February 27, 2014 by Alicia
Why meal plan? Two reasons. #1. It makes my life easier. I don’t ever worry about what’s for dinner – ever. It’s so liberating! There is no more of this: “What do you want?” “I don’t know, what do you want?” “I don’t know.” SHOOT ME. #2. It saves us money. We eat out much less often since we don’t wait until we’re starving to decide what to eat. I also save money by stretching my ingredients further instead of wasting food (more on that later).
Why monthly? Two reasons. #1. The way I do it takes some serious planning and I would rather only do all that work once a month. I also find it easier with two toddlers to stay away from the grocery store as much as possible. #2. It gives us more variety in our meals because I can see the whole month at once. If you prefer to go week-by-week, by all means, build your meal plans around what is on sale that week!
There is a method to my madness! Knowing my process will make the rest of this make more sense (hopefully). My process consists of one massive grocery trip at the beginning of each month. I then do a second smaller trip in the middle of the month for more fresh produce, milk, bread, etc…
Ok here’s my method – by VERY specific steps (look out, my Type A is about to straight up slap you in the face).
1. Sit down and make a list of all your regular recipes – divided by meats. The hubs insists on having meat at every meal, so I alternate the meat in my main dishes. For example: beef, pork, chicken, fish, rinse & repeat. I find it easiest to plug my meals into my calendar with variety if I have them listed by meats. (After you do this once, you can always skip this step in the future) If your family will eat some vegetarian, definitely try and do this at least once a week! Meat is so stinkin’ expensive!
2. Make a list of new recipes you want to try – also divided by meats – for the same reason listed in #1. It also helps if you decide how often you want to try a new recipe. When I first started meal planning, I tried a new recipe every week. Now that some of those have made it into our regular rotation, providing more variety, I just try to do 2 new recipes a month. (Don’t forget to add the new recipes that you try & like to your “regulars” if you want to repeat)
3. Now get your calendar out. Put all your activities that you know of for the entire month (that can impact dinner). Examples: a 4 p.m. dentist appt might hinder prep time for dinner, a 6:30 p.m. softball game will force a quick & not-too-heavy-on-the-belly dinner, date nights, etc… This will help you avoid the “oh crap I don’t have time to bake that hour long casserole – let’s just grab fast food.”
4. Now I quickly jot down what is already in my pantry/fridge/freezer to make sure that it gets used and I don’t just buy more food out of ignorance. *Note: most of the time all my stuff is almost empty because I make it a point to eat what we already have. If pb&j is the only option in the house at the end of the month, then I know we have not wasted our money. However, if last time I grocery shopped and something was on sale, I may have bought more than usual so that would still be in the house and need to get eaten the next month.
5. Now I start placing my meals in the calendar – alternating main dishes by meat. Also, try to make your first week’s meals based on what’s on sale that week when you’re doing your big trip.
- Add side dishes with similar cooking method if possible. For example, if I’m baking my main dish, I might add green bean casserole or broiled asparagus – since the oven will already be heated up. If I’m making chicken & rice on the cooktop, then I might have steamed carrots or broccoli, also cooked on the range. If my main dish is in the crockpot, I might do a cooktop or toaster-oven side dish to avoid turning on the big oven just for a side dish. If we’re grilling outside, I throw my veggies in foil and put them on the grill so I don’t have to use the kitchen at all. Work smarter – not harder!
- I only have fresh produce in the first and third weeks of the month. I buy it on my big trip & use it before it goes bad. Then I use canned/frozen veggies the second week. I pick up more fresh produce on my 2nd little trip and eat it up. Then use canned/frozen veggies the fourth week. (If you shop weekly, this won’t matter to you)
- Think about leftovers when you are choosing what meals to have when. “Leftovers” can be what’s for dinner as often as you want! However, I really REALLY hate leftovers so I try to cook the right amount the first time. But this might be a great option on that softball game night so you don’t have to worry about cooking at all. This is where it comes in handy to have all those extracurriculars on your calendar to get the most out of your meals.
- Don’t forget to add some “eat out” nights! We usually order ours & eat in – its just easier that way with two toddlers. Again, you can place these strategically based on your extracurriculars.
- It doesn’t have to always be a big production. Some nights at our house is “grilled cheese & fries.” I usually throw in these types of nights at the end of the calendar when I’m just sick of planning- ha!
- After doing this for many months now – I’ve learned that there is a minimum of one night of a planned meal that doesn’t get eaten. Perhaps we were invited over someone else’s house for dinner, or maybe my kids were terrors all day long and the thought of cooking makes me want to cry. Due to this, I now always leave the last day of the month blank. That way, I don’t waste money buying groceries for it. I just use whatever meal that got skipped earlier in the month. This happens every. single. month.
6. Congratulations! Your calendar is complete! Now make your grocery list. I use this awesome Excel spreadsheet. Basically, you have to enter all your recipes & side dishes on the “List” tab. This step is really tedious but once you do it, I promise your life will be made easier – MUCH EASIER. Then, on the calendar tab, you place your meals by choosing from a drop down list that the spreadsheet generates from all the recipes you just entered. *Note, the recipe tab is basically like a “recipe book” if you want to type up all your recipes, with instructions, etc… This tab in no way is connected to the Calendar or List tab. After placing all your meals, you can print from the “List” tab. I personally handwrite my list from this view so that I only have the things on there that I need this month (printing the page prints ALL ingredients you have entered, not just the ones you need now). Instructions on how to enter meals, ingredients, etc… are on the “List” tab so customize it to fit all your recipes! Finally, apparently you can’t attach Excel documents to blogger so if you want it, just comment here/message/text/whatever and I can email it to you.
7. Now that you have your list – I look for coupons for stuff I’m already planning on buying. I do clip coupons, but only for stuff I buy. It’s not really saving money if you buy something you wouldn’t normally buy just because you have a coupon. The sites I use are Krazy Coupon Lady (lists cheap/free deals by store), Coupons.com, Coupon Mom (lists cheap/free deals by store) and Penny Pinchin’ Mom. Penny Pinchin’ Mom has a search box where you can search for coupons by specific brand so I use this one a lot to find any coupons that exist for the few on-brand items I buy. Also, if you shop at Wal-Mart, they price match any identical products on sale at another store. So check all competitors’ weekly ads online and make a note on your shopping list of that store’s price and tell the Wal-Mart cashier at check-out.
8. FINALLY – I know, you hate me. If you’re still reading – please accept my virtual high-five: SMACK. Ok here are a few tips that will make your life easier once you get home.
- I buy fresh chicken breasts in bulk. Before the “freeze by” date, I cut all the chicken up according to my recipes for the month. I get out my ziplocs and write all my chicken recipes and cut up the chicken & place in bags accordingly. I can’t tell you how much just this one step makes my life easier. I cut all the fat off, cut some breasts all the way up into bite size pieces for casseroles, burritos, etc… I also started “butterflying” single breasts to get two good size pieces out of it to make things like breaded chicken instead of using two breasts. Cutting up all the chicken once a month shaves considerable time off your meal prep for the rest of the month. This also means you only clean it up once!
- If you use a lot of ground beef, cook it all at once and use a kitchen scale to separate it out to your desired proportions, then freeze. I think I just read recently about cooking many pounds of ground beef in a crockpot – so I’ll be looking into that!
- Make entire 9×13 casseroles (either main dish or side dish) but split between two dishes and freeze one. This cuts down your prep time for the next time you want it!