Thursday, August 12, 2010

Stretching the Food Dollars: Menu Planning

What is menu planning? It is planning out your meals in advance to avoid standing in front of the open refrigerator at 5pm like a deer in headlights struggling to figure out what to cook for dinner. That is a terrible feeling and will often incite a budget-blowing fast food grab or restaurant expedition. At the very least, lack of menu planning will require a quick run to the grocery store for that one item that you need for the dinner you just figured out. I know for myself that there is no such thing as a quick run into a grocery store for just one thing. I always end up picking up several other items along the way. Next thing you know, I have wasted over half an hour in the store and have dumped over $40.  So, menu planning can save you a bit of money because it eliminates the temptation to eat out and it saves you money at the store by eliminating extra trips and helping you buy just what you really need.

I have to confess. Although I think meal planning is an awesome thing to do, I am not as disciplined in this area as I would like to be. In my mind, I would love to have several monthly meal plans that I could rotate through. Each would be filled with breakfasts, lunches and dinners that my family loves complete with grocery lists. I have really tried to accomplish this, but I end up not sticking to it. I think there is something rebellious in me that doesn't like to be boxed in by what a menu plan says that we should eat. I do better with a loose weekly menu plan to aid in the making of my grocery list. You have to figure out what works best for you. If you are a very disciplined person who requires organization, detailed monthly meal plans may be the perfect fit for you. If you are a person who craves a bit of spontaneity, you may enjoy a looser weekly plan like I use. The key is finding a what you are comfortable because you will stick with it.

Let's discuss some different ways to go about menu planning:
Just plan dinner meals. In our house, we try to keep breakfast and lunch on auto-pilot. We have a list of basic breakfasts that we rotate through. (oatmeal, cereal/granola, eggs, toast, breakfast burritos, and Saturday is usually pancake day) Lunch is typically leftovers from last night's dinner. If we don't have any, or there is not enough, we will eat usually sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, or ramen noodles.

Make a meal list. I have made and regularly update a list of tried and true meals that I know how to make with ease and my family enjoys. I like to group them by main ingredients, usually type of meat used, so if I get a great deal on chicken breasts, I can go to my list of chicken meals for inspiration. I also group them by type of food (i.e. Italian, oriental, etc.) I posted a list a couple of years ago that seems pitifully meager compared to the variety of foods that I make. One of these days I am going to make a great master meal list that I can keep updating, but at this time I usually just start from scratch listing meals that are fairly current for us.

Fill in the calendar. The simplest way to create a meal plan is to take a calendar and start filling in the blanks. You can do a month at a time, 2 weeks or even just one. That depends on how much variety you need. The Simple Mom has a great idea of using Google Calendar for this purpose. She creates a separate calendar just for menu planning and adds her meals for each day. She sets them up to repeat every two weeks (which is a fairly simple thing to do with most calendar programs). If you can come up with two weeks worth of meals, you are instantly done for the month this way. Sometimes it is nice to menu plan right on your regular calendar so you can see what you have going on. That way if you have something going on right up until the dinner hour, you will know that this is a good day for a crockpot meal that will be ready for you as soon as you arrive home.

Use a premade menu plan. There are cookbooks or even subscriptions to menu plans that have already been set up for you with grocery lists you can take to the store. I discovered this several years ago and subscribed to a weekly menu plan service. Most are fairly inexpensive and the cost is readily made up by visiting the grocery store with a shopping list and avoiding eating out because you know what you are cooking each night and have all of the supplies already. This is an easy way to jump into the meal planning arena.
Here are just a few of the menu plans available online:

  • Saving Dinner – I have also used this menu plan and have enjoyed it. Then I discovered that you can buy their cookbooks that each have a year's worth of their meal plans and I did that.

Do some once-a-month or mega cooking.
The original book, Once-a-Month Cooking discusses this concept which is basically shopping and preparing a month's dinner entrees in one day and having them in the freezer to use all month. It is economical because you can buy things is bulk quantities, you save time because you do all of your chopping, etc., at one time. The book maps out how to shop and prepare 30 meals all in one day.  I find this to a bit overwhelming and exhausting with small children underfoot.  I remember that the very first time I tried this, I had a restless 18 month old and no other adult support.  It was a very LONG day. 

I have decided that I prefer mega-cooking.  That is doubling, tripling or quadrupling a meal as I am cooking it for dinner and freezing the excess.  I like to do this with meatloaf, lasagna, casseroles, and homemade enchiladas.  I doesn't take much more time and is an easy way to stock up the freezer.  Another good resource for freezing meals ahead is Dinner's in the Freezer.

Plan by the week.  Even if you don't feel like you can pull off a monthly meal plan, working out a weekly one will help considerably.  It can help you stick to a weekly grocery trip and save you money if you have the discipline to stick to your list.

Meal plan according to the sales.  Often I go to the store for my staple and basic items and fill in with meats that I can find for a good deal.  This is when your list of meals (above) can come in handy.  If I got a great deal on chicken breasts, I will pick out various chicken meals.  If you can scour your local grocery store adds before you shop, you can make a meal plan so you know exactly what else you will need to complete your meals.
At the very least, meal plan by the day.  Often I am not organized enough to have a meal plan.  I usually have a good supply of basic foods that I use often and some sort of meat that I have found for a good price in the freezer.  So, during my morning quiet time, I will decide what I will make and pull anything that I will need out of the freezer.  Anything that I can prep early, I will do while I am in the kitchen at breakfast or lunch.  Often I will put something together after lunch and place it right in the oven and set the delay start.  Then I can blissfully go about my afternoon without having to stop and think about dinner.  

Whether you plan out meals a month at a time, a week at a time or even a day at a time, planning can save you a lot of time and money.

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