Saturday, December 04, 2010

Meal Planning Trickeroonies

Christmastime means penny pinching around here.  In order to give our kids the Christmas we want to give them, we are tightening our belts.  One way we've done this is by remembering how to grocery shop wisely.  In the summer when I had all kinds of time and wasn't so concerned about cost, I got a little crazy with letting myself go crazy at the grocery store.  I can't help myself.  I love grocery shopping.  Isn't that ridiculous?

I used to laugh at people who said they did "meal planning."  What was this mysterious meal planning, and why were they doing it?  Couldn't everyone just reach in the freezer and pull something out, defrost it at the last minute and spend three times longer cooking something than it should take because they have to run to the store in the middle of the recipe?  Oh.  I see.

I didn't really get it about meal planning until a few years ago when I started reading mommy blogs.  All of the sudden it made sense to me.  If I knew what I was cooking, I'd know what to buy.  I wouldn't spend as much money wandering the aisles of the grocery store, dumping this that and the other thing into my cart because it looked like it might be good.  I also wouldn't get home only to realize I had four jars of mayonnaise already.  When money is tight, planning saves us a TON at the register.  Since we've tried to really cut our "eating out" budget, knowing what we're having for dinner or lunch really helps me to not overspend on dining, too.

So, how do you get started?  Here's what I did.  Since I'm not an expert on anything, you can ignore it all but it's been working for us.

Step one:  Make a master list of everything you know how to cook

Mine's in my iPhone, since I started it one day when I was out somewhere.  As I remember things I forgot that I knew how to cook, I add them.  This isn't a fancy pants party food list (though that would be a good resource, too), it's just a list of everything I can or do make for each meal.  There's a breakfast list, a lunch list, a dinner list (the longest).  My dinner list even includes things like Mac N Cheese (out of a box), hamburger helper, and hot dogs (our "easy dinners").  I have no shame on the list.  The idea is just to brainstorm.  Of course I have all of the healthy things I can make on there too.  Everything.

Step two: Decide what you want to eat for the next week.

I sometimes do this on a sheet of paper, sometimes on the computer.  I make four lists:


Breakfast is really easy since we almost always eat the same things.  The kids eat cereal, I have a smoothie and sometimes coffee, and E mostly doesn't eat breakfast.  But the important thing is that I count up how many times we'll be home to eat breakfast so I know what to buy.  Two kids = about two boxes of cereal a week, about one gallon of milk (etc).   If I'm being really good, I can estimate down to the cup the amount of almond milk or frozen blueberries I'll use.

Lunches are pretty simple too.  I am on a rotation of salads and leftovers, E eats a lot of leftovers and rice bowls, and the kids cycle between PB&J and meat sandwiches with assorted produce on the side for us all.  I  will also make a list of how many/ much of each thing we'll need.  This has given me a much better sense of what we actually use and what we don't use and it will go bad before we can eat it all.

For dinners, I also decide what we're going to eat, but I have little rules in my head that help me plan sometimes.

  • Sundays (AKA prep day): cook something big for dinner like a smoked roast or a whole chicken so we have leftovers for salads, rice/quinoa bowls, casseroles, or tacos
  • Mondays:  Beans (or something meatless)
  • Tuesdays: Taco Tuesday (or burrito bowls)--with leftover meat from Sunday and/or Monday beans
  • Wednesdays: Salmon or some kind of fish
  • Thursdays: Whatever I feel like cooking
  • Fridays: Leftovers (or out, if we decide)
  • Saturdays: unplanned (out or family dinners or "easy dinner")

I'll usually pair whatever veggies and fruits are in season with what I'm making and if the meal needs bulking we'll make some white or brown rice or quinoa (E can't have pasta unless it's rice pasta).

One wonderful tool I use for meal planning is my Yahoo Calendar.  You could also use Google Calendar or any other similar online calendar.  I never wanted to cook meals on a rotation before because it felt like we would be eating the same things too often.  But I got this idea from Simple Mom a few years ago and it works great.  I love not having to think about what I'm cooking each night.  I plan one week of meals and enter them on each day of the calendar.  When I enter the meals, I set them to repeat every two weeks.  (I even set mine to send me a reminder the night before so I know what to defrost.)  Then I plan another week and do the same, and voila! a whole month of meal planning is done.  When I get sick of the rotation or want to try something new (usually after 1-2 months), I just change it.

Click to enlarge

Step three:  Make your shopping list directly from the planned meals

I use an app on the iPhone called Grocery Gaget.  I like it because it saves a master list of groceries that I buy so I can just select whatever we need.  It gets organized into categories for when I shop.  And sometimes I just use paper too.  There have been many studies that show that shopping from a list means you spend less at the store.  When money is tight (like now) I just tell myself I'm only going to the store to get the things on the list.  It works!  Of course if I remember something in the store that I didn't put on the list, I'll buy it, but I'm overly cautious about adding things that I didn't plan for.

When I first got married, I'd shop by what I wanted to make for dinner, but snacks, breakfast and lunch items were a free for all.  By buying what I really want and what we'll really be able to eat, we end up wasting less food and spending less money.  It's win-win.  In a cheapie-deepie month like this one (lots of grilled cheese) the difference is phenomenal.

Step four: Shop every 7-10 days

I call this the "when we run out of milk" rule.  Though I buy staples like rice and beans and meat for the freezer at the beginning of the month, everything else I buy in smaller amounts.  I actually spent more money and wasted more food when I shopped the way my mom did (sorry mom)--one HUGE shopping trip per month.  What ended up happening was that I had to run back to the store to get fresh items anyway, or things would rot in our produce drawer.  Produce is CHEAP and by allowing myself to shop more frequently, I buy more of that stuff and less of the (more expensive, more processed) stuff that will last a month.  Plus if I'm only shopping every 7-10 days I have a better handle on what is getting eaten.  If I planned three meals I didn't end up cooking, I won't buy as much the next week.  Shop more, but don't tell yourself you need to "stock up."  Those are the spendy trips.

Step six: Underbuy

I always think we'll eat more than we do.  Always.  Underbuying has made that a little bit more reasonable.  I might estimate that we'll eat 10 apples in a week (yes, I'm serious) but I'll buy 8.  And somehow things work out.  We don't always eat everything I think we'll eat, no matter what.  The other piece of this is that buying in bulk is not for the person with a tight budget.  At least not all the time.  For some things, like meat and/or fish, it makes sense for us to buy and freeze.  For others, though, it doesn't matter if it's "a good deal" if it cuts $30 into our monthly budget when it could have been $7.  We don't have a lot of extra laying around to do that kind of thing all the time, so my bulk purchases are well-considered.

Step six: Total as you go.

I know this isn't for everyone, but if you're really trying to save money, you'll have a calculator in hand (or in my case, that iPhone app) and total as you go.  That really helps you to see if you're going to be under what you want to spend.  When we were really struggling financially, sometimes I'd go into the store with exactly $40 and I had to make it work.  That's not true now, but it doesn't mean I should spend three times what I should.  The Grocery Gadget app allows me to put in prices and keeps a running total as I check things off.  This past week I was able to estimate my total grocery bill within 40 cents.  I bought food for a family of four for $116.70.  Not bad, and we have a ton of food.  We used to sweat it out at the register because we were afraid of what our total would be.  Yes, it takes more time to add as I go, but it really helps me save.

I was inspired to dive back in to bargain grocery shopping by Tonja's Eating In November challenge.  I don't have her willpower to eat in, but it was a great reminder about saving at the check stand.

Happy Saving, friends!


  1. I used to wonder how two people could spend $500 to $700 per month on groceries. It was because each month I went "big shopping" just like my mom used to do! Then I'd run to the store to get the things I needed for that particular night's dinner that hadn't been part of Big Shopping.

    Now that I shop once a week (on average) and (usually) plan meals, we spend about $300. And now there's three of us!

  2. Thanks so much for all the tips - this will def come in handy for getting better at grocery shopping to actually make meals!