A few nights ago, I had the pleasure of leading a talk about meal planning and Circles Ashland Logohealthy eating for a group called Circles Ashland. I’ll be honest, I was a bit nervous. Thankfully, the result was something I was proud of and would love to do it more frequently for various organizations, in an effort to help empower people through food.

Food Empowerment

JaemiO Logo - TealIf you’ve visited FoodiO before or follow me on YouTube, you know the purpose of both is to empower people through food. #FoodEmpowered is not just something I say, it is something I believe in wholeheartedly. I even went to graduate school for it and started a farmers’ market with hopes of fooducating the folks from my hometown. Towards the end, I realized it’s about more than just my small corner of the Earth.

We hear quite a bit about food, most of which is in the form of a question. Is it healthy? Is it organic? Where did it come from? But the most important question among all of these is often “how do you cook it.”

That’s what started #FoodEmpowered and that’s why I was asked to speak at last Thursday’s Circles session.

Meal Planning on a Budget

I love talking about food, especially when it has the potential to help folks. So

Meal prep for a month from Pinterest - adapted
Adapted from Pinterest

any chance I get to do so, I welcome with open arms. Last Thursday, I was tasked with the job of speaking to the Circles group about meal planning. Several of the Leaders expressed a desire to cook at home more, in an effort to save money and eat better. There was only one problem: I am terrible at meal planning.

I was super excited to speak for the Circles Leaders, as I find the organization nothing short of amazing. Being asked to be a part of their world was an honor. So the pressure was on. I wanted this presentation to be relevant and entertaining, while also allowing the Circle Leaders the ability to walk away with some meal ideas they could use at home. I started off with ideas from previous food related classes I’ve led (microwave cooking, gourmet meals on a budget, and dorm/hotel room cooking). However, none of the aspects from those classes seemed relevant or useful in this context.

Then it dawned on me: use what you do know.

Cheap Meals

A lot of people who know what I do for a living assume I’m the type of foodie that knows everything about food, and may turn my nose up at certain foods. What most of them don’t know is while I enjoy a good steak and craft beer, nothing quite beats a home cooked meal for me. Especially the ones that remind me of home.

Food Bank from foodbankwma.org
Credit: foodbankwma.org

Growing up we didn’t have a ton of money. In fact, a great portion of our food came from food banks and bargain shopping warehouses. My cousin and I (we were raised together) received free and reduced lunch thanks to the National School Lunch Program. We also opted to be a part of extracurricular activities that offered a snack or pizza for participating.  So cheap meals are something I’m quite familiar with and it’s thanks to my grandmother (Nanny).

A will out of a way

Food Bank by Daniel Root
Credit: Daniel Root

If you’ve never been to a food bank, there’s one thing that you may not know. You never know what you’re going to get. Sure, you can pretty much count on getting peanut butter and dry milk. The rest of it, though, is a mystery. So planning meals around food you don’t even know that you’ll have is pretty tough. Add to thank Nanny was responsible for taking my mom to and from doctor’s appointments and dialysis, getting my cousin and I off to school and home safely, ensuring we did our homework, keeping house, and feeding us. That’s quite a bit for one person. Nevertheless, Nanny always made it work.

But how?

NannyNanny was a genius when it came to creating something from nothing. I’ve often joked that she could make tuna salad with no tuna, or spaghetti with no tomato sauce. What folks don’t realize is it’s true. She may not always have had the proper ingredients, but she knew what paired with what, what could be substituted, and most importantly what we always had on hand.

That’s what I decided to present to the Circle Leaders on Thursday night.

Cheap Healthy Meals

Upon starting my presentation, I admitted to the group that I am no good at meal planning. They gasped and looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I assured them that I had a resolution, and perhaps regained a little confidence (I’m still not sure, but that’s okay). I shared that instead, I was very good at creating meals based on what I knew I had available. Thankfully they looked intrigued.

I was completely honest with the Circle Leaders: planning meals this way was not something I started on my own, rather I learned it from watching my Nanny.

While she was making sure we were all where we needed to be, Nanny performed a mental inventory of what she knew was available in our pantry. Then she would come up with two or three recipes in her head that she could cook that night. She would narrow down her choice based on the “surprise” ingredients once she got home. Needless to say, no two meals were ever alike, but they were always delicious.

The thing that aided with Nanny’s successful meal creation was keeping theBasket of ingredients same staples in our home. She always made sure we had items like rice, dry milk, peanut butter, eggs, onions, sweet potatoes, and oil or butter butter. We always had some form of fresh or frozen vegetable, a fruit (typically apples or oranges), and everything else rotated. Not every meal had a starch or meat. Most were made by baking or broiling them. All were loaded with flavor. It was like watching Chopped live every night in our kitchen. The food bank boxes were her mystery basket and our pantry was well, the pantry.

There one place Nanny didn’t skimp: the seasoning. Hence why I have a whole section dedicated to them here at FoodiO. Nanny didn’t splurge on them, per se, but she did make sure we had a variety on hand.

The reason?

Various spicesA simple seasoning can transform any dish, and thus any meal. So while we may have homemade Beefaroni tonight, Nanny could take the same ingredients and make beef stew tomorrow by simply adjusting the herbs and spices. It was simply amazing to watch.

You don’t have to set aside your budget to create healthy meals or to meal plan. Nanny sure didn’t. Instead, she had a simple system for creating meals: purchase the same staples and build from there.

The majority of our meals were healthy simply because she:

  • kept frying to a minimum
  • didn’t use a ton of fat in her cooking (i.e. butter and oil)
  • avoided using sugar
  • minimized her use of salt

It wasn’t so much that she went out of her way to create extra healthy meals. Rather, by cooking at home our meals were already healthier than eating out. By being conscious of her cooking methods, she was able to make them a tad bit healthier, despite our extreme budget.


My childhood wasn’t exactly easy. However, everyday I am thankful that my Thanks for existinggrandmother was willing to step in and help raise my cousin and I. The things I learned from her are priceless. It is with great joy that I get to pass a little bit of that on.

Thanks Nanny.


  • Shaun Thomas-Arnold

    I really liked what you had to say about relieving seasonal allergies! I’ve tried all sorts of over the counter remedies and nothing has really helped. Local honey has been somewhat helpful, but I live in Houston and we have some incredibly high pollen and mold counts. I’ve never even heard of Yerba Mate before, but if that and some lemon myrtle can really help with allergies that would be way better than taking pills all the time. Especially since half the allergy pills I try do absolutely nothing 😉

    • JaemiO

      Hi Shaun,

      Thanks so much for stopping by and for the compliments! Do you think you’ll try the Yerba Mate trick? If so, be sure to let me know your results. So far, I’ve had great ones and have heard the same from others.

      Looking forward to seeing how the tea works for you,


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