Are you stressed at dinner time? Menu planning doesn’t have to be hard! Use this simple 4 step process instead. Save time and money on groceries.
Save money with menu planning
How much do you spend each month on food?
Like, really, all of it.
From the morning coffee to the late night Dairy Queen runs. It can be hard to figure out just how much we spend total for the month. Especially when it is a little bit here and there.
Plus, some of it goes on the debit card at the grocery store, some of it goes on the credit card at the coffee shop, and some of it is in cash. This becomes a recipe for disaster.
One way that I have learned to save us an insane amount of money is through menu planning. I sit down once a week (usually Sunday) and plan out all our meals that week.
And then I do just one big grocery shopping trip each week. This has not come easy for me. I am not one of those type-A people who love to make lists and plan everything out!
But learning this skill has been a game changer for us. In this article I spell out my entire process for you. And I hope it can help you too.
This article goes over each step in my weekly process and includes extra tips along the way. So it is kind of long! Grab a cup of coffee, print the pretty planner I made, and get comfortable. Or save it for later!
Learning to cook…a little history
Some people were born to be artists. Some were born to be scientists. And some people were just born great cooks. I was not one of them.
When I tell people that I have learned how to cook – and that this one change has been the catalyst to helping us to save money and allowed me to continue to stay home these past few years – they just can’t believe it.
And really, it’s not very believable if you knew me at all several years ago, before my first was born. This has been quite the journey; there have been some ups and downs. There have been some major flops that we just couldn’t even stomach and had to just toss out. Learn from these, and order takeout Chinese instead!
Through it all I have learned how to boil, simmer and sauté with the best of them…ok sauté might be a stretch I am not even really sure what that means. But I try.
Learning to plan
I am not a planner, like at all. Not even close.
But, in the long run what I had to ask myself was: “Am I going to continue to let my limiting beliefs towards my cooking and planning skills hinder my dream to stay home?” Or, was I willing instead to learn some simple skill sets that would change our financial lives.
As a young adult living in my first apartment the only kitchen appliance I ever used was my coffee pot. And sometimes I would use the microwave, sometimes –for popcorn or something. I didn’t even have a toaster for the longest time…and trust me, toast is my specialty; I make it a lot.
After my son was born, around that same time that I was first learning how to cook, I was also first introduced to FlyLady. And she introduced me to the idea of menu planning.
Normally we all just go to the store and wander around aimlessly buying whatever looks good. Or maybe we buy what is on sale, and then head home and try to figure out what we are going to make.
Don’t wait till 5
Usually the decision about what to make is made around the same time that we have kids pulling on our sleeve asking all sorts of crazy questions like “what would happen if I make my dinosaurs go swimming in the toilet?”
You are tired from a long day, the baby is crying, everyone is hungry and clamoring for your attention – what’s the easiest thing to do?
Pizza. But, the thing is, it’s not the easiest thing in the long run. Especially not if you plan it out beforehand.
Sometimes I just laugh at myself when I realize that it is 5 o’clock and I have nothing planned what to make for dinner. What was I thinking? That we might just not eat today?!?! Nope, these kids want to eat every single day…imagine that!
Preparing myself to be ready for dinner each evening has been a life saver for me. So, I sit down most weekends and put together a game plan for what meals I want to make the following week.
Menu planning is also not just some arbitrary task where we dream up 21 fancy meals out of thin air.
No, this is a simple, learned skill set that anyone can master with enough practice – no Martha Stewart’s need apply.
Just follow this simple 4 step process to menu planning:
The first step to saving money in your meal planning routine is to go through what you already have on hand. For me, I am a very visual person so I like to see what I have. Some people can get away with keeping a running list on the freezer of what is in there.
If something like that works for you, by all means, create a list and post it on your freezer. This way you know exactly what you have and make this step easier on yourself.
For me, I will actually go physically look into my freezer and go through it item by item. Ask yourself these two questions: “What is this? How long has it been in here?” If I can’t answer those questions, it needs to go! We don’t need to be cooking up any science experiments for our family!
Once you know exactly what is in there pull two things out and move them to the fridge to start thawing for the coming week. Then move on to the pantry.
Because I physically do these steps on a very regular basis I actually do not have a lot of food being hoarded in my kitchen. We have what we need, and we use what we have. In the event of a blizzard I would be in trouble…but I live in the PNW where we worry about flooding more than blizzards!
Anyway, I digress; back to meal planning. Once I know exactly what we have I start planning out what meals I want to make based around those ingredients. Once you have your list of meals for next week, move on to step 2: make your shopping list.
A lot of times once I have figured out dinners, I realize that we already have most of the ingredients for that particular meal. So, my shopping list might only be one or two items for each meal on my list.
As you can see, that one step in menu planning can seriously save a lot of money right here. And we haven’t bothered to clip one coupon or scope out a single sale.
When do you add in those extra elements, then you are really cooking with peanut oil! But they are also only necessary if you have the time and inclination. To save money you do not need to worry about coupons or running around to a hundred stores if you don’t want to, or are already super strapped for time.
If you are crazy busy working and running around after five kids, please do yourself a favor and give yourself a little grace that you simply can’t do it all. A simple meal plan will do the trick and revolutionize your dinner time.
Finish up step two, round out your shopping list with all those items you get every week. You know what your family likes. For us, it is coffee and creamer for yours truly, and snacks always seem to include Cheez-its and Cheerios.
Keep it simple
When making my list each week, the one thing that I do not spend my time on is trying to document every single thing that we are having for breakfast, lunch, snacks or drinks. These things tend to be the same on a regular basis and there are not a whole of options in my house.
We are simple to feed, and easy to please around here. If you have a picky brood then you might need to give this area some attention, I choose to skip it. If you come over to my house you will not be offered a dozen different drink options, you will get juice, milk, or coffee…and you know what I am having!
I am not a morning person in the way that Mr. T was not a soft cuddly Chihuahua; so usually breakfast is cereal, toast, or yogurt. Sorry but if you want pancakes before noon then we will need to go to Elmer’s! I do love breakfast food, so breakfast for dinner is a regular occurrence around here; but breakfast for breakfast is not.
If you like to plan out each and every time your family will partake in food, by all means please do so; but in my world only dinner is planned out. Keep it simple!
Lastly, the final way that I choose to keep it simple is that I have zero inclination to make 7 unique homemade dinners each and every week.
Leftovers are a thing. As is pizza night. These things keep momma sane…embrace them! So I will focus on four meals a week, and one of them will probably involve pasta!
Now, we have our 4 dinners picked out for the week. We know exactly what ingredients we already have for those four dinners, and what we still need. We have our shopping list filled with only what we need along with all the usual suspects for breakfast, lunch, and snacks.
Time to go shopping! Now if you are anything like me, this can be a rough process. For some reason I always seem to forget that beautiful list I spent so much time making! #mombrain
Grab your list, and your kids, and let’s go. One of my favorite tips is to circle a few times and find a spot next to one of the cart return things. That’s right; I could care less how close I am to the door. At the end of my day I will have the baby sleeping in his carrier, a crazy toddler, and a ton of groceries. I want to be as close to the cart return as possible. Just a tip, momma. 🙂
Phew! We survived the grocery store! Not an easy task, especially with kiddos in tow! So tired, just throw everything somewhere in the kitchen and collapse, right?
I know you are tired, and the kids are cranky. Give them a snack and spend some time getting yourself organized. You will be grateful. Let’s round out this menu planning process with step 4.
I don’t usually have the energy to do any actual food prep at this point. I know some of my girlfriends will actually clean and cut the veggies at this point to make them easy to grab and go throughout the week. But that step will have to wait for another day in my world.
However, some prep work really will be easy and save so much time and headache later on. Did you buy meat in bulk? Split it up into the portions you need for one dinner for your family and put them in freezer bags. There is nothing worse than throwing the whole meat container into the freezer and then having to thaw the whole thing just to make one meal.
Do you have older children that help themselves? I use one of our produce drawers for their snacks: cheese sticks, Capri-suns, etc. Take everything out of the packaging and separate them before you throw them in the fridge. This will help them to be able to help themselves without your having to be involved.
Again, mom brain here – I will make a quick post it note listing out my four meals and put it on the fridge or calendar. This helps remind me just what we have on hand.
So those crazy nights when I have been on the go all day, the kids had activities all afternoon, and now everyone wants dinner. It is so easy to just grab some take out. But with this simple process I have cut our food bill in half, maybe even more. Honestly, I was so bad before!!
Menu planning might sound overwhelming at first, but honestly it doesn’t have to be. Keep it simple and it will get done.
I have created a simple print out that I use to work my way through this process. However if I am out of ink, or just don’t want to take the time, a simple index card will do the trick! Download your free printable menu planner here and give this process a try.