Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Menu planning 101

Making your grocery budget stretch farther than ever has become a real challenge for American families. Many of us find that we're working full-time or a series of part-time jobs just to provide the basics for our families. When we get home at night, we're exhausted and cooking is the last thing we want to do, but we have to do so. Menu planning can help you get organized, help take the stress out of dinnertime, and help you save money, and simplify your life.

Menu Planning 101: Tips to make the grocery budget stretch farther
  • Always pull the food ads from the Sunday paper, OR get them from the stores you shop at, OR (even better!) look them up on line! Read them cover to cover, see what's on sale that week. Start thinking about the foods your family likes to eat, and match those up with what is on sale that week. Also, even if you don't think there is anything you can use on sale that week, stop in the stores in your area once a week. I've often found a bonanza of meats on the reduced for quick sale rack. On one shopping trip, I found lovely spareribs to make Italian soup and paid only 93cents for 2 pounds.

  • Keep an inventory of what you have on hand in your cupboards, pantry, fridge and freezer. When you use something up, cross it off the inventory list. Keep your inventory list for the cupboards inside the cabinet doors, for the fridge and freezer right on the fridge. They're right there, and you'll know what's on hand and what needs to be replaced.

  • Keep a running grocery list - post it on the front of the fridge along side the inventory list. Divide it by category (dairy, meat, produce, non-perishables/dry goods, cleaning/laundry, paper goods, HBA, etc.) Add to that list as you use up your inventory, and as you go through the circulars.

  • Write down or type up your family's favorite recipes. It may seem stupid to do this, since you already know how to cook things, but it helps in your menu planning. Keep a three-ring binder with all your favorites, that way you can quickly glance through them when planning.

  • Don't worry about breakfast, you can stick with scrambled eggs, toast, fruit or juice, oatmeal with fruit and milk, cereal with milk and fruit or yogurt with granola and fruit or breakfast burritos. Lunch should be pretty standard most of the time. Stick with leftovers from the night before or soup and a sandwich, fruit, veggies (like celery & carrot sticks) and milk. On school days, children can either pack a lunch with a sandwich, fruit, veggies and cookies or they can purchase a hot lunch at school. If your family income is lower than average, your children may be eligible for reduced price or even free school lunch. Contact the office at your children's school(s) for more information.

  • Start small. Plan dinner for the next night the night before. Plan out ahead as you become more and more comfortable with planning. Some people plan out a month in advance, some people a week. Having a night designated to a specific item may help. Monday could be chicken night, Tuesday could be pasta night (Italian night), Wednesday could be casserole night, Thursday could be soup and sandwich night, Friday could be homemade pizza night, Saturday could be Taco night, and Sunday could be Family dinner and that's when you can make a big pot roast, or roast chicken, or a big turkey dinner, or whatever you want for the big family meal of the week. If you make a big enough Sunday meal, you may have leftovers for lunches for the rest of the week.

Other important tips to save you money and time:
As you become more comfortable with planning meals, you'll want to start keeping a price book (check out Organized Home for FREE printables), as well as expanding your recipes in your three-ring binder and adding a new recipe to try once or twice a month, or maybe once a week. Saturdays are the day I usually introduce a new recipe into the menu plan, as it's the day I have time to be home and really focus on cooking.

Eventually you may want to think about OAMC or OWAC (once a month cooking or once a week cooking) and make meals for the freezer in advance. There is a really good yahoo group devoted to once a month cooking: Frozen-Assets. There are also tons and tons of other groups and information out there, just Google OAMC or once a month cooking.

Remember the food groups when menu planning. Each meal should contain a protein, veggie, starch, fruit, dairy, and a small amount of good fat. Also keep in mind that some complex carbohydrates are a bonus because they are both a protein and a starch (such as beans), and some dairy are a protein, dairy, and good fat (such as cheese). A salad with a simple dressing of olive oil and vinegar is an inexpensive and great way to get the veggie servings with a small amount of good fat.

My favorite acronym is C.O.R.N. - clean out the refrigerate night (aka leftovers). We usually have one of these every other week. I package up leftovers that don't get eaten the next day for lunch, label and date them and freeze them. Every couple of weeks, usually on a Friday night, we do C.O.R.N and we defrost and reheat whatever leftovers we want. Friday is the one day when hubby and I both work, and our sons can warm up whatever they want from the freezer, or create a meal from scratch. Since both our boys are studying Culinary Arts (one in high school, one in college), I usually have quite a few extra hands in the kitchen.
It's really important to get your family involved in the process, as well. Have them contribute ideas of their favorite meals, and if they are old enough to help out with the shopping, cooking, planning, putting groceries away, or even the cooking, let them help. It helps take the stress off you for every single meal.

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