A few days into summer vacation, I sat down calendar in hand. I began penciling in all of the camps, practices, weddings, celebrations, summer school classes and even a date or two when we might be able to get away.

The squares were filled with activities galore. How could it be possible that we would be busier in June than May? Instantly, I was filled with the urge to hit the grocery store. With everything going on, I knew the last thing I’d be in the mood to do would be cook. And if we really want to take a day trip or two or be able to afford a summer blockbuster on the big screen, we can’t be in the drive through every single night of the week.

That’s how conquering the kitchen became the first summer victory in the battle of saving money. I intentionally bought a wide variety of interchangeable items so that we could quickly put together breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks without much effort.

If you’re looking to save money where you can so you can splurge when you want, look no further than the four walls of your own kitchen.

The great clean out

We all have condiments and spices from 2015 floating in our cabinets and refrigerators. Tear through and toss those things that are expired. Even if they haven’t passed their “Best By” date, there are probably some items taking up vital space that, let’s face it, you aren’t going to eat.

Take the items that aren’t expired and donate them to local food banks or share them with family and friends. Don’t forget to tackle the freezer, too. Rinse out any recyclable containers and dispose of them properly. Make a list of the items you need to replace. Prepare your space for plenty of summer foods with a quick wipe down after you’re done.

What to buy

The summer is all about convenience, but it’s not a good idea for your wallet or your waistline to load up on pizza pockets and snack-sized chips. Instead, focus on lean proteins, fresh and frozen fruits and veggies. These items are much more cost effective and affordable than any junk food on the shelf.

They’ll keep you fuller for longer and are actually less expensive per ounce. In our house, we look for produce that will at least last a week. We also purchase plenty of sliced cheese and lunch meat. Stock your freezer with easy side dishes such as green beans and frozen potatoes.

You also want to consider chicken or fish that you can bake in the oven in 20 minutes or less. Other items that top our list include apples, yogurt, string cheese and applesauce (both in a large jar and individual cups or packages) since all have a great shelf life when refrigerated.

When you get home

When you return home, organize items as you put them away. Luckily, you’ve already cleaned out the fridge, freezer, cabinets, and pantry so there’s plenty of space. Put items that will expire soonest toward the front so that you reach for them first. Place the healthiest options at your eye level.

You want to grab for those items first and if you see them first you’ll be more likely to make a wise choice. If you’ve purchased fruits and veggies that need chopped, do that on the same day. A couple of years ago, we made a shift to see-through glass containers so we can easily see what’s in each dish. The refrigerator took on the appearance of a commercial and the produce looks much more appetizing.

I swear by having cut peppers, onions and mushrooms in the fridge ready each week. This trifecta of veggies compliment a number of dishes including pizza, pasta, kabobs, salads and fajitas. If you spend just a bit of time chopping up what you’ve purchased, you’re more likely to use your grocery budget to its full capacity while wasting less food, too.

Plan on dining out

From time to time, we all get in the pinch of not having food on hand or needing to quickly pick up a bite to eat outside of our homes. I’m not down on the restaurant industry. I love a delicious dish someone else has cooked and, even better, a dirty dish someone else gets to wash.

But instead of getting caught in the cycle of not knowing what you’re going to eat or where you’re going to go when you do choose to dine out, plan out when and where you’ll head to a restaurant.

If possible, take a look at the menu online and determine what you’ll order before you even head out the door. Make choices based on coupons and rewards programs.

My favorite rewards programs include Qdoba Rewards, Chick-fil-a One, Starbucks Rewards and MyPanera Rewards. Many other restaurants have reward programs.

Greenwood resident Cherie Lowe and her husband paid off $127,000 in debt in four years and now live debt-free every day with their two kids. She is the
author of “Slaying the Debt Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily Ever After.” Send questions, column
ideas and comments to newstips@dailyjournal.net