My friend Bridgette recently posed a terrific question in her latest post (so good that I'm going to post my response even though I'm "taking a break" from my blogging...): "I have a weekly grocery budget that I go off of, but I struggle when I prepare a meal for an event. How do you balance your normal grocery needs, plus another meal for an event?"
Great question, huh? My family operates on a monthly grocery budget: I get all the funds dumped into my grocery account at the beginning, and I have to make it last until the end. In addition, I HATE running to the store at the last minute to pick something up. That being said, we've managed to feed a lot of people in addition to our little family. How do I do it? How do I balance the budget and my time? There are several strategies I've employed in the past:
1. Stock Your Freezer (part 1): You can buy meat and other supplies on sale when you have extra money in the budget. For instance, I usually have a pound or two of boneless, skinless chicken in the freezer that isn't "committed" to anything. I also keep some frozen veggies on hand, and my stash of rice, flour, etc. is usually up to the challenge. If I have some staples like that on hand, an unexpected meal is easier on the budget.
2. Stock Your Freezer (part 2): There are some meals that I like to keep on hand in my freezer. I keep a rotating stock of soups and chicken stock (which I can turn into soup); I also like to have 1-2 extra meals in the freezer that aren't "committed" in my weekly menus. This month, I happen to have some extra hamburger patties from our recent power cooking day. I also have some extra fish packets from the same day, along with two lemonade pies and a pound cake! Voila! Covered dish dinner? I'll bring pound cake. Unexpected company? We can pull out extra hamburger patties. Need to take a meal to someone? I can serve my family extra fish packets and use another meal that we might have eaten, but which "travels" better, to give someone else (for instance, I have the supplies for beans and rice--that would travel better than my fish packets). I mentioned extra hospitality as a major benefit of power cooking back in the fall.
3. Stock Your Pantry: This is similar to the above in idea; you just have staples in your pantry that you can make a meal of. This might be a family favorite (such as our Salmon Cakes) that you can substitute in for one of your scheduled meals, freeing up some money or that extra meal. Or, you might decide to keep spaghetti supplies always on hand. Canned beans and rice make a terrific quick meal that's cheap and nutritionally sound.
4. Have a Few Tricks Up Your Sleeve: have a killer from-scratch homemade rolls recipe? Keep those supplies on hand. You can dress up a super simple soup with some dynamite cornbread or rolls. Carrie's easy toaster strudels are another good example of an easy, but impressive, dessert to offer someone; you can freeze the pastry and keep the canned filling in the pantry. Homemade muffins are super easy and cheap--you probably have the supplies on hand to make several varieties already.
5. Keep It Simple! Your willingness to show hospitality will overshadow even the simplest of meals. We had church canceled on us one Wednesday night at the last minute (an ice storm that day). Another family from our church came over to our house, we pooled our resources, and had a terrific "breakfast-for-dinner" evening together. Take people up on their offers to bring something. Don't be afraid to serve basic food (chicken and rice) or something picked up on sale at the last minute at the store.
6. Double The Fun! If your family only eats 1/2 a casserole that freezes well, get in the habit of budgeting for the whole casserole and freeze the other half--it will be there when you need it. (Think: lasagnas, other pasta/cheese combos, etc.). If you're making meatloaf, make two and freeze the other. If you can work ideas like this into the budget, you'll soon have lots of options for unexpected meal-needs.
7. Just Say No: If you can't afford it, just say so. Sometimes, we don't volunteer for things because it won't fit in the budget. Or, we'll bring something we have on hand instead of a meal (maybe plastic forks are needed and you have some; perhaps some decorating is needed and you have extra streamers lying around). Usually, though, there's enough floating around our house that we can always sacrifice and eat beans and rice, beans and cornbread, breakfast-for-dinner, or something similar and give the event/person in need what we might have eaten.