Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Food Budgeting : Menu Planning

Our meal plan (spelling errors and all) for last week

Last week I introduced a series of posts on Food Budgeting.  I started with the basics, "Get Your Money Right", or keeping track of how much you're actually spending on groceries and dining out.  Believe it or not, I love talking about money and I enjoy making budgets and grocery lists.  E and I consider grocery shopping to be a date (I know it's a chore to most people).  On weekdays I spend two hours each day in the car and my favorite programs on satellite radio are the financial advice talk shows.  We're not perfect, but we've learned to keep more of our money in the bank by planning our meals.

So what exactly is a menu plan?  For us, it's a realistic list of meals we'll consume during the work week (Monday-Friday), including breakfasts, lunch, dinner, and snacks.  We pack our lunches 90% of the time because it saves money, encourages us to eat healthier, and we don't waste our lunch hour running around town (searching for parking) and settling for salty, greasy fast food.  I take it an extra step and pack breakfast.  These days I eat one Chobani Greek Yogurt at my desk each morning and I enjoy my coffee (brewed at home and poured into a travel mug) on my commute.  I also like keeping instant oatmeal at my desk for a quick snack or last-minute meal option.

Where do I get my meal ideas?  I read food blogs every single day and I save my favorite recipes in my Google Reader.  I also have a decent collection of cookbooks and I subscribe to several food magazines.  Between reading recipes and having some old family favorites I know that we'll always have something decent to eat.

Some families plan out what will be eaten each night.  I prefer to make a list of what I can cook that week and I take into consideration yield for leftovers (since we pack leftover dinner for lunch the following day) and the amount of time it takes to cook the recipe.  Anything that takes more than 45 minutes to prepare may put me over the edge after I've worked a full day, fought traffic, and walked the dogs.  I save the elaborate menus for weekends.  My favorite tip is to freeze foods that reheat well.  Today I'm simmering a huge pot of spaghetti sauce that will feed the two of us for at least five more meals.  I'll be putting into the freezer and enjoying it on weeknights over the next two months.

I emptied out the produce drawer and took all the ground meat in the fridge to make a huge pot of spaghetti sauce.
Here are a few tips to get you started with menu planning:

1.  Have a well-stocked pantry and plan your grocery shopping so you're not running out at the last minute for ingredients.  Running out of food is an easy excuse to just call for take out.  Also, incorporate what you have on hand into menu planning, if possible.  Using your own supply of food always saves money.
 2.  Know your limitations.  I'm not baking bread from scratch or stuffing a pork loin on a weeknight.  I'm also not going to leave my husband a massive pile of dishes to hand wash after he worked all day.  Keep weeknight menus simple.
3.  Consider leftovers.  I love these Rubbermaid containers so much that we purposely cook bigger meals and immediately place them into storage for lunch the next day.  I don't like traditional lunch foods like cold cuts and my husband stopped eating processed meat once he married me, so we need good hot meals for lunch.
4.  Don't forget breakfast!  If you work outside of the home (especially if you have a commute) it's easy to fall prey to either skipping breakfast or eating a fast food breakfast.  I will admit that I used to stop at Wawa on a regular basis, but I'm officially reformed!  In an effort to fatten up my wallet and slim down my waistline I eat the exact same meal for breakfast five days a week.  For me it's Greek yogurt and coffee.  Find what you like and figure out a way to carry it with you.
5.  Get organized.  E and I have stylish, oversize lunch bags that look more like luggage than lunchboxes.  We routinely clean out our refrigerator and pantry and we store leftovers in an orderly system (with dates on items in the freezer).  We just got tired of throwing out perfectly good food because we forgot we had it or because it had spoiled.  Organization also includes keeping a grocery list and sticking to it, but that's a future post.

In the spirit of keeping it real, I'm also going to share a little secret.  We always build in one night a week of cheating.  This means that we may order pizza (on special for $7.99) if we've had a long commute due to a snowstorm or if one of us worked late and gets home at 8:00 p.m.  Or, we may enjoy a home-cooked meal prepared by my (retired) mom who lives two miles away.  And every now and then we'll just go out to a restaurant (preferably for a deal or with a coupon or gift card) for no reason at all.  We all deserve a little flexibility.  Budgeting is like a diet.  You don't have to be perfect all the time, but you need to do the right thing most of the time to see results.


  1. in the summer i like to eat vanilla yogurt with raspberries and granola but once berry season ends breakfast is a struggle. I've been eating BLT's this week, im trying to think of quick things but breakfast is hard b/c i dont drink milk (so there goes a quick bowl of cereal) and oatmeal/cream of wheat looks like prison slop and i just cant get past the texture :/

    We're working on the well stocked pantry thing

  2. I'm pretty good with packing breakfast and lunch, but I get so lazy when it comes to dinner these days! By the time I get home it's so dark out and there's always a gazillion things I want to accomplish before going to be. I think my problems start with time management more that money management :o/

  3. I saw your post on "use real butter" and wanted you to know... you now have one more follower.


  4. I am lovin' this series. You have some great ideas. I usually keep the pantry stocked but have to force myself to keep a running inventory list so I know what is in there. I hope you have a great day. Blessings...Mary

  5. 1. Your kitchen is cuuute.
    2. I agree with menu planning. It is the only way to stay on budget.

  6. Heey! i thought i w3as the only one that did this! When my son as born almost two years ago, I started doing menu planning to keep up from buying junk. it REALLLLY saves alot of money

  7. I really need to start menu planning. I have gotten better since I have started WW but I'm still slacking...haha.

  8. my husband and i love grocery shopping too!!! we joke that its our most expensive night out of the week :). we usually budget for more boring meals and two extra special meals (sometimes going out to somewhere nice, and sometimes just creating a decadent home meal).great post!

  9. I should really planning my menus. I've tried before, but haven't used this level of organization in my efforts. I'm taking notes!


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