January 31, 2012

Sharing the Wealth: Meal planning

Ever since Jameson started eating solids I have been writing menu plans. I just didn't feel that what we had been doing (eating whatever random "meals" we could throw together, involving a lot of canned soup and cereal) was going to work with a growing little boy. I wanted to make him a good meal every night but was growing tired of trying to scrounge things up at the last minute. So, I started making a menu plan.

Over time, I have really changed the kinds of meals I prepare. At this point, while I still have a lot of room for improvement, I have really figured out how to make menu plans for our family that are realistic, healthful, and budget friendly.

Make your menu plan work for you
When I making our menu plan, I start with considering a few key things:

First, I figure out exactly how many meals we are going to need. I take into consideration nights that we are going to be eating our for a special occasion or going to someone else's house for dinner. I also use this to determine what our budget is going to be for that week. I always start with the same number, but if I know that a meal is going to be eaten out, I know that I have less to spend in the grocery store since I will need to allow for the meal out.

Next, I figure out what kind of meals I need. For example, I know that there is one night a week that I am not home for dinner and Shaun is in charge of feeding the kiddos. Shaun is a little limited in the kinds of meals he can make (that are mom approved, anyway) so I always plan either a meal that he can do on his own or a freezer meal that he just has to heat up. After all, if I am just picking random meals and not truly planning for our needs, it is almost certain that we won't stick with the menu plan and set ourselves up for failure.

Determine what is important for you in your menu
Above all, if you menu plan isn't one that you feel good about and actually have the skills and time to stick to, it isn't going to be anything more than a list of food on your fridge. For us, our meals need to:

-Fit our time needs for that night
-Be healthy, mostly unprocessed foods that I feel good about my family eating
-Low cost
-Utilize what we already have on hand

If I am not incorporating these needs into our menus, I am simply not going to stick to them and they aren't going to do us a bit of good.

Start with a structure
In the two week span that I plan for, there are a few meal types that I know are always going to make an appearance:

Breakfast for dinner: We LOVE breakfast for dinner. Especially since we don't generally do more than cereal for breakfast, we like to have yummy breakfast foods at dinner time. And, you know what? Breakfast foods are cheap! Using pancakes made from scratch from the freezer, eggs (we get free, farm fresh eggs from Shaun's grandma- can't beat that!) and some fruit or another can make an inexpensive, balanced meal.

No meat meals: Now, don't be mistaken. WE LOVE MEAT. We are most certainly not a vegetarian family. However, you can definitely save a hunk of money in your budget by planning a couple meals that don't have meat in them. Our favorites are meatless pastas, beans and rice (I know that sounds cheap and yucky, but it is actually a quite tasty dish), and homemade cheese pizza.

Basic meat and veggie meals: We stock up on meat cuts when they are on sale. To stretch these savings further, we couple these with basic meals so that we can have "treats" without breaking the bank. For example, if I can pick up some porkchops on sale, I will use ingredients I have on hand to marinade or season them, and pair them with a bag of frozen veggies.

Pizza picnic night: Almost every Saturday night, we have a pizza picnic in the living room. I make the pizza crust from scratch (RIDICULOUSLY easy) and use whatever toppings we have on hand (last time was ham and pineapple- yum!!!) This has already become a tradition my kids really look forwards to, it is a great way to use up some stuff in the freezer that might otherwise go uneaten, and it makes meal planning much easier when I always know what one meal a week is. To make it even easier, I usually triple the crust recipe and freeze the rest so that most nights I don't even have to do much to put the pizza together.

Always, always "shop" your cupboards first
 Yes, I know that I talked about this in my last post about my grocery list. But, this is really the key to building a menu plan when you are stockpiling. It doesn't matter how many awesome grocery store deals I score if they go uneaten. When I am planning my menus, I always start with what I have. As previously mentioned, I am typically able to fill the majority of our meals using only what we have in our kitchen. I also generally have 2-3 meals sitting in the freezer, in addition to pancakes in the freezer that we always keep on hand.

Use your resources
This is where I have to confess that, well, I am a cheater. That's right- I steal a lot of my meal ideas from other people. And, well, I'm good with that. I usually try to add a new meal or two to each menu plan to keep things exciting and to use what I either have on hand or what is on sale. I rely heavily on my favorite blogs, especially Money Saving Mom's and Heavenly Homemakers , to give me ideas. The way I figure it, these women have had years of experience finding meals that are budget family and healthful, so why reinvent the wheel. While I certainly don't copy their meals exactly, and flat out am not on the same page with them on some of their food choices (raw milk- no thank you!!!) I will use their meal plans for ideas to keep our menus from being the same old thing every week.

Another resource I love is The Biggest Loser Family Cookbook. It has tasty, super healthy, easy to make, budget friendly recipes that our whole family really enjoys. I do have to pick around in it a bit since some of the "budget friendly" meals are not all that budget friendly, but overall it is great for ideas!

Above all, be flexible, but stick to it
 I can honestly say that I cannot remember single time when we have stuck to our menu plan exactly. We often move around meals because something comes up or we just plain don't feel like having that for dinner that particular night.

However, if you are going to make a menu plan and do your shopping around that menu plan, you need to try to stick with it in some form. If you find that you are struggling to stick with the menu plan, you may need to take a look at the kind of menu plan you are making. Are you adding foods your family doesn't really like? Do you really not enjoy cooking the meals you chose? Do the meals not work in with your family's needs?

Overall, I really feel that building menu plans can make a significant impact on your budget. It can make grocery shopping so much easier and, if you know that you have a pre-selected meal ready to assemble at home, I think you are much less likely to swing through the drive thru.

I talked a little bit about my freezer cooking in this post and the last one in the series. I promise, promise, PROMISE that I will put together a post about my freezer cooking soon! It is definitely my little secret to being able to provide meals from scratch even on the craziest of nights!

By the way- menus don't have to be fancy. Here is our super classy menu plan we are finishing up:


  1. You do all the things I keep telling myself I'm going to do! I was so good about meal planning for a while when I was pregnant and we were trying to save money. I've tried to start again a few times and I just can't get past the writing out the meals part! I keep telling myself I'll start again when Jackson is sleeping better and therefore I'm sleeping better, but I'll probably just come up with another excuse then. If you figure out how to share your motivation, please send some my way!

    One note... We've also been eating a lot less meat, just because I tend to plan dinner last minute and it's hard to work in meat last minute. But... since I've been doing more reading about food things, it's not just budget friendly to eat less meat, it's also better for the environment since meat production takes so many more resources and is "dirtier" than grain/produce production. So there's another plus! (We definitely still eat meat, since as you said, it is delicious, just a lot less of it.)

    1. I have heard that about meat. I know a few people who don't eat meat just because of the environmental impact. I, however, find it too delicious... :)

    2. Same here! But it's not all or none, so just cutting back still helps. There's a campaign encouraging people to eat a vegetarian meal just once per week, which would help a lot. We mostly eat fish at home (like I said, last minute planning and it thaws so much faster and easier) and tend to eat chicken/beef/pork when we eat at restaurants.

  2. So, since I too am a cheater....I would LOVE to know what some of your favorite meals are! I think I overcomplicate everything when it comes to meal planning. I try to be too fancy and then it ends in failure because I don't feel like going to that much work. Ugh! LOL!

    1. We have a few "fancy" meals here and there, but 99% of our meals are super easy.

      I was wondering if people might like it if I posted my next menu plan with links to the recipes. I'll have to do it just for you. :)

    2. I think people would LOVE that! LOL! And by people, I mean me....ha ha! But seriously, that would be a fantastic blog.