I wanted to revisit the topic of menu planning once again because this is the easiest way I have found to save money. This isn’t a glamorous topic or especially fun (at least in my opinion) but it is a great way to both save money and save yourself time each week. My life has changed quite a bit since I started my blog. When I first starting learning to use coupons and saving at the grocery store, I was a stay at home mom with a brand new baby (my first). Now I manage this blog full time and I have a 5 year old and a 3 year old and a very crazy schedule. So my life has changed dramatically and my priorities have also changed. The one thing that has stayed very consistent is the time that I spend making a plan for the week always pays off. Here are some big benefits to menu planning:
- Saving time! You can really save yourself time each day in getting meals on the table and not running out for a million little last minute things at the store.
- Saving money! You can save in so many ways by planning more efficiently. You avoid those last minute trips to the store (and all those little $5, $15, $35 trips add up fast) and you can avoid tossing out all sorts of foods you purchased and never got a chance to use.
- Saving your sanity! Personally I loathe the last minute frantic rush to figure out what can be defrosted or heated up quickly or scrambling to grab a pizza or whatever. Seriously after a long day at work who needs the stress of frantically trying to get something put together that the family will actually eat.
- Saving your health! I have found that I eat much better quality foods at home then I do when I am grabbing takeout. I eat a more reasonable portion at home and I can control what goes into our foods. It can often be much, much healthier to just eat at home.
So I really am a firm believer in taking the time each week to organize a meal plan before you hit the grocery store. There are lots of ways to go about this process and really it is about finding what is right for you. The most important thing is to set yourself up for success and figure out what is going to work best for your family.
Here is my process and at the bottom you can find some other tips that might work for you.
I start with our family calender for the week.
This is so important- especially when you have lots of activities on the schedule. On our schedule for this week I know I have two nights of soccer practice for my children- so that means I better figure out a crock pot meal or something that comes together quickly. I can also get started with my grocery list based off what our week has in store- for example this week I am in charge of drinks and snacks for my little girl’s soccer game. It is much easier to plan for all these little things at one time rather then running around at the last minute.
The second step is having a look at what we already have.
I try to take a quick look through the pantry, freezer and fridge to see what needs to be used up. That is an easy way to get menu inspiration- if you have a tiny bit left of several veggies maybe you can make stir fry one night or mix up a quick tomato sauce for pasta and toss all those veggies in the sauce.
The third step is looking at what is on sale.
I take a look at the grocery store circulars to see what is on sale. You can find a blog that covers any grocery store out there these days and you don’t have to be a person that cuts coupons to use the weekly matchups.
I shop at Safeway stores frequently and on the Safeway matchups for the week that I create for the blog, I typically list the best deals in produce, meat, seafood… not just the good deals using coupons. If it is a week that chicken is a great deal, well my menu tends to be heavier on chicken. If there is just nothing really appealing in the weekly circular, I can also just stick to basic stuff and what is in season for produce. I publish a list each month of the types of things on sale and what fresh produce is in season. Sticking to what is fresh and in season is a simple way to save on produce. (Get an entire year’s worth of grocery sales guides broken down by month here.)
I start putting together ideas for meals- typically I focus on dinner menus and I make sure I have enough fresh veggies and fruits to pack lunches during the week and for snacks. I can make my shopping list based on what is on hand, on sale and what we need for meals.
How I find recipes and decide what to cook.
Some weeks I have lots of time to play around in the kitchen. Most weeks it is a scramble just to cut an onion so fast is typically what works for me. We don’t like to eat the same thing all the time and my husband is a meat eater and I am a vegetarian so that makes things even trickier.
I tend to pull a lot of inspiration from magazines and from pinterest for the most part. I tend to tear out recipes that look good or I pin them and print them out when I am ready. I put all these in a folder that I keep on my desk. When I am starting to do the menu planning, I just flip through to find something good.
I have a master binder of what I call keepers. Recipes that we have made and that everyone liked. These are easy to flip through on a busy week and I know I will have a winner.
I don’t have hundreds of recipes in my keeper binder so there are only a few categories- vegetarian, side dishes, entrees etc… I do know that I can try one or two new things each week and then refer back to my little binder and fill in the rest of the meals quickly and easily. As I find things that are winners, I just keep adding more recipes to this binder.
If you read coupon blogs you might hear this term a lot. I tend to do a little stockpiling but not as much as one might think. If chicken or ground beef or something is on sale, I will probably buy extra that week and freeze it. I usually have reasonably stocked pantry with things like rice, pastas, salad dressings, canned beans etc… so I can whip something up really quickly if needed. I don’t buy that much though because we don’t usually eat the exact same thing over and over. I also don’t like to dedicate a lot of space to maintaining pantry items and having lots of things in our home starts to make me feel overwhelmed. I try to stick with buying what we need for just a few weeks and I rotate through stuff constantly.
The final list.
Now for the last step, it is creating the final grocery list. That is basically all the ingredients I need for menus that week. I tend to cut any coupons I might need at this point and I just put them with the shopping list.
I also try to have some plan in mind for breakfast and lunch- although I don’t take the time to write that stuff down. For lunches, my husband tends to make sandwiches so I make sure we have the stuff he needs for that or sometimes he has leftovers. My local grocery store has a rotisserie chicken on sale for $5 frequently so sometimes I will grab one of those and he can carve that up and use it throughout the week for lunch.
I work from home but I don’t usually have time during the day to do a lot of cooking. I tend to make one thing on Sunday that I can have all throughout the week for lunch and it is just quick and easy and healthy. An example would be making a big batch of Creamy Cauliflower Soup and then I just portion it out and during the day I pop into the kitchen, heat it up, and I am done. I might make a batch of brown rice and black beans on Sunday and then put together quick burritos or quesadillas for my lunch.
For breakfast, I also plan ahead and decide what we might have. Sometimes I make this yummy Greek yogurt recipe and put together little bento boxes with yogurt, fruit, granola and a hardboiled egg. I can make the entire week’s worth in about 15 minutes and then I have a healthy breakfast that is literally grab and go. Sometimes I make a big batch of steel cut oats and then portion that out for the entire week. I usually have a few boxes of Van’s waffles on hand and the children eat those for breakfast or they have oatmeal most days. My husband has eaten cereal for breakfast almost every day since I met him 10 years ago. (Yes we are exciting people.)
Viola! Once the shopping list is done, I can hit the grocery store and that is that. I tend to put our menu plan in a visible area of the kitchen so I can stay on track during the week. The night before when I am making lunches, I can refer to the plan and grab anything we might need (pull the steak from the freezer, marinade the chicken etc…)
I do have a little scratch pad that I use as a prep list. I do try and get at least some stuff done for the week in a short span of time on Sunday. This week I need to make a batch of iced coffee and some passion tea lemonade for drinks. I am also making a Butternut Squash soap and hard boiling some eggs for breakfast.
So that is about it for my process. I would say this takes about 30 minutes each week to do.
Here are a few other simple tips to start menu planning:
- Assign Certain Days a Theme. Some people find it helpful to assign a particular night a theme for each week. For example, Monday is Mexican Food, Tuesday is pizza night, Wednesday is Crock Pot night etc…
- Start a standard rotation. Some people like to create lists of basic recipes and just rotate those meals. If you can come up with 20-25 recipes that your family likes- say for example Crock Pot BBQ Chicken, Chicken Noodle soup, Stir Fry etc…- you can simply rotate the same meals throughout the month and just change up the side dishes.
- Decide on weekly plans vs. monthly plans. I personally don’t have the energy to pull together an entire month of menus so I stick with a weekly plan. You might want to think about which planning strategy is best for your family.
- Organize on paper or online. There are so many resources available to help with recipes that you first want to consider how to manage your plan. Some people like to have everything online via a specific app/software program or maybe just on a standard calender or spreadsheet. You can get all the recipes you need online via food blogs, large sites like Tastykitchen.com or Foodnetwork.com or Pinterest is a great way to find delicious new recipes to try. Others might prefer having things actually written down on planning worksheets or calenders. I spend a considerable amount of time online each day so I personally prefer to use pen and paper and turn the darn computer off.
- Be realistic. If your goal is to cut your spending, well you might consider opting for simple foods and ingredients like roasted chicken and potatoes as opposed to Prime Rib. If you are juggling a hectic schedule, complicated menus that require significant amount of prep work and cooking time is probably not the best idea. A simple omelette and green salad is something we have quite frequently when I am just not in the mood to cook. (As long as I make bacon too my children are delighted with eggs for dinner.)
And of course I have a free menu planning worksheet that you can download and print out if you are a pen and paper person (like me).
I hope this helps to get you started with menu planning. I would love to hear any additional tips from you guys!