1. Make a Master List of 10-20 Meals
Ask everyone in your family for a list of their favorite meals. Prioritize the list, highlighting foods that you can quickly prepare and meals that don’t require too many ingredients. Organize this list by category, including beef, chicken, crock-pot dishes, fish, vegetarian meals, side dishes, and soups.
Gather the recipes and keep everything in a handy notebook or store them on your computer for easy access. You will refer to this list often when you plan your meals.
2. Write Your Meal Plan on Paper
I have used a blank calendar in the past, but I now use a piece of notebook paper. I list the days of the week down the left side to log my meals, and I use the right side of the paper to make my grocery list. I can then easily bring my plan with me to the grocery store.
I plan one week at a time, but you could easily plan two to three weeks or even a month’s worth of meals. Post the plan on the refrigerator for everyone to see.
3. Plan for All Three Meals
When I don’t plan for breakfast and lunch along with dinner, I am more likely to skip meals or visit the drive-thru. You can make quick and easy breakfast foods and with some careful planning you can still head out the door on time in the morning. You can also use leftovers from the previous night’s dinner to prepare lunches. Make an extra serving or several extra servings at dinner time to pack for the next day’s brown bag lunch.
4. Review Your Family Calendar
Are you working late this week? Do you have plans to visit the in-laws for Saturday night dinner? Do your kids have a soccer game or a Girl Scout meeting during the week? Take all of these scheduling issues into consideration when planning your meals. Once you know your family’s schedule, you can plan accordingly. For example, eat leftovers for those late nights at the office, take the night off from cooking when you visit your in-laws, and prepare a crock-pot meal for soccer night.
5. Plan Your Menu Around What You Already Have on Hand
To get started, you need to organize your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Group the food in your pantry by category, including baking ingredients, canned goods, condiments, coffee and tea, pasta and rice, sauces, and snacks. Clean your freezer and refrigerator and throw out any expired food.
Once you’ve organized the food in your home, and thrown away anything that’s expired, take inventory of what you have on hand. Plan meals around the food you already have. In addition to reducing your grocery bill, this helps to eliminate duplicate purchases.
For example, I recently cleaned out our freezer and found some leftover cooked ham. After a quick look in my pantry and refrigerator, I realized that I had almost all of the ingredients to make ham risotto and a ham frittata. The few ingredients that I did not have went on my grocery list.
6. Plan Your Meals Around Your Grocery Store’s Sales Circular
Most grocery stores run their weekly sales circular on Sundays. My Sunday paper costs $2 and by planning my menus around the sales, the paper more than pays for itself.
Recently, my store’s circular promoted three-pound packs of boneless, skinless chicken breast. I took advantage of the promotion and updated my meal plan to include grilled chicken salad, chicken stir-fry, and white chicken chili. I also purchased an additional package of chicken breasts for the freezer to use in upcoming meals.
The Sunday newspaper also includes coupons, which you can take advantage of. Learn the process of extreme couponingby combining coupons with grocery sales and thus maximizing savings.
7. Plan Your Meals Around Foods That Are Currently in Season
You can find the best prices on fresh produce during harvest season. My menu changes dramatically from summer to fall and winter.
For example, I have a list of meals that I generally only cook in the colder months because they might require the oven, which I try to avoid in the summer, or they are just heavier meals, such as soups or casseroles. In the colder months, many of our meals include cold weather vegetables, such as fall and winter squashes, sweet potatoes, and kale. In the warmer months, we grill several times a week and our side dishes usually include something freshly picked from the home garden or bought at a farmer’s stand, such as tossed salads, fresh fruit, and corn on the cob.
Whatever the season, take advantage of the seasonal produce from your garden, farm stands, or u-pick farms; you won’t find those prices at other times of the year.
8. Declare One Night “Clean Out the Fridge” Night
If your family regularly throws away leftover meals, institute a “Clean Out the Fridge” night, where you only eat leftovers. In addition, look in the pantry for canned goods nearing their expiration dates and add them to the menu. This reduces food waste, and gives you a night off from cooking.
9. Make a Double Batch of Your Favorite Meals: One for Dinner and One for the Freezer.
The more home-cooked, prepared food that you have stored in your freezer, the less stress you feel when planning your menu. For instance, if you plan to have grilled chicken one night, grill a few extra chicken breasts and shred them after they have cooled. The cooked chicken stores well in the freezer and you can use it for a chili recipe, quesadillas, salads, and soups.
I often make a double batch of enchiladas. One pan goes in the oven, and I cover the second pan with foil and stow it in the freezer. When I’m ready to serve enchiladas again, I thaw the pan overnight in the refrigerator and then bake the enchiladas for dinner. Foods that don’t freeze well, however, include cooked pasta, cooked potatoes, fried foods, milk sauces, and raw salads.
10. Refer to Your Meal Plan Daily
Don’t forget to check your meal plan daily to see what you need to defrost, and to make any adjustments based on last-minute schedule changes.
One afternoon, we realized that our town had a holiday parade going on that evening, and I had already planned to serve lasagna, a dish that easily takes an hour and a half to prep and bake. So I referred to my meal plan and moved the lasagna to another night, and we dined on leftovers on parade night. In the past, we might have resorted to ordering take-out, but now I just reorganize our meal plan.
Grocery spending can easily take a big chunk out of your budget, but when you plan your meals, you can easily control this aspect of your budget.
By spending 30 minutes each week taking inventory of your food and creating meal plans, you can drastically reduce your family’s grocery spending. In addition, meal planning will improve the quality of your meals, eliminate unnecessary and frequent trips to the store, and reduced the stressful chaos that surrounds the dinner hour.