Can Less Meal-Planning Save More Money?

©. Gillian N. – Homemade pizza is a weekly staple.

Sticking to the sales and basics can stretch your dollar further than planning everything in advance – another great lesson from our weekly meal-planning series.

Welcome to the latest post in TreeHugger's series, "How to feed a family." Every week we talk to a different person about how they approach the never-ending challenge of feeding themselves and other household members. We get the inside scoop on how they grocery shop, meal plan, and food prep to make it go more smoothly. Today's interview features Jamie and Gillian, a young couple that eats vegetarian at home for environmental reasons and shops zero-waste as much as possible. They are dedicated sourdough bread-bakers and artisanal coffee aficionados.

Names: Gillian - 28 (old geezer), Jamie - 27 (spring chicken), Mosley the pup - 5 (will eat anything)

Location: St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada

Employment: Jamie (full-time), Gillian (part-time), Mosley (sleeps all the time)

Weekly food budget: CAD$120 (US$90), includes high quality coffee beans that we cannot live without

Mosley the dog

© Gillian N. – Mosley, captured while awake

1. What are 3 favourite or commonly prepared meals in your house?

– Dal + some version of curry (i.e. spice, tomato and coconut milk base with paneer, tempeh, seitan or a “meaty” vegetable)
– Pasta with Marcella Hazan's plain tomato sauce
– Homemade pizza once per week

Staples for our home:

– Homemade sourdough bread
– Homemade seitan (high-protein vegetarian substitute, made from wheat gluten). It's expensive if bought already made, but very inexpensive if made at home.
– Coffee. We have invested in an espresso machine, and make all of our own espresso based drinks; this gives us a lot of joy.
– Maldon salt

homemade latte

© Gillian N. – Some impressive latte art!

2. How would you describe your diet?

Vegetarian / flexitarian. We eat meat whenever served to us – and enjoy it!

3. How often do you shop for groceries? Is there anything you absolutely have to buy every week?

We shop once per week and work to buy as much as we can from Bulk Barn where we can use reusable containers. We have a system of 6 jars in a carrier. Each week we fill the jars of staples including lentils, oats, rice, spices, flour, and vital wheat gluten. We love that Bulk Barn allows us to greatly reduce our waste and, by making a weekly trip with only 6 containers, it makes the trip much more manageable and ensures that we always have the essentials to make some of our go-to meals.

Jamie & Gillian at restaurant

© Gillian N. – Jamie and Gillian out for a fancy dinner

4. What does your grocery shopping routine look like?

We love our Google Home. Using it in the kitchen, we can orally update our shopping list as needed. This syncs to our phones and ensures we always have our grocery list on hand. Usually we go to Bulk Barn first and fill up on staples. Then we head to (supermarkets) Food Basics or No Frills for the remaining groceries. In the summer we go to the local market down the street from our apartment and stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables. We try and shop together, especially as shopping at Bulk Barn with all the reusable containers can be bit overwhelming on your own. Also, Jamie knows the sales!

pasta with tomato sauce

© Gillian N. – Pasta with Marcella Hazan's delicious tomato sauce

5. Do you meal plan? If so, how often and how strictly do you stick to it?

Sometimes. We have just started meal planning a bit more, making sure we have the ingredients for 4 meals where lunches can be used for leftovers. We try to keep the meal plans and grocery lists in a binder to accumulate weeks of meal plans that can be pulled out during a week where we feel we do not have time to meal plan.

One problem we have run into is that we have actually found we spend more money shopping based on our meal plan than if we shop according to what is on sale and our grocery list. However, since we're both working, this does make it easier for our dinner routine.

6. How much time do you spend cooking each day?

We try to spend less than an hour a day on cooking and have recently explored some of Jamie Oliver's 15-minute meals which have turned out great! On the weekends, it would be more like 2-3 hours a day, as we cook more elaborately and like to make food for the week.

Jamie's sourdough

© Gillian N. – A batch of fresh sourdough, made by Jamie

7. How do you handle leftovers?

We use leftovers for lunches but also plan to have a night where we just eat leftovers.

8. How many dinners per week do you cook at home vs. eat out or take out?

Usually we cook all meals except one, which is when we go to a friend's for dinner or eat out elsewhere We don’t eat out on our own very often.

9. What are the biggest challenges in feeding yourselves?

We have had to work together to compromise our meals over the years, as one of us likes to experiment with different types of diets and one of us is a more moderate eater. That has been a challenge! Coming together to cook and eat primarily vegetarian has been one of the most cohesive food decisions we've ever made.

Jamie making bread

© Gillian N. – Jamie mixes a batch of sourdough.

10. Is there any other information you’d like to add?

We have started to use the Instant Pot a lot. At first we thought it was a fad, but now use it at least 3 times a week. I think sometimes people get caught not cooking because it seems so daunting, but if that is the case, the Instant Pot is a great place to start.

We love to travel and eating abroad is a highlight for us. Through our travels, we have decided that the food we had in Laos was some of the most tasty and interesting food. We were fortunate to stay with Gillian’s sister and family who were living there for 3 years, and both she and her husband had a great handle on the food.

For more stories in this series, see How to feed a family. We're always looking for people to feature, so if you're interested, please get in touch or send us a message on Instagram!