One Friday not long ago I glanced at the clock and saw that, once again, dinner was half an hour away and I had no idea what to make. A search of the cupboards and refrigerator was uninspiring. Every idea I thought of would require more prep work that I had time to do or ingredients we didn’t have.
We ended up with an easy meal we had already eaten twice that week, but I cringed at the reaction of the kids, and honestly, I wasn’t all that excited about a third meal of the same again either. I realized that I really needed to do better at planning menus.
Planning menus out ahead of time can prevent that uncomfortable scenario. Taking Saturday to write out meal plans for the next week ensures variety in our menu and makes both cooking and eating more enjoyable for our whole family. A less apparent side effect, though, is that planning menus also saves money. It’s one of my favorite ways to save money on groceries without using coupons because it has other great benefits as well.
While it may sound daunting at first, once you get into the habit (and in my case, stay in the habit), menu planning makes meals better and helps preserve your budget. Here are a few ways that menu planning saves money, along with some tips.
Menu Planning Saves Money
1-You’ll buy what you’ll use and you’ll use what you’ll buy!
When you shop for a list of specific ingredients for specific meals, you won’t waste money on extra ingredients that you won’t use. You won’t have to worry about unused produce or perishables going to waste because they weren’t used in time. You’ll waste less food and money by planning your menu!
2- Make fewer trips to the store!
When you don’t plan a menu, you will find yourself making (or at least being tempted to make) more trips to the store. Each trip to the store costs you in a couple of ways. With gas getting more and more expensive, each trip to the store is costing more, not to mention the extra wear on your vehicle. Making an extra trip to the store also takes valuable time. Impulse buys can be another expensive risk of making additional trips to the store, especially if you’re hungry or have a sweet tooth. Menu planning saves money by requiring fewer trips to the store.
3- Eliminate an expensive Plan B.
When mom is tired and kids are grumpy, it’s very easy to resort to take-out when there isn’t a menu plan. Eating out regularly, even if it’s just fast food, really adds up. If you wait to think about dinner until you’re hungry, then it’s probably too late. Menu planning saves money by preventing the temptation to go out to eat.
4- Sanity is priceless
I will be the first to admit that menu planning is an area where I could improve. The weeks where I do plan out our menu definitely go more smoothly than the weeks where the 5-o’clock hour rolls around each day and I don’t have a clue what I’m going to fix. Since we live in the boonies, there isn’t ever the temptation to run to the store or go out to eat, menu planning definitely saves sanity. Who can put a price tag on that?
A Few Tips
Here are a few tips from my menu planning experience. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments so we can all learn from each other!
Plan your menu around the sales.
Each week grocery stores have their best deals on the front page of their ad. They are often called “loss leaders” because the deal is so good that the store takes a loss on them, but they are willing to do so because they know that when you’re in the store you’ll buy more than just what’s on the front page. Plan your menu around the sales and get a little more to stock up while the price is low.
Try something new.
If you’re like me, then you’ve learned that it can be tricky to try a new recipe on the fly because it seems like you’re always missing a key ingredient. Planning ahead is the perfect way to try a new recipe. On weeks when I successfully plan our menu, I try to add one new meal during the week. Since you’ll plan your menu before you go shopping, you’ll be sure to pick up the ingredients you don’t have on hand. Your family will be excited to add a new favorite to your recipe repertoire.
Make a list of your favorite meals.
Keep a long-standing list your family’s favorite meals and put it somewhere easy to remember. I have mine taped on the inside door of one our kitchen cabinets. Review the list each time you sit down to meal plan. The list will prevent your mind from going blank as you try to think of meal ideas.
Make freezer meals!
When you plan your meals ahead for the freezer, it really makes dinner time easy and painless. I found a system that lets you choose from a huge variety of meals (including paleo, allergen free, vegetarian, etc), makes the shopping list for you, and shows you how to put together 10 meals in around an hour. It’s called MyFreezEasy and it has really simplified our menu planning and dinner making!
I’ll admit that sometimes I get lazy an fail to plan our menu out in advance, but let me tell you, weeks are so much more stressful than the weeks where I have my menu-planning act together! If you’re new to meal planning, just give it a try and you’ll see what I mean! You’ll cave time, money and sanity!
How about you?
- Are you a menu planner?
- How has menu planning helped you save money (and sanity)?
- Do you do menu plan the old fashioned way or use an online tool or app?
- What menu planning tips can you share?
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I menu plan by shopping the sales, starting with the meat loss leader. If beef is on sale, we eat beef all week, roast the first day and dishes using beef as an ingredient the other days. At the end of the roast meal, I slice and dice the meat for the dishes I have planned for the next six days, insuring that I stretch it for where I need it. For example, I might have a salad using beef strips, stew, hot sandwiches, enchiladas, soup and stroganoff for the following days. I have actually made the weekly main meats menus in advance along with grocery lists. I usually spend $50 for the two of us each week.
I love menu planning and grocery shopping! Even though I don’t always feel like cooking dinner after a long 8 hr work day and playtime with a high energy boy lol. I sit down and plan 4-5 meals for the next week for dinner and check our basics ( toilet paper, cleaning supplies, water , baby stuff) . So whatever basics were out of and whatever ingredients I need for meals is my grocery list. It’s pretty reliable bc we spend the same amount on grocery’s every week ( $75-$150) Before you judge me (lol) this is for two ppl working full time ( My husband is a welder and works 58 hrs a week so i pack him some very large lunches to last a ten hr shift) and a baby. ( If you have one you know that diapers/wipes/etc can add up to $50 alone when you run out. lately I have been spending more on produce bc I am blending fruits/veggies for the baby and trying to eat less processed food to naturally improve a thryoid issue. Menu planning is fun and it is possible to save on your food budget! I also stock up things like frozen veegies/dry goods when they are on sale which helps ( like krogers 10 for $10 specails)
I plan (or at least in the past have planned, I need to work on it again) all meals for 2 weeks at a time. I purchase based on the circular for the week and choose my recipes based on what is on sale. I then write out my plan using the food that will go bad first, so I don’t waste anything. I try not to cook every night so I will often make big batches of food every other day, or make big batches and freeze half so we can alternate some of the precooked meals from previous weeks. I’ve noticed since my children are getting older my food is not going as far. This has led me into my current predicament of my meal plan not being functional and me running around like a crazy person 2-3 times a week at the grocery store. I need to revamp or delete my whole system and start from scratch.
Maybe you could increase the portions of each meal (make a double batch) or add in some side dishes to make each meal more filling. That crazy person feeling isn’t fun! 🙂
I’m still learning to do meal planning. I’m thankful for flylady who helped me start. I am currently a SAHM and have learned to do supper prep in the morning to keep my sanity later in the day.
Currently, I have a weekly guideline -every week we have a night for a egg – based meal (we have 4 laying hens) , bean or vegetarian meal, roast night (chicken, pot roast or ham), fish meal then I make whatever else works based on weekly activities or what I have on hand.
I like the idea of having a _____-based meal on a certain night. And that’s great that you do your prepping in the morning. I bet it’s nice to get that out of the way come dinner time!
Bre @ The Weight of Debt says
For about 6 months I was subscribed to Emeals and I loved it! Especially when I was tag teaming meal plans with couponing. It took all the time out of meal planning and then I could focus on couponing on things we needed rather than planning around the coupons!
After 6 months I had plenty of recipes and meals to stop subscribing and just recycling the meal plans! 🙂 Totally worth it in my opinion.
Thanks for sharing Bre! I’ve heard of emeals, but I guess I’m too cheap to pay for recipes and shopping lists. Recycling the meal plans you already have sounds like a great idea though.
I try to write the main dinner dish on our calendar each day. Then when I am making out the menu I can repeat the main dishes from the same week last month. I try to spread the favorite main dishes out so that we only have spaghetti, tacos, chili, BBQ chicken, etc. once a month.
That’s a great idea to spread out the favorites!
We menu plan. we’ve only been doing it since last December and we love it.
I actually have a folder in my email that I place links to recipes and then I can plan anywhere/anytime. Then, my husband creates our grocery list in a spreadsheet so that it’s easier to maneuver the store because he shops. It takes him less than a half hour. Then we both prepare depending on who’s home that night. But we cook things that allow us to have left overs for lunch and or dinner if need be.
We’d like to get to the point that we start putting stuff in the freezer but the main reason we started meal planning was to save money…so we only cook 3 (sometimes 4 if we know going into the next week we’ll be too busy to get to the store on our regular day) big meals a week. Most have 4 to 8 servings each.
If something hasn’t been eaten before the 3rd day, it goes into single serving containers up in the freezer for nights where you get home later than planned. Saves lots of money because eating out is sooo expensive.
Single servings in the freezer is a great idea- your own TV dinners. 🙂 You are so organized Celeste!
Well, I cannot take all the credit on the single servings…When my husband had some major surgery, a very special friend of mine made a couple weeks worth of dinners for me in single serving containers. Her goal was to make my life as easy as possible. And it really did.
At that point we had already meal planned but sadly, we’d waste food sometimes. I hate wasting food and now I because of her, I don’t.
What a sweet (and smart) friend!
Menu planning is so crucial…not only when you’re short on cash, but also when you’re short on time or if you’re short on space. It may seem like it takes more time, but those extra few minutes make a HUGE difference at the end of a long work day. I also have no pantry and only three cabinets to hold all non-refrigerator food. If you don’t buy more than you need, you don’t have to store it either. Great tips in your article and in the comments, too. Love Liz’s comment about including the kids – hard when their young, but a great idea as they get older!
I totally agree. When I don’t have a menu, I spend so much TIME thinking and stressing over what I’m going to make. So much wasted energy. My whole day is better when I already have a plan in place!
I am a menu planner in the non traditional sense. Before we leave we take inventory of our deep freezer and decide potential meals from that. Then we go grocery shopping once a week with three-four meals for that week in mind and a specific budget. After we buy the items needed to complete meals I use whatever is left in the budget to stock up on staples if they are at a low enough price. I never plan a certain meal on a specific day. Instead we have all the ingredients ready to cook one of 3-4 meals whenever we have the time/feel like cooking.
I also always keep “plan B” ingredients ready for Chicken Pot Pie. It’s easy peasy to cook and is ready in ~an hour. If we are super hungry we will snack on a piece of fruit while we are waiting for it to cook. A back-up plan in necessary for nights that things may go awry.
Mmmm… I need to add chicken pot pie to our list. I haven’t made that in ages! 🙂
I often switch the days up too, and just have a loose plan of the things I’m going to make that week.
Jayleen Zotti says
We totally need to get back to menu planning! The kids enjoyed looking to see what was on the menu. We always lost track of our list … I like your idea of putting it inside a cabinet!
My kids get excited too, especially when homemade pizza is on the menu! I let each of them make their own.
Mom @ Three is Plenty says
I definitely menu plan (or I did until we started eating down the pantry in preparation for moving). I started planning out a menu week by week, now I plan a menu out by month. Since I freezer cook, about the last day of the month, I take the list of what’s in the freezer and plan out the next month of meals. I still go to the grocery about once a week, but the list is mostly made for me and I never have to buy meat!
Once-a-month freezer cooking sounds great!
I started menu planning about 3 years ago. I keep a week/page in a small notebook. It’s great to look back to last year (or the year before that!) and see what I made. Sometimes I just take that week and use it for this year! No one is the wiser – Hah!
We’ve encountered some food allergies so I’ve had to change it up a bit, but I find if you can do “themed” meals it helps. Like “pizza Fridays” or “soup Sundays.” Half the work is done for you or at least you can narrow the scope a bit. Also helps on the sale side of things – you can stock up on certain items because you know sorta what you are going to have (like stock for soup or specific toppings for pizza, etc.)
I’m all about putting things on autopilot! You should always have 1 or 2 meals that can be pulled from the pantry in case things go awry! Because something can and will 🙂
Your notebook and themed meal days sound great! I agree with having a couple of meals that are quick and easy.
debt debs says
I should do more menu planning but we do tend to eat a lot of leftovers from the weekend during the week. It’s not something I really like to do and my husband is the primary chef but having said that I wish he would do more meal planning for the cost benefits!!! LOL
That’s awesome that your husband’s the primary chef! Mine often takes over on weekends, which is a really nice break.
With five kids (two at home now) menu planning is a lifesaver. Every Sunday night after supper we would do it as a family. Each night I would have one kid in the kitchen with me to help cook. When the kids became teens they had to cook supper a night or two a week depending on their schedule. Doing it as a family also allowed the kids to suggest alternatives to meals that they didn’t like or for me to negotiate a meal that they liked with something they are not fond of. I think the hardest thing that we still struggle with is being uninspired. My time worn phase is, “none of us know how to make I don’t know.” Pinterest has been a lifesaver for finding meals to make. My girls love the easy crock pot meals and will throw them together before walking out the door to school.
I love that you plan as a family and that you have a “helper” each night. Having teenagers take on dinner themselves is great! They will be so much more prepared when it comes to going out on their own. I love your phrase because “I don’t know” is such a frequent suggestion around here too! Thanks Liz!
Thanks so much for these tips! I think I need to set up a menu plan. I’ve noticed we buy lots of food, but then don’t end up using it all and they go spoiled.
You’re not alone! I think that’s a universal plan with non-menu-planners. 🙂
Debt and the Girl says
I need to get better about meal planning. I hate cooking so I have that hurdle. I always have some bits and ends around so I can make quick meals though. That helps and doesn’t use too much energy!
It’s nice to have some quick and easy go-to meals. I usually don’t mind cooking (and often even like it), but when it’s dinner time and I don’t have plans, I hate cooking too!