Keep it Simple | Part 2 – How to Meal Plan on a Budget
Feeding our families good food – whatever that looks like for your specific family/needs is important to us, we are the Gatekeepers of our homes. Understandably, we want to do the best for our family. But when there’s too much month at the end of our money, something’s gotta give. We already know it’s possible to eat healthy and maintain a budget, so let’s dig in and discover some simple, time tested, tips for planning out your meals that eventually almost takes no time at all, once you get into the swing of things. For busy moms, keeping it simple is crucial!
Planning is crucial to success in dang near every single area of life. Now, I’m not saying you gotta Erin Condren the heck out of your every moment or not ever be spontaneous – spontaneity is the spice of life! – but it’s important to have a plan in place, especially for things that can make or break us habitwise. Let me explain. We all have a routine, whether you realize it or not, I guarantee you do! Think about the start of your day, what does it look like? The end of your day? Probably the same few rituals, right? Wake up, rub eyes, flop out of bed, crawl to coffee machine or maybe some lemon water (better choice!), etc! We do these things on auto-pilot because they have become habit for us, and we don’t even have to use energy to think about or do them. This is great news – but it can bite us in the bee-hind if we don’t use it to our advantage!
Picture this. It’s 4:00pm, the tummy grumbles begin, your hubby just walked in the door from work (phew, thankfully you remembered to make his favorite hot tea) and the little ones are asking “mooooooooooooommmmm, what’s for dinner?!? We’re HUNGRY!” In a panic state, you fly to the fridge, whip it open and realize you forgot to defrost meat, soak beans or even consider what you’d make. Homemade pizza is quick enough to whip up, except you need something with leftovers for your husband’s lunch tomorrow. Cause no leftovers = he’s either getting food at Wawa or from the Food Truck – both expensive and not ideal options. You could order out, but yeah…. Budget.
With just a little bit of prior thought, and your favorite notebook, you can relieve this anxiety, make tummies happy and save your family big bucks. Let’s talk about the budget next.
It’s been said if you don’t give your money a job, it will disappear. Instead of asking your money where it went, tell it where to go. Creating an entire budget is a discussion for another day, but how do you figure out what to make your family’s food budget? There are different schools of thought on this, and you can take it to google if you like. If you search for “What is the average food budget for a family of __?” you’ll get current averages and can base your budget off of that and go from there. I did this at first to get an idea, but I actually cross-checked it with what we were currently spending, it was actually slightly higher than what we currently used – I was surprised, and happy. We now have a separate bank account for groceries, that way we can track it easier, it clears up our main bank statement & it challenges me to try and save some at the end of each week so that we can make bigger purchases (like Beef Shares & bulk food annually). You can check your bank statement online usually, and even type in custom date ranges. Try a 30 or 60 day range, grab a notebook and jot down how much went to groceries each week or month (then divide that by 4.3). There are many ways you can do this, so I’ll leave the logistics up to you. If you make it a challenge to beat your lowest spending week without eating like a pauper, it becomes fun! We try to turn everything into a “game” around here and it makes the “work” so much more enjoyable!
Become a Note Taker
I love typing. I’m not trying to brag or anything but I can type around 135wpm while nursing a baby and answering 20 questions from my 7 year old. Most days, anyway. So for me I’m big on writing my thoughts down in Google Docs or somewhere that allows them to get on “paper” almost as quick as they leave my head. But, this past year I’ve been using physical notebooks and it’s really been great for memory retention (and enjoyment). I’m telling ya, writing by hand is becoming a lost art in this modern day.
Find a notebook you love – it took me awhile, but I really love double spiral bound notebooks. I mostly pick them up at yard sales during the summer, where they’re aplenty and usually .25 or so! You’d be surprised how many people buy notebooks and then realize they’re not using them so donate or get rid of them. You can also check out some cute options from Target, Walmart or even Dollar Tree – but those ones are kinda cheap and flimsy, get you a nice cardboard cover one! It’s gonna get ragged if you use it long enough – and you should!
Write this Down
I have a menu/list notebook, and I simply use parallel pages (so that I can see them both when it’s laying flat) to write our Weekly Menu on one side and Shopping List on the other. For the menu I simply write dates/days down the left hand side of the page, and then B, L & D across the top (for Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner). I also leave room in the margin up top to write any snacks or special prepped foods like Tortillas, loaf of bread or anything we’d want to make and have on hand for Quick Grab foods, that way I know it’s on the menu but doesn’t have a specified day.
On the other side, I make my shopping list. I like to make sections – and this can be especially helpful if you’re shopping in person. I personally shop online about 90% of the time (Instacart for the win) except for when we make our weekly drive to Pennsylvania to buy our illegal (in NJ) raw milk & cheese. I utilize several grocers and Amazon for our needs, depending on what they are. I also, several times a year, place a bulk order from our local Amish market, where they give us their price on bulk goods such as Organic bread flour, organic oats, huge bags of loose tea & more. There are a few other staples that we buy separately, like 48lbs of Raw Local Honey from a bee farm nearby, Eggs & Pastured Raised/Grass-Fed beef from a local farm, and of course seasonal product from the Farm Market during the warmer months, etc. But, for our overall weekly shopping we mostly frequent Costco, Shoprite, Sprouts or Acme/Albertsons.
Costco is great if you have a big family, but you can absolutely still save a ton if you’re smaller. Many things are non-perishable or can be broken down and properly prepared or frozen – which we’ll discuss in my next post on Prepping. Grocery stores can be great for stocking up on staples – especially if you catch sales, so learn seasonal rotations and watch for Patterns – always watch for patterns (another life lesson, wink wink).
First, I create our menu for the week. I try to keep themed days, but this is loose depending on if anyone had a craving for a particular meal that week, if I have food that needs used up or if I just feel like doing something different. Usually we have Pizza Fridays, Burger/Sandwich Saturdays & Roast Sundays & I always plan Soup for at least one day – although it’s usually not static because I try to use leftovers up in our soup! Great money saving hack there. Sunday can be a whole roasted chicken, a beef roast, pork loin, etc – anything big that I can count on leftover meat for – which I utilize in one or more meals during the week and/or lunches! Having themed days gives you confidence to know what to expect, which saves you brain power & so much stinking time! Some other themed ideas are Ethnic Food (try a different one each week, or stick to something your family loves, Italian, Mexican, Thai, etc.), Pasta Night (boring old spaghetti makes most people happy, but you can get fancy with Stuffed Shells, Lasagna, Pasta Fagioli, Gnocchi & more!), Casserole Night, Meatless Mondays, etc! Have fun with it and tailor it to your family. Truly this is probably the best time saver I discovered!
Lately, I’ve been repeating the same Weekly Menu over and over for the most part, it saves a ton of time. When you can routinize anything it truly frees up so much brain space, and allows you to be way more productive! This is a great Time Saving Hack – and it doesn’t have to be boring! You can have Pizza Night every single Friday for example, but it doesn’t always have to be the same old pizza! Here are some fun ways to switch up Pizza Night, while still keeping the “theme” to make choosing meals easy:
- Marinara Pizza (w/ various topping options, (Pepperoni, Mushrooms, Olives, Peppers)
- Chicken Alfredo Pizza
- Breakfast Pizza (Eggs, Sausage or Bacon, Cheese sauce)
- BBQ Chicken Pizza
- Hawaiian Pizza (Pineapple & Ham)
- Pizza Pockets (not sure why, but eating pizza in a “Pocket” is super fun.)
- Panzerottis (these are naughty. Deep fried pizza pockets. We only have them a few times a year, and I fry them in Avocado Oil – because seed oils are toxic – but they are a huge family favorite!)
By just a few examples above, can you see how you could keep things simple while still making them interesting? Save your brain power and time for important things using this great Planning Hack, you will be amazed how much more peaceful it feels.
Another thing I want to mention when it comes to creating your menu is thinking ahead. We’ll discuss this further in my post on Prepping, but consider how meals and ingredients can flow into one another and be multipurposed when you’re creating your menu. If you’re roasting an entire chicken (or two, batch cooking for the win!) on Sunday, consider having a meal containing chicken on Monday or Tuesday to use up the leftovers (they can be frozen also). Always think ahead.
Family Recipe Book
I always consult our Master List of recipes that my family loves when planning our menu, but I like to experiment in the kitchen so I often seek out new and exciting recipes, especially now that we’ve been eating the Ancestral Diet (ie: Weston A. Price). It’s not too far off from how we were already eating, just has some more food prep involved, which I’ll touch on in the next session on Prepping. No matter how your family eats, though, I cannot stress enough how crucial creating a Family Recipe Book is. I have several 3 ring binders & not only does it save us time & allow us to compile our favorites but it also allows my 10 year old daughter to prepare some of the meals and will be a great Keepsake one day to pass down to the family!
After my menu is done I make my categories and check my Alexa’s Shopping List feature. I’m not a big technology girl, believe it or not, but I use what we have and what makes sense for our family. I used to keep a small notepad magnetized to the fridge, but it’s so much easier to say “Alexa, add flaxseed to my shopping list” (unless of course she responds with “Ok, I’ve added waxy to your shopping list” cause she has a hearing/obedience problem like ours does). I fill in anything we ran out of or are getting low on (via my Amazon Shopping List) and then I consult my menu on the previous page. I just start at the top and go down, writing specific things like 1 Bell Pepper, Potatoes (I always grab big bags of things that we use frequently), etc. Then if I come across another meal that needs a Bell Pepper, I’ll go back and adjust the number. This is where a pencil comes in handy for your planning – but you can also use Tally Marks or just scratch numbers out – I won’t judge.
I am a huge fan of Stocking Up on Staples because not only does it allow you to shop less each week & never run out of essentials, but it also saves lots of time and money searching for best unit prices. If you’re serious about frugal living, you probably look for the best unit price when you’re shopping. Dog food is a good example here, my husband likes to feed our Pug the best and the best is expensive at the grocery store. So, I go on Chewy, use a coupon that I bought from eBay, and order 50lb bags of it, lasts forever. Instead of buying Dog food weekly, we are buying it maybe twice a year. Just little examples like that, look for some ways you can save buying in bulk, watching sales, using coupons & thinking ahead. Do you really need 36 rolls of Paper Towels? (We rarely use paper towels anymore, but I always keep some on hand for super messy spills, drying raw meat & grease) Instead of doing Paper Towel Math (which requires a Harvard degree plus a double espresso to figure out) or panic buying at the grocery store, I usually watch local Drug Stores for coupons, sales, and even register rewards – best part is you can do Curbside pickup and not even have to enter the store!
My friend, Antoinette made a great book called Frugal on a Budget which allows you do all of the above and more in one, cute and condensed place. If you are the type that prefers everything neat and in a package, definitely check out her latest book over at Amazon.
Waste not, Want not
This will be discussed further in the Prepping section, however I want to remind you when planning to consider expirations. Especially when concerning fresh herbs & produce. While there are some great tips out there on how to keep your produce fresh for longer, which we’ll briefly touch on, you probably don’t want to plan 2 weeks worth of meals with something requiring fresh Cilantro on day 13, ya dig? Now if you have an herb garden – even better!
Stay with it
It can be difficult to start a new routine in any area of life, but consistency is key. Set reminders if you have to at first, carry your notebook around in your purse like it’s your bible, make sure you’re using it. Up next, we’ll be discussing Preparing food to maximize it’s freshness, your budget and your time!