Menu Planning = Money Saving!
A Guide to Saving Money in the Kitchen!
Our last blog discussed ways to save money, One of those ways is meal planning and prepping. We are happy to have Andrea as our guest blogger today! She has a wealth of knowledge on this subject.
I paid $3.49 for a 5 pound sack of potatoes the other day.
I could not believe my eyes when I saw the price, but I also couldn’t fathom driving across town to *hopefully* get a better deal. A stroll through the store revealed several other items at much higher prices than I’m used to seeing.
Butter was almost $4.00 a box, strawberries were three times what they were 2 weeks ago and don’t even ask a California person what they pay for eggs. I cruised right on by those pricey bad boys, hoping our hens would end their egg-laying strike soon.
A walk through any grocery store these days could certainly have you feeling like sticking to a food budget is impossible, let alone *reducing* one. Perhaps I just love a good challenge, because I’m determined to show you that it can be done! Menu planning is key in my opinion, but I realize it’s not something everyone feels confident doing. I’m here to change that! Not only can you do this, but it’s easier than you think.
In the almost 20 years I’ve spent managing our home’s grocery budget, our available dollar amount has been anywhere from $28.00 to $200.00 for the week. Income, seasons of life, family emergencies and budgeting for things like family trips have all impacted exactly how much we have to spend on food. Currently, our budget hovers around $120.00 per week, with a little extra set aside “just in case.” This feeds five adult appetites, with the occasional guest(s), with as little processed food as possible. I tell you this for reference, so that you are able to see with complete transparency what I’m spending, how far it goes, and just how I make it happen for our family. I’m going to outline the three phases of menu planning I’ve developed over the years as well as a few tips that may help you keep a little more cash in your wallet.
Here’s how it’s done:
1. SET A BUDGET
I know some of you are saying, “Duh.” I’m also willing to bet many of you reading this don’t know off the top of your head how much you’ve spent on food this month. Look at what you’re spending. Look closely. Now, challenge yourself to spend a little less, and set an exact dollar amount. For my last grocery trip, it was $120.00, which needed to carry us for TEN DAYS. Yes, ten. Even I was worried about pulling it off.
2. TAKE INVENTORY
The day before grocery day (which is every other Tuesday in my house), I take a complete inventory of my fridge, freezer and pantry. I clean the refrigerator out completely, toss anything that needs to go (which hopefully is a very small amount of waste), sit outside under my favorite tree on our paint splattered picnic table and write down what’s left. I do the same for the freezer and pantry. Items that are expiring soon are highlighted so I know to plan for them first. I also make a note of items I have in abundance, so I know to plan more than one meal with that/those ingredient(s). In my list below, you’ll see I need to use up pineapples, salad greens and strawberries quickly. My list also reflects the abundance of quinoa, Peruvian beans, jarred peaches, instant coffee, goat milk, pork roast & chicken broth in my kitchen.
3. PLAN A MENU
First things first, decide where you’re shopping. Get your hands on their weekly ad, either in store, from your mailbox or online. Take a peek through their flier, keeping your “expiring soon” and “abundance” items in mind. For example, if chicken breasts are on sale for $1.49 a pound and you’ve got lots of brown rice and some “starting to look sad” veggies in the fridge, it may be time for a chicken stir fry.
Here are a few helpful tips as you plan:
International dishes are a fantastic way to plan frugally. Our go-to is Mexican food (as you’ll see on my menu below) but Asian and Middle-Eastern dishes can also save you money!
Skip packaged foods and drinks whenever possible as you’re planning. You might be surprised to learn how much less you’d spend if you bought less food in packages! Ask the question, “Can I make this myself?” before adding it to the list. For example, blending a quick salsa from frugal ingredients as opposed to buying a tub will not only save you money, but will save the environment plastic waste and your body unnecessary additional ingredients. Other items we make instead of buy include yogurt, chicken broth and salad dressings.
Plan carefully and thoughtfully to avoid waste. If you roll over ingredients from one day to the next, you’re less likely to lose it in the fridge and forget about it. For example, the leftover quinoa from my “Mexican Buddha Bowls” went right into fruit salad the next day. Food eaten = Money well spent! Food thrown out = Money thrown away! (Bonus points for the frugal fiber and protein in quinoa!)
Limit choices on breakfast, lunch and snacks. Keep it simple - no more than 3 choices, rotating the choices as needed to keep your family from groaning. Consider skipping cereal and milk for breakfast; you’ll spend more on milk than you realize and the kids will likely be hungry again in an hour. Fruits, veggies & boiled eggs are typical snack foods in our home.
Once you’ve got your menu plan, go through each dish and write down what you’ll need to prepare it. Hopefully you’re using many items you already have, but you’ll certainly need more ingredients! Once I have it jotted down, I go one step further and organize them by department, in the order in which I approach them. Produce first, then meats, dairy, etc. It just makes my trip smoother and eliminates wasting time walking all over the store. Jot down a dollar amount beside each item and do a quick tally of what your estimated spending is. If you're over budget, it's time to rethink some menu items in a more frugal fashion.
Now all you’ve got to do is head out! I’ve got grocery shopping down to a science at this point, and oddly enough it’s an enjoyable, therapeutic experience for me. Perhaps that’s because I’ve learned how to avoid the things that make me feel discouraged, like spending too much or buying things I regret. I’ve got a few tips for ya while you’re at the market to help you feel successful!
Buy in bulk whenever possible for ingredients you use often. Quinoa, wheat berries (for making flour), beans, instant coffee, brown rice and certain spices are all items we buy in larger quantities to save some cash.
Shop the perimeter of the store, avoiding the middle unless necessary. Of course, the middle *will* be necessary for most grocery trips, but I make it a point to shop the outside of the store first. The produce, meat and dairy (aka, the “real food”) will all likely be found there. Remember, less packaging usually means money saved, so focus your efforts here.
Shop with cash. I rarely take my debit card into the store with me. I shop with cash, forcing me to stay on budget. No one wants to get to the register and come up short, so it’s a great way to stay disciplined.
Look for the “day old” and “marked for quick sale” items throughout your store. Most markets have produce, meat, dairy and bakery items reduced to sell quickly. Meat getting ready to go out of code is often perfectly fine and just needs to be stored in the freezer. Imperfect produce is a great way to save some cash and can often be stashed in the freezer as well. Brown, spotty bananas are one of the most common finds and make fantastic smoothies when they are peeled and frozen! Markdown eggs are great for boiling!
Stick to your list! I know, it’s hard, but think of all the extra money you’ll be saving!
So did *I* stay on budget?
Since I've taken you on my 10 day grocery journey, I thought maybe you'd like to know how I did. My goal was to spend less than $120.00, and I came in at $114.72. Just enough leftover for a couple bags of ice for my homemade iced coffees! I had to make a few adjustments along the way to stay on budget (like buying a bag of frozen hashbrowns for taquitos instead of a second bag of potatoes) but I did it! Every dollar counts, and your efforts add up!
Here’s hoping that taking the guesswork out of menu planning will help you achieve your money saving goals! Prices likely aren’t coming down any time soon, so it’s up to you to make a plan, set a budget and stick to it like glue. You can do this, and you’ll be so glad you did!
Looking for an awesome frugal recipe to get you started on your money saving, meal planning journey? Check out this simple chicken salad, made with an amazingly easy and thrifty salsa!
You can find the recipe by clicking HERE.
Andrea Garza is a wife, mama to 3 teens, "frugalista" and tiny house dweller. She's usually cooking something that makes no sense to fix in such a small space but she's making it work. She loves tacos, (like, a lot) and is passionate about encouraging cultural unity through food. She loves Jesus like crazy and is ever so grateful that God made avocados.