It is no secret that I have been menu planning for several years now. I have shopped once a month for as long (minus some perishables) and have found that menu planning allows me to plan well and easily, making sure that I do not go over budget. As the Frog Family has grown, I have increased our budget little by little, and expanded my meal planning to also include snacks, desserts, lunches (homeschooling), breakfasts and the occasional craft. If it involves food, it goes into the menu plan. When I first started, I was drawn to menus and shopping lists that were already made and posted on the internet. But I soon encountered several problems with them.
1.) Most menu plans do not feed a family of 8. They just simple do not. Most include recipes for 4 people, or maybe 6, but they are designed to be budget friendly at that level. Doubling them to 8 servings (or 12) was cost-prohibitive for my budget.
2.) At least half the recipes on any given meal plan were recipes I would never make- For a while we dealt with dairy free eating, I avoid processed food as much as possible, I don’t like to cook with the “cream of” soups or exclusively with the crockpot. And then there were the recipes I would just never make. The carrot, raisin, chicken curry recipe in one of my books comes to mind.
3.) Many meal plans rely heavily on freezer meal cooking. There are two reasons I don’t tend to go this route, although I have certainly tried it in the past. The first is that I (up until 2 days ago) have never had a deep freezer, and cooking meals large enough to feed my entire family was not something I found condusive to the small kitchen freezer. Second, I like to cook. I have the time to cook. I do not enjoy just throwing food into the crock pot or oven every night. So, what happened was we had several meals that would never come out of the freezer. Now, that is not to say I don’t still double up on my favorite recipes and pop a lasagna in the freezer for an easy night’s meal. It just means I don’t like to have 30 days worth of dinners in the freezer.
4.) Most meal plans I found, involved either repeating meals (see reason #2 that this didn’t work for me). So, I was left with the option to either put 2-4 plans together (which left me doing MORE work than making my own plan) or I meal planned part of the month and not the rest, which led to overspending. We like variety in our food. There is so much wonderful food out there that I don’t want my family to be limited to meatloaf friday. If that is what works for your family, then great. But it didn’t work for mine. (see #6)
5.) Eating whole food and skipping out on the convenience food is only affordable for ME when I meal plan. I can afford to buy in bulk and shop sales and feed my family well on budget. Shopping even weekly does not offer us that same ability. Check your store and you will see that a family sized package of meat is actually significantly less per lb than small packages. So when I shopped weekly, I either over-used the meat or over spent on smaller packages.
6.) Meal planning is such a personal thing. We recently moved to the Pond from Texas. What was cheap, local and abundant food there is expensive specialty food here. The cost of food here is twice what it was there. I used to spend $425 a month to feed our family of 7. Here I spend closer to $800 a month to feed a family of 8. It is just food costs that make the difference. We can’t eat the same menu here that we ate in Texas. There are different fruit and vegetables available, different spices, different ethnic foods available (a great under used resource). Potatoes were super cheap where we lived. Here they run about 4.99 more for 10lbs – unless I stock up when the local farmers offer 50 lb bags for $10.00 on the dike. My meal plans here will reflect those cheap potatoes, but what about the people who do not have that option or miss out on the sale? They cannot eat the same menu on the same budget. If I shop on a week where chicken is on sale, our monthly meals will be heavy in chicken, but for the person who shops two days after me, when the sales have changed will find that what they can buy for the same money is significantly less chicken.
My goal is to help you learn to make your own meal plans, to find recipes that your family loves, to shop and to eat on your budget. And it is from that desire that this blog series is born. My menu runs from the 10th to the 10th of each month. Yours will run different. I shop monthly. You may find weekly, or even bi-weekly works better for you. I keep a pretty stocked spice cupboard, you may need to stock yours. My menus are based around my local sales flyers, so there may be some differences, but the principles are all the same.
So today lef’t talk about how you get started. Again, this is how I do it. There may be a better way for you to go about it. But this method is tried and true for me. I start with a few basic tools.
Pen, pencil, marker etc
Cookbooks and/or Pinterest
A good solid 2 hours of time
Input from family (optional)
Store sale flyers (online or on paper)
I look at how many days are in the month, and make a list of the dates down the page. I add in any paydays that we will likely eat out, special occasions like holidays or birthdays, and any theme days that may tie into our homeschooling schedule. What I am typically left with are 22-26 days of emptiness. If there are family favorites or meals that my family has been asking me to make I write them in starting with the first open space. Throughout the month, I will have been pinning recipes that look tasty, desserts, snacks, lunches, breakfasts and dinners. I create a board for each month so May- Meal Planning 2015 will be the board I go to this month. Sometimes at this stage I have 120 recipes pinned. Sometimes I have 12. If I think of a food I want to make, I also pin placeholder recipes. My May board may show that I want to make chicken fajitas and I may have a recipe pinned so I remember, but when it comes time to make my list, the recipe I will use actually comes out of my Mennonite cookbook. I find over pinning is better than under pinning. There are times, I simply do not find what I want on Pinterest. Then I will sit down with a stack of cookbooks and a stack of paper strips and mark possible recipes. I try to make sure there is a variety of foods. In the past I have been guilty of very unbalanced meal plans with almost all soups and stews, or pasta dishes.
As I go through my pins/recipes, I try to keep in mind what the sales are. I also know that making my own tortillas for example will shave 3.00 a package off my spending, so if I plan meats that are more expensive or if there are no good sales, then I try to plan in more homemade accessories. ( I know food doesn’t really have accessories- just checking to see if I have lost you.) I make sure that I balance heavy meat options with meatless meals, or meals in which a small amount of meat is stretched. I double-check portion sizes and how many a recipe will feed. I know that I can add extra veggies and sauce and pasta to a dish without necessarily having to add more meat. I also try to plan 2-3 desserts a week (although I have staples on hand for more) and something special for weekend breakfasts.
I have also started making an additional “treat” list and shopping list, because sometimes I come in way under budget and can splurge. Now you may be wondering why I don’t just go back to the store later. Those of you who live in more rural areas probably already know the answer. Let me add a disclaimer here – the area I live in is very food rich. I can go to any local farm for farm raised meats and cheeses and dairy. The marketplace here offers fruits and vegetables weekly at a reasonable rate. From June-October the farmer’s market is in full swing. And I do take advantage of all those things. But my local grocery store is not an inexpensive place to shop for most things. I do catch some awesome sales, but they are more a case of walking in and finding 1lb packages of organic, free range ground turkey for $1.99 while supplies last, than it is of planning. The stores I do my monthly shopping at are 1 hour and 15 minutes away. The more I can get cheaply there, the less I have to buy at my local grocery store and the more I can then buy supporting the local farmers.
I would much rather stock up on flour in the city and buy my raw local milk here than run out of flour and have to buy it here and have to settle for ultra pastuerized milk. (My son with the dairy issues, handles raw dairy very well. The processed stuff makes him sick if we use it too much). I would rather be able to drop in on the marketplace and buy extras than to have to overspend locally on essentials. Now, for those who are wondering, my local store is a chain, I am not passing over a mom and pop. The fact remains, that to feed my family and stay on budget I have to plan and make choices.
Once I have the list of days completely filled in, then the next stage of menu planning starts. Tomorrow I will post my menu list and Wednesday the 6th I will take you through step two. In the meantime, if you are serious about menu planning, I encourage you to start your own May Foods P board. I would love to see them linked below.