One of the most effective ways of saving money and cutting down on mealtime stress is to menu plan. I know that some of you are shuddering at the very thought, but stick with me. There are many different ways to menu plan, and it is important to find one that works best for you. There are also web-based services that will do the planning for you at a reasonable cost. (I will be adding links to some of these at the bottom of the post.) I prefer to do my own planning, and will share what works for me.
A few of the many different ways include planning all three meals, lunch and dinner, or just dinner; planning for a week, bi-weekly or monthly; assigning themes to each day of the week such as Mondays are Mexican, Tuesdays are soup, Wednesdays are chicken, Thursdays are pizza, etc.; making a list of meals that you want to fix in the next week and not assigning them to any particular day; and whatever other method that may work for you. One of the crucial elements that they all have in common is making sure that you have all the ingredients on hand to fix all the meals (obviously that may not apply to a monthly plan, but you would need to have a specific grocery plan to cover the month).
Start simply and stay flexible! Kayte has just started menu-planning, so I am going to share her experience with you. She is planning only the main meal for a week, since breakfasts tend to stay the same. Lunches are leftovers or something simple for her and her toddler, and her husband and older son are at work or school all day. The first thing we did was to print off a form (a simple Excel spreadsheet) and note what days had something scheduled that would affect cooking. In her case, that is the two days that she works (on those days, her husband fixes whatever he wants). On Saturdays, they plan an “Eating Out” meal, knowing that often that gets switched to Sunday. This left only 4 meals to plan for the week.
The next thing we did was to make a list of what she had in her refrigerator, freezer and pantry, making a special note of what needed to be used soon. (We kept that list to use for the next menu-planning session, marking off what was going to be used this week.) Kayte’s comments after the first week of using the meal plan were that it was great not having to try to figure out what was for dinner every afternoon – just look at the list posted on the fridge. It also eliminated daily grocery store runs. Her 10-year-old son also has a habit of asking repeatedly what was for dinner as soon as he gets home from school, and a few days into the week, he asked and then immediately said, “Oh wait, I can go look on the refrigerator.”
I usually plan for a week in advance, looking at sale ads and what I have on hand, and plan only my dinners. I eat my main meal in the middle of the day, and eat very light in evening, mostly eating leftovers or sometimes just a bowl of cereal or yogurt and fruit. (I will confess that I sometimes have a big bowl of popcorn and a glass of wine for supper.) Since I cook only for myself, I am free to eat pretty much whatever is handy. However, this last month I have been doing a Whole 30, which takes much more planning, so I planned out lunches and dinners for an entire month. (The meals in red are new recipes.)
Another thing you can do that makes it easier to come up with meals for your plan is to make a list of what meals you cook often and/or what your family really likes. Make a special note of quick and easy (including slow cooker) meals for the days you have limited time to cook. Here is a list of some quick and easy suggestions to get you started:
- Burritos (tortilla wrapped around any combination of beans, meat, cheese, chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce or cabbage, sour cream or feta cheese, etc.) A side of fruit is a bonus.
- Soup and a good bread (homemade or store bought)
- Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich
- Anything in a slow cooker that can be left to cook while you do other things
- Fried rice (leftover cooked rice, any kind of veggies and/or cooked meat, stir fry everything and add a scrambled egg (optional) and some soy sauce)
- Repurposed leftovers (or pull out all the leftovers and let each person build their own plate)
- Baked potato bar (potatoes baked in slow cooker plus toppings in separate bowls for everyone to make their own)
- Salad bar (greens, leftover cooked chicken, shredded cheese, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, chopped or cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, craisins, chopped apple, etc. in separate bowls for everyone to make their own)
A few months ago, I sat down with my daughter-in-law who was very skeptical about the benefits of menu-planning. We started by making a list of everything she already had on hand, brainstormed potential lunches and dinners for her family (her, her husband, and three sons ranging in age from 2 to 8). After planning the next week’s meals, all she had to buy to prepare them was one can of tomato sauce. Needless to say, she was sold! After a few weeks of planning, she told me that their grocery spending was 1/3 less than before she started.
Good Cheap Eats – Planning easy economical meals
Money Saving Mom – Free printables, links to many other money-saving tips
Life As Mom – Some free meal plans
eMeals – Meal plans sent to you (for a fee)
Plan to Eat – Meal plans done for you (for a fee)
Once a Month Mom – A variety of different freezer meals (free) and/or membership (fee).