Thursday, July 20, 2017

Menu planning for frugal living

Our grocery and menu board always hangs on the side of the refrigerator. It's not a pretty or fancy board or photo, it's real life here.

Last week I posted about how I am striving to be a frugal mama and I thought I'd expand a little bit on some of the topics in their own posts. First up is menu planning. Not the most exciting of topics, I get it. But, it's crucial to saving money when you are living on a budget and/or aspiring to not waste money. If you don't have a menu plan, likely you will end up eating out/ordering take-out more frequently, throwing away food more frequently, and going to the grocery store more than necessary. We have this ultra-fancy (haha) little white board that lives on the side of our fridge. When we are getting close to running out of a pantry or fridge staple, or think of something we would like, it goes on the grocery side. This way, we are rarely caught off-guard running out of something and I don't have to spend much time thinking or checking if we need items when I make the grocery list.

The other side of the board is for our weekly dinners. [Note, we only "plan" dinners. However, our breakfasts are generally one of three things: scrambled eggs, pancakes, or a hot cereal. Our lunches are generally leftovers, sandwiches, hummus with pita crackers and vegetables or cheese, crackers, and turkey sausage sticks. These are easy and we always have stuff on hand for these meals along with fruit, nuts, yogurt, and other snacks.] Some people find menu planning inconvenient because they feel like they will change their mind when that day comes, but if you simply plan meals that you know you like, this should rarely be an issue. And for the rare occasion when that occurs, swap for another day of the week, and always, always, keep a couple super easy dinners in the freezer for emergencies. We almost always have a frozen pizza or chicken nuggets/fingers for just these times. Also frozen turkey meatballs, pasta, and sauce. These are things you can whip up in no time and not have to resort to take out. I sometimes run out of time or energy and will happily pop a pizza in the oven while taking care of our twins and save that night's planned meal for another day. It happens. But, you still use that meal for another night before the ingredients go bad.

Part of our yearly winter squash stash we purchase for just $10 during the last week of one of our favorite farmers' markets. We often get a few from my father-in-law as well. 

So how do I plan our menu? Each week I sit down while the twins are napping and prepare our menu plan and grocery list. I do this on Friday because that's what works best for us. I always start by checking Ibotta and the Aldi flyer for rebates and sales. Then I head over to Swagbucks and do a quick browse of the coupons because you get extra Swagbucks for printing them through your account. I also take stock of what we have on hand. For example, what fresh produce do we have that needs eaten (leftover from previous shopping, from the garden, given to us, etc.)? During the winter, we have a large stash of winter squash because we can get it cheap and it stores well, and also because we love it. We eat a lot of winter squash during that time. Same goes for apples after apple picking. What meat do we have in our freezer (we often buy a half of a pig and split a half of a cow and I buy other meats on sale)? We eat a lot of pork and beef when we have it. We try to eat seasonally because that produce will be the freshest and generally the least expensive. Pretty soon we will have green beans and tomatoes from our garden, so these will be in our meals. When my in-laws gave us tons of banana peppers from their garden, I made some of them into a soup. You get the idea.

When we have odds and ends of leftovers in the fridge, I'll often make a fried rice dinner or soup to use them up. We try to eat at least one vegetarian dinner per week (this is usually something like bean burritos or nachos or pasta like mac n' cheese). I try to stretch meat to make it an ingredient rather than the main star of the meal as much as possible. Since I'm a food blogger, I do buy things to make special recipes for the blog as well. So, sometimes that means we have to eat a lot of cookies or lemons or random dried mushrooms or whatever I'm playing around with. That's okay by us, though! Pick meals you like. Pick meals that you don't mind cooking. Use your slow cooker. We all have our go-to meals and it's completely okay to have tacos and spaghetti every week. 

When I bought a sack of lemons to make Lemon Pudding Cookies and all the leftover lemons started to get hard and shriveled, I used them up by making a lemon garlic chicken instead of tossing them (they weren't pretty, but the juice was still perfectly yummy).

I definitely encourage everyone to give meal planning a try if you aren't doing it already. It makes cooking dinner less stressful at the end of a busy day (you know what to defrost the night before and you don't have to wonder all day "what are we going to have for dinner tonight?!" To me, it is very stressful and unproductive to have to think about this every single day), it saves you money by reducing the amount of food you waste as well as reducing the likelihood you will get take-out at last minute*, it saves you time by making one trip to the grocery store and knowing exactly what you need for the week (stick to your list!). It also allows you to take advantage of sales, rebates, and coupons by building meals around them. 

*Believe me, we love to go out to eat and get take-out. But, it's for special occasions. It's something we look forward to and enjoy. There have been a few times over the last year where we fell off the wagon ordering sub-par Chinese take-out leaving us feeling gross and bloated. But, when you have two screaming babies, it happens. None of us are perfect. But now that our twins are almost one and eating with us, we are re-committed to making sure we stay on track with our eating habits as best as we can! Preparing your meals at home is a huge money saver. 

Check out the monthly menu plan for meal inspiration for each month. 

9 comments:

  1. Great ideas Amy, thanks for sharing!

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  2. You eat a lot like we do! I'm all about cooking and making sure I have leftovers and then have them for lunch. Thank goodness I have a husband that loves leftovers. Picked up a couple more great ideas. Great post!

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  3. Thank you for so many great tips! I'm terrible at menu planning (and at grocery shopping) so this is so helpful! I really need to be more organized :). Have a great weekend, Amy!

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  4. Good ideas Amy! I was just the opposite though, I must admit. I'd buy the proteins and then just make something from what was there. We were really big on pancakes one night a week!

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  5. These tips are awesome, Amy! Do you find it overwhelming planning the menu every week? :)

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    1. Not really, no! Sometimes (especially with trying to incorporate recipes for the blog and one-year old friendly recipes), I find it challenging, but always rewarding when I don't have to think about it through the week.

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  6. Meal planning is so important! I meal prep for the week so that when I get home from work, dinner just needs to be reheated. Otherwise I would be hitting a drive thru :( Thanks for sharing on Friday Frenzy Link Party!

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  7. Meal planning makes all the difference. When I don't meal plan, we end up eating out every night which is waaaay too expensive.

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