Monday, January 24, 2011

Meal Planning and Grocery Shopping

Meal planning is a chore. Just ask my husband, I avoid it like the plague. And it's not the deciding upon what to have for dinner that is the chore, is calculating it, scheduling it, thinking ahead to what will sound good when, evening the score between beef nights, chicken nights, pork nights, leftover nights, etc. But it goes with having a largish family or even a smallish family for that matter. I never was an avid meal planner until our family started growing and we started running out of money before the end of the month. Then I realized that my grocery habbits needed to change and thus, a religious meal planner was born.

We all know that shopping without a list is foolish and you end up buying things you don't need and might never use. Along the same line, I feel that shopping without a detailed meal plan is just as foolish. Simply stocking your pantry and cupboards with staples is never enough.

Twice a month my husband and I sit down together and go through recipes, food magazines, store ads, and even (and maybe especially) our family calendar. The first thing I do is get out my trusty planner.

I look ahead to the next two weeks and see what is on the calendar. What will be quick meal nights because of activities? When is Dad out of town or working late? When will we be going out or eating in for a special ocassion? Looking over the planner is CRUCIAL.

Then I grab my spiral notebook and write out dates and days for the next two weeks, allowing about two lines per day. Then the real fun begins as Cody and I go through and pick out what sounds good to us. At first we just make an unorganized brainstorm list in no particular order. If it sounds good, we write it down. The first thing I pull out is my recipe box.

Several years ago I signed up to the get the Kraft Food and Family magazine that came out quarterly. At the time it was free, but recently they have started to charge a small fee of about $7 a year. Still, totally worth it.
The magazine if chalked full of family friendly recipes that go with what's in season. It gives you ideas for what to do with leftovers, slow cookers, desserts, different kinds of meats, and they have chefs who write articles and give tutorials about food techniques. I started saving these magazines back in 2006 (I wish I'd thought to save them earlier on, but they always ending up in the recycling bin) and now we have a good collection to choose from. We use these every month to plan menus from. I simply write down the issue and page number next to the food choice in my spiral so I can refer back to it when making the actual menu and list.

Another book I refer to is this beauty, which my best friend Brandi gave to me a while back. I have no clue where she got it, but it has come in handy time and time again.
It is about 50 weeks worth of meal plans from main dishes, to sides, to salads, to desserts. Hopefully she will read this post and comment where she found this lifesaver!! I don't use the actual meal plans, but I refernce it all the time for ideas on individual dishes. It's got some great stuff in it.

I must pause her for a minute and acknowledge people who may read this and chastize me fro NOT couponing and shopping ads. I have done it in the past, and honestly, I don't like it. I find that it's way more of a headache than it's worth, and I have never found a way around feeling bad about myself for buying a bunch of stuff "on sale" that I didn't really need or like. And most of the time a lot of my food purchases are the generic or store brand anyway, and coupons are usually for the name brand. And after I've done the math, I never come out ahead even when the name brand products ARE on sale.

And making meal plans from ads does not work for us. What I do is make a menu and then shop around through ads to see if something in particular is on sale and a great place somewhere. But I will get to that later. I'm sure there is some trick to hard core couponing, but for now my way works great for our family.

Okay, back to what I was saying.

After I have searched the calendar, listed out dates and days, and we've brainstormed what sounds good and will maybe work with our schedule, I pencil in a rough draft of dinner plans. Like I said before, I keep it even between different kinds of meats, as not to have four nights of chicken in a row! The rough draft will look something like this-

Like I said, it's a VERY rough draft. It just gives me an idea of what our dinners could look like over the next two weeks. Oh, and you'll see that I included Family Home Evening treats for Monday nights. Can't forget that!

After I've gone through and finalized the main dishes for each night, the real headache begins. What to make for sides? Salads? What ingredients do we have, what will I need? This is where the real money saving happens. You will be amazed at how much extra money you spend on things like tomato paste or cream of chicken soup each time you are at the store. Staples like these, which we often times forget we already have in abundance, add up like crazy with each grocery trip. So I plan out to a tee what ingredients the recipe calls for and what I already have. You will be surprised to find that often times, you already have a lot of the stuff lurking in your pantry!

Once the plan is finalized, I find out if certain things are on sale somewhere. Pulled pork BBQ sandwiches are on the menu, given that pork shoulder is not ourtageously expensive everywhere. There is a good website called Deals To Meals but as far as I know it is only local to my region. Check it out to see if it's available in your area. For $5 a month you can view the grocery ads for most markets in your city. Plus, she also gives meal plans based on what's on sale. (The reason I don't use this part is because I don't want to be tied down to HER meal plans. I like to use more of what we already have in our freezer and pantry, plus there are many weeks where our family schedule doesn't match up to what she has planned for her I use her ideas only as light suggestions.)

If you are into price matching, using ads comes in handy. But again, big fat stinking headache and I have never ended up saving that much money doing this because I just shop differently. If it works for your family, more power to you!

I go through my whole pantry and take inventory of what we have and what we need. It is VITAL to inventory staples, as I said earlier.

When my meal plans are finalized, I make a rough grocery list that looks something like this (only showing the front side of the paper here)-
I should mention that obviously not everything can be purchased for a 2 week time frame. There are perishables which will have to be purchased at the beginning of week two like french bread or produce. So I make an additional list and call it "Second Week Perishables". I do hit the store again but as always, I STICK TO THE LIST for that week.

Through out the week, I keep a list on the fridge of what we are running low on and what we are out of. It could be grocery or non-grocery...just anything that we need from the store. I always refer to that when making my shopping list and is avoids all the "Uh oh, I meant to get this so I'll run back to the store and grab it." Then that $5 trip ends up being a $20 trip because you end up buying stuff you didn't really need.

I normally do most of my shopping at the same store, and I am very familiar with it's layout. Knowing the layout of a store is extremely helpful in making categories. For example, I know they they sell tortillas on the bread aisle and not in the ethnic aisle like some stores do. And yogurt is sold on two aisles over from milk. Crazy, I know! So the more finalized list looks something like this on one of the sides-
I also have a category for more household type items since the store I mainly shop at carries a lot of that stuff.

When I am at the store, I STICK TO THE LIST. Planning is the key part of grocery shopping. Once I'm at the store (or stoes in some cases) I race through at lightening speed. It's the preparation that takes the long part and causes the headache. My last bi-monthly grocery trip was on MLK day when Cody had the day off and was able to sit home with the kids. I got a TON of groceries that totalled $253 and I did it all in 57 minutes and I did not forget a single thing. (I have to add though, $250 is NOT our bi-monthly food budget. This trip included quite a few out of the ordinary purchases. My daughter's birthday was a few days later so a lot of this stuff was party related. LOL, I wish we had $500 a month for groceries! Normally is is about $300.)

Now the trick is going home, hauling it into the house from the van, finding a place to put everything, and relaxing for a few minutes. On our fridge is a calendar of what we are having for meals on what day. Each night I have a habbit of looking at it to see what I need to thaw for the next day. So before bed, I check the calendar and open up the freezer. Tomorrow is spaghetti and meatballs and meat is currently thawing in the sink. You'll be surprised what peace of mind feels like when your meals are planned out two weeks in advance. Aaaaaaah, it's a great freeling!

(Edited to add- there are some nights when things come up and we end up switching around meals on certain days, or flat out do not have time for anything more than grilled cheese. So we are flexible, but end up sticking to the plan on most nights.)


Brandi said...

You're amazing! This, is one of my many weaknesses! I have such a hard time with meal planning and shopping. I'm glad you like the book =-) I actually bought it at the UHEA convention last year. They have great stuff to buy, even if you have no interest in the classes. Thanks for the inspiration!

polychic said...

I love you! I've been wanting to do this for a long time... now I know HOW!

bethany said...

Meal planning definitely is key when it comes to saving money and saving time (in the long run). And I agree that couponing in UT is harder because the stores don't normally double coupons, making the generic brands many times cheaper than the name brands. BUT I always always stock up on meats when they are on sale and I always go the amazing Smith's sales when they are rounding coupons to $1. That way, when I am not using coupons a lot, I'm not breaking the budget and am able to use food in our pantry. Especially since our budget is only $40. We meal plan on a weekly basis and I kind of hate it too. It's like a necessary evil :)

Our House in the Middle of Our Street: Stories from the Cline Clan said...

Love this! I have been doing a system like this that's evolved over the years. One thing I also do to save time writing down the shopping list (which I don't like taking time to do) and remember staples is I got a list from our grocery store (the one I ALWAYS shop at because I know where everything is) of what is on each aisle. Then I typed up a basic list on our computer of what our family shops for most, by aisle, the order I cruise the store, in columns. So, under Produce = apples, bananas, baby carrots, Bakery = bread Aisle 2 is tuna, etc. Then I just circle things. I leave it on the fridge so my kids can circle stuff we are out of too. There's some odd items that aren't on there because we don't buy them much but I write those in. This took time to create but it saves me so much time now, both making lists and being efficient at the store. I print out a bunch of lists at a time and keep them with my meal planning stuff. I also have my kids plan the menus and cook dinner/clean one night a week (of course mine are older, but I had them just help when they were little). I get their meal ideas at family council.

Veronica said...

Beth, LOL I should add that $250 is NOT our normal bi-monthly food budget. I wish! That particular trip was very out of the ordinary because Hailey's birthday was a few days later. I would be sooooo interested to learn from you about couponing because like I said, I have not found a system that works for me. How do you make $40 a week stretch for a family of four? That is amazing!

Kathy (our house)the list idea on the fridge is great!! I'm totally going to start doing that and really impliment it when our kids are old enough to contribute. What a time saver! One of the biggest reasons for the shopping headache is inventorying what we need and are running low on. Way too much brain power for me :)

Ute Family said...

Oh my word...and I thought I was organized! And I wish that Jake would sit with me and help with that list! I ask him what he wants and his best answer is usually, "Whatever you want"! Thank honey, you're a great help! I'll have to take some tips from you!

Veronica said...

Erin, what's funny is CODY is the one who hounds me every two weeks to get cracking on menus. I think he likes sitting down and looking at stuff. Ha ha, anything about food gets his motor running.

bethany said...

Here are a couple of coupon posts I've written:

bethany said...

And I just found this site:

You enter in the ingredients you have or plan to buy from the store and it will give you recipes from all over the internet that use those ingredients. This would be an awesome way to menu plan (and FREE!!)