Even with grocery prices soaring, you can still save money at the supermarket without having it become a second job. I don’t clip coupons and I only glance at the weekly fliers. Follow these steps to make meal planning easier and cheaper.
1. Create a base meal list.
First, you need to create a list of 20 dinners that everyone in the family loves and can eat every month. This list will save you tons of time trying to think, “hmmm.. what do we like to eat again” as you wander the aisles of your local grocery store. To get started, number a small sheet of paper from one to 20 and prepare to brainstorm!
2. Brainstorm a family favorite.
For meals 1 – 4, pick a popular dish that’s easy to make. Obviously, you don’t want to pick filet mignon or lobster. Some favorite choices are spaghetti, stir fry, soup and salad, and breakfast for dinner.
These all make good choices because you can change up the veggies, meats, and sides to make them different from week to week. You may be able to pick several dishes you can eat weekly, and that’s great! Less work for creating the rest of the list!
3. Fill the rest of the list thoughtfully.
Next, brainstorm other family favorites. Be realistic about how much time they’ll take to prepare and how likely you really are to want to eat them. If you’re trying to eat healthier, it’s great to choose a variety of healthy dishes, but make sure to include one or two “splurges.” That way you won’t abandon the list altogether later on.
Try to divide the dishes between the meats or vegetable protein groups so that you don’t end up using all beef, chicken, etc. We also try to include several vegetarian dishes. You can also think in terms of themes to come up with ideas.
If you love Mexican food, for example, you could have tacos and enchiladas on the list. If there’s something you think you can’t eat weekly but you could eat twice a month, count it twice.
4. Consider lentils.
What? Lentils? I know, I know. I too did not know the joys of the lentil until recently. But, turns out they’re healthy, easy to blend into many different recipes, and very inexpensive.
They also don’t cause me or my husband the, ahem, gastrointestinal difficulties of they’re next door neighbor, the bean. Turns out you can use lentils and brown rice to make tacos, chili, and other great dishes. At my grocery store, if I get them in the Hispanic foods aisle, they only cost 99 cents a bag!
We eat them for at least one meal, in some form, weekly. If you go to www.hillbillyhousewife.com, she’s got some great lentil recipes, along with many other inexpensive delicious dishes. She’s also got some really inexpensive menu ideas.
5. Plot the meals on your calendar.
Get your pencils and calendars ready! You don’t have a calendar? Go get one because you really need it anyway. You can put your meals on the calendar one of two ways. Some months I go ahead and put them all on there somewhere.
Because, if you haven’t done the math, there are not as many meals as days, there will be gaps. I usually just leave them until I’m getting ready to grocery shop. Then, I just have to think of one or two things to fill in instead of seven, which is a big help.
This is a great place to fit in your cravings or those grocery store weekly bargains you run across. Also, if you didn’t notice earlier, I said a pencil. Things definitely can change, and writing in pencil makes it easy to “bump” meals to a later date or just move things around.
If you’re not so much of a “plan a month ahead” kind of person, you can skip the monthly fill in and just keep the list in a plastic sheet protector next to your calendar. When you get ready to go to the store, you can cross meals off the base plan with a dry erase marker and add them to your grocery list.
6. Buy meat on sale and repackage by portion size.
I don’t buy everything on sale, try as I might, but I always try to get meat on sale! I get enough for a month or so (or as much as my freezer allows) and that will usually last me until the next time it’s on sale.
If I need something I don’t have, I’ll buy it for that week, but I try to make sure I’m well stocked. Beware of the flash frozen bags of chicken that you can take out individually. They usually contain a saline solution which not only makes them less nutritious but also compromises the volume and quality of what you’re eating.
They may not be as good of a deal as they seem! Instead, go ahead and buy the meat in the regular butcher’s area, but, when you get home, separate it into the portions you think you’ll need for each meal. That way, you don’t end up with extra leftovers that probably won’t get eaten, and you’re not tempted to eat more than you want just so it won’t go to waste.
7. Cook double and freeze half.
This is especially good for foods like spaghetti sauce and chili. It takes almost no additional time and saves so much time at the next meal. You can also consider making several dishes to freeze when you buy meat on sale to save you the defrosting time.
8. Don’t stock up too much.
Sometimes, with good intentions, we find a good bargain and buy enough “for the month.” However, especially with goodies like cookies, chips, and granola bars, we end up eating them up and having to buy more before the month is up. Then, our bargain becomes not such a good deal after all. Stick with stocking up on foods like meats that you’re not likely to overindulge on.
9. Have several options available for breakfast, lunch, and snacks.
I tend to not worry so much about these meals. I keep several things on hand regularly for each of these and restock as needed. It is good, though, to make sure you have things you enjoy to pack for lunch because eating out can bust your budget quickly!
10. Don’t spend too much time fussing with grocery shopping.
It’s really easy to get sucked into coupon cutting and extensive surveying of every weekly flier in a 100-mile radius. But, in the long run, these things don’t save the average person much money.
Most of us just end up getting name brand products for the same price as a store brand, which may or may not be any better. Keep an eye out for deals on expensive products you love (ours is granola bars!) and don’t worry about the rest. Keep things simple!