Meal planning can save time, money and sanity in the kitchen! 😀 This is the basic way I meal plan.
1. Determine the length of time you will plan for. Will it be by pay period? By length of time between shopping trips? Weekly, bi-weekly or monthly?
My husband gets paid bi-weekly, so we usually shop on his paydays. I meal plan for two weeks at a time, starting with the day after he gets paid. This is what works for us, but if you have a hard time committing to two weeks of meals at one time, plan for one! Or, if you have trouble sitting down every two weeks to plan, then do a whole month at once and don’t revisit this step for another whole month! If you do plan for a month in advance, though, you will have a harder time planning around store sales and you will likely need to shop more often than once a month for fresh foods. However, planning a menu a month can make great use of a deep freeze, large meat purchases (like a half a cow or pig) or a wholesale club membership like Costco or Sams Club.
2. Figure out what is a good buy this week. First, plan in season when possible. My kids LOVE strawberries, but right now, our option is frozen strawberries because we just can’t afford fresh. Also, organic peppers are out of our price range for the most part right now. I save my stuffed pepper recipe for farmer’s market season!
Also, don’t forget to think about what you already have in your pantry or freezer! The cheapest place to shop is at your own home.
Next, pull out the sale fliers for the stores you shop at. Because of our food sensitivities and preferences, we regularly shop at 5 different stores, to save money. That sounds like a lot, but each store has different things that work for us, and we know what they are. We buy our rice and almond milk at one store where they are cheaper than any of the others. We go through enough every week that it is worth it to us to make this special trip (and the store is not far away). We have found that our little local grocery, while too expensive and too conventional on most items, actually carries only natural meats in their meat case and has incredible sales weekly – so we do all of our meat shopping there. Again, the extra trip is worth it for us in the dollars we save. The farthest store of the five has the majority of what we use, and we go there every 2 weeks. The two remaining stores are our mid-week trip stores, if we run out of something or have forgotten something. Oh, and I nearly forgot about the co-op we belong to at http://www.azurestandard.com! So, the fliers come in here – we eat meat at most dinners, which are what I meal plan for, so I go to the flier for our local grocery first. I look up what meat is on sale on the day I will be shopping, and plan what I will be buying. I don’t spend more than $2.50/lb on meat, and usually far under that. And not every meal contains meat, which also helps to lower that cost.
3. What do you like to eat? Now that I know what I’ll be working with, I think about what I’m going to do with it. We have a soup night on Mondays, and fish on Tuesdays and Fridays, so I plan two soups and it is easy to remember to add in our four fish nights. Then, I get out my entrée list. I keep a list of recipes that my family likes, and also I keep a recipe book on http://www.allrecipes.com so that I can look them over to figure out what to have. So, for example, a few weeks ago, chicken quarters were on sale for 69 cents a pound. So, I stocked up for that two weeks. My family loves chicken, so it was easy to eat it four times in two weeks – but they don’t want to eat the same thing 4 times in two weeks. So, I looked up all of my chicken recipes and picked four different ones. Some of them were easy to work together on – I needed cooked shredded chicken for several of the recipes, so I tossed the chicken for all of those recipes into the crockpot together one day. When I shredded the chicken, I took all of the bones, etc, and put them back in the crockpot with celery, onions, carrots, and water and made chicken stock. That took a lot of prep out of several meals at once.
4. Now a grocery list! I get all of my recipes in front of me for the two weeks and look over all of the ingredients. I add each one to a grocery list and add quantities if I need more of the same thing for another recipe later. For example, if I am making three things with diced tomato in one menu, I might not remember all three right up front. I may just write diced tomato and by the time I’ve gone through each of my recipes, there will be 3 tallies beside it. This step seems trivial but it is so important! If you don’t actually have the ingredients on hand for your menu, then you won’t stick to it or you will have to go back to the store and this blows your grocery budget! If you aren’t one to stick to a recipe hard core, it is fine to just grab the basics and sub stuff out as it happens, but your enchiladas just won’t be as good without the diced tomato.
5. Put it on the calendar – or don’t! For me, this is a critical step. I have to look at what we’ve got scheduled for certain days to figure out dinner around it. A trip to the chiro means coming home at 6:30 and we need dinner to be waiting for us, so I plan crockpot meals for those nights. Meals that take a lot of prep at dinner time need to be made on nights when we will be at home for the entire afternoon. If I need to soak beans, I would really like to know ahead of time. For all these reasons and more, I plan each meal for a specific day. Do I sometimes switch out my days? Absolutely! But in general, this makes life much easier on me.
However, some people just need the freedom. They just need to be able to pick out a meal and make it that day. It is too mundane to look at the calendar and eat what it says. And that is fine too, as long as your lifestyle will accommodate that!
6. Stick to the plan. This is actually the most critical step! If you have a ton of food at your house but go out to eat every night, you will not save any money or time – I promise! You have to actually eat the things from your menu for this to work.
What other menu planning tips do you have?