Budgeting 101: Menu Planning

Menu Planning

Weekly menu plan & company (Emma insisted that her friends make an appearance in the photo shoot)

Once upon a time, I used to stop at the grocery store on the way home from work 2 or 3 (or 4 or 5 or 6) times a week to pick something up to make for dinner. And on the nights that I didn’t stop at the grocery store we ended up at a restaurant or getting takeout for dinner. Granted my husband and I were DINK (Dual-Income-No-Kids) and could afford it at the time, but we were also living paycheck-to-paycheck and the word “savings” was a foreign concept. Money earned was money spent and we never batted an eyelash at a $50 restaurant bill because I was too lazy to pick up $5 worth of ingredients at the store. It wasn’t until I ditched my job to be a stay at home mom and some quick napkin math proved that we couldn’t maintain our fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants lifestyle anymore on a single income that I had even heard of menu planning.  After hours of googling “how to eat on the cheap”, I came across an article on the parenting website cafemom.com on how to save money by planning a week’s worth of meals at a time. And bonus points, it was written by a fellow stay at home mom, so automatically her words were golden to me. It was bumpy at first and required a good deal of determination, but I heeded her advice and soon enough I was a meal planning ninja. Enough backstory, I know you came here looking for the meat of this blog post. So here it is, the basics of menu planning:

What is menu planning? Simply put, it’s planning the meals you’ll be cooking ahead of time.

Who should menu plan? Everyone. Menu planning is an essential tool for following a personal budget. If you eat and you provide your own meals, you should be implementing a meal plan into your routine.

Why plan your meals? In the name of frugality, meal planning is an ultimate budget saver. It allows you to create a grocery list around the exact ingredients you will need to prepare your meals, saving you money in the form of wasted food. It streamlines your grocery shopping trip so you’re not wasting your time and your money. Menu planning can help you buy what you need, not random impulse purchases as you meander the aisles. Also if you’re gung ho about couponing you can use menu plans to coincide your meals with upcoming sales and coupon offers to really maximize the savings potential on your purchases. Planning your meals can help you take advantage of fresh, seasonal produce (which is both a financial and health benefit!). It also eliminates the 5 o’clock scramble to decide what’s for dinner that many times results in a last minute trip through the drive-thru.

How do I menu plan? It’s easy, really. Here’s what I do:

  • Write down my schedule for the week. If I’m having a particularly hectic day, I’ll make sure our meal is quick and easy. This alleviates the craziness of trying to prepare an elaborate dinner when I have only 30 minutes to spare.
  • Shop my pantry. I tend to buy things like meat in bulk when it’s on sale and freeze it, so chances are if I’m planning a meal that calls for boneless chicken breast I can avoid purchasing it at a premium price. I also keep our pantry stocked with the regular-use essentials (like grains, beans, spices, etc) that I try to purchase on sale for the same reasons as the meat. Having a well stocked pantry allows me the convenience of shopping my kitchen and meal planning around food we already have on hand if our weekly budget is tighter than usual.
  • Check the sales flyers. We receive the weekly sales flyers for two major grocery stores in the area that I shop at. Before I make a definitive plan, I always check to see what’s on sale. We try to avoid processed foods to help keep our costs down, so my usual pit stops include the front page (where you’ll find the loss-leaders: these are items that are marked down to the point where the store may not make a profit but it relies on them to stimulate more sales), the meat sales, and the produce sales. If something is on sale at a particularly attractive discount, I make sure to incorporate it into our meal plan and more often than not purchase an excess amount to store away and use at a later date.
  • Write down my menu for the week. First I start with dinners. I choose a main dish for each day, and then a complimentary side dish to go along with it. How do I know which dishes to choose? Is broccoli on sale this week? Then I might google dishes with broccoli and try a new recipe. Or I might pull a tried and true broccoli recipe from my brain/recipe box/cookbook and add it to the menu plan. If it’s an easy recipe I’ll pencil it in for a busy day, or if it’s more involved I’ll make sure I can devote a good chunk of time to getting it ready. I reserve the simplest dishes for when my husband is working a night shift: eggs/veggies/toast, english muffin pizzas, no-cook tomato pasta, etc. I make sure that I don’t do similar dishes two days in a row (you’d be surprised how frequently pasta dishes find their way into our weekly menu plan in the name of convenience). The one major prerequisite for dinner is that a vegetable must be present (unless we’re having breakfast for dinner, green beans don’t exactly compliment the waffles!). Once I figure out dinners, breakfasts and lunches are a piece of cake. My family doesn’t eat cereal 98% of the time as we find them either loaded with sugar or too expensive. We get the most bang for our buck health-wise with oatmeal, eggs or homemade yogurt, so those are the most frequent choices on the menu. Lunch is usually sandwiches with raw fruits or veggies, or leftovers from a previous night’s dinner. As for snacks, I make sure to load the shopping cart with tons of fresh produce for the kids to nosh on, the most perishable being purchased in smaller quantities and consumed first, with longer lasting items like apples or carrot sticks hanging around to be eaten later in the week. I leave the breakfasts, lunches and snacks open ended as far as what is eaten on what days so that we feel like there’s enough wiggle room in our menu plan without wasting food. When the menu plan is done, I write it down in my daily planner. This not only helps me keep track of my menu plan if I lose the original one, but I can plan ahead if I need to prepare a portion of the meal earlier in the day (i.e. preparing vegetables, using the crockpot).
  • Create a grocery list. Once I know what we’re making, I do a quick scan of the pantry again, jot down whatever we don’t already have for a particular recipe, check the grocery list against my menu plan and do some quick math to make sure that we’ll stay in our budget for the week, and it’s done. Monday is my grocery shopping day, so I make sure to have the grocery list completed by Sunday evening. That way I’m not rushing around to throw a meal plan together at the last minute.
My personal agenda to mold each and every one of you into a Gingerly Homemaking minion aside, menu planning is important as it ensures that your (and your family’s) nutritional needs are being met, as well as it helps in the management of your grocery budget. In the beginning it might take awhile as you become familiar with planning ahead a week’s worth of meals, but stick with it and you’ll see how easy and convenient it is. If you haven’t already, I urge you to take the leap and start planning your meals ahead of time. Your wallet and your waistline will thank you!
Stay tuned: if you need ideas, I’ll be posting my weekly menu plans on Monday mornings. And if you have any questions or comments about menu planning feel free to ask in the comments section below!

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