The Ingredient Chain

If I had a nickel for every time I said or heard “Grocery budgets are all about planning ahead,” I wouldn’t have to plan anything.  Unfortunately, life is not so simple.  Since I’ve started trying to eat at home most of the time, I’ve developed a real love-hate relationship with planning meals.  I might have a vague idea of what I want, go shop without a list, and then realize I’m missing ingredients, or I might have the fridge and pantry fully stocked only to have my work hijacked by dinners out or busy days turning into exhausted nights when I’m grading papers instead of cooking dinner.  This can be irritating for many reasons, but the main problem for me is that I hate to waste money and food.  I can’t stand having to throw away something that was perfectly good because I forgot to cook it, but what bothers me just as much if not more is having to throw away the leftover food that I didn’t need for a recipe.  It seems like such a waste to have to buy more than I need of something and not have a plan for the rest.  And since grocers tend to frown on you slicing off what you need in the produce department and leaving the rest behind, we need a better idea.

I don’t have all the answers (or so I’m told), but I have recently come up with a kind of a solution to this problem.  This was really just a last-minute epiphany before I went shopping, but with more planning than I put in, it could really become a long-term groove.

It’s getting a little warmer outside (yay!), so I was in the mood for a burger.  Not just any burger, though – a black bean burger.  I have a pretty amazing recipe that includes sweet potatoes, leeks, and lots of spices, and I actually have started to prefer that to a “real” burger.  The problem is that this recipe calls for two tablespoons of finely chopped leaks.  I present to you what you can buy at the grocery store:
IMG_6708Yeah, so not exactly two tablespoons.  I’ve wasted leeks before, but this time I started thinking: what else can I do with them?  Is there a way I can use those leftovers to make another meal?  Well, yeah.  Potato and leek soup.  Just my luck, a five-pound bag of potatoes was on sales for $1.99 this week.  Into the cart they went.

IMG_6712-2But then came the next problem.  I don’t need five pounds of potatoes for soup for two people!  I also have found through trial and error and wasted food that I don’t need five pounds of mashed potatoes for two people.  Problem solved.  I decided to use the leftover potatoes that I didn’t need for the soup made from the leftover leeks to make a smaller batch of mashed potatoes and have it with chicken.

IMG_6716You see where I’m going with this.  You might be thinking “But wait, three chicken breasts for two people doesn’t add up either.”  Well, it doesn’t, but I’ll still cook the third and one of us will eat it for lunch. I usually cook chicken paillard, which is quick and easy, and for that you cut off the tenders.  I’ve used the leftover breast and tenders to make a version of chicken marsala served with rice or GF pasta, or I’ve cooked it and tossed it into a salad.  My point is, I’m not worried about the leftover chicken – it will find a place.

So what’s my point here?  If you can look ahead a few days – realistically look ahead, that is – you can actually plan meals with overlapping ingredients and save money and food.  I first had the idea of cooking the burgers, and when I started considering my leftover ingredients, I let those guide me to my next dinner.  It sounds like a Food Network challenge, doesn’t it?  (You heard it here first.)  In reality, I’m in a stretch of having great meals with just enough left over for lunch the next day and using everything I can.  Let the cycle continue!