March 03, 2015

Menu Planning on a Budget: Part 1: How to Plan


Once upon a time, (pre-motherhood), I did not plan a weekly menu... My hubby and I would just wing it. I would go grocery shopping a few times a week to pick up ingredients that I thought looked good, for what we felt like having for the next day or so... Or, we would order/go out.

We didn't follow a diet of any kind and ate what we wanted, when we wanted- we were young! We ate some extravagant meals, along with a lot of pasta, leftovers and random tidbits (we were relatively fresh out of college and were used to it). We also didn't follow a budget- a rookie mistake.

Over the past few years, however, due to lack of time and need to live on a budget I have been honing my menu planning skills. (We should have been on a budget since the beginning of time, but hindsight is 20/20, right?)

Menu planning is somewhat of an art. Every week is different: different schedules; different weather (yes, I do take weather into consideration when planning); different ingredients; and different cravings- with a toddler in the house, these food preferences can change on an hourly basis!

My menu planning tool/calendar.
For this post, I'm going to go through my planning tips, and share my menu tool with you!

First, let me say that my average weekly budget is $75 for the three of us. This month, we are stretching a bit more and are attempting to stick to $120 for the month! A little daunting... But, I figured that it would be a great month to share my planning with you, as I will definitely be buckling down and making it happen.

Something to keep in mind:
No matter what your budget, menu planning is an incredible tool. With a menu plan in hand, you don't stress about what's for dinner, (because you already know and have everything you need), and you eat healthier (because you plan ahead and don't give into last minute cravings or grab what's quick and easy at a drive through). You spend less money- armed with a complete list of what you need, you make fewer/no impulse purchases and you don't buy things you don't need because you know what you have in your pantry. So, whether you are spending $300 per week, or $300 per month- planning a menu is a great thing to do!

Weeks don't always start on Sundays! Don't be afraid to start your plan mid-week. Vacations, nights out, babysitting, and work schedules can all throw you off of a normal Sunday-Saturday schedule. This week, I went shopping and started my plan on a Tuesday because I had babysitting!

Tips for menu planning: 
1. Plan for your lifestyle.  One of the great things about menu planning is you look ahead at your week, and adjust your plan based on what you have going on that week. Working a long day? That's a good night for a crockpot meal, or (if you can) takeout. Home all day? Plan something a little more labor intensive. Make sure that you have a mix of quick-and-easy meals and a few more time consuming meals- it will make you more likely to stick to your plan.

2. Be flexible.  Have meatloaf and mashed potatoes planned, but instead you're really craving pasta? Make the change. You can switch your planned meals around as you see fit. The menu plan is really a guideline- things can change last minute- be ready to adjust as needed!

3. You will have leftovers.  If you're cooking every night (as I try to do), don't forget about the leftovers! In our house, we eat leftovers for lunch, and may even plan a night of leftovers for dinner if I forsee the need. Make plans to use leftovers in different ways: chili one night means loaded baked potatoes with chili on another; roasted chicken means homemade chicken salad for lunch; use rice leftover from a side dish for fried rice... leftovers don't have to be taken at face value. They are often more enjoyable when (easily) made into something new!

4. Plan every meal.  Yep- every meal, even if you're planning takeout. That doesn't mean that you'll be cooking every meal, (breakfast plans at my house include many cereal days), but it will help you keep track of how much you need of what. If your kid eats cereal 7 days per week (my toddler's current food phase), planning it will help you make sure that you have enough of it in the house (avoid meltdowns!). Planning everything also helps with budgeting and keeps you from overspending.

5. Plan variety.  No one wants to eat chicken every night. It helps to have a general rotation. I have seen some plans that include set types of food per day (eg. Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, etc.). I find that too strict, so I go for basics. One to two meatless days, one to two beef days, two to three chicken, one fish; using that plan, I mix it up through the week. Our week generally includes three quick/easy meals, one to two crockpot days, one tried and true family favorite, and one or two new recipes. (If I'm home more, I'll try more new recipes to stay entertained.) Variety isn't limited to protein- try different cuisines throughout the week too! Chinese stir-fry, tacos, greek lemon chicken, meatloaf, chicken curry, spaghetti and meatballs- don't be afraid to mix it up! I have found that variety helps you stick to your plan- you're not bored and tempted to order takeout to mix it up.

6. Practice makes perfect.  The first few weeks will take a lot of thought, time, and effort. But, as you go along you'll get quicker and better at planning your menu- and sticking to your budget! Soon, you'll start to notice patterns of what you and your family like to eat and you'll be able to plan according to those preferences. You'll also notice what staples your family really needs to have on hand, (I always have to have the ingredients for peanut butter and jelly, pancakes, and chocolate milk). This will help immensely with your shopping list.

7. Keep it simple.  It is easy to get carried away. (I've learned that the hard way!) Reuse leftovers. Give yourself a break- it is ok to have BLT's for dinner one night, or use some pre-made ingredients. Dinner doesn't have to be a big event every night. Find ways to make it easy for yourself: make some meals ahead on a day you have the time; place fresh meat into a freezer bag in the marinade you want, so all you have to do is take it out of the freezer the night before; don't be afraid of the crockpot!

Once you get the hang of the basics, here are more things to keep in mind:
1. Look ahead at the weather! In the warmer months, this can make a big difference. (You wouldn't want to plan on grilling if you have a rainy week ahead.)
2. Plan meals with mostly pantry items for later in the week. You want to use your fresh produce when it's at its freshest.
3. Don't be afraid to plan more than one week at a time... a new plan doesn't always have to mean another trip to the store. If your pantry and freezer is well stocked, you'll be able to plan further ahead.
My menu calendar: a close-up.
Now... how to keep track of it all?? My menu planning tool is basically a blank week calendar, (which I built in Excel). I typically use pencil, and start by filling in a very basic schedule in order to get an idea for how many meals/what types of meals I should be planning. (For example: On days that my son is at school, he doesn't eat breakfast or lunch at home, so my only big plan is dinner that night.)

Once I've filled in the basic schedule, I know how many nights I really need quick dinners, how many breakfasts and lunches to plan, and when I'll have time for something special. Then, I start plugging in the basics: cereal/oatmeal/yogurt and fruit for breakfast; grilled cheese/peanut butter and jelly or leftovers for lunches; Meatless Monday; fish or something fun on Friday; and a bigger Sunday dinner. I start by filling in my standby recipes (chili, pasta with homemade sauce, roasted chicken, meatloaf, BBQ chicken in the crockpot, et al.). Then, if I'm stuck or in the mood for something new, I'll look through my cookbooks, my recipe binder, and/or search the internet for ideas. The longer you plan, the more recipes you learn/come up with and the bigger your repertoire!

I hope that this intro to menu planning has been helpful! I will share more tips on how to plan/make cheap meals, and how to shop on a budget soon.

Do you plan a menu? Share your thoughts/ideas/methods!

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