Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Practical and Frugal New Year: Menu Planning

I have always loved to cook.  My mom showed me how to brown hamburger when I was 14, and ever since then I have liked to mix ingredients without a recipe and see what I come up with.  But when Kyle and I were first married, I started to dread making dinner each night.  It took me a while to realize why cooking for my new husband wasn't all I had dreamed.  It finally dawned on me that basing our nightly meals off of impulsive "what sounds good" choices and trying to impress Kyle with my domestic skill was leading to a lot of last minute trips to the store and late-evening meals.  By the time I finished work, decided on a recipe I wanted to use, bought the ingredients, and finally got it cooked... well, we were hungry!  It got to where I was hating that dreadful question each afternoon on my drive home - What's for dinner?  I decided that I needed to plan meals ahead of time, so that the guesswork would be taken out, and I could shop ahead of time and have things on-hand.

So I started planning a month of meals at a time.  I even created a menu board that hung in the kitchen so I would know what to throw in the sink to thaw every morning on my way out the door for work.  For a long time, this was enough of a solution, because I knew what we were going to eat and had everything available to me, thawed and fresh, when I got home from work each day!  But I noticed that even though the stress and wasted time were taken care of, wasted food and money increased.  We'd find ourselves eating out with friends last minute and fresh food I had purchased and put in the fridge would go to waste.  So over time, I added more steps in the process of my monthly menu planning.  And now that I am a stay-at-home mom but feeding more mouths than when I was a new bride, sticking to a budget by eating at home with minimal waste is essential.

I have had several friends ask me how I do this and how to get started for themselves.  A friend told me that I should blog about it; hence this post!  No matter your gender, age, marital/parental status you can use any or all of these steps in this process to save on your grocery bill, time spent at the store, and time spent wondering what you are going to eat each night for dinner.

Our menu went from being on a large marker board on the wall to a small magnetic memo pad on the side of the fridge!
Either way, it is visible and handy!
Toward the end of each month I do the same thing in this order:
1) I look at (or create) a blank calendar for the next month. I write down when we are going to be eating out that can't be avoided (like a birthday dinner or meeting friends, etc) or going to be gone (like eating at my parents' for dinner).
2) I also write down all events that will be close to mealtime (like every Wednesday is a rushed dinner because we have to get to church or to tumbling on Tuesdays) - these become leftover nights!
3) Then I make a list of every food item already in my freezer, fridge, and cabinets. I try to start my menu for the month with these items. So if I have a jar of a certain sauce or a lb of beef, I use meals that will use these items up first.
4) I also try to think of 2 cheap but good meals we like the most and make sure I make one of those each week. My family loves chicken spaghetti and regular spaghetti, so I try to make one each week.
5) Then I start planning the menu out a week at a time. Right now, Sundays and Mondays are easy open days, so I cook large meals. Then we eat leftovers from those meals on Tues and Wed, which are busy days that I don't have time to cook anyway. Thursday I cook another large meal for leftovers on Saturday. Fridays are either eat out or cook something special, like shrimp or steak that won't have leftovers. These are more expensive meals, but still cheaper than eating out.
6) Also, I try to make things back to back that use similar ingredients so nothing goes bad. For example, when I make chicken enchiladas, I use half of a can of black beans and half of a sour cream container. So a few days later, I plan tacos or taco soup that will use the rest of that up. Also, a big roast could make 3 meals - roast and potatoes/carrots one night, shred leftover meat for bbq sandwiches another night, and then use stock/broth to make homemade egg noodles!
7) I look at ads to see what meats, milk, cheeses, frozen meals are cheapest to help me pick meals I am going to make too. If something I make often (like bags of chicken breasts) are cheaper than usual, I buy several to stock up. We eat a lot of pasta, but I buy pasta made from vegetables so it is a little healthier.
8) Then once I have my menu made, I start my shopping list for those ingredients (again, hopefully some of it was already in my kitchen). Then I add foods we will eat for breakfast and lunch. I keep these very limited to inexpensive items that last a while. Mostly frozen fruit, bananas, applesauce, granola bars, pancake mix, and eggs are all I buy for breakfast - and I buy it in bulk or again stock up when they are on sale. For lunch we eat leftovers or sandwiches - pb and j or turkey and cheese on tortillas or bread - with some fruit. So I stock up on that stuff! I freeze lunch meat and buy a month's worth.
9) I keep sides very simple: green beans, broccoli, corn on the cob, carrots, or simple salad (lettuce and tomato). Again, buy large amounts and freeze what I can. Use what doesn't freeze (like salad) first.
10) I always buy 2 frozen meals for those nights I just don't feel like cooking or plans pop up and you don't have time for dinner. Even if it is a frozen chinese dinner for $8, it is cheaper than grabbing food out ( THANK YOU STEPH MARTIN FOR THIS TIP)!
11) IF THE STORE BRAND IS AVAILABLE, I ALWAYS BUY IT! That saves a ton of money right there! I usually shop at Walmart, so almost everything I buy is Great Value. There are a few items I allow us to have the fancier brand, but very few!
12) I also buy our whole month's worth of milk at the cheapest price in town and freeze it. I just thaw out the next gallon about a day before I need it.
13) While I am at the store, I calculate every item I put in the cart so I don't have any surprises at the register.
14) and then, since I shop at Walmart, I use their app to scan my receipt to compare local prices. If it finds something cheaper elsewhere, it refunds the difference to a Walmart gift card fund. Every little bit helps.

Some common meals I make:
Chicken Spaghetti (use only 2 chicken breasts and shred them)
Spaghetti (could be meatless)
Tacos (use less meat and more beans)
Veggie Soup (can be meatless)
Fritatta (can be meatless)
Sundried tomato alfredo sausage penne (known in our house as Tuscan Goulash)
Citrus shrimp penne
Turkey burgers
Homemade egg Noodles
Sloppy Joes/BBQ sandwiches

If you try this and at first you don't see much difference at the register or in your time spent, don't despair.  It took me several months before I did this process efficiently.  I now can get through the first 10 steps of this process in about half an hour, and then the trip to the store only takes about 2 hours from entering to exiting (but really the length of time depends upon how my kids behave while we are shopping).  That may sound like a lot of time at the store, but that is all the time I spend grocery shopping for the whole month!  I know women who spend at least an hour a week grocery shopping!

Some additional tips:
*NEVER shop while hungry!  I try to only head to the store after the kids and I have eaten a complete breakfast!  This way we are all pretty full and not tempted to throw yummy looking stuff in the cart we don't need.  Also, know what other temptations you have and avoid those when trying to stick to a budget.  I try not to go late at night either, even though I could go without kids, because I get sugar cravings between supper and bedtime - I'd spend half our budget on ice cream and cheesecake!
*This process can easily be modified to fit your schedule if you prefer to shop every week or every other week.  I know people who loathe the idea of freezing bread and milk, etc.  Do what works for you!  Depending on how you do your budget (we only get paid once a month, so we have a monthly budget) will determine your spending goal for each grocery trip.  If you only want to spend $600 a month, but will shop once a week, that doesn't necessarily mean you will only spend $150 each trip.  Keep receipts in an envelope or binder to keep a current tally in mind so you know your limit BEFORE you enter the store!
*If you don't have any idea of what meals you want to cook, or if you are in a rut where you are sick of eating the same things in your rotation, look in magazines that feature quick, inexpensive meals.  Usually magazines feature recipes that use seasonal produce (like apples and pumpkins in the Fall) so that your fresh produce is actually fresh and is less expensive.  I recently was able to subscribe to Rachel Ray and Better Homes & Gardens for $4 each and then received the same offer for 2 other foodie magazines!  I learned this tip from my friend Jamie Lynch who keeps favorite magazine recipes for seasonal cooking!
*Don't feel like you can't change things around if you aren't in the mood for Lasagna, but that is what you have written down on your calendar.  Switch it around with something that sounds better that night.
*Also, if you end up having to eat out on a certain night, you could do several things with the groceries you have already purchased.  For example, if you were planning to make Taco Salad tonight, but your husband gets promoted at work and wants to go out to celebrate, don't you dare say, "We can't, because the tomatoes will go bad"!  Instead, push your Taco Salad meal back to a soon-coming day on the calendar that originally had a meal that requires no fresh produce.  Then save that no-fresh-produce-required meal for the next month (like if you had Spaghetti planned, the frozen meat will still be good next month as will the jar of sauce and box of noodles).  Or you can go ahead and cook the meal but freeze it for later!  Just make sure your fresh produce doesn't go bad!  The health of your body and wallet depend on fresh produce!
*If you are caught off-guard by having to cook at home with limited groceries and limited time/money for shopping, go to websites like  Supercook will offer recipes based upon ingredients you already have!

Using this process and these tips, we are able to feed our family of 4 (yes, the baby eats food too and also drinks formula half the time) for $450 a month or less.  That includes household items and groceries!  As a person formerly addicted to paying for convenience, believe me, sticking to a budget can be done!  If I can do it, anyone can!

If you want to learn more about saving money on all things home, ask wise women in your life!  I learned so many of these things from unknowing mentors around me, and I made their tips my own!  Also, check out The Humbled Homemaker and MoneySavingMom blogs; they are some of my favorites!


  1. Awesome job! Although I don't meal plan for a whole month ahead of time I do some of this process along with couponing and stock piling the necessity type stuff (ie toilet paper & paper towels). I also multiply some of our favorite meals (especially those that can be made in a large crockpot all day long) so that we get 4-5 meals out of it and eat 1 serving that night and freeze the other servings. That way when we're tired or don't want to cook we can just thaw and heat up an already cooked meal :)

  2. Thanks for sharing! Another way to keep dinners stress free but easy to switch is to do freezer meals. I've really enjoyed how less stressful dinner is for us when I'm using up our freezer meals. Also, freezer meals or just large crock pot dinners can make having people over less stressful, too. Since dinner is already cooking, or at least the main dish, you can focus more on your guests than food prep.

  3. Thanks ladies! The blogs I mentioned above have a ton of how-tos on freezer-meals, sometimes doing multiples in 1 hour even!

    The reasons I don't freeze meals like this often are that I like to cook, so cooking in bulk sounds like it would take all the fun out of it for me. I also am not sure if I would remember all the meals I had frozen