Monday, January 16, 2012

{Menu Planning} Save Time, Money and Eat Well

One of my dearest friends sent me a text message telling me that she was considering following my lead on something I have done for years now: menu planning.  I thought that I would share exactly what and how I go about with my menu planning.  There has been a recent popularity in couponing, menu planning, and frugal living; and they are all so very useful to military families and ALL families.  Why wouldn't you want to save or stretch a dollar, right?

Every two weeks I make one big grocery trip.  I make a menu, and it saves me time, money, stress and really satisfies my Type A personality...I just really like the ease of knowing what I am going to feed my family every night.

{Goals to Achieve with Menu Planning}
  • save money
  • cut back on food waste
  • save yourself time and stress
  • improve nutrition
Getting Started
If menu planning is new to you, try starting with a one week menu; just seven dinners and build from there.  I usually only plan for dinners, and then I purchase breakfast and lunch items my family enjoys but I have considered adding in all three meals to the menu plan.

The Process

1)  Scope out the Recipes...
I sit down and I grab my recipe box, recipe binder and a pile of cookbooks or open up to my favorite recipe finding sites online. 

I like All Recipes, Food Network, The Pioneer Woman and also this new one I have found Food Buzz (an entire network of Foodies and Food Bloggers...I am in heaven!).  I cannot leave out another new favorite site Pinterest a virtual pin board for things all over the web, including recipes and food blogs.   

My recipe collection binder, magazine articles and printed out recipes inside document protectors.  I have one for savory and one for sweets.

2)  Make the Meal Calendar... 
I jot down every day of the week with dates on a piece of paper.  And I start writing down things we want to eat, I don't really care if come Tuesday the 23rd we don't want to eat spaghetti because I can switch it for Thursday the 25th when we are eating chicken and who is going to know that I didn't "follow the menu" to a 't' right?  It is really a guide for me to make sure I have enough meals for every day between this payday and the next.  I have considered a computer print out for this but every time I make one, I end up going right back the handwritten list.   

You can see I just make notes, use arrows, and my blank spaces are so we can have a treat night and go out one time during the two weeks.

3)  Find the Deals... 
I blaze through the coupon sites, but I use a rule...don't clip a coupon just because it is there and I *could* save money on something that I wouldn't normally buy otherwise.  You can easily fall into the trap of clipping coupons and end up with a much larger grocery bill if you are not careful, I speak from experience. 

But have you seen the Extreme Couponers? Seriously...scary, and *amazing* all at the same time.  I can't seem to dedicate myself to doing that extreme level of clipping so I just go forth and save a few bucks.  For now I frequent a few coupon sites (check out "Smart Money" Magazines list of the 5 best couponing sites), and I go directly to all the local grocery stores websites to check the ads for the week.  I also pay attention to prices, and I keep a book of average prices of staples like meat, milk, cheese, bread, eggs, coffee, etc.  So that if something does go on sale at another grocery store I know right away I need to make an extra stop somewhere else.

If my husband were not deployed he would make a really awesome spread sheet for this, but I like spiral notebooks still.

If you have a smart phone and you frequent a grocery store check to see if they have a mobile app.  Often the mobile apps will load coupons right to your savings card for a particular store.  My favorite ones are the ones where I can spend money, use a digital coupon on my card and then save money at their gas station.  Fred Meyer has a mobile app under Kroger (same company) and I load coupons all the time through it.  Safeway (Carrs or Vonns) also has the same deal, you can load coupons online from their site to your savings card.   

Another one (not grocery related) JoAnns craft store has a mobile app and you can take your coupon on your phone to the counter and they will scan it right off your phone, same goes for Kohls, sign up through email for coupon codes and they will scan from your phone too!!   

4)  Adapt Where the Money Can Be Saved... 
I adapt the recipe choices for the two weeks according to what I can get on sale by checking the food ads online or in the newspaper.  Whole chicken on sale at Carrs?  Then I add that to the menu or swap it out for something else and so on.  Don't forget that most stores will give you rain checks for items that they advertise on sale but are out of stock on.   

5)  Take Inventory... 
I go through my cupboards and refrigerator and check to see if I have the ingredients for any of my recipes, then I add what I need to avoid buying what I already have.  

6)  Prep Food Now, to Save Later...
After going to the stores, I will freeze any of the meat that I do not need in the first couple of days.  Any produce that I know will not last more than a couple of days gets used first and I prep things like herbs or cilantro by wrapping them in paper towel and sealing them in bags.  Things like carrots, potatoes, winter squash, celery, and onion; those things can last longer and I can wait to use those later in the menu.  We have lived in some interesting locations where fresh produce isn't always at the best quality because it has to be trucked in, and I have to use it right away or switch to something flash frozen.  This is really not a bad alternative and can be just as healthy for you.  Things like Lima beans, corn, and broccoli can maintain many of their nutrients when frozen.  Got to do what you got to do right?

7)  Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose Leftovers...
I make plans for leftover nights, which can save you money as well.  But if you aren't much of a leftover person than try to reuse your leftovers in creative ways.  Roasted chicken can be turned into chicken tacos or chicken salad, leftover steak into steak quesadillas or fajitas, leftover steamed broccoli to top baked potatoes, or leftover white rice for fried rice.  Since we are short one adult eating in the house right now if I make a pot of spaghetti sauce I freeze half of it for another time, same goes for soups, and casseroles as well. 

I usually have to make a run for milk, eggs or bread sometime between shopping trips and I try to avoid picking up anything extra.  Often, I will run to a bulk store and buy items like butter, string cheese, bread, and frozen fruits and veggies and freeze them.  I can find better deals on butter and cheese at my local Costco so once a month I add a trip there to the shopping list.  Share a membership fee with a friend, or go in halves on large food items if you both have smaller families.  I like being able to go to my deep freeze and pull out a pack of butter when I need to make cookies for care packages instead of running to the store last minute.     

8)  Pat Yourself on the Back...

Following these guidelines I have decreased our grocery bill by at least a hundred dollars or more every two weeks.  If you can stick closely to a list than you a more likely to save your family money in the long run, make healthier choices in food, and are less likely to make the drive-thru run or call the local pizza delivery boy later.  Give it a try, you might be surprised how taking an hour for menu planning and creating a list can save you a ton in both time and money later. 


Jenn @ Peas and Crayons said...

Love this post! I'm working on meal planning for our first deployment since i'm not used to cooking for moi! For us, home is where the marine corps sends us =) so so so happy to have found your blog!!!! Just what I needed!

Lea-Ann said...

Thank you Jenn!! That is a really nice thing to hear especially because your blog is super awesome!! I am just starting this one so I realy appreciate the blog love :)