Meal Planning: nobody likes these two words. It isn’t always fun and it isn’t always pretty, but if your on a budget like we are, it is essential to do menu planning. Whether you eat filet mignon or beans and rice, you telling your grocery list what to buy every week is as important as doing a budget every month. I wish I could afford something like emeals, but it isn’t in the budget for us right now and since I am a stay at home mom then it falls on me to create a nutritious and delicious menu each week. But this task comes at a cost.
The cost is about two hours of my time per week that I work on the menu. Why so much time? It’s a lot of work! In order for me to accommodate my restrictions (I’m on a diet), the toddler (who is very picky) and my husband (perhaps even more picky than the toddler) it takes a while. I also plan 3 meals per day not just lunch and dinner. Plus I have to figure out what ingredients we already have and develop a shopping list around what is on the menu vs. what we need. And it all has to be bought for around $100 per week. We try very hard to keep it at $100, but sometimes you need a few extra things.
Balancing this list of restrictions and constraints vs. budget takes time. Some people can do this in a much shorter period of time, but it takes me longer because of all the brainstorming, digging, surveying the pantry and freezer and organizing I do, not to mention I’m a mom and get interrupted every five minutes. I also take things into account like what we have going on that week and if we are planning to have guests. If we have things going on during the week then 40 min meals are a better fit for that day and having a guest means planning for a bigger meal to accommodate a guest and have more for leftovers. Leftovers are almost always lunch the next day.
MY PARAMATERS to Menu Planning:
- Come up with 7 to 8 dinners per week. That is a new meal per day and one of the meals needs to make enough to freeze.
- Every dinner needs to make enough for lunch the next day or a substitution has to be figured out for the next day’s lunch
- Buy “breakfast-y” (spell check says this isn’t a real word, but everyone knows it is) stuff, but just wing it. But I make sure I have enough breakfast-y stuff for the whole week.
- Every meal has to have something that Eva will eat or I have to cook something else for her. Right now she won’t eat food that touches or is mixed together. Everything must be separate.
- My husband won’t eat the same thing more than twice in a row. Nor will he eat rice or pasta too many times in a row.
- Every meal must have protein, carbs and a fruit or veggie in it. That is the extent of my nutrition insight. After that I am clueless.
- I’m on a diet so I’m trying for less calories and overall more healthy wholesome foods.
- I’m on a diet but my family is not and my husband isn’t crazy about diet health food, so I have to trick him.
- Buy as little as possible and use any and all coupons that I have especially those about to expire.
- Must have a main dish and a side or a main dish with vegetables in it
- Must not exceed $100.
Let’s start at the very beginning of how I meal plan: planning time. First of all, I pick a day and a time to do my meal planning and this is my chore for the day. Just like I always vacuum the house on Monday, I always plan my meals on Friday. I set a specific day and time to do this task. I also do not shop the same day I meal plan because it makes me feel too rushed to actually sit down and do the planning. If I meal plan the same day as I shop, I want to run out and buy the groceries not sit down and take the time to properly meal plan. Consequently, the menu is crap if I do it the same day and I don’t buy the right ingredients or worse I bought too much stuff.
The next thing I do is what takes me the longest and that is brainstorming. I try think about what I am going to cook all week long and jot ideas down on a notepad. So, when it comes time to meal planning I have at least a starting point with a few ideas.
I get my ideas for meals from a variety of places. I read a lot of blogs and I have a large board on Pinterest dedicated to just food and recipes. In addition to Pinterest I keep a folder on my computer for recipes and meals that spark my interest around the web if they cannot be pinned. I also have a collection of favorite recipes that we lovingly refer to as “The Book”.
Additionally, we have a large library of cookbooks and cooking magazines that I can pour through for ideas. Finally, if nothing strikes my fancy, I have a list of everything I like to cook and where I can find the recipe. This list took me a long time to compile and I would only recommend making one for yourself if you are constantly hitting the wall when it comes to picking menu ideas each week. I keep my list in a separate notebook that I created with different categories such as: chicken, seafood, vegetarian, side dishes, breakfast etc. I created this list after I had kept all my weekly menus for a long time.
Digging is also imperative to do here when it comes to coming up with ideas of stuff to cook. I dig through the pantry and the refrigerator to see what ingredients we have on hand, what ingredients do we have a surplus of and things that need to be used before they go bad. I also dig through the freezer to see if anything in there peeks my interest or is getting really old and I add those things to my brainstorming menu.
After I have at least 7 ideas (hopefully more) I start listing them in pencil on a piece paper with all the days of the week with blank meals listed below that. Sometimes I have to move things around a bit to get them just right to conform to the parameters and requirements listed above, but once I have my list of 7 meals its generally all downhill from there.
Here is this week’s menu:
Saturday (shopping day and we have a guest)
Breakfast: Bagels from the Bagel shop and bacon from the freezer- this was the only meal we ate out for and only because we had not been to the store yet. The bagels cost $3.75
Lunch: Chicken Salads (the chicken is from Eva’s chicken nuggets that I keep on hand in the freezer)
Dinner: GUMBO with rice and potato salad (not diet, but you have to live a little) This makes several freezer meals
Sunday (I work that morning so Craig has to “cook” lunch)
Breakfast: Eggs and Toast
Lunch: Leftover gumbo with rice and potato salad
Dinner: Red beans and rice (no rice for me) with sweet potatoes – The red beans makes 1 freezer meal
Breakfast: English muffin with peanut butter and fresh fruit
Lunch: Leftover red beans
Dinner: Tacos (no shells for me) with Spanish rice and black beans
Breakfast: English muffins with peanut butter and fresh fruit
Lunch: Leftover tacos with Spanish rice and black beans
Dinner: Skillet pasta with turkey sausage (turkey sausage from freezer)
Breakfast: Oatmeal and fresh fruit
Lunch: Leftover tacos with Spanish rice and black beans
Dinner: Cheeseburger Casserole with salad
Breakfast: Waffles and fresh fruit
Lunch: Leftover Cheeseburger Casserole with salad
Dinner: Herb –Crusted Chicken and Parsley Orzo with Garlicky Green Beans (chicken from freezer). This recipe is from a Cooking Light magazine.
Breakfast: Eggs and an English Muffin
Lunch: Leftover Chicken and Orzo with green beans
Dinner: Tortellini with Vegetable Soup with a grilled cheese sandwich
Since we shop on Saturday the food has to be good all week which is why toward the end of the week I try to gravitate towards things from the freezer and more vegetarian meals. This is also the end of the month and since supplies around the house are running low, I’m pulling as much as I can from the freezer.
After the menu is all laid out I then formulate a grocery list. I do this by going through each recipe with a fine tooth comb to see if we have every thing, including spices for each dish, that we need. This is where I have to start thinking about cost. If the menu is too meat heavy then we will easily go over the $100 mark. That is when sometimes I have to re-work things or rethink some of my meal choices for the week which can send me back to square one and having to come up with alternative meals. This is also why I write the menu in pencil.
After that its time to go to the grocery store. We love HEB (A Texas chain) and shop there almost exclusively. Once or twice a month we go to COSCO for “supplies” such as dish tabs and paper towels, but the majority of our food comes from good ol’ HEB. Here is this week’s grocery haul:
Unfortunately, a few things got overlooked on the first trip and a subsequent second trip to HEB was required, so, not pictured are the bread, tortellini, sweet potatoes and vegetable stock. The first trip to HEB was $96.37, but the second trip’s receipt was misplaced. My educated guess was about $10 more. So we did go over budget by a few dollars, but not too shabby overall! Better luck next week.
Question of the Day?
Do you have any tips or tricks to menu planning or grocery shopping?
DISCLAIMER: I am by no means a nutritional expert or Registered Dietitian. These are meals my family likes and we try to keep it healthy, but Cajun staples find their way frequently into our diet, which are by no means healthy. This menu is a work in progress and I try to hit nutritional guidelines such as adding fruits and vegetables into our lives, but they are not always balanced. If you are looking for more nutritional meals, please consult an expert.