When my husband gave me the green light to quit my job, I quickly began researching ways to lower our monthly expenses. Purchasing food ingredients in bulk and making everything from scratch was our most effective budget-stretching method.
I began using the pantry principle, which entails making a list of every food item you have or would like to have in your home on a regular basis and shopping only to replace those items.
We saved a lot shopping this way, but (there’s always a but, isn’t there?), as our food budget grew so did my spending (hello Hedonic Treadmill) and I recently decided the increased spending was unnecessary. I know we’ve added a few kids to the mix in recent years, but at their age they don’t really eat much (unless crackers are involved).
Enter the meal plan
I know that everyone says meal planning saves money, and they’re right, it does. Each time I planned meals in the past I saved a significant amount but I hated doing it. Which is really weird for someone who loves planning and making lists, but it just seemed so hard. Planning meals for days, weeks, even a month in advance just seems so daunting. How do you pull that out of thin air?
Well, you don’t.
Naturally, you can sign up for a meal-planning service. However, I’ve found that the really affordable ones use a lot of foods that I can’t eat (food allergies!) or they only provide 5 dinners a week. I need help with all of my meals.
Since I approach everything with a DIY attitude, I decided that I could do the same with meal planning. After all, if I can take four kids under the age of six to Costco on the weekend by myself, then I should be able to write out a menu. The trick is to…
Keep it simple
People say variety is the spice of life but when I have too many choices, I get overwhelmed and have to fight the temptation to curl up in a ball under my covers. That’s why my grocery list is incredibly simple.
Rather than eating new and exciting veggies every week, I focus on getting more of the same ones into our diet. My grocery list has eight veggies on it. That’s not much but we eat them fresh and often; they can be mixed and matched in a lot of different ways.
We do the same with fruit and meat, choosing just a few that can be cooked in a variety of different ways to create some really tasty meals.
My favorite cooking tip: get really good at making lots of different sauces. The same meat and veggies tastes completely different with a new sauce on it.
Shop your pantry
I love the weekly ads stores put out, but I don’t let them determine what I purchase or what meals I make. I’ll usually snip out coupons for butter or cheese or see if Kroger has bulk almonds on sale. That’s about it. If it’s not an item I buy regularly, I won’t buy it. If I see one of my staple items priced to sell, I stock up.
Even if you’re simply buying the staples, planning it out in advance saves money. The forethought allows you to tell yourself how much food you’ll need – sort of like budgeting money – so you avoid overspending. If you would normally buy 5 lb. blocks of cheddar cheese (yep, that’s me) but your meal plan says you only need 2 lbs., then you save the extra $10.
Meal planning saves me from buying too much, especially the higher-priced items. (I have the tendency to shop for food as if I’m going to feed a dozen people.)
Make a meal list
Get some paper and write out every meal you can think of. Make sure you like them, of course. Take a look at the meals and think about their ingredients. Now take a look at your pantry list – those foods you buy all the time.
Which meals can you make while sticking to that list? Is there a meal with ingredients not on your list that you love so much it warrants a list augmentation? Also, what meals can you tweak using ingredients you have on hand?
Do this for breakfast and lunch as well. Throw snacks on there too. For lunch it’s ok to do leftovers (from the previous night or days before). If you can only think of ten dinners, it’s ok. Eat them three times a month. If you can only think of 7, eat them four times a month.
It’s ok to eat the same food on a regular basis if you love it. I give you permission to resist any pressure that says you need to eat 30 different meals each month. You can always change it up completely next month.
Matt’s note: Betsy and I (we have no children) will make a huge pot of whatever and eat on it for several days. When we tire of it we’ll mix in a different meal then come back to it.
Make the plan
Now that you have the list of foods, it’s time to make the plan. I take a blank calendar page and just start filling in the blanks. It’s really that simple. If you don’t know where to start, go in alphabetical order and when you get to the last letter, start over. Some of you may be saying, “Duh, that’s really easy.” but that’s where I tripped up – I put too much thought into it rather than just doing it.
“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” – Voltaire
Don’t let messing up stop you from doing this, just start and keep building on what you have – tweak as you go.
Do it in pencil
It’s ok to change the plan once you’ve made it. Your spouse may veto something or remind you of a meal that you’d forgotten. The plan is not set in stone, it’s simply a guide to save you time, money, and anxiety. Knowing what you’re eating ahead of time will also rid you of the temptation to eat out last minute.
If you want to go out to eat… pencil it in, ahead of time.
What’s your favorite DIY meal planning tip?