Every week some of my favorite frugal websites would share their menu plans, and I would yawn a bit.
“That’s fine for them,” I thought, “But I don’t need to do that.”
But after I finished an entire month of not eating out, I became a firm believer in menu planning.
Having a plan for each and every single dinner has not only saved us money, but it’s saved my sanity. I’m no longer stressed out about dinner. Even when plans change and I have to adapt, I’m less stressed.
I used to tell myself that menu planning took too much time, but when I no longer had the crutch of take-out meals to fall back on, it didn’t seem so difficult any more. Now that I’ve created the habit of creating weekly menu plans, I know longer consider it a chore. It’s a necessity!
Here are a few strategies I use for planning my dinner menus:
Know what you have on hand and use it. Organize your pantry and take a careful inventory of what you have on hand in your cupboards and freezer. Then work these items into your meal plans. Often we find ourselves staring at a full pantry saying “there’s nothing to eat.” It turns out, there’s plenty in there, and you just need to get creative! Use it up before it gets too old and you have to throw it out.
Know what’s on sale and put it to use. Watch the grocery sales flyers and stock up on the really great deals as you see them. Include fruit and vegetables that are in season to save money on meals. Is there a great sale on eggs this week? Plan on breakfast for dinner one night or make up a batch of breakfast burritos for the freezer. Use the sales to supplement your pantry when making your menu plan.
Know your schedule and plan accordingly. Make sure you have your family calendar with you when you plan your meals. Plan quick, simple meals for the busiest days and slow cooker meals for those days when everyone ends up eating at different times. Any recipe that requires some intense prep work or careful watching should be saved for days that you have the time to focus on them.
Know where to find new recipes. Boredom is a big threat to your budget. If you find yourself getting tired of eating the same ol’ things, it’s time to find some new inspiration. Ask your friends and family for their favorite recipes, or search the internet for some dinner inspiration. My favorite recipe sites: $5 Dinners, A Year of Slow Cooking, Food.com, and AllRecipes. You can also head to the library and find some fabulous cookbooks.
Make friends with your slow cooker. A slow cooker is an excellent way to throw together a meal on busy days. You can create a one-dish meal in the morning, and it’s ready for you when you get home. Check out my new favorite slow cooker cookbook More Make It Fast, Cook It Slow by Stephanie O’Dea for some inspiration.
Do the prep work in advance. Once you have your menu in place, you can do some of the cooking ahead of time. Brown a large batch of ground beef, cook up chicken breasts, or slice up vegetables early in the week. You’ll make it easy to throw together a healthy, quick meal by doing as much work as you can in advance.
Plan for changes. It’s going to happen. Something will inevitably come up and force you to change your dinner plans. Whether it is an event, an emergency, or just plain forgetfulness that derails your plans, be ready with a back up. One of the best ways to do this is to do do some once-a-month cooking where you can draw on a stash of homemade freezer meals. If that doesn’t appeal to you, be sure you always have the ingredients on hand for an emergency dinner. It could be something as simple as soup and sandwiches or a frozen pizza, but if it can keep you from hitting the drive-thru, you’ll be doing your budget a favor.
Plan for leftovers. Make extra so that you can coast one night a week. For example, when I make spaghetti, I like to make enough so that I can get two meals out of it for the week. It’s a family favorite and makes for a fabulous re-heat. And remember, leftovers don’t have to be boring if you re-invent them. You can turn leftover barbecue chicken into a barbecue chicken pizza. You can turn leftover vegetables into a fabulous soup.
Plan for a break. Everyone needs a break from the routine now and then, and it’s no different when you’re cooking meals. Plan for your spouse to make a meal or get yourself invited to Mom & Dad’s. Plan for an occasional dinner out. Learn how to save money when eating out so that it doesn’t put too big of a dent in your budget.
Take advantage of the free menu planning resources available. You don’t need fancy computer programs or specially designed calendars to plan your dinner menus. Some of my favorite sites have a collection of free printable menu planning resources to help you get organized. Check out the menu planning resources at Money Saving Mom, $5 Dinners, and Life Your Way and download what you need for free.
Start small. Start by planning one week at a time, and then move to two weeks, and eventually to a month. You’ll find that as you get better at knowing your pantry inventory, your recipes, and the sales cycles, you’ll be able to make fewer trips to the store, which will help you save money.
Menu planning is one of the simplest ways you can save money on groceries, save time in the kitchen, and save your sanity.
Do you plan a menu? What tips do you have for making dinnertime less stressful?