This Professional Chef and Empty Nester Cooks Gourmet Meals on $75 a Week

She shops seasonally and locally, but on a budget. Here's how.

Anne Marie Schukar
Photo: Courtesy of Anne Marie Schukar

Chef Anne Marie Schukar lives in Bothell, Wash. She and her husband are now empty nesters with three grown kids (and three energetic grandkids).

Although she is a chef with high expectations for quality and taste, she spends an average of just about $75 per week for groceries. Citing the many challenges wrought by the pandemic, she characterizes the family budget as "pretty tight" lately.

Fortunately, her Pacific Northwest location offers an abundance of locally sourced foods. And Schukar knows how to turn them into flavor-packed, nutritious meals without breaking the bank. Here's how she does it.

Shopping Strategy

Like many budget-minded shoppers, Schukar shops at Costco. But she also counts herself lucky to live in a region flush with farmers' markets and fresh produce stands where she does a lot of her grocery shopping, too.

"The Pacific Northwest has some terrific local farming," she says. She shops seasonally for fresh produce, keeping her freezer stocked with meat.

She estimates that she shops using a grocery list about 60 percent of the time, because she most often comes with a menu plan. The other 40 percent of the time, she grocery shops without a list or plan, simply "because I feel I don't have anything at that moment." When she hasn't prepared a list, go-tos include half and half, cheese, nuts, fruits for lunches, veggies for salads, veggies for sides, greens, and coffee.

With a tight budget, she asks herself this question when she finds herself reaching for a pre-made grocery item: "Can I make it [from scratch], and do I have the ingredients at home?" If the answer is yes, she instead selects the items she needs to make it herself at home with fewer preservatives and chemicals.

She also avoids buying grocery items from the end of an aisle, where they are placed to entice shoppers to buy on impulse. "More often than not, you can find less expensive items in the actual aisle," she says.

Further, her advice is to shop using only cash if the budget is tight. "If you only have $10 for something that costs $12, it's amazing how creative you can be," she says. "Sometimes I even spend less than I budgeted for."

Splurges and Saves

As a chef, Schukar is skillful at turning inexpensive ingredients into taste-packed dishes. Among her typical inexpensive purchases that go far: parsley, lemons, and green onions. "They work in so many dishes, last so long, and are usually under $1," she says.

Despite the tight overall budget, Schukar does make room for splurges that she considers worthy. For instance, "It kills me to buy pre-made items like salad dressings or box mixes," she says. "but sometimes it just makes sense."

Similarly, she buys mayonnaise even though she knows how to make it — because she simply doesn't like to. She's particular about this grocery item, and likes only a couple of brands on the market, so it's worth it to her to buy them.

She buys meat and fish regularly though they are pricey, and "once in a while I might buy things like saffron or truffles, but not too often."

Flexible Meal Planning

The summer season brings heat and pleasant diversions, and Schukar says it's a perfect time to meal plan. "I try to only cook once or twice a week," she says.

For instance, on Sundays, she'll grill pork loin or ribs, chicken breasts (some marinated and some not), chicken thighs, and some sort of beef (steak, ribs, brisket, flank). Then during the week, she will serve these proteins with veggies on hand. It looks something like this:

  • Sunday: Steak
  • Monday: Grilled chicken used in a salad
  • Tuesday: Add a sauce to pork rib in a tin foil package and pop on grill or in oven to warm.
  • Wednesday: Add sauce to thighs and warm on grill.
  • Thursday: Warm chopped chicken breast in a pan with salsa for fajitas.
  • Friday: Brisket sliders with barbecue sauce
  • Saturday: Leftovers ("Or a makeup day if we had a last-minute midweek night out.")

Her meal-planning philosophy is a healthy mix of preparation and flexibility. "I learned a long time ago to be prepared but leave room for the unexpected," she says. "For years when the kids were growing up I would plan out the whole week, and then I would have whole meals that never got eaten. Because life happens! Now I never plan for Saturdays. That gives me flexibility to use up what we still have on hand from the week or eat out guilt-free."

Schukar's top tip for meal planning: Always create a menu that uses common ingredients. "If I need an odd vegetable or dairy item I make sure that I include a side dish later that week that will use it before it spoils," she says. "For example, when I make my favorite banana bread recipe it calls for buttermilk, so you will most likely find buttermilk biscuits and oven-fried chicken being served that same week as well."

Making Leftovers New

Stir fry, stew, and pasta are her clean-the-fridge go-tos, depending on the leftovers and the season. Here's what protein leftovers might look like around Schukar's house.

  • Leftover chicken: Make a pot of soup with some hardy veggies on hand.
  • Leftover meatloaf or burgers: Chop up fine, and make a meat sauce for pasta.
  • Leftover fish: Make tacos.
  • Leftover pork: Stir fry veggies, toss in the pork, and serve over rice.

"When he was younger, my son's friend was over for dinner and told him that he was so lucky that he never had to eat leftovers," she recalls. "Of course, as he said this as he was eating my pasta sauce made with the leftover meatloaf. Why should you ever eat the exact same thing twice unless you love it?"

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