DALLAS -- How to make a low-budget margarita: Mix two shots of tequila, two lime Popsicles (minus the sticks) and some ginger ale. Blend. Pour. Skip the garnish.
That's one lesson my husband, Guy, and I learned in January when we set a $100 food budget for the entire month. The purpose was to consume some of the stock overflowing from the pantry and freezer and to develop better habits for frugal living.
The budget came in at $98.95. Most of that was spent on milk, bread, eggs and produce. Our last purchase was an $11 splurge at McDonald's that included Happy Meals for my 5-year-old and his friend.
The payoff went far beyond the money saved last month. I learned that -- despite two decades of being nagged by women's magazines -- I don't plan our meals very well at all!
Guy is a great cook. I'm great at shopping the sales and stocking up. But we wing it on too many meals.
Here's the old way: We stand in the kitchen before a meal and someone says, "What do you want to do for supper?" We choose one of these options: 1. Fend for yourself; 2. Run to the store to pull together a meal; 3. Go out to eat.
Option 1 is never very satisfying. Options 2 and 3 run up the food bill.
The new way: Before I went on my most recent shopping trip, I pulled out recipes for vegetable chili, a beef-and-mushroom dish, bran muffins and a cherry tart. I planned specific meals for specific days and made sure there would be plenty of leftovers for lunches at work.
What a difference. I'm not even tempted to go out to eat because we've been eating so well at home. And that racks up the savings.
Here are a few other things I learned:
1. You can't ruin Tuna Helper. I hadn't made it in years, if not a decade or two. So, I was concerned when I poured in the topping mix instead of the sauce, and then the bottom burned. But it was great.
(I am tempted to apologize for liking Tuna Helper and buying processed foods and taking cooking shortcuts. But I still struggle with the planning and the cooking, so this is good for now.)
2. Don't run out of dog biscuits. By mid-month, we were feeding our terrier mutts, Xena and Noodle, odd treats from the pantry. (Guy fed them sugar cones.) The day I gave each half a hamburger bun, Noodle sought revenge by eating an entire stick of 100-percent cocoa butter for chapped hands.
3. The restaurant craving will go away. During the first week, all I could think about was Zen Sushi's half-price Mondays; Beckley BrewHouse sweet potato fries and strawberry salad; Urban Market's Cajun shrimp and pico mango quesadillas and any place for pizza.
By the second week, we were planning pot luck dinners, grilling in the back yard and making new recipes. And the restaurant craving disappeared.
4. Ready-to-serve meat entrees are awesome -- if you can find them on sale. They're easy, fairly low-fat and don't have preservatives.
I discovered them this summer when I tried a recipe for an easy stew. So, when Kroger had a 2-for-1 sale in November, I bought six packages of Hormel roast beef au jus and two of pork roast for $4 each.
They turned out to be a blessing last month. We had pulled pork sandwiches, beef sandwiches, various beef stews, and then I found a recipe for beef and mushrooms in the newspaper. It's a keeper, though next time I'm cutting the amount of onions and serving it with rice.
5. We have some quirks. Guy won't eat Campbell's tomato soup no matter how it's doctored up. My son, Drew, wouldn't substitute regular oatmeal for Quaker instant oatmeal with dinosaur eggs. And I can't live without Pace Picante medium.
6. Popsicle margaritas are pretty good. I prefer a mix of undiluted frozen limeade and diet ginger ale. But the Popsicles were a fine substitute. They gave the drink a kind of Slurpee quality.
Honestly, I really didn't expect to learn much from our experiment. I figured we'd have fun with the challenge and would save a few bucks.
But I'm pleased with the results. After that rocky first week when I felt I didn't have a single satisfying meal, we got it in gear.
Anyone interested in cutting their food budget should experiment with the family routine. You'll be amazed at what you will learn.