Food. It’s important (just a little) and we all have to buy it. Most of us have to cook it as well (or at least make sure someone in the house cooks it). But when a family sits down to budget – or figure out where the money went – we can usually plan on a large sum going to food. How do we keep this spending controlled and purposeful? [Side Note - click the photos in this post for more recipes!]
Why plan meals? One of the main reasons is that it keeps you from playing the “What’s for dinner?” game each night. That game can lead to ordering out or going out which means more money spent. Lets look at an example – ordering pizza. For most families, ordering pizza is going to be around $30 – possibly much more depending on family size. That same $30 can buy my family breakfast foods for at least 2 weeks (including farm-fresh eggs from a local farmer), especially if I pay attention to sales and coupons. When you start to break down your budget in these terms, you may be shocked at how the math plays out.
Another good reason is that you spend less time running to the store. This saves you money in a couple ways – less gas used in the car and fewer chances for impulse buys (those $1 here and $3 there purchases really add up). It also helps your home run more smoothly. Everyone knows what is for dinner and there is less chance for arguing.
Meal planning at first can seem daunting. I remember when I decided to start and I got bogged down in the details. Many blogs and books are dedicated to this subject and include everything from freezer options (cooking once or twice a month and freezing it all) to spending a whole month in your crock pot. Then you add in couponing (which I totally don’t understand by the way, at least not the extreme couponing) and it can feel like too much to consider.
I promise, you can make this simple! First you want to look at your situation with your “reality glasses” on. I am not talking about your ideal life and cooking situation. I mean look at your cooking and meal time plans as they actually tend to happen. Do you and your partner both work long days, leaving little prep time when you get home? Do you stay at home and have time to prep and cook each day? Would crock pot or freezer meals work better for your time management? Do you have sports activities for the kids that require being gone around dinner time?
With those answers in mind, here are the steps you want to take:
- Make a pantry list. What is in your dry goods area and spice cabinet? This list will be important when planning and shopping.
- Make a list of items you have to buy each week – milk, eggs, bread – the essentials for your house.
- Call a family meeting and make a master list of favorite meals.
- Decide on the method that would work for you – a larger portion of freezer meals or crock pot meals, cooking fresh each day, or a mixture.
- Decide how far in advance you want to plan. Start with at least a week at a time. Some families plan the whole month at once.
Now for the really fun part! You get to make your plan for the week or whatever period of time you decided on. This is where you get out some paper (I use a cheap spiral notebook) and start digging through your ideas. My meal ideas come from several places in any given week. Pinterest is a favorite now, and most people have a recipe or food board – so actually put all those pins to work! I work from family recipes – meals I have made for years and are a hit every single time. I check out cook books from the library – you would be amazed at how many cook books libraries usually have. This is very cost effective – you can get endless recipes without buying a book yourself (and I am sure others can relate to how frustrating it is to buy a cookbook and find you only like a few recipes in it). We even have a post of quick meal ideas here.
You start with dinner for each day and go from there, writing down each recipe name. Some families plan every meal and snack, some don’t. I personally do not. I write down breakfast and lunch ideas for the week at the bottom of my dinner plan list though, especially for my husband who takes his lunch to work each day (a huge money saver by the way). I also plan that my son and I will most likely eat left-overs for some lunches.
Then you take this list and look at the recipes for needed ingredients. Make your grocery list, while also checking your pantry list. By checking your pantry list you can avoid buying something for a meal when you already have it at home. You can also avoid that moment where you think you have a certain spice in the cabinet only to find you don’t…while in the middle of cooking!
Then head to the store! If you make your list in sections – produce, meats, spices, pastas, canned goods, etc – you will save time at the store.
Let me do a short example (just a few days). I find examples to be much more helpful than descriptions!
- Sunday: Meatloaf, Mashed Pototoes, Corn on the Cob
- Monday: Slow Cooker Chicken Chili, Cornbread
- Tuesday: Grilled Chicken and Spinach Quesadillas, Mexican Rice
- Breakfasts: French Toast, Oatmeal, Granola Bars
- Lunches: Apples, Cheese, Chicken Nuggets, Lunch Meats/Cheeses, Yogurt, Grapefruit
Now I take this list and check my recipes and make my grocery list.
- 1 bag baby spinach
- 1 green bell pepper
- 1 sweet potato
- 1 onion
- 5lbs bag potatoes
- 3 ears corn
- Apples (check sales)
- 2 lbs ground turkey (I am replacing the ground chicken in the chili with ground turkey – I like the texture better)
- 2lbs chicken breasts OR rotisserie chicken (I check prices and get the cheaper of the two!)
- 1lbs ground beef
- large tortillas
- mild salsa
- 2 cans fire roasted tomatoes
- 1 can kidney beans
- 1 can white beans
- 2 blocks Monterrey Jack cheese
- Lunch Meat (check sales/deli)
- Granola Bars
- Almond Milk
- Chicken Nuggets
- ***Pick up eggs
Some things I have left off my list. For instance, I didn’t include rice b/c I have it in bulk at home. I didn’t include the tapioca from the chili recipe because I will serve it with rice instead. I have the ingredients for cornbread at home, so I left those items off. This is when your pantry list/inventory comes in handy! And I actually do make notes to myself on my list about checking sales since I tend to forget when I am in a rush to get my toddler out before his “timer” is up. Now I am able to walk into the store and get everything I need in one trip!
Some tips I have learned over my time meal planning:
Keep it organized. Have one notebook or binder and develop your system. There are a ton of “printables” online for meal planning with different set ups to suit each family. You can simply fill these in and stick them on your fridge for the family to see. Try to pick one grocery day a week if you can. Mine is Saturday during nap time most weeks so that I can go without my toddler. I plan our week out that morning and then shop that afternoon.
Create a recipe binder for your family. I am currently working on ours, and I am having a ton of fun with it! Personally, I am typing up my recipes, and then I will put them in a binder with dividers (breakfast, chicken, beef, party, holiday, etc). Some families just write them down (or cut them out/print them off) as they go and stick them in a new page protector. This will not only build up a collection of tried and true recipes for your family, but is a great bit of history to pass down one day.
Plan meals based on “extras” or “left overs”. For instance, if I find a great deal on whole chickens I will get one or two of those for the meals that week that need chicken. I will boil them or bake them one morning and then pick off all the meat. That meat can then be used for anything needing pulled or diced chicken for the rest of the week. Or I make chicken salad for sandwiches, or freeze the extra for meals another week. You can save a lot of money doing this if you plan accordingly.
Give yourself the nights off that you need! I know that Fridays are usually days we don’t cook, and typically I skip this on our meal plan. Some Fridays we still stay in and just make sandwiches or something easy. Some Fridays we go out to McDonald’s and let our son play in the play area, or do something similar at the mall where they also have a play area. If you have busy nights in your week, plan for them! Your meal plan should not make you feel like you have to cook every single night. This is about making your life easier and more on budget, not stressing you out!
Check your grocery sales and coupons. I will admit I am not an avid couponer, but I am working on it. But everyone can check the grocery sales. For instance, if they are having an amazing sale on whole chickens, pick a meal that can use it that week. If they have eggplant on sale, make some eggplant parmesan or ratatouille that week.
Create a learning experience. If your children are toddlers or older, you can use your meal plan to educate. For instance, pick a week and make regional foods – this could be from your area (maybe visit some local landmarks that week too), your heritage, or pick a country or region. Perhaps you could have a week of Italian food or Chinese foods? Does your family have an Irish heritage? Pick a week to learn about and cook the foods from Ireland. You could also pick themes like colors or letters for little ones. Maybe one night have all “orange” foods – mac-n-cheese, steamed carrots, and orange cupcakes. Or have all “B” foods one morning – blueberry pancakes and bacon anyone?
Get creative! Meal planning can really expand your menu choices and cooking skills. When you play the “what’s for dinner?” game, you usually fall back on the same things again and again. When you plan in advance you are giving yourself time to plan to try new things. This makes dinner exciting and may just get you interested in cooking if you never have been before now. I try to make an effort to cook one new meal a week, at least. It is also fun to try one new ingredient a week. Have you never used barley? Find a recipe one week and try it! Have you always wanted to learn to make lasagna? Do it!
Stay on budget. When you meal plan, you have a great chance to lower your food costs. Not only by watching sales but simply by keeping your plans within your budget for the week or month. If you know your budget can’t handle steak every other night, then don’t plan for it! But you can look for alternatives like grilled chicken if you are craving some grilling time. I have learned over time how to “cheapen” recipes as well. I know when I can sub out expensive cheeses for cheap ones, or more expensive cuts of meat for cheaper ones (your crock pot is a great way to make cheaper cuts of meat just as delicious). I have also found that taking the time to grate a block of cheese versus buying shredded cheese saves me about $2 each time – and we use a LOT of cheese around this house!
Bonus! I am going to add a couple recipes from my collection just for you! These are simple recipes I turn to again and again.
No-Rise Pizza Dough – Fast, easy, and cheap and you won’t want to order out again!
- 3 cups flour
- 1 cup warm water
- 1 tbsp honey, heaping
- 1 tbsp olive oil, heaping
- 1 tbsp dry active yeast
- 1 tsp garlic salt
- Combine water, honey, oil, yeast, and garlic salt. Stir to dissolve honey.
- Add 3 cups flour, stir until combined.
- Knead dough a few times, roll out into large pizza size. Top however you like.
- Bake on cookie sheet for 12 minutes at 475*F or for 8 minutes on a preheated pizza stone.
**You can also use this recipe for calzones (longer baking time at 350*F – about 20 minutes) or personal size pizzas. Be sure to use a liquid measuring cup for the water, it really makes a difference for this recipe.
Baked Oatmeal with Raisins and Pecans – you can add whatever fruit/nuts you want in this
- 2 cups rolled oats
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 1/2 cups milk
- 1 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup pecans
- brown sugar for serving
- Preheat oven to 350, lightly grease 9×9 baking dish.
- Combine all ingredients except brown sugar. Pour into dish and bake 20-25 minutes or until liquid is absorbed.
- Serve hot. Enjoy your homemade and delicious oatmeal!