To keep things simple in the kitchen (and to stay in budget), I regularly take time to plan out our family’s meals/groceries. (I’d rather spend the bit of planning time up front, than spend extra trips to the store or scramble for a few extra dollars at the end of the month!)
Before you begin these steps, you may want to go take a quick look at your freezer, pantry, and fridge to get an idea of what is in there. Later, you can spend the intensive time to clean them out, make lists, etc. But we’re doing Quick Meal-Planning today, just to get your feet under you for the month, so don’t dig into the shelves yet.
Meal Planning 101
- Know Your Budget– You may want to itemize your grocery budget a bit, roughly estimating how much you will need to reserve for fresh produce, eggs, milk, etc. to last you the whole month. Perhaps set some funds aside for “stocking up” (such as 10-25 lb bags of staples).
This step may be easier for you to do after you’ve been meal-planning for awhile, and know how much you typically need to buy. You can also itemize the budget after you create your menu, and adjust your grocery list accordingly.
- Grab a Calendar Page– You can quickly sketch one out on paper, use an online meal-planning program (such as Plan to Eat), or write on a calendar of your choice. (Keep your family’s main calendar close by, to remind you of busy days, guests, work schedules, outings, etc, that will require special meals.)
- Assign Your Meals– For each day of the month, jot down a dinner . If your family regularly has “leftover nights,” you can plan that. However, I usually try to incorporate bits of leftovers into other planned meals, or use them to round out a light lunch; so, “leftover nights” are rare for us.
If you have a list of your family’s favorite meals, work from that. If not, ask them what they like to eat, and start a list. Then fill in the blanks on your calendar. You may decide to give each day of the week a “theme” to simplify planning, such as “Meatless Monday,” “Crockpot Thursday,” “Soup Sunday,” etc. (I usually plan for a nice “date night at home” dinner or dessert once a week, too)
If you know of “expiring” items in your fridge/garden that need to get used quickly, make sure to incorporate those in your meals. If you have a grocery sales ad handy, you can skim that to see if anything would work for your meals. (Skip the sales on packaged items, and focus on nutrient-dense foods like bulk grains, beans, produce, etc.)
Don’t plan labor-intensive meals on busy days. You won’t make it, or you’ll just end up frustrating yourself. Plan ahead with a crockpot meal or a simple finger foods picnic. Plan for “prep days” in your schedule, too. Allow time for making yogurt, baking bread or cookies, freezer meals, or anything else that makes life simpler for you in the long run.
- Plan for Breakfasts, Lunches, & Snacks– Make a quick list of nourishing breakfasts, lunches, and snack ideas. Add them to your plan, or just rotate through each week. Don’t get stuck on the details! Just make sure you are prepared to have basic ingredients on hand (such as eggs, yogurt, cheese, milk, whole grains, etc.), and aren’t stuck having to eat out.
Here are some ideas if you’re usually short on time in the mornings: Don’t rely on cold cereal. It’s not nourishing to your body, you’ll get hungry again quickly, and it’s expensive. Mix up a batch of homemade granola, soak a bowl of pancake batter or pot of porridge the night before, make a gallon of homemade yogurt (put in little containers with fruit after it’s made, if your family typically needs it “to go”), hard boil a bowlful of eggs (keep in the fridge), prep a smoothie, slice up a block of cheese, make up some trail mix, and have a fruit bowl and a jar of peanut butter within easy reach, for example.
- Make Your Grocery List– If you’re using an online meal-planning program such as Plan to Eat, your grocery list may already be automatically prepared for you as you add the recipes to your menu plan. If not, jot down all the needed items as you make your meal plan.
Make sure to note how much of each item is needed (ie 2 lb cheese, 3 15 oz tomato sauce, 2 chickens, 5 dozen eggs, etc.); don’t just write “tomato sauce,” or you’ll get to the store and wonder if you already have some in your pantry and then buy too little or too much. (Don’t take time to wander back through your pantry/fridge now to see what you have; finish your meal plans and then take the list with you when you’re done!)
Keep an eye on your budget as you plan. Don’t put in a bunch of big fancy meals right after payday, and then spend the last two weeks eating beans (unless you want to!). Spread out the “frugal meals” throughout the month, making good use of your “stock-up” items (from sales, bulk foods, etc.).
As you browse a recipe, you can roughly estimate how much the ingredients might cost; plan frugal substitutes for expensive items (such as cheaper cuts of meat, seasonal veggies, etc).
- Check Your List– Now that your meals are all planned, check your pantry/fridge/freezer, and cross off anything on your list that you already have, or adjust the amounts. (This is simple to do with a click of a button on Plan to Eat.)
I find it easiest to do one big shopping trip (or online order) once a month, and then I rarely have to go to the store. Many sturdy produce, eggs, and dairy items will keep for weeks in the fridge (I cram them in there!), meat can go in the freezer, and you can precook & freeze other items. Then, plan grocery shopping days (hopefully no more than once every week or two).
Remember, you control your plan; it doesn’t control you. You can rearrange meals to keep your schedule flexible or cook up something on a whim that sounds good (such as when those garden tomatoes suddenly start ripening!). But make sure you have some “quick meal staples” (mine is millet and cheese) or precooked frozen meals on hand to rescue you on a crazy day.
A meal plan can put more food on your plates and keep more money in your wallet. Give it a try!
This post is sponsored by Plan to Eat, a sponsor of Frugal Granola this month. I received a sample membership for review purposes. All opinions are my own.