Yes, seriously. And whether or not you are also a type A personality, I bet it will change your life - or at least the way you eat - too.
It wasn't until our son was born and we slashed our grocery budget to $75 a week ($300 a month) that the thought of planning our family's meals even occurred to me. Until then I thought that it was normal to go to the grocery store and ask the aisles for inspiration. Or to find new tasty recipes and buy every "necessary" ingredient. Or to not have a monthly grocery budget at all (though that's a topic for another post).
In all honesty, this was not a lightning bolt idea that hit me one day. It was inspired by reading the cookbook Dinner: A love story (one of my all-time favorite books). The author writes of keeping a diary of her family's meals to get organized for each week and to remember favorite recipes. I immediately knew I had to start my own dinner diary and upped the ante - planning our meals to make the most of each ingredient and cut our expenses.
Let me tell you, it works. Not only are we able to stick to our grocery budget, but it's so nice to come home from work and know what I'm making for dinner that night. It also helps me maximize resources - our food, our money, and perhaps most importantly, our time together at dinner as a family.
Here are some tips on how to get started with your own meal planning.
1. Create a record: Buy a small notebook to keep track of your meals. On each line, write the date and what you had (or will have) for dinner that night. So simple to do and so nice to revisit to get inspiration for future meal plans.
2. Plan: Set aside 20 minutes each week (I do this on Saturdays) to brainstorm meals for the week. I pull out my favorite cookbooks, my binder of recipes from magazines, and my computer so that I can look up recipes online. Start by making note of any nights that you will not need to make dinner (going out, off to a friend's house, etc.), and then fill in the blanks based on the tips below.
3. Shop first from your pantry, fridge, garden and freezer: The first thing you want to know is what you already have on hand. I begin by going through the fridge to see what is leftover from the previous week - especially perishable items - that can still be used. For example, left over sausage and spinach can be transformed into a delicious pizza. Do the same for your garden (what is fresh that needs to be picked?), freezer and pantry. I find this especially helpful when, sometimes at the end of the month, we need to stretch our budget and keep grocery shopping to a minimum.
4. Pick one protein: Meat is expensive and, though my husband and I are a far cry from vegetarians, we try to limit it in our diet from both a health and a cost-conscious perspective. On a typical week we pick one protein - for example, chicken - and cook with that ingredient throughout the week. Night one might be a roast chicken, night two is an Asian chicken salad (with leftovers), night three is chicken and arugula pitas (again with leftovers), and night four is a butternut squash soup made with chicken broth from the carcass.
5. Pick recipes that reuse ingredients: As with protein, make the most of everything you buy by finding recipes that reuse leftover food throughout the week. If you're buying arugula for chicken pitas, plan an arugula salad the following night or make an arugula pesto pasta.
6. Substitute in recipes: Have a recipe that calls for parsley or basil but all you have is cilantro? Use the cilantro. Need sour cream for your tacos? How about the plain yogurt already in the fridge. You'd be surprised just how much you can chop your shopping list by thinking ahead and substituting ingredients and trust me - your dinner will be just as delicious.
7. Stay away from prepared/processed foods: We've all heard the old adage to shop the perimeter of the grocery store - produce, proteins, and dairy - and stay away from the aisles upon aisles of processed foods in the middle. This practice is good for your waistline and your pocketbook. The average number of items in a supermarket now tops 50,000 (90% of them, I bet, made from corn). Wow. Something tells me that the goal isn't to offer you more selection, but to get you to buy more stuff.
8. Make your shopping list: I start my shopping list as I begin the planning process so I can see what ingredients I'll need to work into multiple meals.
9. Do a final check: Go through your list and double-check to make sure you don't already have ingredients on hand.
10. Shop around: Especially when it comes to staples, it pays to find the stores in your town with the best deal. For example, we buy our oats from Target, almonds from Trader Joe's, and coconut oil from Whole Foods (yep, they have the best price). Though it takes extra time, check weekly sales flyers for specials - this is a great way to get inspiration for your weekly meal plan.
11. Stick to the list and don't shop mid-week: When you go to the store only buy items on your list. Obvious? Yes. Hard? Oh my, yes. But at this point you don't want to sabotage your hard work by putting that frozen pizza they're sampling at Trader Joe's in your cart. Also, if you find mid-week that you need to run to the store, first ask yourself if you really need that ingredient. Is your soup begging for bread or would a quesadilla made with items you already have suffice? More often that not, you'll find you can make due.
To get you started, below is one of our recent meal plans. When putting this together I took stock of what was already in our fridge/pantry/freezer, which allowed me to keep within our $75 a week grocery budget.
Saturday: Yogurt Marinated Grilled Chicken & Salad
Sunday: Chicken BLTs
Monday: Pesto (from the freezer) Pasta & Salad
Tuesday: Chicken, Apple and Black Bean Salad
Wednesday: Sweet Potato & Black Bean Burritos
Thursday: Spiced Red Lentils with Onions and Spinach & Brussel Sprouts
Friday: Homemade Margarita Pizza & Brussel Sprouts
In the spirit of sharing meal plan inspiration with fellow frugal mamas (and dads), every few weeks I will post one up to the blog.
How do you organize your family's meals - do you have any favorite tips/meal plans/recipes? Please share in the comments!
You might also like...
1. How my slow cooker got her groove back
2. Eating Well on the Cheap: Keeping a stocked freezer
3. Cutting Back - Part Two (aka. my ode to Mint.com)
Great ideas! Another way we stretch our budget is with protein-rich non-meat ingredients. quinoa is a favorite in our house. I can make a batch then use it as a base for salads, in quinoa cakes or as a replacement for rice or noodles (with a vegetable curry or stewed chicken, etc.).ReplyDelete
Thank you so much for stopping by and excellent point - not only from a cost perspective, but a health perspective. After watching the documentary Forks Over Knives, which details the pitfalls of our culture's obsession with animal protein, we've been trying to eat a more plant-based diet and experiment with grains. I love the idea of cooking a big batch of quinoa and using it throughout the week in the ways that you've mentioned. As we continue our shift toward less animal protein in our diet, I'll be sharing some of our meal plans - one of which will definitely be quinoa inspired!Delete
How do you cook qunioa I have it but im not sure what to do with it!Delete
What a great example of a how a budget meal plan doesn't have to sacrifice flavor and delicious ingredients. Thanks!ReplyDelete
Thank you! We are all about flavor in this household. There will be more meal plans to come - I hope to post some of our favorites every few weeks as inspiration for readers.Delete
I cook for 8 people (husband, 6 kids) and hate to spend more than $20 on a meal. Often I've only had the $75 you mentioned for groceries. Those weeks we eat allot of grains. I will buy 5-10 lbs of whole wheat flour and make dumplings,bread,pancakes, noodles, biscuits,with small amounts of meat/chicken. I guess being poor makes me frugal,and knowledgeable about what's in my cabinets.ReplyDelete
If you can stick to such a strict budget for eight people, we all can do it! I'm so impressed - you really know how to stretch your dollar. In the weeks where we really have to make due with what we have, I'll make a big pot of pinto beans and use them throughout the week.Delete
I've found that being frugal is simply being smart - especially when it comes to cooking and using the resources you already have on hand. Not only is it better for your pocketbook, but it is less wasteful, better for the environment, and teaches your children the value of money. Our culture has a tendency to focus on always having more - I think there is much more to be learned in having less.
I would love to learn some of your secrets and meals please. Momma of six, so eight total here too! email@example.com thank you!!Delete
These are some great tips! I find that if I always have something in the fridge "almost ready" to go, it really helps us stick to eating in. For example: I cook a huge batch of rice every week. Sometimes I add farro or barley, and sometimes I add lentils. But that rice becomes a base for so many things. Almost any leftover can be thrown on top and heated up. I can stir in an egg and fry it with any left over veggies. It goes in soups, and sometimes it just gets dukkah and olive oil drizzled over the top.ReplyDelete
I love this idea! It's always great to have something in the fridge to complement every meal. I do this every once in a while with beans. I'll cook up a large batch and use them for tacos, salads, soups, etc.Delete
Thank you for your comment, and for stopping by my blog!
I read somewhere recently that ultimately, food is our fuel, and although it's nice when we can have variety and eat really tasty things all the time, sometimes it's okay to just eat it because it's food. It was a really great reminder for me. I love budgeting and the challenge of stretching the budget, but sometimes I do get sick of making the same things over and over (I'm a fan of beans and eggs for cheap protein). I try to add variety when I can, but when I can't... I have to realize that that's okay, too. I'm still blessed to have what I do.ReplyDelete
What an important reminder for all of us - thank you. We are so lucky to have enough to eat every day. The ability to eat a varied and interesting diet is, in comparison, a luxury. There are so many in this world who go hungry, for whom $75 a week for groceries would be an immense blessing.Delete
Our family says a prayer before each meal, but often it is simply a ritual. We forget to truly be thankful for all that we have. Thank you for encouraging us all to be more mindful of the food (aka. fuel) that graces our table.
I love these tips as well so thank you! Family of eight here, six daughters, so would love to learn more meal plans, how to save more money, plan better, etc!ReplyDelete
Wow, good for you! I love big families. I will try to keep the budgeting tips coming. Have you checked out my post on how we paid off our student loans? While not meal-plan-specific, I touch on general saving principals: http://www.frugalmamafiles.com/2013/10/bye-bye-student-loans-how-we-paid-off.htmlDelete
Thank you for visiting!
Love the post on budgeting. I'm in the process of planning my garden for the year and a lot of the things you mentioned are things I try to keep in mind. I also work in a grocery store, so I would add the suggestion that when looking at the flyers it is best to keep track of which weeks they run the meats on sale. Usually, it's chicken one week, pork the next... etc. I also make sure that when the essentials are on sale like flour that I stock up. As long as I have the basics I can make things go farther. Thanks for the great article.ReplyDelete
Thank you for the insider tip on grocery store sales. I will have to start taking note of the protein sale rotation!
I've found that our investment in a chest freezer has made it so much easier to take care of store sales, especially when it comes to meats. We also have a hand-me-down vacuum sealer that allows us to keep meats fresh in the freezer for months. While the bags are pricey, in the long run it pays off.
Thank you for stopping by and sharing your advice!
I want to thank you for all of your advice. My family has had to cut back a lot this year. We moved to a different state and only my husband has a job right now (which pays every 2 wks, where we were used to every week). I'll be looking into your blog a lot more for the near future. :)ReplyDelete
Thank you for your note and for visiting my blog! I apologize on taking so long to respond. I have one month to go before my due date and between nesting like a mad woman and running around after an active toddler, my days are flying by.
I know what you mean about cutting back. We did the same thing when I went on maternity leave the first time and we decided to live off my husband's income. We'll be doing the same thing a month from now, which means the budget needs to be adjusted again. It's always a challenge, but on the flip side it's so rewarding to know you can live well on less.
I wish you and your family the very best in transitioning to your new home and lifestyle!