On Budgets and Menu Planning {and Recipe: Parmesan Chicken and Biscuit Pie}

by Cate on March 22, 2012

Parmesan Biscuit and Chicken Casserole
So it seems that just when you think your mother can’t be right about one more thing, she really can be.  I am terrible when it comes to finances.  Always have been.  My sister was the super-saver.  I was the teen begging for a ride to the mall to spend a crisp $5 bill burning a hole in my pocket.  Although that temptation has long since subsided, I’m always a work in progress.

My mom suggested keeping track of where I spent every dollar (from a Starbucks run to a newspaper to paying an insurance bill) for a month.  I really just did it to reinforce the fact that I knew where I was spending money.

And, of course, I didn’t.  Not completely anyway.  For the entire month of January, I kept careful track in a little notebook I carried everywhere with me.  At the end of the month, I gave her my notes and she plugged the numbers into different categories (food, entertainment, medical, clothes, utilities, etc.).  In a glance I could instantly see how much I was spending and on what.  Some totals (food, for example) downright shocked me.  Others I had a firm handle on (more like the fixed expenses).

I was spending way too much on food.  Even rationalizing that that amount included everything from cleaning supplies and health and beauty aids, right down to cat and dog food … it was still way too much.  Even given the fact that I cook so much (and a lot of it is for freelance work).  Still.way.too.much.

The other thing that glared at me as I looked at the numbers?  If you look down the food column (which also indicates what stores the money was spent at), it showed $15 here, $3 there and oh $2.67.  There were maybe 20-25 entries for the month.  Running into the store every time I need something causes extra time, gas, and energy.  Seeing how many stops I (unknowingly) make during the course of a week (or the month) was another eye-opener for me.  Especially at what gas costs these days.  And as for extra time?  I don’t have much of it, and if I have extra time, I’d much rather spend it doing something fun with the kids, family, or friends.  Not making three trips to the grocery store in one week, you know?

So for February, I started to make little changes.  I planned menus.  For every week.  I shopped twice during the month at Shop Rite (online, see more on that below) and got nearly everything I needed.  But more importantly perhaps, I allowed for flexibility.  I might not have the exact dish on the exact night I schedule it for, but I had a plan and the ingredients, so I was ready.  I also built in nights for leftovers, foraging in the freezer, and using already-purchased pantry items.  To further grab hold of what was going on in my kitchen.

And then I went one step further.

I ordered all our grocery needs online.  There are a bunch of grocery stores that do it (including Stop ‘n Shop, Shop Rite, and Fresh Direct).  As an aside, I’m totally jealous of those of you who have Fresh Direct.  It’s gotten closer to us as a delivery zone (my mom loves it and uses it, as does my sister), but so far, they don’t deliver to our town.  Each place has pros and cons.  I use Shop Rite because I think their sales are better.  Every other Friday, I placed my order to cover what I would need for the next two weeks.  Then I supplemented it by one weekly stop at the store to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables because a) that stuff isn’t going to last two weeks and b) some of it I want to see and feel.  And then one trip every two weeks to Costco.  Because some of their items are cheaper.

So instead of making 3-4 trips a week, I was now down to six trips a month.  All told.

I honestly couldn’t wait for the end of the month (February) to see the effect this planning had on our food totals.  Ready?

$343 less a month on food.

$95 less a month on gas.

And then, all that time I saved on top of that?  Priceless.

Mom was right.  And darn it, she almost always is.  Not all the time, but certainly more often than not.

So your take-aways should you want to join in and reduce your monthly food spending…?

  1. Take one month and keep track of every penny you spend.  April is just around the corner, so it’s the perfect time to start.  Carry a little notebook with you to make it easy to jot down your spending.  Sometimes if I was out without my purse, I added the money spent to a draft email that I kept going on my BlackBerry.  Mystic says there’s a notepad feature or some such on the BlackBerry that would make that even easier, but that’s one more thing I don’t need to figure out right now.
  2. Plan your menus, but give yourself flexibility.  Make sure to allow days for the occasional eating out, leftovers, and using what you have on hand.
  3. Consider getting your grocery needs delivered.  While there is a nominal charge, you also save time and gas, and all those spur-of-the-moment purchases that add up fast, especially if you shop with others.
  4. Use coupons, use coupons, use coupons.
  5. Consider unusual sources for some of the items you need.  Taking the “saving time and gas” vein one step further, I actually got a lot of things through Amazon.  For many of their grocery and health and beauty items, they have a Subscribe and Save feature.  If you sign up for regular delivery of some things, you’ll save even more on their discounted price, and get free shipping to boot.  You can choose how often you want something delivered.  For example, I get a case of cat food delivered every six weeks.  I don’t have to worry about running out or buying it, and it’s delivered to my door for a few dollars less than if I went out and bought it.  I think I have six items now, so far, that I set up for regular delivery with their Subscribe and Save program, including dishwasher detergent.
  6. Like with everything else, know your prices.  Some things are cheaper at wholesale clubs.  Some aren’t.  Not everything is cheaper with Amazon’s Subscribe and Save deals.
  7. Go through your kitchen cabinets, drawers, freezer, and pantry.  Know what you have, and plan to use it.  My MO is that I tend to find a new recipe and go out and buy the ingredients, instead of seeing what I can make with what I have already at home.  Oh the excitement of new recipes!  ;)  So that’s why I have a “pantry day” and “freezer day” built into our weekly menus.

Ok, those are the basics for how I slashed our monthly food expenses most recently.  At least for now.  There are a few more things we’ve tweaked, both with food and otherwise, along the way since this is the third month of doing this, but that’s content for another day.  In fact, come April you can join me here for Cate’s Live Better for Less Challenge.

Now for today’s recipe.

My mom is a big fan of the Cupcake Doctor, and recently bought a copy of her last dinner cookbook.  She actually liked it so much she bought two copies of it.  I skimmed through it, looking for something easy to add to our menu plan last week, using some ingredients I had in the pantry already, and came across this recipe for Parmesan Chicken and Biscuit Pie.  Taking a page from Sandra Lee, this cookbook uses some pre-made items and some fresh items.  Knowing I had chicken and vegetables on hand already, this casserole was an easy weeknight meal.

It’s not an OMG-I-can’t-wait-to-have-it-again type of recipe, but it’s a quiet one that fits the bill on a busy weeknight.  Everything in one dish, and painless to make, taking just five minutes of your time to get it into the oven.  Nick went back for seconds and Madeline ate everything, which is rare for her these days.  One batch of this served two adults, two kids, and left just enough for a co-worker’s lunch the next day.

March 22, 2012 – Bonus Photos (a bunch today!)
hearts are everywhere
Hearts can be found where you least expect them. I took Madeline’s car seat to the car wash to vacuum it out so I could consign it, and spied this painted near the dumpster.

This was behind their building, which was slightly weird in a fun, unexpected way.

thai chopped chicken salad at panera
I always forget the heat that the Thai Chopped Chicken Salad from Panera packs. I inhaled it nonetheless.

Madeline patiently waiting
Madeline and Maxwell waiting for Nick to come home from school.

Luke waiting
Even the cat was waiting. I love the perspective you can get taking pictures on the floor. That, and if I put the camera on the ground, as I did with some of these, I don’t need to worry about how unsteady my hand is.

Peanut snack time
Maxwell was concentrating more intently on peanut distribution than waiting for Nick. Mostly because Madeline sometimes drops them.  (She has a jar of roasted peanuts in front of her)

homemade lava light without the light
Nick brought home an experiment that they did after school in a Science enrichment class. A lava light without the light.

Luke inspects Nick's work

bonding moment

feed me

smell my feet
“Maxwell, smell my feet.” I kid you not.

fast friends


Parmesan Chicken and Biscuit Pie
Recipe courtesy of Anne Byrn and The Cake Mix Doctor Returns

2 cups shredded cooked chicken
2 cups frozen mixed vegetables (I used this from Schwans, that I had on hand)
1 can (10.75 oz) Cream of Chicken soup
Half a soup can (about 5-1/2 oz) of heavy cream or half-and-half (I used half-and-half)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
6 unbaked frozen biscuits (each 2 inches in diameter)
3 tablespoons pre-grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 425F. Combine the chicken, frozen vegetables, chicken soup, and cream in a large mixing bowl. Season with black pepper. Transfer the filling to an 11×7 (2 quart) glass or ceramic baking dish and smooth the top with a rubber spatula. Arrange the frozen biscuits on top of the filling in two rows of 3. Sprinkle the tops of the biscuits with the Parmesan cheese. Bake the pie until the biscuits are golden brown and the filling is bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve at once.

Serves 6 (no way, see review above)

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Betsy March 23, 2012 at 12:00 am

I’ve been writing down what I spend (trying to use just cash) since its easy for me to just use my credit card, and the amount of money in my wallet doesn’t change when I do that. Plus, they say you spend way less when you have to take out the bills (hellloooo, Whole Foods).

Another thing I used to do, is that if I saved myself money by not doing something, I would put in in my money jar. For example, if I brought my lunch, I figured I saved X amount of money vs buying lunch near work., so some cash in the jar. Or, say I was tempte d to buy a book, or a magazine, or a treat at Starbucks, I would put a couple of bucks in my jar. Amazing how it would add up.

I also try to eat to use up things in my freezer — just like you mentioned. Also I’ve become much more flexible with recipes, if a recipe calls for a pricey ingredient/condiment, I might pass on it. Or if I do buy it, I make sure it doesn’t languish in pantry. Or if a recipe calls for a tiny amount of some ingredient, I might just leave it out if no real biggie, rathet than spend money on that herb etc.


Betsy March 23, 2012 at 12:07 am

Sorry for the typos in my earlier comment.

Oh, and congrats on the big savings! Great job. It’s amazing once you look and see where the money goes.

I’ve saved a good amount of money by calling companies….. called my local paper and said I was thinking of canceling my sub any discounts (yes),. Also, called my phone company and they did a review of my bill and saved so money by tweaking a few things. They put me in one of their new promos. Same with cable. I would DEFINITELY suggest that if you don’t typically do that (and one has to periodically call). It actually ticks me off, that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Not really fair, but that’s a whole nother story. Ha.


Joanne March 23, 2012 at 6:23 am

I am AMAZED that you saved that much! Okay…no more midweek grocery store trips for me either….

Oh I can totally believe that smell my feet business…maybe because I’ve seen it live and in person!


paula March 23, 2012 at 8:09 am

While I didn’t add up everything I was spending (I already knew it was way TOO much), I have started to buckle down financially and food is also one of my worst areas. I’ve been concentrating on eating down our current stock of food. I keep enough food on hand to feed an army for some reason. It’s ridiculous. I avoid going into stores with my boys (who insist on buying boxed mac n cheese and yogurt every time!) as much as I can.

I have to do a budget. Facing reality is hard. We share custody 50/50 but I have to pay 100% of daycare and medical insurance premiums.


Ramona March 23, 2012 at 10:13 am

That is one great looking dog. I luv any kind of chicken pot pie.

Have a great weekend.

Moms…..do usually know best.


Sarah March 23, 2012 at 10:42 am

Can I borrow your mom? Seriously though, this is amazing. I know I am way overspending, and need to take a serious approach like this to get it under control. I can’t wait to hear more about Cate’s Live Better for Less Challenge. Count me in!


christy March 23, 2012 at 2:26 pm

You all need to try using Mint.com!! It has saved me and my husband a lot of time and money. Instead of writing down everything you plug in your different bank accounts and it tracks it all for you. We check the site once a week to see where we stand with our spending. You can set budgets and different goals. Its great!


bobolink March 23, 2012 at 4:34 pm

I read on line about someone who tries to use cash often and never spends a $5 bill received as change. She keeps the fives in an envelope, but if banks ever begin to give interest again it would be better in the bank. Just imagine! By the end of the year you could probably buy all your gifts with cash and eliminate the Janauary credit card bill entirely!


Patrizia March 23, 2012 at 8:02 pm

I have come to learn that moms are always right…and it stinks. But one day, it will be me :-)

Our food budget is out of control!


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