I am a meal planner. I’m not an expert meal planner, but I like to think I do okay. Every so often a coworker or someone at church will ask about the way I plan meals. “How are you able to do that on the budget you claim to have?” “How do you try so many new meals every week?”
We eat for about $80.00 a week. Almost all of our meals are homemade and made with whole foods. This little system I’ve mapped out works for me and it’s pretty smooth. Maybe it will help you, too.
1. Stock up a pantry. Before you try budgeting and eating whole foods and all that, you’ll need to have a pantry with the basics. It helps for planning and it helps with keeping costs down, too. I buy in bulk so I just reuse old jars from various foods and fill them with pasta, beans, quinoa, rice, oatmeal, and various flours. In my pantry I have canned foods (used usually in a pinch or in the winter), flours, sugars and natural sugar substitutes (pitted dates, agave, honey, and even a little Stevia), and things that help make sauces (vinegars, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, etc..), oils (Olive and coconut primarily), and the cooking basics (cocoa, corn starch, baking powder, baking soda, salt, etc.)
2. Find/create a space to map out your meals. There are several cutesy ideas on the internet floating around for different ways to map out your meals for the week, I simply put them on my calendar. I do this for several reasons, one of them is as an easy way to reference past meal ideas if I can’t come up with one.
3. Create a rotation list. At the end of every year, I go through the months and the meals I have outlined. If there’s a meal that we ate quite a bit (either because it is a staple or because it was new and really good) I add it to my “rotation” list. I keep that list clipped to my calendar. Below you’ll see a much prettier version of this year’s “rotation” list that I put together in January.
4. Pick new recipes first. Start with what you feel comfortable with, if you want to add a new recipe only once a month, use the rest of this post to help you modify. I usually chose two new recipes to try each week. I find these recipes primarily from Pinterest (and of course the original source of that Pin), cookbooks, and food blogs that I subscribe to. I look at the recipe and I write down only the ingredients that I don’t already have on hand.
5. Overlap Ingredients.I then go through my “rotation” list and find a meal or two that has an ingredient list that might match some of the ingredients already on my list for the new thing. Are you following? Maybe not. Here’s an example:
If I find a recipe online for
I might make a list with a few of the items that I don’t have on hand:
1 Lb boneless beef chuck roast
I would then look at my “rotation” list and try to find something that I would also pair with broccoli and maybe something that I would use beef chuck roast for (if I bought a larger piece of meat)
I could make Easy Chicken Cordon Bleu and pair it with some roasted broccoli and I could use the beef consume to also make beef stew.
Now I have 3 meals chosen and some of the ingredients overlap. Now I need to identify what I do and don’t have on hand and put those ingredients on a list. By now you should know what your budget looks like (is it a little high due to pricier ingredients or a longer list or is it lower?) and use that little estimate to choose your next meals. I usually go back and look for one new meal and go from there again.
6. We eat leftovers. We don’t have a microwave at home so we rarely eat the same meal twice for dinner, which is actually nice. We do eat leftovers mostly, though, for lunch. I try to make four servings every time I cook so that we can take it to work the next day. This winter, though, I would spend one day a week (usually Saturdays or Monday evenings) making a huge batch of homemade vegetable soup and then I would pack it for lunch the whole week. I don’t tire of homemade soup and it made sure that we always had enough left over for Zach without having to worry about me.
7. Buy in bulk. I am not a super savvy shopper, but I have a mom that keeps me posted on certain sales and if you like to talk about food (which I do) those kinds of things will come up at work. Especially if you’re a teacher. Teachers are pretty poor so they love to tell you when someplace has a sale on something and that’s how I usually find out. When there’s a sale on meat, I buy at least ten pounds of whatever it is and freeze it. I will usually have to sacrifice something else on the list that week to stick to my budget but it is SO worth it. I also buy all of my spices, baking supplies, pastas, beans, rices, etc..in bulk. I even buy my honey in bulk. I do this when I know I’ve planned a cheap week or I’ll plan a cheap week so that I can bulk up on a few items.
8. Complete Your List. Don’t forget to add the basics: fresh fruit/veggies, dog bones, humus, crackers, almond milk, etc.
9. Be Efficient. (This one’s for you, mom!)I used to re-write my list in order of the grocery store items so that I could get in and out quickly. Now that I’ve used this meal planning strategy for so long, I know where to find what on my list. I shop for an entire week in 1/2 an hour usually.
10. I refuse to head back to the store. There are very few times I’ll make an exception. I always have stuff on hand because I buy in bulk and have a stocked pantry, so if I forget an ingredient I can always make something off of my rotation list (spaghetti, tacos, etc..). This saves time and it saves money if you don’t constantly run back for missing items.
11. What about the toiletries? I shop at Winco and the toiletries there aren’t cheap which means I do need to buy toiletries elsewhere (read: Target) on occasion. However, I also buy those in bulk. If toilet paper, toothpaste, or deodorant is on sale, I will make a trip to buy it. Most weeks I don’t do any shopping for things like that. Right now I cannot tell you when the last time I bought paper towels or toilet paper was…but we did recently run out of toothpaste so I went and bought four tubes at the lowest price and we’re good to go.
Do you meal plan? Do you have anything to add here?