Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Time at Home Tuesdays: Menu Preparation

In my opinion, one of the easiest ways to save money on your grocery budget is to plan your menus ahead of time. You can plan your meals on a weekly basis, for every two weeks, for ever month, or every year. I've even seen menus rotated on a seasonal basis! That makes a lot of sense if you're getting a lot of fresh fruits and veggies and want to make sure they're in season. Personally, I LOVE the idea of having a general menu planned for a whole year. That's my ultimate goal!

Creating a Master List
The first thing you should do when planning your meals is figure out what your family likes to eat. It's okay to find and try new recipes, but you should start with what you know will get eaten. I've seen this list referred to as a Master List. When we were first married, my master list was pretty pathetic and made up of mostly pre-packaged and processed foods. Since then, I've expanded my horizons and have added many new meals to our repertoire. Creating your Master List will probably take some time, but be sure to think about everyone in your family. If they're old enough, ask them what their favorite meals are and be sure to include them. Don't feel bad if your list is as pathetic as mine was! That's where meal planning comes in handy. It gives you the opportunity to search out new recipes and find things your family will love.

You'll also want to divide your Master List into sections. Things like:
  • Main Dishes (could be divided into sub-categories like beef, chicken, pork, etc)
  • Pastas, Potatoes, Rice
  • Vegetables and Salads
  • Breads
  • Desserts
  • Beverages

As you try new dishes, be sure to add them to your Master List. If your tastes change, feel free to cross something off the list. The most important thing is cooking things your family will eat so you can avoid wasting money by throwing things away or letting them spoil.

After you've created the list, you're ready to get started on creating your menus!

Planning your Menus
There are various ways to go about planning your menus. Some people like to write it out according to each day and stick to it no matter what. Others like to have ideas and figure out what to buy, but leave each day flexible. Either method will work no matter how far in advance you plan.

Planning a Week in Advance
For now, I plan meals on a weekly basis, depending on what's on sale in the stores, what we already have on hand, and what my family likes at the moment. When we were first married, I created a spreadsheet that I could print out, laminate, and then keep on the fridge. Unfortunately, that was 2 computers ago, so I've recreated another spreadsheet that's pretty close to what I use now. It's just a basic spread sheet with meals across the top, days along the side, and boxes to write down your meals. I laminated mine so that I could easily erase instead of printing out weekly. Also, even though I assigned days, I don't always stick to the meal I write in for each day. I like to be flexible and change my mind.Go here to view the spreadsheet.

Each week, usually on Tuesdays night when the new sales fliers arrive, I go through the sales fliers and figure out what's on sale. After looking at what's on sale, I assess what we have on hand, and then figure out what sounds good for the upcoming week. I erase my laminated menu planner and write in meals for the upcoming week. I then go back an make a grocery list so that we have everything on hand. I do my grocery shopping on Wednesday or Thursday of each week. And I don't have to worry about having enough meals or enough food for another 7 days. When I start thinking about dinner, I look at the menu, choose what sounds good, and cook accordingly.

Be sure to keep in mind your daily activities and any busy days. You don't want to try and overload your schedule for the sake of food. If you work late on Thursdays, don't plan an intensive meal for Thursday nights. And be sure to plan to use any leftovers! Leftover nights are wonderful! If there are any new recipes you want to try, make sure to write those in.

This same method would for for planning 2 weeks in advance also. You'll want to shop either on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, depending on how much room you have to store food. You'll probably end up shopping each week for perishables anyway like milk, bread, fruits, etc.

Planning a Month in Advance
For this method, you'll probably want to find a cheap calendar or print off a monthly calendar to write out your menu. You could use the same method as the weekly planner and laminate just one month and then reuse it each month. You won't have the exact dates, but you'll know the days of the week.

Be sure to consult your master list for ideas and to balance meals. Start with the easy things. If your family LOVES a certain food and you want to have it once a week, fill that in first. If you work late every Tuesday, pick an easy meal or make that leftover night. If Sunday dinners are a big deal in your house, then write those down and get it out of the way. If you go out to eat or have a date night once a week/month, write that down too. Don't forget to add in any new recipes you want to try. Pretty soon you'll see that you don't have to pick out too many extra meals.

You'll still probably need to shop on a weekly, or bi-weekly basis. And you can still use your sales fliers. Flip through them to see what's on sale and buy accordingly. When you see something on sale that you use frequently, buy extra and put it in storage/the pantry. Refer to your menu to plan your shopping trips(s).

Planning a Year in Advance
This task seems a little daunting to me, personally. But, I would LOVE to be able to do this. Someday when I have more money and more space to store food, I'd love to plan for the whole year and buy food for the whole year (as expiration dates permit) when it's on sale. Wouldn't it be awesome to know that you're going to need X amount of cans of Cream of Chicken, bags of spaghetti noodles, etc? But, that's not going to be happening anytime soon. It's an awesome idea though.

I watched an Internet clip a while back about a lady who planned her meals a year in advance. She used a big binder and kept her Master List in the front. She had a monthly calendar for each month and then went through and wrote out her plans for the whole year. She updated her master list as needed. And she also kept the Master List recipes in the binder too.

To me, that sounds divine! But it will have to wait, at least for me.

Other Tips
  • If you have picky children, be sure to include them in the menu planning. Children are more likely to eat something if they know what's coming and if they help decide. This is more useful on a weekly basis though.
  • Be sure to include children in menu prep. Along with helping to pick out what to eat for the week, children are more likely to eat something if they've helped to cook it.
  • When using your sale fliers, know that things usually rotate on a 12 week basis. That means that about every 12 weeks, you'll see hamburger (or pork, etc) on sale. Plan to stock up when you see something on sale so that you don't have to pay full price for it. You'll save even more money doing this!
  • Refer to your menu to plan your shopping trips. If you've planned 3 meals and snacks for each day, you shouldn't need to buy any extras. You'll save money by avoiding impulse purchases!
  • The most important thing is to find what works for your situation and your family.
  • If you're busy and afraid that you don't have the time to cook every night, look into once a month cooking or find meals that you can make extra batches and stick into the freezer. That way your busy schedule doesn't seem so overwhelmed by cooking.
  • You don't need a fancy laminated paper or a binder to be a successful meal planner. You can simply use a new piece of paper and a pencil each week and write it out by hand!

Good luck on your menu planning journey. I guarantee that the upfront effort will save you money, time, and sanity in the end. You'll be able to cut out unnecessary trips to the grocery store or unhealthy trips to McDonald's.

Do you have any other tried and true tips? What menu preparation method works for you? Feel free to email me at mylifemakover@gmail.com and you might find yourself featured in the future!

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