I’ve been a huge fan of meal planning ever since my husband and I were on the television show Fixing Dinner. We have all of host Sandi Richard’s cookbooks, including her latest, Eating Forward, and plan our meals one to three weeks in advance.
But as life gets busier, I’ve been relying more and more on freezer meals prepared in advance. A while back I participated in two meal prep days with large groups (16+ people) at a community kitchen, where we all went home with 20 meals. More recently, I helped organize a Big Cook with two other busy moms, a group meal prep day using recipes from the cookbook The Big Cook.
I love having meals in the freezer I can pop into fridge each evening to defrost and then empty into the slow cooker in the morning. I’ve had friends ask why I don’t simply buy lasagnas and other freezer meals ready made, but for us it’s a matter of taste, nutrition and price. Most ready-made meals I’ve found have little flavor, far too much salt, and are prohibitively expensive compared to making our own in big batches.
If you’ve been contemplating a Big Cook, they can be a lot of fun. Here are my top tips to make the process successful and enjoyable:
Trying to organize who gets the chicken meals, who can’t have pork, or who can’t take dairy meals, is nearly impossible and makes divvying up the cash difficult.
The planning the meals to make, grocery list compilation, grocery shopping and freezer bag labeling are time consuming tasks that must be done ahead, and should be shared equally.
Do you have friends with much more disposable income than you? I have a few. It doesn’t usually bother me too much to see their Facebook status updates about the Turks & Caicos trip they just booked, or to decline their invite to an all day Michael Kors shopping spree. Ok, well maybe I get a teensy bit jealous!
But where I do get the “I wants” is when it comes to my husband and my kids. My husband doesn’t seem to mind turning down multiple wing night invites or making do with his stinky battered hockey pads for just one more season. He recently turned down a guy’s weekend away golfing for a buddy’s stag. He’s already going away for a five-day camping trip with a different set of friends the month before, and on his annual week long fishing trip the month after, but those two trips combined wouldn’t cost as much as this one golfing weekend. I know he wants to go, but it’s just not in the budget.
As for my kids, it’s the classes that I wish we didn’t miss out on. Gymnastics, skating, swimming, dance, art, lacrosse – the variety is overwhelming. With three kids, even one activity each per season can add up to thousands a year. Luckily there are plenty of free or inexpensive activities locally we can participate in, and there something to be said for less driving to classes and more family free time for playing and walks and trips to the park. At the same time though, I would love to be able to put my kids in more formal activities when their best friend forever is in the class.
When I start to feel this way, I make sure to give a few friends also on tight budgets a call to plan fun, family activities that do fit within our budget. What do you do when you get those “I wants”?
Last summer I started seeing online touting 50 – 90% off great stuff in my city – restaurants, manicures, event tickets, etc. I started paying them more attention once friends started sharing on Facebook the deals they had bought.
I signed up for Groupon, and then along came Living Social, WagJag, SwarmJam, DealFind, and Kijiji Daily Deals. Recently though, I unscubscribed from all of these lists and now use OneSpout.com, which sends me one email daily with the deals from every other company. It’s much easier to deal with, and I can compare deals easily and save them to remember what other similar offers have been advertised.
I love that when I want a pedicure, I never have to pay more than $15 - $20 now. When I want to go on a workout binge for a month or two, I can find a series of boot camps or classes for $2 - $4 per class instead of the usual $15 - $20. These coupon offers mean the disposable part of my income each month goes a lot further.
I have two big concerns about the deals though. The first is that consumers will buy deals they’ll never redeem, or spend money on something they would never have otherwise, but did because the deal was irresistible to them. One of my friends bought a deal for a boxing club, but didn’t visit it first. I bought the same deal, and knew the moment I walked into that gym, filled with teenage boys and dried blood in the sink that she was not going to be using her non-transferable membership!
My second concern is that many businesses have no idea how damaging these deals can be for their bottom line. The deal websites keep a cut of the deal – usually 50%. So the $50 off merchandise you bought for $25 actually only netted $12.50 for the store. Though the margin in a service business is generally higher than retail, most businesses can’t operate with this model. Many believe they’ll earn new, loyal customers, but I’ve yet to return to a business and pay full price for something I got for half off, and I think many others do the same.
Here’s a great article from the Wall Street Journal about just this problem.
Plus, when a business I am loyal to offers a deal I can’t use because I’m not a new customer, I feel cheated. Or I’m stuck in a moral dilemma - when one of my favourite independent retail businesses offered $50 worth of merchandise for $25, I didn’t buy it, even though I would use it. I didn’t like the idea of the store owner, who I like, getting only $12.50 for what I know costs her $25. And yet, at the counter paying for something a few weeks later, I felt like I was being ripped off – had I bought the coupon, I’d have an extra $25 in my pocket.
Finally, I worry about whether I’ll get my money back if any of these businesses in the chain close shop overnight. I’ve been stuck with useless gift certificates to retail stores before, and am hesitant to buy a deal and sit on it – I do redeem them right away.
Do you buy daily deals? Any reservations about them?