If you haven’t already read the first part of this 3 part series, click here to check it out. This is a very basic, step by step instructional for how to be a successful menu planner. Part 1 covers the first steps (using both paper systems and MealBoard), part 2 covers how to set up your paper menu planning system, and part 3 tells you how to set up MealBoard and use it if you would rather have an automated ios program do all the hard work for you.
The reason why menu planning is so important is that you can save an enormous amount of money without actually sacrificing the quality of your life. Let’s say you eat out 3x per day for every day on a week. We’ll assume an average of $4.00 for breakfast (bagel and cream cheese with a coffee), $7.00 for lunch (sandwich, chips and a drink) and 12.00 for dinner (chipotle or diner). You would spend $322.00 in a week to feed two people, or $483.00 to feed three people. Through menu planning, I can feed everyone great meals that they love for between $100.00 – $120.00/week. For two people, that would be a savings of $10,504.00 per year and for three people, that would be a savings of $18,876 per year. Now likely, you don’t eat out for every meal. But if you really track your grocery spending carefully, unless you’re menu planning, I bet you’ll find that it’s easy to spend $200.00 or more per week to feed your family.
This doesn’t have to be hard though! It’s actually really easy! Click here to complete the important first steps (#1-4), then come back to start your paper meal planning system!
To create your paper planning system:
Set Up A System
Step #5. Find an old binder, fill it with a menu schedule. You can print one here from Passion for Savings Blog. Fill it with blank pages for shopping lists or print these blank shopping lists by clicking here from Cornerstone Confessions. Do you use lots of cook books? Have a page with a recipe index including the recipe name, cook book and page. If you’d rather just print recipes from the internet, print away and then add them to the binder. You can organize them alphabetically or into categories (chicken, beef, pasta etc).
6. Get out the menu schedule sheet for next week and add dates. Separate each day into 3 sections: B L D (breakfast lunch dinner). Take a look at your schedule for next week and make small notations of things that will affect your meals (early days at work, event invitations, overtime etc).
7. Start assigning breakfasts. Think simple! If your working, keep to simple breakfasts. Try Milk, cereal and bananas; Oatmeal and raisins; or Bagels and cream cheese. Keep a stash of either protein bars, or granola bars in case you over sleep and need something to grab while dashing out the door. We don’t assign things like juice. If we want to have juice in a week, we’ll just get a jug and drink a little at will.
8. Choose your method for lunches. You can either pack, buy or plan to take leftovers. Planning to buy lunches is still menu planning because you have a set budget and your incorporating a set amount into your menu budget for those meals. A great way to handle that is to know you don’t have the organization skills yet to pack a lunch in the morning, and to bring a drink, an apple and a bag of trail mix to work and then hit Subway for a $3.00 6 inch sub every day. $15 in a week for planned eating out isn’t bad! If you have a big family, you may not have enough leftovers for lunch the next day unless you double the recipes. If you plan to take leftovers, think ahead. For the first week, since you don’t know how many leftovers you’ll have with each recipe, have a few days where you can enact the above subway plan if needed.
9. Plan your dinners. This is my favorite part! I love meals eaten together. Choose a mix of recipes. A simple easy dish, a recipe that you guys already love, a brand new recipe, maybe a complicated recipe for a cooking date night one weekend (or a family cooking night!). Unless you’re a pro, don’t plan recipes for a main dish, side dish and dessert. We’ve been doing this for a while and still rely on frozen veggies, canned veggies, salads, and pantry staples for meal accompaniments. Often, I don’t even feel the need to plan the veggies. I keep the freezer and pantry stocked with veggies ( about .49 cents per can and .99 cents per bag at wegmans) and buy something delicious and in season at wegmans for their club pack price. This week, I got a giant club pack of grapes that we’ve been snacking on all week. Pick out your 7 dinners but don’t assign them dates yet. Just a heads up, recipes that have many ingredients (not counting spices) tend to cost more.
Preparation and Planning
10. If you’re using printed recipes, pull them out of the organized section- you’ll keep them up front while you’re making them this week and then refile them after. Browse through the cookbooks. Mentally note any ingredients in your head that would go bad quickly and that won’t freeze. I want you to only have to do one grocery trip for the week, so if any of your recipes have ingredients that don’t last or store well, plan for them on the first or second day of the week. I’m a food safety nut so I freeze any meat that I won’t use right away. If you’re the same, then plan on freezing meat right away and make notations on your schedule of what to thaw on what day. I.e. You’re making chicken potstickers on Tuesday and grilled steak on Wednesday. So mark a notation on Tuesday to thaw steaks in fridge before making pot stickers. Some fridges might need two days in order to thaw (that would be my fridge set to the lowest setting… the food safety nut). If you’re planning on a freezer casserole for a busy night, pick a day to make the casserole (like a day off or on a day that you’re already cooking with that meat). If you have a slow cooker meal planned, mark a notation the night before to mix ingredients in the crock and leave in the fridge, so all you have to do is insert into crock pot and turn on in the am. Then mark a notation to leave yourself a post it note on the door the night before, because you know you’ll forget to start it if you don’t have a reminder.
*HINT* If you’re an avid coupon user, this would be a good time to pull them out and decide what ingredients you can get cheaply. If you aren’t already using coupons regularly, skip that for now until you can easily menu plan. We shop at wegmans with consistent low price lists (they change seasonally to reflect the lowest prices of items popular for that season). I’ll occasionally coupon, but I mostly use the CPL list to plan. You’ll still save tons of money by eating in every day, even if you don’t coupon or use flyers (as long as all of your meals aren’t lobster, filet mingnon and beef wellington).
Create your Shopping List
11. Write categories on a blank piece of paper (meat, dairy, deli, produce, canned, etc) or use the link on step #5 to have a preprinted list. Think about where the ingredients are in your grocery store. List those areas. Start adding the ingredients from your recipes (even if you think you already have that ingredient!) to the correct category. If you come up with a duplicate ingredient, just add it to the first entry like in the photo below. Check through your kitchen and cross off any ingredients you already have.
Pricing and Budget
12. If you have a pretty decent idea as to what things cost, estimate the costs of each item by putting a small number to the side of it. If you aren’t sure, estimate up. Add up the costs of your groceries and decide if that’s a manageable number for your budget. If it’s not, take a look through the list and decide where you can save. Is there an ingredient that can be cut? Can you cut out mushrooms or similar ingredients from a recipe? Is there a substitute that can be made (purchasing store brands for cheaper or buying in a bulk pack to use the ingredient next week as well)? Is one of your recipes particularly expensive? Can you substitute that recipe out? Can you go meatless one day? After you’re all done and you have a final price, add that amount in large numbers to your grocery list. That’s your goal amount. We’re almost always under our goal amount and if we aren’t, something will be getting cut. Our grocery budget for two adults and one child, plus 3 additional children during the days (breakfast, lunch and snack) is between $100-150, depending on what our monthly budget goals are. We average $120.00/week.
13. Head out and buy those ingredients! Store things so they will last until they are needed. Post your menu and schedule on the fridge so you can refer to it every day and ensure things will run smoothly.
Tips and Tricks
14. If you’re packing lunch, you need a small cooler and at least 2 ice packs. It’s imperative that you (or your husband!) remember to bring in your cooler at the end of the day, put your ice pack back in the freezer and empty your cooler. I would have a minimum of 2 ice packs per person available in case you forget one day.
Good luck! Think of me when you’re chilling in Disney World spending the money that you saved!