Meal Planning 101

Our Meal Planning Board

As I'm sure you've heard so many times before, "If you want to save money on groceries, make a meal plan." I can tell you for a fact, from my experience, that that is absolutely true. That's not the only reason to do it though. If you want to save time or appease a particularly hangry (hungry + angry, a word coined by my friend Keriann) hubby, meal planning is a lifesaver. When we first got married we were both working full-time (still are) and usually didn't make it home until well after 6:30. When we did get home it was to the fridge to hem and haw or to the take out menu drawer (okay, so it wasn't really a drawer but more like a loosely contained stack of menus and coupons on our credenza but I didn't want you to think I'm a total slob). That meant a lot of eating out or eating late (which was often preceded by snacking because we were so hungry). It also meant a lot of extra trips to the store to grab what we needed for dinner. When I went grocery shopping I felt like a child because I would basically just get whatever sounded good. I would vaguely plan a meal here and there in my mind when I was in the aisle at the store but of course I would always forget an ingredient or two. Not only was that expensive but it lead to us eating food that was truly healthy for us now matter how hard I tried. So to eat better, to save money, and to satisfy a hungry husband at the end of a long workday, I started menu planning.

I think every family has their top 5 or so recipes that are in constant rotation on their dinner menu, and we are no exception. So the first obstacle was to branch out and find more recipes/meals to throw into the mix. Luckily I have a couple really great cookbooks, my mom, and the Internet (thank you pinterest!) to pull from. On an average week, we usually only plan our dinners. Since it's just the two of us, we usually cook a family sized meal and can use the leftovers for lunches (or the husband gets free lunch from work, jealous). For breakfast, we're pretty classic and simple and rotate between oatmeal, cream of wheat, or eggs in one form or another. They are cheap, easy, and fast to prepare since neither of us are morning folk. So we use the meal planner to plan dinner and just add our breakfast and snacks to our grocery list. Occasionally I will find a great recipe for a snack or treat that I would like to make so I will add that to our plan.

Now on to the meal plan. Depending on what we're having, I usually plan for at the very least one leftovers night per week. Even with eating leftovers for lunch, we usually have enough to get us through a dinner or two as well. I plan 3 or 4 of the recipes we've tried and loved, or recipes I'm 90% positive we will love. Then I like to throw in the 2 or 3 new recipes to try. Some weeks we have planned dinners at family's houses or events that we know we're going to be eating out. Meal planning helps us so much in this case because we don’t buy a bunch of groceries that won’t get eaten because we know exactly how many meals we need to plan. There have been weeks (especially around holidays) where we've eaten somewhere other than home almost every night. It's even better when we get to bring home leftovers from said dinners, talk about a jackpot! Now before you think we're moochers, we do bring offerings to said dinners/meals that we will account for in our meal plan.

Once I've chosen the recipes for the week (and get the much needed approval from my oh so picky husband) it's on to the grocery list. I jot down all the ingredients and amounts for each recipe. I then go to my pantry/refrigerator/freezer to see what ingredients we do have and I check those (in the quantity I have) off the list so I don't buy more than I have to. Then I condense the list so that I have one line item for each grocery item and a quantity instead of a list with each grocery item listed 4 or 5 times. This is a huge time saver because I have one route I follow every time and I’m not bouncing around from aisle to aisle. This is important for me because when selecting menu items, I try and plan meals that call for the same ingredients (without the meals themselves being too similar). This also saves us money because I can buy bigger packages and use them for multiple meals. For example it's cheaper (by the pound) to buy the two pounds ground turkey package than a 1-pound package. I can then use the turkey for tacos and for shepherd’s pie. This will also save you money if you watch ads closer than I do. If you plan multiple meals around produce and other items on sale, you save. I also shop mainly at Winco, so I like to write down my list in the order that I walk through the store (produce, dairy, boxed goods, canned goods, etc.). I would HIGHLY recommend this strategy especially if you are shopping with kiddos.

Now to stay on our budget (very important to us) I keep track of the price of each item I put in my cart. Yes, I even weigh and calculate the price of all my produce and bulk items. Another trick I use to stay on track is to put an asterisk next to each item that is optional for that week. That way, once I add up all of my groceries, if I’ve gone over (it happens) I know which items I can put away and still be in good shape for the week. So that’s it, that’s how we plan our meals, grocery shop, and stay on a budget. For more information about how we prep our meals after the grocery store, stay tuned.