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Plan Your Meals for the Next Week

Welcome to the 20 Habit Challenge, where we break down key habits that can help you simplify and transform your money, home, and life!

Have you ever had a stressful day where you're pretty much drained and just want to crash at home? What do you do for dinner?

I'll be honest – for me that siren call of the drive-thru has won out.

Save Money, Get Healthy

For many people, when they start tracking their spending, one area that seems to be way more than they expected is their meals out.

Those last-minute decisions that felt like smart (okay, easy) choices were really sucking up their money and throwing off their budget.

And I don't think I have to tell you that eating out consistently is not only bad for your wallet, but it's more than likely killing your waistline and health.

Those fast food and fast casual places tend to be heavy on the calories.

Today's habit is about getting better control over your health.

Plan Your Meals for the Next Week

I want you to plan out your meals for the next seven days.

That's it.

Why am I asking you to do this?

There are a few reasons:

  • Planning ahead will help you resist the fast food temptation. If you know you have something ready (or easy to whip up) at home, you're more likely to drive past the drive-thru.
  • You'll become aware and develop more discipline with your food choices. We literally are what we eat. Planning out your meals will allow you to design a more balanced plan.
  • You free up cash for better things. I don't know anybody that absolutely loves eating a ton of fast and convenient foods. The appeal of them is that they're quick. Save your money for what really matters to you.

Now if you want to do a deep dive with your meal plan, go right for it, but it's not necessary.

All I want you to do is to jot down what you'd like to eat. Mondays could be nachos or tacos, Tuesday you'll do a quick stir fry. You can also eat out one night, just make it a part of your plan.

The more mindful you are with your food, the easier it is to make better choices.

And with a plan for the week, it'll make grocery shopping quicker because you know what you need instead of guessing and grabbing some unnecessary extras. Win-win!

Being aware of what your eating can have a huge benefit for your health and for your wallet.

Easy and Healthy Meal Plans for Busy People

When it's new, planning out your meals can seem difficult so here are some easy meal plans that can help you get healthy while still eating like a foodie (without going broke!).

Use them for inspiration (or just follow if you want the work done for you) so you can worry less about getting it right and instead get excited about trying this out.

Your Take on Meal Planning

I'd love to hear from you and get your take. Have you ever planned your meals ahead? How did it work out? Do you have any favorite go-to dishes for those busy nights?

4 Keys to Maximizing Your Food Forest or Permaculture Garden’s Productivity

With fall here, I'm working on two goals for our little Amazon food forest:

  • Growing our cool weather crops to finish up this year's harvest
  • Prepping the food forest (along with some new areas in the yard) for springtime

Looking forward to having more broccoli, carrots, and cabbage, so we're making sure that we stay on top of things.

I'm not an expert by any means, but I'm proud of the progress we've seen so far and I want to continue it.

4 Keys to a Productive Permaculture Garden or Food Forest

Over the years, I've been learning and I want to highlight some key steps that have made a huge difference with making sure the garden produces well.

Prepare Your Soil

Your soil is the backbone of your garden or food forest. If it's poor, you're not going to get the results you want with your plants.

Ideally, you’d prepare your soil before planting, but if you notice your vegetables and fruits not growing as well as you hope for, you may want to go ahead and get your soil tested.

You can go a local garden store and pick up a kit. They are inexpensive and they usually have suggested remedies for the most common problems.

I'd also look at your state's department of agriculture to see what programs they offer.

Properly Water Your Plants

I have been guilty of overwatering my plants when I first started gardening. I had a hard time gauging how much was enough. Overwatering can rot the roots which in turn, ruin your harvest.

One route you can take is using a plant like lettuce to be your guide for when it’s time to water. If you’re up for some messy fun, you can check the soil itself. if it is hard and very compact, then it’s time to water.

If you’re up for some messy fun, you can check the soil itself. If it is hard and very compact, then it’s time to water.

Protect Your Food Forest from Hungry Pests

I discovered the hard way that squirrels, rabbits, and deers love to nibble on your plants. I actually had some watermelons that I was looking forward to enjoying and when I went to pick, I noticed the back half had been chewed on.

A few years ago, I had some watermelons that I was looking forward to enjoying all summer and when I went to pick, I noticed the back half had been chewed on.

Want to avoid my pain and anguish?  You can protect your plants by making your own pest deterrent with homemade hot pepper sprays.

I also plan and plant just a bit extra for my ‘neighbors' so we can both enjoy the veggies and fruits.

Manage Weeds Wisely

Nobody wants to see invasive weeds take over their garden. You can go with a low-tech and easy solution by mixing 50 and 50 hot water and vinegar.

Spray the weeds for the next few days. The vinegar will help you be able to pull it up by the roots.

It also pays to know your plants. You may find that keeping some ‘weeds' is beneficial for you.

Thoughts on Gardening

If you're growing a garden or food forest, what have been key steps in making sure you're seeing a good harvest?

Welcome to the Amazon Food Forest!

One of the reasons we fell in love with our house is because of space. Besides the awesome house, we had more land than we expected.

Once the papers were signed, it was time to get to work. Last year we started off small and I set up a tiny spot by the back door to be our garden space.

Things went well until July when the constant sun pretty much baked most of our veggies.

I decided that for the next year, I'd move to a better spot. The problem was decided where.

The back had an area that could work, but there were a few major things we needed to do to get it ready.

Turning a Weedy Sandy Space Into a Garden

One of the first tasks we needed to deal with before we started the garden was beefing up the soil.

When we first moved that back side area was covered with weeds, some taller than my husband (who's just over six feet).

Once they were chopped down, though, we discovered that the soil was not great for what we wanted to grow. It was really sandy, which meant water and nutrients can pass through quickly. T

Translation for us? More work to keep it watered and fertilized.

To prepare such a large space and stick with our budget, I decided to go with the lasagna garden.

Lasagna Gardening 101

Like the name suggests, lasagna gardening is about building layers.

The first layer is either brown corrugated cardboard (like we had from the move and Amazon) or three or four layers newspaper laid right on top of the area you're building up.

You then lay down soil, compost, mulch on top. The box breaks down into material to help the soil and you block the weeds from below from springing up.

With other house projects going, we stayed frugal and used a huge pile of wood chips in various stages of decomposing.

We had gotten it from chopping down our trees in the back.

We also strategically incorporated leaves we collected during autumn, included some material from the compost pile, and straw.

You can also use:

  • Food scraps like vegetables and fruit
  • Grass clippings
  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea leaves
  • Garden trimmings

You get the idea – anything you'd use to dump into a compost pile can be used in your lasagna garden.

One thing that helped speed things along was pre-soaking the boxes before laying them. This allowed them to break down faster.

From Garden to Food Forest

Once we looked at the how the space was developing, I thought we could step things up a bit with our garden plan.

Instead of a large garden, we thought starting a food forest would be a better fit.

What's the difference between a garden and a food forest?

Besides the scale in terms of size, a food forest is about long term productivity. The permaculture piece is how you design it.

With a food forest, you're creating systems that mimic nature.

We're using permaculture ideas like companion planting to help protect our vegetables and fruits, but also increase yield.

A food forest can be created in your backyard. Each year you can observe the results, adjust as needed, and build up the ecosystem.

If you're curious about how to include companion planting in your garden this year, I'd like to recommend checking Permaculture Homestead, Carrots Love Tomatoes, and this handy chart.

Less Work on You, Less Stress on Land

Using permaculture methods meant we could not only help improve the environment but give ourselves a bit of a break.

The lasagna method meant we didn't have to do any double digging or tilling.  A double win!

Thoughts on a Food Forest

Since we used boxes to jumpstart things, we thought it would be appropriate to refer to it as our Amazon food forest.

I'll share updates with pictures soon, so you can get a better idea of the benefits and challenges of growing one.

I'd love to hear from you. How many of you have a home garden? How did you build up and prepare it? Have you started a food forest or thinking of one?

5 Delicious, Cheap, and Easy Restaurant Style Meals

Who doesn't enjoy a fantastic and delicious meal at a restaurant? We've had some great dishes and stories over the years that we cherish. (I'm still searching for cooking that came close to that hole in the wall Thai place in Los Angeles!)

Cheap & Easy Restaurant Recipes

However, going out to eat can be pricey. We've learned, though, that with a little bit of effort and we could have more nights in without sacrificing a delicious meal.

If you're looking to recreate some special meals, I gathered dinner recipes based around five different themes that are popular at restaurants.

Steakhouse Classic

We've learned that minimal seasoning and a good cut of meat makes all the difference with steak dinners.

When my husband got our grill he quickly dove into all things steak and honestly, I now prefer his ribeye over most places.

Seafood Delight

Are you a fan of the beach? These recipes highlight some great seafood!

If you're outside and the meal has you filled up, you can skip dessert and have a mojito (or nojito) instead to cool off.

Quiet Night In

Sometimes the weather dictates that dinner at home would be best. That doesn't mean it has to be boring.

Have a good time in the kitchen preparing this and then enjoy the fruits of your labor with a Netflix binge.

Delicious and Easy Stew

Admit – sometimes you just don't want to be in the kitchen. Tired, busy, whatever the reason, your best friend on those days is a crockpot.

With the stew being so hearty you can skip an appetizer.

Comfort Food

I love getting a pork shoulder done for get togethers. It's easy to make and there is plenty to go around.

Enjoying Eating Out

Even though we enjoy having a  fantastic meal at home, we still have date nights out. It's all about having balance.

Having upped our cooking game, though, we're a bit choosier when we go out to restaurants.

By the way, if you want to get some fantastic clone recipes from popular restaurants,  try out CopyKat. I also have some easy to make recipes on Married Food.

I'd love to hear from you – what are some of your favorite meals?

How to Slash Your Food Bill in Half and Save Serious Time!

Want to feed your family well, but without breaking the budget? Learn how you can slash your grocery bills in half with this key item!

Food is a big deal in my house.

Not only because we love to eat (we do!), but if you look at our budget, it's kind of a big deal.

We're not big spenders –  If the quality and taste are the same, store brands are our preference. Still, with a family of four, groceries can easily balloon and take a huge chunk of money.

One helpful tool we used is a price book.

I know it sounds old school and might scare you off, but let me show you why and how it works and then a few tools you can use to save next time you go grocery shopping.

The Power of Grocery Price Books

In short, a price book tracks how much certain food costs. Some people like to break it down and list prices from several stores while others (like me), jot down the lowest average price and where you found it.

The idea is that you'll not only save money by knowing where the best deals are, but you'll also avoid having to hunt around a few stores trying to get a great price.

I'm all for saving money, but I'm happier having my time saved as well.

How to Create a Price Book

Having a price book isn’t complicated and doesn't take long. You can make it as high or low tech as you want.

Here are a few steps to get you started:

  • Make a list of groceries to track. Here's where people can give themselves more work than they need to. You don't have to track every little item you've ever shopped for! Instead look at your meal and the grocery list you created. Chances are there are several core staples on your list. Focus on those.
  • Record as you shop. Visit your normal grocery stores and record the price and the size amount for each item. You can jot down on paper or use an app like Google Notes or Evernote.
  • Review your finding. You can load up the data on a spreadsheet and figure out who has the deal by comparing unit prices (apples to apples comparison).

Boom! You're done.

You now can base your shopping trips on who has the best value for certain products.

You’ll discover trends on certain items and where you’ll most likely find the best deal.

Save More on Your Groceries

If you want to shave a bit more from your food budget without taking time out of your schedule, I have a few more tips:

  • Use a price book along with paper and printable online grocery coupons can drastically cut down your bills.
  • Buy meat in bulk and freeze. We try to get a good amount of meat on sale, divide it up for several meals, and then freeze it. That tip drops the cost per pound down. When we get home, for example, I have broken down ground beef into several bags for meatloaf, spaghetti, tacos, hamburger helper, etc.
  • Take advantage of sales that you’d actually buy without the sale. Sometimes I want to buy something because it’s on sale. It’s not something that we use a lot or even at all. When you do that you’re not really saving money, you’re spending more. It’s not bad if you do this once a shopping trip if you want to expand your menu, but if you’re on a tight budget, try to minimize this.

Hope this helps you guys!

International (Food) Delights on the Cheap

I have a confession to make – when we were first married, I was known as the ‘microwave queen'. I didn't really cook because I thought making the dishes I loved was hard and expensive.

Turns out I was wrong on both counts.

Though I'm no chef, I've expanded my skills and recipes enough that cooking is kind of fun.

International Cusine on the Cheap

We still go out from time to time and we love discovering new cuisines. Turns out we're not the only ones.

Justin McCurry, early retiree and Root of Good creator, joined me for a chat today about cooking international dishes.

During our chat we covered:

  • how to find great ingredients at low prices
  • easy (as just Justin puts it ‘Hamburger helper easy') dishes you can try out
  • a few gems that can help you up your game with cooking

You can watch the video below or read a few of the highlights I've included.

Hope you enjoy!

Stock Your Pantry Right

It all starts with ingredients. What you have in your pantry and fridge will determine just how tasty your dishes are.

Fresh, high-quality ingredients with your herbs and seasoning can also be a very affordable way to expand your palette and try out some new flavors from around the world.

When I was researching for the Frugal Foodie challenge, I went back to one of my favorite books, The 4-Hour Chef.

In it, Tim lays out regions of the world based on flavors in a cheat sheet format. While there er were some unique items on the list, you'd be surprised how many times garlic, onions, citrus, cilantro, and ginger came up.

It was the combinations that make what we associate with certain cuisines. That means with some key ingredients, you can easily mix things up with your dishes at home.

These herbs and base ingredients are usually inexpensive in your neighborhood grocery store, but you can typically get them even lower by shopping at an Asian, Latin, or International market.

Justin picks up items like Somen, rice noodles, coconut milk, and chipotles at markets really cheap, but still high quality.

You may even find some deals on Amazon, like Justin has with curry paste!

Learn How Cook Quickly

Like anything new, it may take a minute to get familiar with how to prepare a dish. The good news is that there are plenty of resources (many free!) where you can get what you need.

I mentioned using books, but there are websites and videos available online where you can get an ingredient list and see the dish being made. 

Just type in ‘easy  

‘ into Google and you'll probably find plenty of options!

Start Exploring and Experimenting in Your Kitchen

Looking to try something new this week? I found a cheat sheet on flavors from 36 regions of the world which also includes recipes. Here are a few really easy dishes that caught my eye:

Here are a few really easy dishes that caught my eye:

Try a couple of them out and see which flavors grab you!