about 8 bags of frozen veggies, and 3-4 fresh pieces of all fruits I listed above except pinapple. That’s for two adults and a toddler. Enough food to last 2 weeks or so (at least meats and produce). And that includes my husband’s Oreos and such that I don’t eat. And thrown in lots of randoms like vitamins, sour cream, butter, milk, etc. It is possible to spend LESS money eating HEALTHY food (in comparison to frozen dinners and eating out).

My grocery budget is $300 per 30 days. My family eats out for dinner for around $35. Multiply that times 30 and you’re spending over $1,000 a month on JUST dinner. It’s a no brainer, people!

Hope you enjoy clicking through the links and finding yummy recipes that strike the perfect balance between health with cost! Comment below with questions or other ideas!

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