Menu Planning Quickie

The past few months I’ve been obsessed with creating and maintaining a menu plan for my family. I’ve found that not only has it helped ease the dinner time stress, it’s also starting to help my bank account, which, lets face it, is a good thing.

My goals when starting the menu planning did revolve around attempting to save money while grocery shopping, as well as trying to stay within a monthly budget on food/grocery expenses. My family has a lower income now than we did in the past, but I think we’re actually eating better!

It’s not a complicated process, but it does take some effort and preplanning. I’m not promising that you’ll cut your grocery budget in half, or only spend $50 on everything. What I’m saying is that in a few short months you will notice a reduced grocery bill, you’ll notice when something is truly on sale, and you’ll catch on to the sneaky little tricks that grocery stores play.

When I sit down to start menu planning, I start with an idea of how long the plan is for. Am I planning for a week, two weeks, month, etc. I check out the dates, count up how many meals I may cook, and list it out. For instance, when planning for one month, I look at the calendar at when we get paid and generally plan it for the pay period. I look at how many days between paydays, which for my family is roughly 26-28 days. I don’t plan on cooking 28 meals, nor do I buy for that many meals. I usually plan for about 19-20 (sometimes less) meals. I know there are going to be leftover nights, I know there are going to be frozen pizza/fend for yourself nights, I know there may be a night of take out, or a night grilling with friends.

For this particular month, I knew we had a wedding anniversary, a holiday, and a birthday (please note that these plans occurred prior to the Government shutdown). That helped me decide to plan for 19 meals.

My next step was to look over the ads for the local stores. I compare what they have on sale, look at the meat and veggies and decide if I’m going to multiple stores or not. I’ve noticed that the first page is the “get you in” page and the following pages are usually “normal” pricing that they’ve spruced up.
This particular round I found kielbasa sausage and bulk hamburger on sale. Spinach, potatoes and bell peppers were on sale as well. One store had a great buy one get one sale, and canned beans/veggies.

I planned my meals around these options. My next step is to take stock of what I have in the cabinets, what is still in the refrigerator and freezer, and what must be used first. All of this information helps me choose which recipes I’m going to utilize. I chose recipes that can double up (i.e. leftovers can be used in another dish), and that don’t take a lot of ingredients.

I then choose which recipes/meals I’m going to prepare and start my grocery list. Grocery shopping is the most stressful part, and I prefer to do it alone. I have a toddler and a Veteran hubby (who hates crowded stores), so it can be eventful. Note that I do make a list that includes snacks (hubby has a condition that requires him to have sodium, so chips/crackers, etc are always on the list) and takes into account lunch/frozen items (so I do check on these items in the sales ads).

Based on the sales, I don’t have an issue with going to multiple stores, however, I create a strict list and divide it into store sections and only get what’s on the list (so when I go to the outlier stores toddler/hubby stay with friends!). At this point, I have an idea of what really is a “good” price vs “normal” so it’s easy for me to ignore the huge displays and such. The point is to avoid the impulse buys that will inflate the bill.

I generally find that there are 5-6 items at one or two stores I want to get, and then the majority will come from Wal-Mart (unfortunately. Hate wally world, but many of their prices are better and they do price match). I don’t mind doing this because this is the main shopping trip for my family. I do make milk runs, but that’s it. Usually we end up going Kroger/Wal-Mart, but you have to watch Kroger, because they require you use their store bonus card for the savings. (On a side note, when you use the card, you get point and you can redeem those points at the gas pump for up to .10 off…).

When I’m grocery shopping, I prepare to spend an additional amount on stock-up items, but only when they are on sale. For instance, I came across kielbasa on sale for $1.25/pack this month. I bought 6 packs, but I only plan on using it in 3 meals. Last month, chicken was on sale, so I did the same. I still have chicken in the freezer, and I now have additional sausage. When the bulk hamburger is on sale, I buy one because I can portion that out (personally, I prefer the bulk hamburger like this for tacos, or spaghetti, not patties). This also applies to other items – hot dogs, canned beans, rice, pasta, etc. I’m stocking up while they’re on sale to prepare for future menu planning which helps buy less in the long run. I keep it simple though. This period I got extra sausage, hot dogs, and spaghetti/marinara sauce because they were priced well. Last month it was chicken and canned items. Currently, I’m stocked up on noodles, rice, and beans. All from buying extra when it was on sale. These are things my family will definitely eat, so it’s not waste.

At this point, I’ve got my groceries, I know which meals I want to prepare, so I then decide when I’m going to prepare what. I don’t usually encounter issues with fresh produce going bad, but I do try to take into account fresh items when planning. Leftovers are also considered; we have leftover nights, but there may be a meal or two where I use the leftovers as part of the second meal.

For example, don’t be afraid to use leftover meatloaf in tacos, spaghetti, on a sandwich, chili, etc. Hamburger meat is incredibly versatile! So is chicken – leftover chicken can be picked/shredded and thrown into a meal. I’ve also found that black beans can take the place of meat in quite a few dishes. I’ve used black beans instead of chicken/hamburger in tacos, enchiladas, pasta, casseroles, etc. Left over pot roast can become beef stroganoff (once I used left over steak from Texas Roadhouse for a stroganoff!); left over taco supplies can become nachos or taco salad. Pretty much anything can be thrown into a tortilla shell and covered in cheese. Potatoes, rice, and beans are a great way to stretch a meal, as well as create meals that don’t require meat.

I have a menu board that I created and keep on my fridge. This is where I list what meal we are having on which night, I also have a list pad. The list isn’t a grocery list. It’s a reminder list. Hubby has memory problems, so the reminder list says, “HEY you have these things you can eat!”

I have a menu planning binder that I use for recipes, past grocery lists, menus and receipts.

I date my lists and hold onto the receipts so I can get an idea of when my local stores put things on sale. I also put recipe notes in the binder; it helps me with meals we liked or didn’t like, as well as modifications that we enjoyed.

 It’s not overly complicated, but it is a process. I find that it helps me prepare for grocery shopping and creating a budget. I have several recipes that my family enjoys that are low cost, filling, and yummy that I could share.

This next month will be a true testament to how well this process will work for me, what with the government shutdown. I’m planning on using my crock pot more, and creating larger meals that can be divided up and enjoyed more than once.

What tips or tricks do you utilize?

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