One thing I’ve done in the past to get the grocery budget off to a good start for the year is to do a pantry challenge as a way to make affordable dinners. That’s when you attempt to stay out of the stores as much as possible, using items from the freezer and pantry as the backbone of your menu planning. It’s been a few years since I’ve done anything like that.
To get 2016 going right, I’m going to do a modified version. I do have a list of some staples I need to purchase and I will be looking for other sale items to use in future months, so I won’t be able to stay out of the stores completely, but I think I can come up with a fair number of meals with what we have on hand.
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A few things to keep in mind:
- We tend to eat seasonally. You won’t see fresh tomatoes or cucumbers on our January menu. You will see cabbage, carrots, lettuce (lettuce just tastes the same all the time).
- Nope, this isn’t the healthiest menu you’ve ever seen. It’s a balance of the best nutrition I can provide with what we have on hand combined with the occasional store sale items. It’s also food my family will eat.
- Most of these meals are planned for my husband (big eater), myself (normal eater), and our younger 14-year-old son (normal eater). In order to feed all of us and try to have leftovers for lunch the next day, I plan about 2 pounds of ground meat – or – 1 whole chicken – or – 3 pounds of b/s chicken breasts – or – 5 pork chops. If I make a whole chicken, the bones are made into broth. If I make a whole ham, the leftover ham is diced and the bone is frozen for future use.
Here is a list – in no particular order – of the meals I plan to make with what I (mostly) already have:
- Fried cabbage with sausage or hamburger (base cost $5 for meat, vegetables)
- Smothered b/s chicken breasts (base cost $9 for meat, vegetables, cheese)
- Red beans & rice (base cost $8 for meat, beans, rice, vegetables – makes enough for 2 meals or LOTS of leftovers for lunches)
- Bean soup with ham bone (base cost $8 for beans & vegetables; I don’t count the ham bone)
- Oriental chicken salad (base cost $10 for meat, lettuce, dressing ingredients, almonds & rice noodles)
- Copycat Zuppa Toscana (base cost $7 for meat, vegetables, cream)
- Roasted chicken x 2 (5 lb. chickens $4 each, vegetables would be extra)
- Roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, glazed carrots (14 lb. turkey $7, vegetables & butter $4)
- Chicken or turkey fried rice (base cost $3 for rice, eggs, oil, vegetables; use leftover meat)
- Ham, green beans (8.5 lb. ham $4.50, 2 lb. frozen green beans $2)
- Canadian Cheese Soup (winter comfort food!) (base cost $6 for soup ingredients & saltines; add $2-$4 if you have to buy diced ham)
- Spaghetti & salad (or peas) x 2 (base cost $5 for spaghetti, $1 for frozen peas; add $2 garlic bread)
- Chicken Noodle Soup w/homemade noodles (base cost $5 for all ingredients)
- Pork chops & roasted vegetables (base cost $5 for pork chops; vegetables vary)
- Homemade pizza (base cost $10-$12 for 4 good-size pizzas with leftovers)
- Tacos x 2 (base cost $9 for meat, beans, shells, toppings – usually meat & beans leftover for lunches)
- Cheeseburger Macaroni Casserole, pickled beets (winter comfort food!) (base cost $8 for casserole, plus beets or other vegetable)
- Pasta Carbonara, peas (base cost $9 for everything)
- Venison backstrap chops, roasted vegetables (venison is NOT free, but I can’t price it; cost of vegetables varies)
- Cheeseburgers, raw carrots & celery (base cost about $6, plus $2 if I add a bag of fries)
- Crockpot unstuffed “cabbage rolls” (base cost $8)
- Sweet & sour chicken, fried rice (base cost $6)
I like to leave a few nights open to use up leftovers or in case plans change and we end up going somewhere else for dinner. Looking at this list, I will need to purchase about $50 worth of food to complete the meals. I’m going to do my best to keep overall spending at $300, mostly to stock up on a few things we are nearly out of and meat for next month. As a reference, my average spending for 2015 was $475/month, so I would be VERY happy to come in at $300.
*Update: I ended up coming in at $307.70 for the month!
Tips for Affordable Dinners:
- Winter vegetables store well and are fairly inexpensive at this time of the year. Potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, hard squash, broccoli, and kale are our favorites. Sometimes we splurge a little on brussels sprouts. Roast a mix of winter vegetables at 450 for about 30 minutes and you have a delicious side dish. We also love mushrooms, but I will only buy them on sale or marked down. When they are, I buy several packages. What we don’t use right away gets sauteed and frozen for homemade pizza.
- Always always always check the marked-down produce rack. Be flexible in your meal planning to accommodate any great finds. Use or freeze your bargains right away.
- Know your meat prices and buy extra at the lowest price if possible. All of the meat in my menu was purchased on sale or on extra mark-down: whole chickens .79/lb, turkey .52/lb, bone-in ham .54/lb, ground beef $1.99/lb, b/s chicken breast $1.25/lb.
- Don’t make dessert. It’s just extra food, and the ingredients can be expensive.
What is your #1 tip for making affordable meals or keeping the grocery bill low? Let me know if you have any questions about my meals!
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