Meal Planning on a Budget: Part I – Before You Set Foot in the Grocery Store

Are these vegetables made for Fraggles? From:
Are these vegetables made for Fraggles?

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat healthfully. Sure, you might *want* to subsist on sushi grade ahi tuna or the finest microgreens, or you may want to be lazy and order that fancy schmancy mail order diet food so you don’t have to think about what you put in your stomach more than how long it takes to microwave. (The idea of subsisting on frozen portion controlled meals that I pay way too much for is anathema to me.) If you truly wish to live that way, fine. Like I will repeat ad nauseum around here: do what works for you. Now I’m not “poor”. The Hubs and I make enough money to not qualify for public assistance. But we certainly don’t make a ton of money, either: we need to live on a budget so we can eventually buy a house. Financially we are moving in the right direction, and a lot of that is due to my affinity for planning. I may not be rich, but what I do have is time. Not tons, mind you: I work full time, do bookkeeping on the side for a few clients, and I come here and chat with you fine folk! The point is, I’m willing to spend a little time once or twice a week to save a lot of money. If you’re willing to put in the time and the thought, you can trim both your budget and your waistline!

A little bit of time spent once a week planning your weekly menu and perusing the sale papers can save you time and money later. The sale paper for our favorite grocery store comes out on Fridays, so that’s when my planning begins, usually over a cup of coffee after a strenuous workout! Here’s what works for me.

Before you set foot in the store:


1. Check the grocery store flyer for good sales. For me this mostly means meat. I never buy meat unless it’s on sale, except on very special occasions. I am, of course, on a budget! Spending as little money as I can on meat means buying very little red meat: I mostly purchase boneless skinless chicken breasts and pork chops. When they’re VERY cheap I will purchase chicken leg quarters in bulk for Frango Grelhado (“grilled” chicken rubbed with a Portuguese spice blend) or stew. Fish and seafood is, of course, special occasion food, mostly because The Hubs is not a huge fan. Salt cod, however, is always welcome in our household. But I digress. I write down all the sale items I will be purchasing on a list, along with the price. If I have a coupon, I note that also. See step 2 for more detail.

2. Check for coupons. Now I’m not one of those people who is so coupon crazy that I have a room full of baby wipes awaiting the day I someday have a baby. I am not an extreme couponer. But, there are times when coupons can make a good deal a better deal. My grocery store has digital coupons on their website that load onto our discount card and are deducted from the total when we swipe the card. Sometimes, these digital coupons correspond with printed or printable coupons you can find online, and guess what? Both the printed and the digital coupons work. It’s not often, but it happens. I would say I spend a maximum of ten minutes a week looking for coupons. (Websites you can use for legit printable coupons are places like or Most of the coupons I see are for things I’d never ever use, like junk food, candy, or makeup. But occasionally I see something that I might want to try but wouldn’t pay full price for. Example: I kinda like Fiber One Chocolate Chip Cookies. They’re super processed but they’re individually wrapped and thus, portion controlled, have fiber, and they taste pretty good! At our grocery store they’re regularly $2.99 for 6. That’s 50 cents apiece. Not terrible, but not great, either. The grocery store had a 50 cent off digital coupon, and I printed a 50 cent off coupon that was eligible for doubling. So I had coupons for this one product that totaled $1.50 off. That’s HALF PRICE. Do I buy them at regular price? Hell no! It’s not a pantry staple, people. I do not NEED cookies. But I do buy them when I can get a good deal.

3. Be okay with going to 2 stores (or 3) if it will save you money. I buy produce at a produce market where the fruits and veggies are pretty cheap most of the time, but they’re pre-bagged and you need to buy in bulk. However, it’s WAY less expensive to buy there than to buy the amount I actually need at the regular grocery store. Example: On yesterday’s trip I got:

Okay, I had to weigh these. Almost 8 lbs. together, making them 38 cents a pound. CHEAP!
Okay, I had to weigh these. Almost 8 lbs. together, making them 38 cents a pound. CHEAP!
  • 2 gigantic butternut squash for $3
  • 2 lbs of green bell peppers for $2
  • 5 lbs of Spanish onions for $2
  • 2 10-oz. packages of button mushrooms for $2
  • 2 dry pints of grape tomatoes for $3
  • 3 bunches of cilantro for $1.50 (at the regular grocery store ONE anemic-looking bunch is $2.99)
  • 3 Asian pears for $1.50
  • 2 lbs of red grapes for $3

That’s $18 for all that stuff. And the squash? They’re HUGE. And winter squash lasts a long time uncut. So even though I only need ¼ of it for a recipe this week, I can save an entire one for weeks if I need to, and I can keep the rest of the cut one in the fridge, or cook it and freeze it for later use. Bonus!

4. Check the pantry. I have two freezers, a fridge, and six cabinets full of items I either a) have leftover from last week, or b) are pantry staples I always have on hand (more on pantry staples in a future blog). When I buy meat on sale, I often purchase bulk packages and divide them into 1 lb bags before freezing. About every other week I spend 10-15 minutes making a list of what I have “in stock” in the fridge, freezers and cabinets. Keep a running list in Google docs and this is even easier!

Yeah I think I'm covered for the zombie apocalypse.
Yeah I think I’m covered for the zombie apocalypse.

5. Check the schedule. I do an hour long workout three days a week. On these three days, I try to plan protein rich recipes, leaving the vegetarian or lower protein recipes to other days. If there’s a day I know I’m going to be busy, I try to plan a crock pot recipe or something quick like summer rolls. My days off are Sundays and Mondays, so those are the days I plan more elaborate recipes or do batch cooking.

6. Write a menu. I use a Google Sheets spreadsheet for this, so I have access to it everywhere, even on my phone. That way, you don’t have an excuse if you forget your list! Plan out each meal for the week based on the ingredients you have on hand or those you will be purchasing. If you need additional ingredients, write them on your shopping list. If it’s something I know will cost less at a big box store, I write it on that section of the list. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a discount produce store like I do, buy your fruits and vegetables there if they are decent quality. Here’s an example of my weekly menu plan:

weekly_menu_planner – Google Sheets

Pro Tip: if you’re lucky enough, like myself and The Hubs, to have access to a microwave at your place of work, plan on making enough servings of dinner to have the leftovers for lunch the next day. (UNLESS IT IS FISH! NEVER REHEAT FISH IN A WORKPLACE ENVIRONMENT, IT’S JUST RUDE!) Not only does this save you time and effort in planning lunches, it will save you money since you won’t have to purchase additional items like bread and lunchmeat. Plus, in my humble opinion, a hot lunch is the best lunch. As you serve dinner, simply portion out the rest of the food into microwave-safe containers and allow to cool before refrigerating.

7. Write your grocery list by aisle if you know your store aisles pretty well. This will save you time and will keep your eyes from browsing all the junk you might see while looking for something. I generally group my list into stores, and then by section as opposed to aisle. But only because my grocery store moves stuff all the time, and some things are in some aisles but related things are in unrelated aisles and it can be confusing and irritating. So section for me: produce, dairy, grocery, misc stuff, meat and frozen foods.

I prefer to inject my caffeine directly into my veins, thank you. From:
I prefer to inject my caffeine directly into my veins, thank you.

8. Be flexible. Brand loyalty can hurt you. If you must be loyal to certain brands, only buy them when they’re on sale, and stock up. Example: I love Melitta coffee (this is like heaven in my mug – I think it’s the finer grind), but Melitta coffee is $4.99 for an 11 oz. can at regular price. However, every couple of months, it goes on sale for $2.99 a can. At this time, I buy 6 cans. If I use 1 can a week for six weeks, and buy one can a week, I’m spending $4.99 a week on coffee for the first 5 weeks, and $2.99 for the last week. That’s an average of $4.66 a week. If I buy six cans at the sale price, the math is easier: $2.99 a week. You spend more money up front, but save in the long run. Now Andrea, you might say, That’s only $1.67 a week, that’s not much money at all. I could save that by skipping ONE latte (if you buy really, really cheap lattes)! Well, sure, it doesn’t sound like much. But for 52 weeks? That’s $86.84 a year. JUST ON COFFEE. And you know what? If I run out of Melitta before it goes on sale again, I BUY SOMETHING ELSE.

Pro Tip: I really love the flavor of Melitta’s Hazelnut Creme coffee, but it can be a little strong. Often I will buy Folgers and use half of each when I make a pot of coffee. Lighter flavor and it stretches the more expensive coffee, saving you money.

9. Check unit prices. Just because an item is in a larger package doesn’t mean it’s cheaper per unit. The larger can of tuna on the right is $4.12 per pound, while the smaller cans on the left are $3.58 per pound. Again, it might be more convenient for you to purchase a larger can of tuna, particular if you’re making a large batch of tuna salad or tuna noodle casserole (mmmm, tuna noodle casserole), but it might be more expensive!


10. Double check your grocery list. Make sure everything you’re going to need is on that list! If you miss something, you’re just going to have to haul your butt out in the rain or snow to pay a premium for it later. Pro Tip: NEVER buy standard groceries from a convenience store, even milk. Convenience comes at a premium. Example: pre-cut onions in the produce section. Onions are DIRT CHEAP (I buy them 5 lbs. for $2 at my produce market) and don’t take long to cut up. Do it yourself! (Also, you can save the cleaner bits of onion trimmings and other vegetable trimmings in your freezer and make veggie stock when you have enough.)

Phew! Now you’re FINALLY ready to put your coat on and head out to the grocery store(s). Stay tuned for Part II! (PS – It took me longer to write this post than it does to make my grocery list every week.)

How to Lose 100 Lbs Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking the Bank: Part II – Know What You Consume

So you’ve checked your liquid calories and cut back where you could. Hopefully in that process you’ve shed some

Drink more water!
Drink more water!

pounds and upped your water intake. This helps in more than one way, by the way: drinking more water helps flush your body and keep you hydrated, it’s great for your skin, aids digestion, and helps you feel full. It also makes you pee a lot. (Take it from a 160-ounce a day drinker! I may or may not be overly interested in the color of my pee.) Pro Tip: If you think you may be hungry, drink a big glass of water and wait 15 minutes. If you’re still hungry, eat. If you’re not, you may just have been thirsty: the body’s signals for thirst and hunger can be easily confused.

Business Dog says "Get to the point, Andrea!"
Business Dog says “Get to the point, Andrea!”

Anyway, back to business. The next thing I did on my journey to become healthier was to find out how many calories I was eating on a daily basis. Remember, I hadn’t yet changed my eating habits. I was still 252 pounds, but I was moving in the right direction. I wanted to make another small change, but the advice around the internet for a woman to eat 1200 calories a day to lose weight just did not fly for me. It sounded like torture! I’m 5’10” tall. That’s just too little food for me to subside on without becoming a raging crankypants. I figured if I knew how many calories I was consuming, I could cut back a little bit at a time and still lose without being miserable. So I scoured the internet for a place where I could track my food easily, and I remembered that I already had an account on from way back in 2008 when I had tried to lose before.

SparkPeople is a FREE website where you can track your food, exercise, and water intake, find recipes, articles, message boards and blogs about other people who are also trying to lose weight. I often describe it as Facebook for people who want to lose weight. Now I’m not compensated in any way by SparkPeople, I’m pimping it here because I USE IT and it works for me. I’ve been there full-time since April 2012, and I log in every day. If you don’t like the look and style of SparkPeople, there are many other options you can use: MyFitnessPal, FitBit (if you have a FitBit device) and LoseIt! are just a few. All of them have apps for your phone as well. Use whichever works for YOU. (Side note: You’re going to be hearing me say “do what works for YOU” a lot around here. It’s kinda sorta my motto. Diet, lifestyle, journey, method, whatever you want to call it, there isn’t one that works for everybody, because we live in this crazy diverse world where people are different, gosh darn it. To quote Martha Stewart, “And that’s a good thing.”)

My food scale.
My food scale.

For at least a week, just track your normal food intake. Be as accurate as you can. I invested in a digital food scale

right off the bat: weighing food can be much more accurate than measuring by volume, particularly with things that are oddly shaped. Potato chips, in particular, are better weighed than measured. Why? Because when the chips are whole, they take up more room volumetrically then when they’re broken into the crumbs you always find at the bottom of the bag. There’s a reason the nutritional information given on the back of the bag is related to weight. By the way, I’m not telling you to eat potato chips, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m telling you that *I* ate potato chips. I still do, actually. More on that in future blog entries. I’m also telling you that I TRACKED those potato chips in my food tracker, and I STILL FREAKIN’ DO. Whether I go over my calories or stay within my range, I track. Period. (There are very rare occasions where I am at a party and it’s just impossible to track what I’m eating. If it’s simple, I just guesstimate, but I always assume I ate more calories than I think I did. If it’s complicated, like a recent family party, I just track the rest of the day and skip that meal, and I try to eat more lightly the rest of the day.) Just the other night I blew my calories on an assortment of Reese’s peanut butter treats. Two Reeses trees leftover from Christmas, and FOUR, count ‘em, FOUR individual cups. Ugh. Yes I went over my calories, yes I tracked them. Why? So when I gain a few pounds, I can check my food tracker to see where exactly I went wrong. It’s called accountability.

"Andrea, I don't believe you."
“Andrea, I don’t believe you.”

Once you have your week’s worth of calories consumed, take a good look at how many calories you’re consuming a day. For me, at over 250 pounds, it was close to 2,500 calories a day. I was also, despite thinking I was “active”, sedentary. I basically had a desk job, I drove to and from work and parked close, and when I got home from work I would cook myself dinner and play video games on my backside for hours, stopping only for snacks, which usually consisted of Doritos, potato chips or ice cream. According to the USDA a 30 year old woman who is sedentary should only be eating 1800 calories a day to maintain a healthy weight, but the fine print says that woman is 5’4” tall and 126 lbs. Yeah, that wasn’t me. So, what then? How do you lose weight without feeling like you’re starving to death? Well, I cut back a little at a time. I don’t really remember how much it was right off the bat, but I’m pretty sure I decided to eat within an 1800-2200 calorie range. For a person of a healthy weight with a moderately active lifestyle, this is maintenance range (In fact, I’m eating around this amount right now, when I’m not bingeing on Reeses cups!) but for someone who is almost 100 lbs overweight, it’s weight loss range. So I ate at that range, and again, I lost!

If you’re as overweight as I was, and you want a good idea of what you’ll be eating when you reach your goal weight, the first thing you need to know is what your goal weight should be! I’ll be honest: my goal weight changed over time. Yours might, too. My doctor advised me to stick to the high end of the BMI chart, which is just under 25. (Yes, yes, I know the BMI chart is mostly bull hockey, as it doesn’t take into account your muscle mass, but when you’re morbidly obese it’s a good guideline to start out with. It’s not the be all end all of determinants but it helps.) So I scoured the interwebs for an ideal weight calculator. (You can find a good one here at the CDC website.) For a 30-something woman who is 5’10” tall, a good weight range for me is between 129-174 lbs. So, I was originally aiming for 174 lbs, or a loss of just over 100 lbs. A HUNDRED POUNDS. This was the first time I realized I was more than a hundred pounds overweight. I may have freaked out a little. I mean, I’d always known I was fat. I’d basically been fat since birth, and when you’re a fat kid all the other kids let you know, am I right? But a HUNDRED POUNDS overweight? I was gobsmacked. I’d already lost 23 of them, but still, it’s a shock.

BMI Calc
There’s that word again: OBESE!

If all of this seems a little overwhelming to you, it’s okay. I promise you that despite it feeling like a lot of work in the beginning, but it’s worth it, and on top of (hopefully) losing weight you will also learn about portion sizes, nutrition and how your body works. If you want a quick and dirty way to figure out how many calories you should be consuming without going under, use this rule of thumb: Figure out what your weight would be at the top end of your weight range. For me, that’s 174 lbs. Then use a daily calorie intake estimator to figure out your maintenance calories at your goal weight. For this exercise, you’re going to need your age. I was 30 when I started losing weight, and I’m 33 now, so I’ll use 33 as my maintenance age. (You can find a good daily calorie intake estimator here at The Mayo Clinic website.)

You enter your info like so:


So, if you want to maintain a weight of 174 as a 33-year old woman who’s 5’10” tall, you’d want to eat a maximum of 2100 calories. To maintain a weight of 275 with the same stats, you’d want to eat a maximum of 2250 calories. Not a huge difference, is it? If you’re eating 2250 calories a day, and cut 150 calories a day (that’s just a snack, really), in a year you could potentially lose 15.64 lbs. Not bad, eh? Just by skipping ONE snack a day!

“But Andrea, I have way more to lose than 15 lbs, and a year is FOREVER! Can’t I lose faster than that?”

You can, and you may. But this is A Measured Life, and we do things the slow way.

Stay tuned for Part III!

Click here to read Part I. 

Workout Wednesday: Tabata Cardio

High Knees
Who doesn't love getting their butt kicked by a ball of iron?
Who doesn’t love getting their butt kicked by a ball of iron?

If you were to do an informal survey of my friends and family, they would undoubtedly tell you that my favorite way to workout is kettlebells. Honestly, if I hadn’t had several people suggest bells to me, I might still hate exercise. I do a kettlebell workout on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and while it’s an incredible workout, it’s not as much cardio as I should be doing, so I’ve decided to add in some additional, short workouts on my “off” days. That’s where tabata comes in.

Tabata is a highly customizable, 4-minute long High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout. Yeah, you read that right, four minutes. You can link together multiple variations to create a 20-minute long workout if you so choose. Here’s a brief history of tabata workouts from

Tabata training was discovered by Japanese scientist Dr. Izumi Tabata and a team of researchers from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo.Tabata and his team conducted research on two groups of athletes: one group trained at a moderate intensity level while the other group trained at a high intensity level. The moderate intensity group worked out five days a week for a total of six weeks; each workout lasted one hour. The high intensity group worked out four days a week for six weeks; each workout lasted four minutes and 20 seconds (with 10 seconds of rest in between each set).

The results; group one had increased their aerobic system (cardiovascular), but showed little or no results for their anaerobic system (muscle). Group two showed much more increase in their aerobic system than group one, and increased their anaerobic system by 28 percent.

In conclusion, high intensity interval training has more impact on both the aerobic and anaerobic systems.

In short, a tabata workout has three requirements:

  • Do the activity as hard as you possibly can for 20 seconds
  • Rest for 10 seconds
  • Repeat for a total of 8 times

Sound easy? Try it. I was introduced to tabata a couple of years ago by a blogger on SparkPeople: she kept talking about this strange form of exercise I had never heard of before. I was intrigued by the length of the workout – how could I not do a workout that was only 4 minutes long and highly adaptable to what I could or couldn’t do? With boredom being my biggest blockade to working out, the variability of tabata was appealing. I started simply, with jumping jacks and high knees.

Jumping Jacks
Jumping Jacks
High Knees
High Knees

At 100 pounds overweight, this workout WIPED ME OUT! I had trouble catching my breath, my throat burned, I was sweating and thirsty after just four minutes. I couldn’t believe how tired I was. Admittedly, I did tabata for a few weeks, then quit. I honestly can’t remember why. But when considering cardio workouts to supplement my strength training, I decided to try again. So yesterday I did the same workout before breakfast. Not quite as difficult as before, but still challenging! Still breathing hard and thirsty, and definitely got my heart rate up. I only did four minutes, but I think I’m going to add on additional exercises over the next few weeks to lengthen the workout, and I’m going to try to do it 3 days a week.

If you’re interested in tabata, there are a ton of resources on the web, but there are a few good examples at Muscle and Fitness and a great list of links at Pop Sugar.

Have you tried or are you interested in trying tabata? Let me know in the comments!

%d bloggers like this: