Meal Planning 101... or at least my take on it.
I was recently visiting one of my favorite blog posts over at Crockpot365: a year of slow cooking: Slow Cooking During a Recession. In this post she lists the "top 10 ways that you can save money right this minute by slow cooking." The first 4 are things I TOTALLY swear by:
"1) Plan your meals. Seriously.
2) Use dried beans. They are filling, nutritious, freeze well, and are CHEAP.
3) Make your own yogurt. Yup, in the slow cooker. It totally works.
4) Make your own granola. Granola is wickedly expensive, and can be laden with preservatives and artificial sweeteners. "
Now, go over there and read the rest of the post... go on. Now. I'll wait.
Are you back? Good.
I had been planning blog posts on all 4 of these things, so be watching upcoming posts for recipes for home-made yogurt, granola, and a dry bean tutorial.... [edit, those are up, see the links on the list items above.] But today I was planning to post about how we do meal planning at our house, and her old top ten just fit in so well with that. :)
|Chicken & Dumplings|
I have been meal planning for over a year now, and I will tell you, it has saved me almost 40% on my grocery bill, if not more. I currently spend $100 a week on groceries for our family of 6, which works out to about 80 cents per plate, assuming 3 meals a day. If any of you have a 10 year old son like mine, you know three meals a day is underestimated. :) Here's one of my favorite frugal blogs to read about how to stream-line your grocery budget. Please follow her blog, you'll be glad you did.
We get paid twice a month, so I do my meal planning in two-week chunks, and then I do all the shopping for those meals (since most things have at least a two week shelf life) in one day, and then I do not go back to the store for two weeks. This not only saves me on gas, and keeps me from extra impulse purchases on subsequent shopping trips, but it REALLY saves me on sanity. Planning the meals and planning the shopping goes hand-in-hand.
Preparing to shop, I first take stock of what I have, and make a list. I check the freezer for meat that needs used, or can be used to base a few meals. For example: there's a ham in there, which can be my plan for Sunday dinner, and then the leftovers will be the base for Tuesday's cubed ham and cheesy potatoes... I make sure my pantry staples have enough to go for two more weeks. If there's a lot of baking to do, I may even plan to add more to the supply. (This includes checking the shampoo, toilet paper, dishwasher soap, etc to make sure there's at least enough to make it to the next shopping trip). I also check on my dry food storage, such as dry beans, rice, coffee, pancake mix, etc.
After I know what I have, I begin my list of meals I can make, first: listing the meals I can make with what's on hand:
Ham and broccoli, with dinner rolls
cubed ham and potato casserole
Then I see what is on sale in the local grocery ads. As a rule, I try and plan my grocery spending around my locally owned grocer's specials. I live in a small rural Nebraska community, so all of the grocery stores, including Walmart, are in a 2 mile vicinity. So it is no sweat to hit both local stores and one big-box store in one shopping trip. And even if that was hard to do, it's only once every two weeks, right? What I've found is that by keeping track of prices I've noticed that the big box store is not always the cheapest, and the quality of my local butcher's meat is well worth any difference. Also, if you hit the local places first, then you can get anything that was on sale and sold out at the small stores while you're at Walmart for your last stop, since they do price match, so take the ads with you. :)
I plan the remaining meals I need to make my list by utilizing the best sales: Since it's nearly March, cabbage and corned beef brisket will likely be on sale, so this would be a good time to include cabbage burgers in the meal plan, and maybe a beef brisket, if I knew a good way to prepare one....
My goal is to list 14 main dish meals, with one third being "Meat and Potato" style and the remaining two-thirds being casseroles and soups. It usually adds up to 5 meat and starch meals, 6 casseroles, and 3 soups. I have found my kids will eat a good hearty soup if they help me cook it (so there's no mystery), and if they don't have soup every day. Soup is SUPER economical. :) Husbands tend to revolt if fed too many casseroles as well. Give the guy a steak or hamburger night. I have yet to meet a guy who didn't LOVE meatloaf.
Here's a list of my meal plan from January:
Chicken & Dumplings (or Chicken noodle soup)
Ham and baked potatoes
Cheesy Ham & potatoes with broccoli
Roast Chicken and veggies
White Chicken Chili
Meatloaf and Mashed potatoes
Chicken Alfredo w/Broccoli
Even if your list looks nearly the same every two weeks, it's ok! Most families don't get tired of a meal they only see twice in a month. It is also perfectly acceptable to have one day marked "leftovers" if your family will eat them. If not, re-invent them. (see #8 on the fore-mentioned top-ten list; you did go read the whole thing, didn't you?)
After making a list of favorite family meals I insert them onto a blank printed calender. This can be made with a ruler and scrap paper, or you can print one you find online, just use google images and search for the month/year you want. I make sure to pencil in any major family activities that will affect meal-times or my preparation time. Like Farmer's Market Saturdays are days I plan on pulling something simple from the freezer, or having something in the crock-pot, so I'm not having to cook after a long busy farmer's market.
Once the calendar is complete, I use it to make the rest of my grocery list, adding in items for lunches and breakfasts as well. Be sure to pick up lots of fresh/seasonal fruit and veggies to fill it all in. Then I post the calender on the fridge and use it to keep track of what to pull out to thaw a day early. Since everything has to last 2 weeks, I put most things in the freezer until the day before they are dinner, including shredded cheese, loaves of bread, and all the meats. I also don't stick to my plan rigidly, sometimes the meal I'd planned is not a good fit for the day. In that case I make something from a different day. Just be sure to be crossing things off as you make them, so you know the ingredients are gone.
(PS: please post a comment telling me how you plan meals at your house! I'd love tips and tricks from my friends!)
And this month I will be joining Lindsay's Challenge to plan healthier meals! Will you join us? Click through to comment and leave your link!