“Mom, what’s for dinner?”
Nearly every mom I know dreads that question. I’ve been making family meals for over two decades and occasionally I still dread that question. When I was a young mom, there were always women who looked like they had everything together. I felt like there had to be secrets to what they did. I’ve since found out that no mom has everything together, but there are secrets to being more successful, and one of them is meal planning. However, I learned some kitchen magic through a wonderful thing called menu planning. Menu planning saves my wallet, my time and most importantly, my sanity on a regular basis and it’s easier than you think.
Know your focus
What’s most important? For most people the budget is the most important issue. Food bills can ruin a budget, especially when eating out is your “go to” meal. Don’t get me wrong, I love to eat out, but in most cases, you can make food much cheaper than you can buy it already made. Budget is always my primary focus, but I also account for convenience and the fact that I avoid grain based carbs for health reasons. If you’re meal planning on a budget, you can decide how much you want to spend per month, per week and even per meal.
Decide where to shop
This is a big decision. Some people prefer to shop in one place only to save time. Some shoppers prefer patronizing local businesses. Bargain hunters will shop at more than one store to get the best prices. Those looking to get the most out of the grocery budget shop at several stores to get the best bargains and save the most money. Knowledgeable shoppers learn how to find the best bargains by learning about the stores in their area. For example, in my area, Walmart has the best prices on the middle of the grocery store, like paper towels, peanut butter, canned goods and bagels. Kroger is the closest and most convenient store for me and they have great produce and bulk items like organic nuts and seeds. Meijer has great prices on both, but it isn’t worth my time anymore to drive 8 miles when other stores are only a mile or so from my house. Trader Joe’s has some of my favorite specialty items, and Fresh Market has $2.99 Tuesday when their excellent ground chuck and chicken breast are $2.99 per pound. All of these factors help me meal plan within budget, and I work trips to each store into my weekly plan to streamline my week and use my time well.
Coupons and circulars
Some people love coupons. Others hate them. Some people love looking at the circulars to find bargains. Some throw them away or recycle them immediately (I’m hoping they recycle). Although some dinosaurs like me still like to have paper coupons, I am enjoying using electronic coupons more and more. There are several apps for coupons, but I leave that expertise to others. I clip coupons from my weekly circulars and the Sunday paper. I add coupons to my Kroger shopper card on a regular basis, and I read the paper circulars every week to help me make my grocery list because I walk into the store knowing what the special and sales are, and I have a plan to take advantage of them the best I can. This is where the meat of meal planning takes place for me. Because of circulars, which you are online if you don’t get them at your home, you know which items are on sale and how to get the best value for your menu planning dollar. This is where menu planning really happens for me. I decide which proteins I will buy, which vegetables and which additional items I might need to make the recipes I am thinking of making.
Making the menu plan
My plan starts every week by asking my family if there is any meal that sounds appealing to them. If they don’t have any suggestions, I search the circulars. For example, this week at my local Kroger, roast is on sale. The temperatures are on the cooler side this week and a roast is an easy meal to prepare. To make a roast, I use carrots, onions, celery, potatoes, beef broth, garlic and a sprinkle of dried thyme. I checked my supplies and added the meat, carrots, onions and beef broth to the grocery list because I had the rest of the ingredients. The best part about a roast is leftovers. My husband shredded the leftover meat and enjoyed shredded beef barbecue sandwiches for lunch this week too. I use the leftover vegetables and stock to make soup.
Do you have a family calendar? If you do, it is your best resource for meal planning. If not, get one. Meal planning around a busy life makes so much sense because it’s when we are the busiest that it helps to feed our family and ourselves the healthiest meals. Slow cooker meals are a menu planning blessing on days when you know you’ll be home late or your family members will be eating at different times. Sure, it’s ok to drive through now and then, but you’ll look like a hero when you have a nice hot meal at home too.
Make a list
Having a list at the grocery is a game changer for those on a budget. When you have a list, you know exactly what to buy. Without a list, you wonder as you wander the aisles and pick up whatever catches your attention. That’s how budgets get busted and you end up with five bottles of soy sauce. Thank goodness they don’t expire. Having a list made the biggest difference in my quest to keep my grocery bills in check. To make things even easier, I have paper on our refrigerator and my family knows to write items we want or need on the list. Although I have a paper list on the fridge for others to write on, when I go to the grocery I usually use a digital list that I can delete as I go. This makes it easier to have several lists for the various stores I frequent.
Keep a running total
Have you ever stood at the checkout and nearly cried when the cashier announced your total, even after coupons and deals? I certainly have, and that is not a fun moment. To keep that to a minimum, I now keep a running total of what I spend as I delete items off my digital list, and I rarely experience grocery sticker shock anymore.
Shopping is done. Now what?
Here are my best tips and tricks for following through on your menu plan. First, post your plan where everyone can see it. For years I bought groceries with a plan in my head that never quite came to fruition. I would forget to take meat out of the freezer or forget what I planned for the day and before I knew it, I had unidentifiable perishables in my fridge. Post the menu and it holds you accountable as well as reminds you of what you purchased and what you plan to do with it. Prepare as much as you can ahead of time. Cooked pasta will keep for at least a week. Root vegetables other than potatoes keep for a few days after being cut up for a recipe. Salad keeps longer if you open the bag and put a paper towel in it. Celery stays crunchy for several days wrapped in foil rather than plastic. Canned and frozen vegetables work in recipes that call for fresh, although I suggest using fresh whenever possible. Get your family involved in the prep as much as you can, and finally, enjoy the menu planning process as much as you can. It may sound like a lot of work, but I assure you that the time you invest pays huge dividends. Before you know it, you’ll have more money to spend, more time to enjoy your family and most important, you’ll have an answer to the age old question, “Mom! What’s for dinner?”
To learn more
If you are in the Greater Cincinnati area and would like to learn more, join me Saturday May 13th from 2-4pm at the Erlanger branch of the Kenton County library for their “How to Adult” fair. I’ll be sharing more meal planning tips and giving away a list of Go To meals with recipes. As always, if you’ve enjoyed reading this, please share it and join in the fun by subscribing to the blog and following us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for being you and have a great day!
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