Menu Planning Basics

I am often asked how I spend so little on groceries for my family of four.  I spend, on average, $60 per week for food for two adults and two boy-children.  For me, menu planning is the biggest saver of sanity and money.

How I menu plan suits me.  (Others have their ways that work for them.)  I start by keeping a good knowledge of what’s in my freezers and pantries.  When things get hectic (Christmastime, tax season) or it seems they’re haphazardly stuffed, I’ll make a written inventory to guide me through a few weeks.  This also saves money, because I don’t waste what’s in there, or buy too much before it can be used.  We have a blank calendar page on my computer, which I scanned in several years ago and print for each month.   I’ll fill in the dates and mark special occasions (campouts, soccer games and practices, known early or late dinners, birthdays). 

Two other essential tools I have are those freezers and pantries. I have the obligatory side freezer and closet pantry in the kitchen.   I also have an upright freezer and 5-shelf storage area in the basement.  I can find a deal, stash it away, and have my own mini-grocery to more effectively menu plan.  The variety of foods on hand, and the fact that they’ve been obtained at low cost, make me happy and my wallet heavier.

With variety and seasonality in mind, and the knowledge of what I already have, I’m ready to begin the fun. To me, it is fun.  It’s like a jigsaw puzzle!  I start with dinner main dishes for the days I know need to be easy (like Scout meeting nights, because time is tight), and plan Crock Pot meals, or heat-n-eat dishes.  After that, I decide if I want a roast, whole chicken or other large, leftover-producing main dish that week, and when.  I also plan to use the leftovers that week, or freeze them.  If I know I have something to use up in the freezer, I’ll try to plan that in. Usually, we have one or two meatless dinners per week, and vary the meat on the other nights so that we aren’t eating too much of one thing.

The side dishes get rotated: it’s unlikely I’ll have rice, or broccoli, twice in a row.  And seasonality will dictate veggie sides. I also try to vary the cuisine so we’re not having too much Mexican or Italian, for example.  Monotony is not a good thing in any family, particularly mine.  I’m lucky that my family enjoys plain vegetables.  Sure, we enjoy a fancy one now and then, but for the most part my “boys” like it simple, and that makes it easy for me.

Knowing what I want to serve, I pick out my recipes.  My favorite web site for this is RecipeZaar.  (Although I am a cookbook-phile, this site makes it really easy to find a suitable recipe that I don’t already know I have.  I also really enjoy the discussion forums.)  I try to use what I have on-hand, or that requires minimal purchases.  Low-cost does not have to mean boring.

Normally, I plan menus out two weeks at a time, and I’m flexible, when I have to be, sometimes, I guess. Usually, if I find a meat deal, I’ll repackage and throw it in the freezer, and it ends up on the menu in a couple of weeks. Often you will find on my menu calendar, “green veg,” which means we’re out of canned green beans (DH’s favorite), so I have to see what comes on sale, or not. But when I find frozen something that strikes my fancy, that’s a deal, I get a bunch of them, not just one. Remember when Steamfresh frozen vegs first came out? I clipped every coupon for those things, but didn’t use them right away. They went on sale, and BAM! I got about 8 bags for .25 each.

I also LOVE to cook, so to me, the creativity of making meals is a true cheap thrill!  Over many years, I have developed a system of finding grocery deals on a regular basis, based on where I will/won’t shop, what I will/won’t pay, and what I’m willing to use as experiment.  But the most effective means in my repertoire is menu planning.

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