Weekly Themed Dinners Saved Our Grocery Budget

Photo credit: Steven Depolo, CC BY 2.0.

Last November, my husband quit his job as an engineer to start his own importing business from home, and our household income shrunk to my freelance writing wages. To cut costs, we moved from a San Francisco Bay Area suburb to another California suburb half-an-hour from Sacramento, and created a strict monthly budget so we could monitor every penny.

Besides our rent, our biggest cost was our weekly grocery budget, which went from haphazardly spending anywhere from $70-$100 to a non-negotiable $50. Gone were the random weeknight shopping trips for Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups, butter popcorn, and crystallized ginger cookies. Gone was the sporadic ordering in when we were too tired to cook dinner. Detailed shopping lists were essential now, along with weekly meal planning.

At first, fueled with a newfound energy for this minimal lifestyle, I would plan a different meal each day, pouring over Pinterest, Instagram, and food blogs for inspiration. It quickly became tiresome, trying to come up with five individual meals each week. I broke out my trusty Crock-Pot to try to remedy meal prep fatigue, but making huge batches of food to eat over several days just didn’t cut it. There are only so many days you can eat stewed lentils over rice before you begin to resent dinnertime itself.

So I decided to make it easier on all of us by dividing the week into designated themes: Monday was Asian night; Wednesday was breakfast for dinner; and, most importantly, Friday was pizza night.

Tuesday and Thursday nights are freestyle days. Sometimes it’s more Asian food, such as kimbap, a dish where I’ve been perfecting the ratio of sesame oil-infused rice to carrots, spinach, and omelet over the past few weeks. Mostly it’s a regular rotation of turkey burgers, potato tacos, and buttery pasta. If I’m feeling fancy, avocado egg salad toast with generous amounts of dill is thrown into the mix.

Saturday and Sunday are usually lazy meal days, with a combination of leftover pizza from Friday, creamy peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwiches, fried eggs, and the occasional carefully budgeted In-N-Out Double Double.

Meal planning is something I no longer dread, and every Sunday night I write out my weekly meal schedule, easily guided by my predetermined culinary themes. There’s no overwhelming feeling of losing time while deciding what to eat every day of the week. Now I only need to decide two meals, as well as what type of Asian dish will make an appearance this week, what will be in our breakfast scramble, and what type of pizza toppings will grace our pie on Friday.

What I didn’t realize was that having these culinary anchors every week would help create new traditions for my husband and me. The comforting routines broke up the monotony of the workweek and gave us something to look forward to in this new and uncertain chapter in our lives.

Mondays are for easing into the week, often with a heaping bowl of japchae, springy sweet potato noodles pan-fried with bell peppers, spinach and carrots in sesame oil and soy. Growing up in San Francisco, it’s the comfort food of my childhood, and now my husband (who grew up on his mother’s unrivaled homemade Turkish food) has grown to love this simple dish as well.

Breakfast marks the middle of the week on Wednesdays, with a hearty shredded hashbrown, spinach, and egg scramble quickly made after a brief cardio workout and before an episode of Parenthood. My husband and I are giddy with childlike enthusiasm over eating a Sunday-style breakfast on a weekday. The only way you can tell our nearly identical bowls apart is from the generous sprinkling of dried chili pepper on my husband’s dish.

My favorite is Friday night, when we put away our respective laptops and gather in the kitchen to make the pizza. The evening news is often humming in the background and the sun setting as we settle into our respective roles. Not much is said, as we linger in the familiar silence of collective relief that signals another week coming to an end. My husband is in charge of shaping the dough into two symmetrical personal pies, and I come in afterward finding the ideal placement for the olives, spinach, tomato sauce, and the occasional kielbasa slices.

For me, the smell of fresh dough and the warmth of the oven is the best reminder that the weekend is here.

Julia Kitlinski-Hong is a freelance writer in Sacramento. She also runs the culinary travel blog Small World This Is.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Food Series.

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