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Meal Planning

by Meghann on July 18, 2012

I’m not a meal planner.

I was once, the year I graduated college. I was on a tighter budget back then and worked at the local newspaper. Part of my job at the paper was handling the grocery store sales inserts that went in the paper each week. I would always grab an extra Publix insert for myself and design a meal plan based off what sales were happening that week. I got pretty good at it, and saved a lot of money buying around the sales cycles.

Unfortunately that all stopped when I moved to Orlando. It was just me then (in Tallahassee I was cooking for my ex-boyfriend and/or sister), I had a little extra money to spend, and I didn’t have the time to meal plan like I used to (I started this blog, which took up a lot of my spare time). I ended up shopping by whatever looked good and would get creative with meals based off of that. That way of thinking carried me through the last few years, and is still my shopping methods today.

Though I try not to be wasteful with food (again, I like to get creative), it’s not the smartest way to shop.

I knew I had to change that way of shopping for the #SurviveOn35 challenge. Yesterday I grabbed a Publix sales flyer, a pen, and paper, and attempted to plan meals for the week.

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I think the hardest part about the challenge is going to be taking the bulk pantry items out of the equation. I thought about making homemade granola to eat for the week, but when I factored in the cost of the ingredients to make it (brown sugar, raisins, oatmeal, etc.) it all added up quickly. For just one week, it was cheaper to buy a box of granola on sale. The same thing happened when I thought about making homemade cornbread. The flour, cornmeal, etc all came to a total of $5, which is fine when you are going to use the ingredients to make several batches of cornbread over time, but for a one time deal – the $0.55 mix was the better deal.

Obviously pantry items are things you collect over time. You buy a thing of flour, a jar of peanut butter, or even a bulk container of raisins, and you expect them to last a while – they’re not items you bring home on a weekly basis.

When meal planning I had to take many of these items out of equation. Peanut butter, jam, or raisins for my oatmeal? Not in the budget. Coffee? Not in the budget. (Derek usually drinks his morning cup at work anyways). Nuts for snacks? Not in the budget.

While I took all those items out of the budget, I tried to keep fruit and veggies in it. Creating meals that incorporated vegetables when possible, and only purchasing the EXACT amount of veggies that I need. (i.e. I took one zucchini and one yellow squash instead of buying the pre-packaged bunch of them).

I created a rough (very rough!) plan for all meals in excel.

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*It should be noted that Derek usually eats a simple sandwich for lunch everyday with just deli meat and bread.

And a grocery list based off of my meal plan.

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It was eye-opening to see what items I actually needed, besides just what I thought I needed. I kept thinking I needed to add more stuff to the list (or the shopping cart at the grocery store), but this list brought me back to reality and showed me the basics of what I actually needed and not the unnecessary items that I don’t really need. Do I really need an avocado to go with my tacos? Nope, they’ll be just fine without one.

Protein is really the most expensive part of any meal plan or grocery budget. My meal plan for the week is mainly a vegetarian menu, with an emphasis on lentils and legumes for protein. I found split chicken breast on sale at Publix this week ($1.99/lb) so I came home with more chicken than I was expecting, which is nice since I ended up having to say no to my tempeh/tofu idea with the stir fry – I’ll just have to stretch the chicken breast through both meals.

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I’ll go in more detail why I selected certain items, or meals as the week goes on (like frozen veggies instead of fresh), but here’s my final spread.

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Coming in (barely) under budget.

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No wiggle room here.

I also had to toss a few items – like the tofu, ice cream (sniff), and a second loaf of bread – to bring us under budget.

Derek and I typically spend $50-$80 every Sunday at the grocery store so, at first, the number looks right on target. However, that average total does not take into account the 2-3 meals we eat out a week, the specialty items we buy on occasion at health stores, or the food we already have in our pantry that we try to eat away at. Take all of that out of the equation, and we’re losing a lot of meals that the usual average is used on.

Now we have to “budget” our food wisely, to make sure it lasts for all 7 days. That’s the real challenge.

Do you have any meal planning tips? Leave them below and I’ll create a list for my next post.

Day 1: Meal #2

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2 eggs in a whole-wheat basket

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Hummus and carrots

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Publix hummus was on sale for $1.99 this week. Since tahini is $$, it wasn’t in the budget to make my own (homemade hummus is NOT the same without tahini!). My goal is to savor this container and make it last the week.

  • Publix Bread: $2.49 ($0.32 for 2 slices)
  • 18 Eggs: $2.39 ( $0.28 for 2)
  • Carrots: $1.89 ( $.19 for 2)
  • Hummus: $1.99 ( $.25 for 1 tablespoon)
  • Total: $1.04

I’m participating in the #SurviveOn35 Challenge with Anytime Fitness and FItFluential. Check out THIS POST to learn more.

{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Christine @ BookishlyB July 18, 2012 at 3:39 pm

I sit down every Sunday morning and plan 5 dinners, based on things I’ve pinned on Pinterest (I know, I know, but the site has really helped bring variety into my cooking, especially since we’ve become vegetarian), what I have in the cupboard already, and our schedules. I then make a list, deciding what I’ll get at Target, Trader Joes, and then the regular grocery store, if needed (I try to avoid it). I just joined Costco and plan to make a monthly run for things that we need (ie not the huge pack of awesome muffins).
Christine @ BookishlyB recently posted..Justified

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2 Katie @ Peace Love and Oats July 18, 2012 at 3:48 pm

I think my problem would be nOt getting the nutrients I need, like avocado as a source of healthy fat! I guess I should be thankful that I can afford those things!
Katie @ Peace Love and Oats recently posted..WIAW–Run and Spin!

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3 Amanda July 18, 2012 at 3:49 pm

I look through the coupons at our local store and then meal plan around that usually. I have staple meals that I’ll rotate each week and then add in a couple new ideas too so things don’t get overly boring.
Amanda recently posted..Fighting the good fight

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4 JennyBethW July 18, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Very interesting- And a point that is often made- it’s cheaper to buy boxed/canned/frozen stuff (i.e. the veggies and your cornbread mix) than it is to buy fresh (which is a privilege for many people). Do you have farmer’s markets in your area that you can shop at?

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5 Meghann July 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Nothing close. That’s actually one of my biggest complaints about Tampa.

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6 Lauren July 19, 2012 at 8:25 am

Meghann, Really? There are produce stands everywhere in Tampa! If you’re buying conventionally grown stuff at Publix, you could easily find produce stands that are cheaper. I drove by two this morning on my commute from Pinellas County to USF Tampa.

Not sure where you live obvs, but isn’t there a Hyde Park market and an Ybor City market? And if you’re only shopping once a week, would it be a huge trek to the St. Pete morning market?
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7 Meghann July 19, 2012 at 9:08 am

The St. Pete market is closed through the summer(plus that’s a good 30-45 minute drive for me). And the Hyde Park Market and Ybor Markets are both only once a month. There is a fruit stand right by my house, but the produce never looks very good. I live on the North Side of town and I’ve yet to find a regular farmer’s markets that is convenient to my location. When I lived in Orlando, I lived right by a handful of Farmer’s Markets that happened every weekend and would last until 2:00pm.

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8 Angela July 18, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Bulk cooking and freezing is the best thing I have found for meal planning when you don’t have a family to feed. Sometimes it can be cheaper to buy larger quantities of things than single/couple sized portions. I also like to cook up loads of brown rice and freeze it in portions. I would never have it during the week otherwise as it takes so long to cook and I would never buy it pre-cooked. Those are crazy prices!

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9 Bethany @ Accidental Intentions July 18, 2012 at 4:05 pm

I’ve been meal planning for the past year or so, and it’s been a lifesaver. Last January was the first time I had to completely fend for myself food wise (I had been on meal plans at college up to that point, and my parents fed me before that), and every single day I found myself wondering what I would eat for dinner and if I had the available ingredients. When I started senior year, I made it part of my Friday routine to plan out every dinner for the next six days (I would leave Fridays open for creativity). From there, I would make my grocery list. I did that for all of senior year, and now that I’ve graduated and moved out of my parents house I continue to meal plan (I also now plan my lunches, mostly to encourage variety — I had been eating almost the exact same lunch every single day for about a year and a half, and it’s nice to mix things up now). In college I had a tendency to go “off the list” and spontaneously buy things that sounded good at the store, but I’m on a much tighter budget now, so I rarely do that now.

When I meal plan, I always keep two things in mind: my schedule and variety. Right now I’m training for a half marathon, and I know on my running days, I’m not going to be done running and showering until 7 or later, and I’m not going to want to cook. On those days, I’ll either do something very quick or have leftovers. I also try to plan to not eat the same type of thing two days in a row…for example, if I have stir fry one night, I might have a quesadilla the next night. Planning is a hassle on Fridays, but it makes the rest of my week much simpler and helps me stick to a budget. I usually spend about $30-35 on groceries per week (though I do dip into pantry items often, so it’s not quite like what you’re doing right now).
Bethany @ Accidental Intentions recently posted..Unplanned

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10 Hollie July 18, 2012 at 4:06 pm

I follow you on a daily anyways but I am very interested in how this works out. I don’t do much planning. We all have different tastes so its hard to cook a big meal, instead we usually end up working it around so everyone has what they want. That would not work if we relied on $35. So many things I take for granted.
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11 Jacqueline July 18, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Hey Meghann, this has made our meal planning super simple: dontwasteproduce.com. Maybe it will help you too?

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12 Jessica July 18, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Every Sunday afternoon I take a look at the week’s schedule, plan workouts (ok, I have Felipe plan them), and plan meals based on the schedule and workouts. Anal retentive? Yes. But it works! A few things that have helped me: (1) crock pot meals for times I might be tempted to just order a pizza or go out and spend extra money (like Wednesday nights after swim!). If dinner is ready and waiting at home, I have no excuse. (2) Overlapping ingredients. If I make beef with broccoli and rice on Monday, I’ll go ahead and make extra rice to go with a teriyaki chicken with pineapples and peppers Tuesday night. When I prep the peppers and the chicken on Tuesday, I’ll prep enough to go with Wednesday night’s meal, etc. It helps with portion control and reduces waste! (3) I usually plan four weeknight dinners (lunches are usually leftovers), but have a “standby” meal if needed. Most weeks I have enough leftovers to stretch into another dinner, so a fifth is overkill and I end up buying veggies, etc. that will go bad if not eaten.

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13 Molly July 18, 2012 at 4:21 pm

wow awesome job so far! When hearing about this, my mind immediately went to eggs. I NEED protein! And it’s nice you found chicken on sale! I saw someone else go to the farmers market for veggies since it was cheaper to do so (or at least some places it is). Can’t wait to see how your week turns out!
Molly recently posted..Sometimes you just have to say it…

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14 Annette @FitnessPerks July 18, 2012 at 4:22 pm

NICE work on the lunch –that is way cheap!

I don’t really meal plan–I just decide ahead of the week what major ingredients I’ll need, buy them, and then buy the produce we need/love. It works for us! Plus we have a bunch of pantry items and items in the freezer we use.

Good luck!!
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15 sally July 18, 2012 at 4:32 pm

I noticed that salt, peper, oil, vinegar, seasoning in general were not purchased or part of the meal plan. I’m assuming you’ll be seasoning your food this week – I think these would be considered pantry items. There are so many details we don’t consider about the realities of living on or below the poverty line. It’s a sad reality and a statement about how we live. I know you got some push back this morning and I commend you for publishing those comments.
Too often we forget that people who rely on assistance might not have the resources to pay for pots and pans even. It’s unfortunate, but it’s reality for a lot of people. I work with this income group in Canada, where we are fortunate to have a lot of social services in place – but still it is a community forgotten.
Playing poor will never sit well with me. Perhaps it’s because I see it everday and know how devistating the reality some people face really is.

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16 Meghann July 18, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Spices and cooking oils were the only basic staples permitted.

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17 Kaitlyn @ Chocolate Running Shoes July 18, 2012 at 5:12 pm

I think one of my go-to planning tips is what you did in your notepad above, and try to figure out how many different ways I can use one item (like a tub of cottage cheese, a bag of dried beans, etc). Dried beans/grain, like rice, lentils, black beans, can go really far if you try to plan two or three meals around it.
Great job planning! :)
Kaitlyn @ Chocolate Running Shoes recently posted..WIAW #5: The day I couldn’t eat breakfast

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18 Allison July 18, 2012 at 5:21 pm

I love that you are doing thais challenge.
Did you consider using coupons, or was that not allowed?
I think this idea is genius!
Allison recently posted..Vegan Pie in the Sky

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19 Meghann July 18, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Coupons were allowed, but I didn’t use any.

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20 Cait's Plate July 18, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Haha – we switched roles! I used to be the way you typically are now, and since leaving my job to go back to school I’ve really had to become smart about my groceries! It’s kinda fun in a way…or I’m just a huge dork :)
Cait’s Plate recently posted..Whipped Chocolate Biscoff Ice Cream

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21 Meghan July 18, 2012 at 5:28 pm

I really recommend that you do some research into SNAP since it’s been a hot topic in the food policy world lately. There’s even a congressional briefing on it today.

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22 Annie @ Mama Dweeb July 18, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Love that lunch! YUMM!! I too had to cut back on eating out. Since I grew up without being able to ever eat out, as I got older and came into more money, I started to be irresponsible with it. All that is changing today!
Annie @ Mama Dweeb recently posted..Why I am doing #SurviveOn35 – my experience with food stamps

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23 Kaitlyn July 18, 2012 at 6:41 pm

Due to some unfortunate employment situations this year, we have learned to eat this way. We cut coupons (mostly all from online) in addition to using the flyer. We also go to the clearance section of our grocery store first. We only get what we need for the week and tend to eat the same things for breakfast and lunch to get us through. We usually ask ourselves, do we really need this? As vegetarians and people who take our health seriously, we are able to eat 5-7 days a week, 3 meals a day with 2 snacks, for 2 people on a budget of $50 total and all the food is organic, natural, and vegetarian. It takes time, but we must eat, the money is slim these days ,and our health is still important.
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24 Kat July 18, 2012 at 6:51 pm

That is a seriously impressive haul for the amount you spent! What a great thing you are all doing with this challenge. Reading your post definitely made me more aware of what I spend, as well as what I “need” at the grocery store.

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25 Jessica @ New Girl, New City July 18, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Wow go you!!!
I’m a BIG time impulsive shopper, I grab whatever looks good. And it’s hard for me to meal plan because I never know what I really want to eat until the day of.

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26 Tracy July 18, 2012 at 8:23 pm

Have you ever tried making hummus with a different nut butter? I love it made with sunflower butter. I’ve used peanut butter before in a pinch as well, but prefer sunflower. Try it!

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27 Meghann July 18, 2012 at 9:20 pm

I haven’t, but I wasn’t able to add any nut butters to my budget, so that makes it a lost cause anyways. I’ve heard hummus with sunflower butter is really tasty though.

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28 Rachel July 18, 2012 at 8:37 pm

Grocery shopping tips…if you are going to shop at Publix, go to http://www.iheartpublix.com to match up coupons. Unfortunately, Publix is really expensive. So if you’re not going to use coupons, to stay on the $35.00 budget you might want to go to WalMart. I know, I know…but seriously it’s worth a try to stay on budget.
Rachel recently posted..Why me? Why us?

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29 BroccoliHut July 18, 2012 at 8:44 pm

I am way into meal planning–it’s the only way I can make it so that I don’t waste time staring in front of the fridge, guessing at what to make for dinner. I like the structure it provides and that it keeps my food budget under control!
BroccoliHut recently posted..Wedding Wednesday: Bridal Shower

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30 cristina July 18, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Lentils are super cheap to make and I get 7 servings out of 1 bag. 1 bag of lentils $1.10 1 can tomatoes 50 cents-1 dollar depending on sales and 2 red potatoes under a dollar. 7 servings for under 3 bucks. :) I serve them with rice and my husband and I save the other servings as freezer ready meals for nights we don’t have time to cook.

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31 Kelly July 18, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Considering you barely eat, $35 should be easy.

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32 Emma July 18, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Shopping on a budget is pretty difficult. I definitely get the frozen vegetables though – super easy to prepare (just throw in the microwave) and a lot cheaper than fresh for what you get. When people say produce is expensive they don’t realize you can essentially get the same vegetables that were harvested fresh and then frozen for a lot less.
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33 Sam @ Better With Sprinkles July 18, 2012 at 10:49 pm

I’m a bit of a meal planner, not nearly to this extent though!

Basically, my approach is: I shop at the grocery store on Tuesdays (when I get a 10% discount for being a student) and I check the sales online before I go. I plan 4-5 dinners around what we have and what’s on sale that week; and the other 2-3 nights are nights when we go out or wild cards.
And I make sure I always have eggs, fruit, bread, hummus and – those plus leftovers I can do for lunches all week.
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34 Jen July 19, 2012 at 6:58 am

I’m so impressed! I’ll be interested to see if eating this way affects your training. Whenever Jeff and I have had “eat the pantry” weeks, we’ve inadvertantly eaten less and it reflected in our biking and running. Good luck, girl!
Jen recently posted..Making it work as a work-at-home mom

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35 Meghann July 19, 2012 at 9:10 am

I’ve thought about this too. I’m not sure I could hold this while hardcore training.

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36 Laura @ sweatingforit July 19, 2012 at 9:52 am

wow. I must be doing this grocery shopping thing wrong. My husband and I usually spend around $100 a week for the two of us, and we eat out 2-4 times a week on top of that. We probably spend $10-15 a week on diet sodas though…That’s the next habit I need to break. We do meal plan, but a lot of times our meals end up rolling over, either because we ate leftovers or just grabbed a yogurt or a made a smoothie after working out. We also shop at our neighborhood grocery store, which I am sure is more expensive, but is within walking distance, which is nice.
Laura @ sweatingforit recently posted..Hair of Shame

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37 Kristina @ Love and Zest July 19, 2012 at 10:31 am

I use google Calendar which is sinked to both of our phones.
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38 kim@hungryhealthygirl July 19, 2012 at 11:28 am

This experiment would be so hard for me. Like someone else said, I would fear I wasn’t getting enough nutrients. I’m sure after this is over for you, you will be much for thankful for the food you’re able to buy on a normal basis.
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39 Blair July 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm

It seems really silly that spice and cooking oils would be allowed, but not flour/sugar/etc. Spices and cooking oils would have taken up a huge portion of your budget.

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40 Sarah July 19, 2012 at 2:30 pm

One tip I picked up is to have 1 night a week designated as a leftover or “catch as catch can” type night. This has been a huge help because not only does it help remind us to eat the leftovers/random veggies/etc we have in the fridge toward the end of the week, it also saves me a day on cooking (and thus – not having to figure out a meal for that night…I always draw a blank when meal planning!). One night a week (usually Sunday) we’ll make a bigger “comfort food” type meal – a big pot of risotto, lasagna, enchiladas, etc, and then that will be the base for either lunches or leftover night throughout the week. Also, I can’t say enough about buying things in the bulk bin – oats, nuts, rice, etc.

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41 Nina July 19, 2012 at 5:45 pm
42 Christa July 20, 2012 at 11:24 am

I went shopping this past Sunday to stock up the new place I’m renting. I’m on a mission to make more meals at home and cut back to only eating out 1-3 times a week (date night, weekend brunch). On my pay schedule at work, things are budgeted out strictly. Rent is my 1st of the month check and groceries in the middle of the month. That means my shopping trip had to last 4 weeks!! I spent $230 at Publix, (which equals out to about $75/week for 2 people) but have stuck to the goal this week of cooking pre-planned meals at home. I only had to go out and grab a rotisserie chicken that I used for 2 meals since I forgot to defrost chicken breasts one night. So far I’m loving the plan and not having to play the “what do you want for dinner” game!

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43 Steph July 25, 2012 at 12:00 am

Do you ever go to Bearss Groves market on Bearss? It’s not as cheap as, say, Parkesdale, but you can find some great deals!
Steph recently posted..Modelfit week 3 (aka the crybaby week)

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