Sometimes it’s hard to stick to a budget when it comes to food. It can also be difficult to know what to cook every day. Menu planning doesn’t have to be challenging or a big chore. It can be a lot of fun!
Eating with your family around the dinner table can be a good way to get to know the other members of your family, keep up on family news, have a routine, and bond in a positive way. If you have a meal that everyone in your family can look forward to, you are halfway there!
Planning and keeping a grocery list is one of the best ways to save money on food. People who keep a list tend to stick to their budget and are less likely to give into impulse purchases.
Here are some things that I do to keep my meals organized and my budget in mind:
* Make a list of favorite meals: A few days before you go shopping, sit down with your family and brainstorm your favorite meals. Jot down the ideas on a notepad and keep them handy. I put my list in a sleeve protector and put that in the front of my recipe book. This helps jog your memory when you start to plan your meals. You can also look in magazines and sift through cookbooks and the internet to find recipes you might find interesting.
* Start with a clean and organized kitchen: Before you go shopping for groceries, give your kitchen a once over. This will help prevent buying multiple items you don’t need, help you stock up on things you do need, and be able to quickly and easily put your groceries into their places when you come home from the store. It doesn’t take much time if you remember to tidy every week before you go shopping. I like to fix up my fridge first. Throw away rotten or outdated items. Check in all the nooks and crannies for things you might have forgotten. Check out expiration dates and pitch anything that is not good. Also, if you have anything in your fridge you just don’t like, like a salad dressing or BBQ sauce that you don’t like the taste of, pitch it. Even if you spent “good money” on it, it’s just going to go to waste in your fridge if you don’t like it. Make space for the things you actually eat.
* Start listing things to restock: I like to get out a mini legal pad and start marking down things that I have run out of and use frequently. I just take a quick look in the cabinets, pantry, fridge, fruit bowl, and freezer. I also like to look around the bathrooms to see if I need paper products, soap, toothpaste or any of those other essentials. I usually need canned tomatoes, beans, veggie broth, bread, cereal, etc. I double check to see how many I have and how many I need.
* Look at your favorite list and start jotting down meal ideas: I don’t necessarily plan meals for specific days of the week. Some days I’m not in the mood for spicy food, or I’m really tired and don’t want to go to all the effort of a big meal. I just list the number of meals I need to make and then go from there. After I figure out how many meals I need, I look at my “favorite meal” list and write down meals that sound good for the week. Keep seasonality in mind, as well as what might be on sale that week, and what you already have in your fridge and pantry. I don’t want to make a fresh panzanella salad (crusty bread, fresh tomatoes, basil, cucumbers…) in the middle of December. Too expensive, not that tasty and hard to find ingredients at that time of year. I also like to make one new or experimental meal a week. Maybe a Thai curry I haven’t made before or something I don’t know how to make yet, like dinner rolls. This keeps your menu interesting and helps you learn new things.
* Write out your list: Write down every item you need to stock up on, the ingredients you need for your weekly menu, and anything that sounds good for the week. List everything! That way, you won’t buy unnecessary snacks, unhealthy food, or items that are out of your budget. You can also look at any coupons you might have and stick them behind your list. Couponing can save a lot of money! Consider buying generic too. I’ve found a lot of store brand items that I like. I especially like store brand paper products, laundry detergent, hand soap and pasta. I don’t waste money on store brand items that I’ve tried and hate. Nope, not going to buy store brand shampoo no matter how cheap it is. I just won’t use it.
* Head out to the grocery store: Buy only the things on your list. This sounds more difficult than it actually is. When you make your list, list everything you need to buy and then check it off, item by item, when you are in the store. If you see something on a great sale, think first if you actually need the item or if you are going to actually use it. No use buying twenty rolls of cheap toilet paper if you don’t like them and aren’t going to use them. Consider going to more than one grocery store if they are close together to get the best price. I like to go to a discount store for pantry items and non-food items. I save my produce budget for the nicer grocery store, if I can afford it that week. Decide which items are your top priority and spend the money on those!
* Bring your groceries home and put them away: This is where an organized and neat kitchen can really help. You won’t lose popcorn behind all the other popcorn you’ve bought before. As my grandmother would say, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” Keep like items together and always put them back in a place that makes sense… and is the same place you put them week after week.
* Prep food for the week: If you have an especially busy schedule, clean, chop and bag food when you have the time. If your kids are in school, you might want to take that giant pretzel container and separate it into small baggies for the week. That way, your family can just grab snacks and go instead of searching through the kitchen and trying to do things last minute.
* Post your menu list in a prominent place: I like to stick my list on the fridge for everyone to see. This helps me stay focused for the week.
* Enjoy! Take a look around at your tidy kitchen and think about the fact that you have all your meals planned for the week and don’t have to do a mid-week scramble for ingredients and ideas.
Remember that cooking most of your meals helps you control what you put into your body, saves money and brings your family closer together. That sounds like a big promise, but it’s true! Don’t forget to treat yourself from time to time, though. A little surprise trip for ice cream can really cheer everyone in your family up and add some variety to the week.
I hope these suggestions are helpful. Let me know what you think and share your favorite tips!