As we talked about last week, one of the best ways to save money on your groceries is by having a plan of attack, and the best way to make your list is based off a meal plan.
Sam and I have managed to slash our grocery bill from over $800 a month to just $300 per month, and we’ve stopped going out to eat.
Is it fun?
Um, well, kind of, actually. I like to cook, and Sam doesn’t mind doing the dishes or cleaning up. I usually prepare our meals for the week on Sunday so he can just throw things in the oven or on the stove to reheat during the work week. Sam gets home before I do most nights and when I walk in the door it’s comforting and awesome to have a hot, healthy dinner ready with little to no effort!
Meal planning can seem a little daunting at first, especially dealing with families, different tastes, dietary restrictions and preferences. Once you start, you’ll be amazed at how much time and money you’ll save, and how much more you’ll use up (less waste—yay!).
So, how to get started…
1. Brainstorm all of the meals and snacks you and your family like to eat
I wrote down a pretty comprehensive list of all of the meals we like sorted by breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Now breakfast, for example, I have a banana or apple and coffee (I know, I know, but it’s a step up from coffee alone, right?). Sam prefers his granola bars or an energy bar of some sort. Once in a while he’ll have toast with maple syrup. On weekends I’ll make pancakes, or very occasionally biscuits and gravy. So, these options all go on the list under breakfast—will I make them every month? No, but I’ll put them on my meal list as a reference.
Lunch is roasted veggie burritos, rice bowls, or some leftovers. Once in a while I’ll take avocado toast, or make chickpea “tuno” sandwiches. We always round it out with a few pieces of fruit, carrots, pretzels or chips. I make Sam trail mix in mass quantities to keep at school, when he needs a little energy boost. He often takes hummus and crackers or apples with peanut butter to get through the mid-afternoon slump. I keep green tea in my desk at work for a caffeine kick. These options all go on the list as well. In the summer I add salads-in-a-jar to the list as well, and oven roasted veggies.
Dinner is a long list of options—soups, pastas, rice dishes, casseroles, a lot of one-pot dinners that we can have with a side salad and garlic bread to finish it off. I usually make a pan of pumpkin brownies, or oatmeal cookies as a sweet option, and I make a loaf of bread in my bread maker each week. Sam’s a cereal-snacker, so we keep a few boxes of the “good stuff” on hand and almond milk in case he needs a little somethin’ somethin’.
2. Go through your calendar and “plot out” the meals
I don’t have a problem with eating the same thing for multiple meals (and you can save money and time by having a routine). Breakfasts and Lunches are usually similar menus each day. So, I only plot out dinners.
I don’t bother to write down details (I always have a few things on hand for salad, and garlic bread, for example) and just write down things like, “Monday—Minestrone soup; Tuesday—Chili; Wednesday—Tacos (with leftover chili); Thursday—Risotto broccoli bake; Friday—Tortilla pizzas; Saturday—Gardein Chicken strips with leftover risotto; Sunday—Chana Marsala” and so on…
I take into account upcoming events, and scheduling conflicts—if I know we have an appointment after work or obligation, so we can plan meals that are easy to eat on the go.
Most nights we make a strong effort to sit down together and have dinner. It’s really the time that we connect, go over the happenings of the day and have “couple time”. When we decided to cut back on going out to eat, we talked about what was so important to us about going out, and we realized that it wasn’t about paying $40 to be served a meal by someone else, it was about sitting down as a couple, away from our electronics and distractions, and talking—like a date! So now that we eat at home, we have “date night” at our dining room table almost every evening and it’s awesome.
3. List your ingredients out and pair “like ingredients” together to reduce waste
Now that I have my menu calendar arranged, I just start listing the ingredients out for each dish. This is the most time-consuming part BUT once you’ve done it you can just save it in a document or notebook and use it again and again. I try to look at areas that I can use ingredients in several dishes. Once you list out your ingredients you may want to re-arrange your menu here and there, so you can group items together.
On Sundays I make bread for the week, a big pot of rice, roasted veggies and tofu, and prep my dinners for the rest of the week. Group your meals together with common ingredients or themes to make this process more efficient. For example—if I’m making an Italian pasta dish on Monday, I might also include a pasta salad as a side on Friday and just make extra pasta. If I’m making a batch of roasted veggie freezer burritos, I’ll make extra rice, quinoa or roasted veggies for my chili or as the base for a stir-fry.
Omnivores can use the same concept—Roasted chicken on Monday, shredded taco filling on Thursday, etc. I go through what we have, compare it to my plan and make sure that the ingredients get used to their fullest potential!
4. Shop your pantry & food storage
Once I’ve got my comprehensive ingredients list, I go through my pantry and cross off anything that I don’t need to buy for the month. For example—flour, oats, salt, olive oil, are all things we often buy in bulk. We go through them fast, but not so much that we need to purchase them every month. I often have a little storage supply of canned items, frozen goods, pastas, rice and other staples. I assess what I have before our grocery trip so I can get by with shopping once.
We are part of a CSA and as some of you may know, that means it’s a bit of a crapshoot each week as to what veggies we may have. While this presents a challenge in shopping for the summer months, I generally know that we will be getting lettuce each week, some root veggies and green veggies. I make my menu a little looser to accommodate a change in soups, or a different ingredient in a stir fry, and I buy almost no other produce in the summer, especially because we have our own garden as well.
I always look at anything we have that might be starting to “turn”. By assessing the fridge and menu when I cook, I am sure that I am using up all of my produce and perishables. This saves me from forgetting about a head of broccoli, or letting salsa go bad. If an ingredient is nearing the end, I throw it in one of my recipes early on in the plan. No waste!
5. Get your shop on
Now that you have your grocery list for the month, it’s time to go shopping! If you are still not quite sure, see our Grocery List post for more help!
6. Try freezer meals
One of my favorite ways to really make my groceries stretch (and so we don’t have to eat the same thing all the time) is to freeze meal-sized lunch portions in our freezer. When I have a big soup, casserole and even some freezer-friendly rice and pasta dishes, I just save my own “lean cuisine” portion in a glass freezer dish. We always have a great selection of lunches to take to work.
I also make a big batch of freezer burritos, as I mentioned before. These are a great way to stretch and use up produce! I freeze them in individual portions and we take them to work—quick and easy.
Soups are also a great way to fit with your meal plan. I make a double batch of soup ahead, and pull it off the stove when it’s not quite done. Once it’s cooled and put in the freezer it will last for months! When I’m ready to eat it, we just take it out, run it under a little hot water and slide it into a pot to cook for 20 minutes or so!
We’ll feature some ideas for freezer meals in upcoming posts, so please stay-tuned!
7. Stick to your guns and keep to your plan
Life happens. There are some days when Sam has a meeting after school, or an emergency comes up, or we’re both too exhausted to even THINK of reheating a meal (oh and PS we don’t use a microwave, so yes, that does complicate things a little). On those days I keep a couple Amy’s Frozen Pizza’s on hand. Are they processed? Yup….but you may be sensing a theme here. I find that it’s better to do the best that you can than make yourself crazy striving for perfection all the time. Some days a frozen pizza is okay.
That said, I put my cooking Sundays on my calendar, and I block out that time. Sam helps me, we put on a little music, and Frankie and Tanka try to give us pitiful stares and catch any floor snacks that come their way. I chop, I dice, Sam washes the dishes as we go, and it’s a lot of fun. I can make a whole week’s worth of meals in about two hours, which saves lots of time in the long run.
I’ll share some of our weekly meal plans in upcoming posts, and recipes. Cooking at home is an easy and time-saving way to be frugal. You will find that you waste less and spend less. Your compost pile will grow. Your waistline will shrink…and you might find that you enjoy yourself in the process!