I pack a lunch 5 days a week for work, so does my husband. We're not broke, we have no dietary restrictions, we simply bring our own lunches to work, since driving home for lunch for either of us isn't an option (our commutes are 45-55 minutes one way for work each day). It takes minimal planning, some basics on hand, and a willingness to save time and money every day.

Why would we want to brown bag it every day? For me, I like to know what I'm eating, and I don't want to consume too much greasy, fried, sodium-laden dishes that are the fast-food norm - but beyond that, DH & I each work in areas that have many specialty restaurants, ethnic eateries, high-end fast-food, steak houses, and overblown casual eateries. The costs are insane. Two of my co-workers once estimated that by eating out 2-4 days a week for lunch, they spent an average of $200 a month - just on lunches. I have the added bonus of working in Illinois' infamous Cook County - where sales tax is over 10%.

Every week, I plan lunches along with all our dinners. All our lunches are interchangable - doesn't matter what one of us grabs, there are at least 3 options each day for our lunches. We each take one, and the remaining one goes into the pool of choices for the next day. I typically emphasize the first in, first out rule. We have no problems eating leftovers, so this works out well.

I also do a fair amount of what I call - leftover makeover. This week is a great example of that: I roasted a whole chicken and the leftovers are going to be used in salads, in sammies, in soup, and on a pizza. Not all weeks are like this, but 2-3 weeks each month, I make a meal that converts into many dishes easily. Browned, ground turkey (chicken or beef) or bulk sausage also works well for many meals. If you're new to this, just track for 2-3 weeks what meals you often prepare for your family - it won't take very long for a pattern to emerge.

When you see the pattern emerging, you can do some simple meal planning. You don't have to designate which meal is for which day, if that's too exacting for you. You can meal plan by day, week, or 2-4 weeks at a time. For me, the weekly meal plan with each day planned helps me see how quickly we can use a leftover so we waste less food. When I make my meal plan, I take into account how many lunches we need for the week, if we have sandwich fixings on hand, and try to tailor the meals to be easily portable and reheatable. Each week, I look at the 2 prior weeks of meals, to make sure I'm not serving the same things too often. Each week, I try to offer a different meat that covnerts well to many other dishes.

The result? I take restaurant quailty meals for my lunches, while not paying an extra dime out of pocket for it. Today, I'll be having a Spinach Salad with Mandarin Oranges and Chicken, and a wedge of parmesan focaccia bread. For tomorrow, I'll be having tostadas topped with chicken, red bell pepper strips, and some peach salsa. Where could you get a meal like that?

Tell me, how do you save money on meals? Do you meal plan, brown bag, cook from scratch? I'd love some new ideas!
I still have oodles of bread from the Jewel free bread coupon and some beautiful produce from the save $2 on any produce (price $2.00 or higher) from Jewel. I grabbed half a dozen focaccias, 3-4 loaves of raisin bread, mini-bagels, flatbread pizza crusts, and mini-croissants - all of which I've squeezed in to the freezer.

With 2 loaves of french bread left, I've got some tasty meal ideas that are easy on the budget this week!

Monday: Leftovers sandwich style. We've got plenty of leftovers from DH grilling yesterday, so I'll be turning some of the meats into sammies
Tuesday: Roasted chicken, spinach salad, rice
Wednesday: Basil Pesto Chicken Sammie on Focaccia
Thursday: Cinnamon Raisin bread with homemade peach syrup
Friday: Chicken margarita style flatbread pizza, salad
Saturday: Dinner at Caputo's in Hanover Park - $5 per person - 15 choices on their buffet!
Sunday: Soup (not sure what kind yet) and sammies
I've been having so much fun "buying" fresh blueberries and peaches with the $2 off any $2 or more produce coupon at Jewel. I've got more than 2 dozen fresh, plump, juicy peaches awaiting my attention as we speak. While I enjoy snacking on them, making them into salsa, tossing them into muffin batter, folding them into bars, or slicing them thin and adding them to a lovely spritzer - I've got more peaches than I could possibly eat right now. This is when it's time to start preserving or freezing them.

Since I don't have a big enough batch to make canning worthwhile, I'm going to peel, slice/chop, and freeze my overflow of these amazing peaches. Come the fall and winter months, I'll have plenty of peaches for pies, cobblers, muffins, and other tasty recipes I come up with - without breaking the bank. While it sounds like a lot of work, I'll probably have the peaches blanched, peeled, pitted, sliced and diced in less than an hour or two.

Last weekend, when I got home with my blueberry haul, I immediately got out the collander, tossed in the berries, removed any debris or stems, lightly patted them with a slightly damp rag (you should rinse berries just before using - not before freezing - it affects the consistency of the fruit), before measuring them and popping them into quart-sized freezer bags for easy use. The result - tons of fresh blueberries, frozen at the peak of freshness and plenty on hand for blueberry buckle, blueberry muffins, pancakes, and maybe even a blueberry sauce. I filled 13 quart-sized bags and spent only: $4.48. That's the price right now for blueberries when they are in season for one single 6 oz. pint - I'd hate to see how high that would go in the winter!

In my freezer, I already have raspberries, strawberries, and tons of apple pie filling. Each time a great coupon like this comes along, my first thought is what can I use right now. And once I've gotten the produce that my family needs for the week: bananas, grapes, cilantro, a few peppers, onions, fresh mushrooms, some salad fixin's, and a potato or two - then I look to what is in season, on sale, and will freeze well. Next, I make sure I have plenty of ways to use that fruit from its frozen form, then it's time to start planning for the colder months. They'll be here before you know it.

What would you do with a deal like this? What fruits and veggies do you put up for the winter?
I've been busy shopping, on my way to and from work, using the FREE Jewel bakery bread coupon (up to $3 value) and $2 off any produce coupon of $2 or more. In the last week, I've managed pretty well, granted this is over several transactions - one transaction per store per visit (as the coupon states). I did bring DaMama along to maximum our "girls time" and to get the biggest bang for our buck, or in this case, spare change. Here's what I've gathered so far:

3 loaves of focaccia
3 loaves cinnamon-raisin bread
2 pkgs. mini croissants
1 pkg. french rolls
1 pkg. hotdog buns
3 loaves of assorted sandwich bread (butter-cracked, white, and whole wheat)
19 fresh, local peaches
1 bag European salad blend
1 salad kit
2 bunches of banana
16 pints of blueberries
1 bunch of cilantro
1 apple

Total retail value of: $119.25
Total OOP: $9.77
Total Saved: $109.48

So far, I've frozen all the blueberries, 2 of the focaccias, the salad mixes have been used as lunches, the cilantro is nearly gone (I made salsa - also used the peaches in the salsa too - love a fruity summer salsa that's easy on the wallet!), I just need to grab some red potatoes (since they'll be free anyway...), and a few more peaches for the freezer. I'm planning an hour or two this weekend to prep and freeze the peaches - along with any other hearty produce I can get my hands on.
Jewel has printable coupons out for $2 off a $2 (or more) produce purchase and coupons out for FREE bakery bread (up to $3). These are limit one per transaction, so get in on the goodies now! Use promotional codes "freebread" or "produce" to get these awesome coupons!

I've already got some free salad mix, free dinner rolls - and I'm heading back for more on my way home tonight! I see a half pound of free cherries in my future and some bagels to toss in the freezer - love these deals!
Another crazy whirlwind weekend! My sister and her family were in town visiting - she's from Minnesota - so we don't get nearly as much time with her as we'd like. When she comes for a visit, she usually has a list of things to do (shopping, culture, entertainment, etc.) on her agenda and this time was no exception.

We made it to Brookfield Zoo - with DH & I spending nothing out of pocket. Yep, no one single cent. Here's how: Meijer offered a deal with the purchase of $15 worth of Meijer brand chips, you get a coupon for 2 free tickets to Brookfield (general admission only). When we finally got there and got parked, someone who was just leaving offered us a handful of tickets, including 2 free Stingray Bay admissions (I got to pet a cownose stingray!!), 3 free Trolley rides, and 4 free Carousel rides! Since we weren't going to use the carousel rides, we gave those to 2 families that had small children. And, we packed our own lunch and bottled water - mostly from deals I had hounded and a deli run to Caputo's the night before. My sister paid for a wagon rental, to pull our cooler, bags/purses, etc. We all had so much fun.

I took a personal day yesterday, to spend more time with my sister - we even had enough time to go through my "Market" (large pantry), and I sent some of my overstock from couponing back with her. Last night, the whole family gathered at a favorite cafe for dinner, and my sisters heads back home today. While I will miss her like cray, I'm definitely ready for some downtime with my hubby - maybe watch some TV and go for our evening walks.

Monday - Went to dinner with my mom, sister, and her family
Tuesday - Tostadas (my latest, easiest replacement for grilled cheese)
Wednesday - 10 Minute Breakfast Wraps, fresh fruit salad, hashbrowns
Thursday - Spaghetti with garden salad and garlic bread
Friday - Chicken and gnocchi soup, sammies
I'm running a day late with the meal plan - the holiday weekend has me off. Not that I'm complaining. I love a three-day weekend! I only wish more of them could happen like this. With the heat we've been experiencing lately, one of my goals is to keep the meal plan light and simple and reduce my dependence on the oven. From a frugal standpoint, it's counterproductive to run the oven when we have the A/C going. No need to make the A/C work any harder than it has to.

Monday: BBQ at the in-laws
Tuesday: Tostadas with all the fixin's
Wednesday: Paninis with munster, pastrami, and julienned bell peppers
Thursday: Rotini pasta in an alfredo sauce
Friday: Mushroom and swiss burgers, garden salad
Saturday: Date night
Sunday: ?? (DH is grilling, making pizza, or making subs - depends on the weather)

Lunch of the week: Sandwiches! We've got plenty of leftover lunchmeat and cheese, easy and quick.

Dessert of the week: Grapes, strawberries, and peaches.

Breakfast of the week: Cereal, yogurt, fresh fruit, and breakfast wraps.
This cool, refreshing twist on typical July weather has spoiled me. I'm not ready to return to the sweltering, humid mid 90 degree temperatures rather typical for July in Chicagoland. Naturally, for the 4th of July, it's supposed to be more than 90's degrees. I had been thinking of a BBQ, but with that kind of heat, lighter fare is definitely in order.

In place of the BBQ I was planning, it's time to make great use of seasonal fruits and amazing deals. Here's my 4th of July non-BBQ menu:

Red & Green Grapes
Summer Fruit Salad
Sweet Corn on the Cob
Tortilla chips and Peach Salsa
Potato Chips
Sub rolls/sandwich bread
Cold cuts/deli meat (I've got some goodies in the freezer to pick from and I"ll hit Caputos to round out my choices - they are the cheapest deli with the best selection in town)
Cheeses (Swiss, American, Cheddar, Provolone)
Italian-style chicken salad
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Pecan Sandies

The only thing I have to do is bake the cookies (probably tonight, before it gets any hotter outside) and cook the corn the day of - everything is just chopped, stirring and serving! I am so looking forward to kicking back and relaxing with this light and simple feast. What are your plans for the 4th of July? Does the weather affect what you plan to do this year?
In the Jewel Osco flyer this week, purchase 4 12packs of Coca Cola products ($2.00 each, in quantities of 4), receive a FREE package of Hillshire Farms sausage (with in-ad coupon). That's a great deal!

What will make that even better for me? I've got some winetags for $2.00 off any cola purchase of $2.01 or more. I've got 3 of those left, so here's my scenario:

4 12 packs of Coca Cola
1 pkg. Hillshire Farms sausage
-$2.00 Cola purchase winetag (x3)
-Get One Free Hillshire Farms Sausage (x1)
=$2.00 plus tax for my entire order

Guess I better look for more winetags...

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