Part of being a good homemaker is providing healthy and wholesome meals for your family. Sometimes you have to do this with a tight budget, and thats where menu planning comes in. The biggest benefit to menu planning is saving money. More money saved, more money earned. And it is absolutely possible to eat well, and eat healthy, on a tight budget. Its easy to get overwhelmed with creating a menu, but if you take it slow and dedicate a little bit of time here and there, you can become an old pro at it. Once you establish a rough draft, adding to your menu will become easier and easier each time you do it.
Here's some ideas of how to do it.
Every other Thursday and Friday I plan my family's menu for two full weeks. There are a few things I have to take into consideration when making my plan. The budget for the two weeks I have to work with determines what goes on my plan, then the sales adds and coupons I have play a part, family plans, and finally my master list.
My master list consists of things I always need to have on hand, things like flour, sugar, butter, peanut butter, popcorn....I have one for the pantry and one for the fridge. I almost always need to replenish something from my list when doing my shopping. I also always shop in bulk, because this will save money on things I use often. I will replenish whatever stock needs it before anything else, so I check my pantry and write down what I need to restock, then I check it against the master list. Funny thing is, Ive been doing this for so long, I can mentally cross things off and add things, without checking the list anymore. This is another benefit of menu planning. I do still keep a shopping list.... Im efficient, not crazy!
When you first start out, the best thing to do is make a list of ALL the meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) (including the sides) you can make, all the snacks you eat, and the things you drink. This is the most time consuming part of meal planning, it took me 3 1/2 hours to put down a full months menu (in an organized and easy to sort way) on the computer. You can do this on paper or on the computer, whatever is easier for you. I will say this though, nothing can get spilled on or torn when its stored on the computer. Things like breakfasts, snacks and drinks frequently repeat themselves, so this helps when creating a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly menu.
After you've made your meal list, make a check next to the things you eat most often. This will get you on your way to creating a master list. The most likely items on that will include cereals, pancake mixes, lunch meats.....Next, take a break. That was a lot of work, I know, but totally worth it in the long run.
Now you're ready to create the plan! All you need to do now is decide what you want to include, and how long you want that meal planner to last. Plan your meals, starting with breakfast and including snacks. These plans can be as intricate or as simple as you would like, just make sure you have in mind the amount of food you need. Check your coupons, your sales ads before you begin planning, and the master list, because these will determine what you can make based on budget, as well as what you may want to buy now during this sale or before the coupons expire. Star the things you need from your master list on your menu. Once you've gotten everything down, start your shopping list, starting with your starred items, then going over each meal to see what you will need, then check against your pantry list to see what you may already have.
Heres a sample day of mine based on this weeks sales:
BREAKFAST-oatmeal*, with apples (I try to always have apples, but sometimes they're too expensive to buy) and cinnamon and orange juice
SNACK- yogurt*, with blueberries and chopped almonds*
LUNCH- (this will sometimes be leftovers, so keep that in mind when planning as well.) Tuna* sandwiches with carrot sticks* and chips (frito chips are on sale this week, for .99), with juice*
SNACK- I try to have two before dinner to serve, usually a healthy snack and a treat like cookies or brownies. Chocolate chip cookies with milk*, right after school. Popcorn*, a pear and a string cheese*
DINNER- Coconut shrimp with orange sauce for dipping, garlic bread, steamed broccoli*
Get the idea? Once you have your menu down, you'll be able to see what you need pretty much right off, you will know what you need because you have checked your master list, and you can better gauge the amounts of certain things you will need. For instance, if you serve cold cereal 5 days a week, your milk consumption will go up, but you wont need as much pancake or waffle makings, and vise versa. In my family we use about 1/2 cup of milk for cereal and 1/4 for oatmeal, and oatmeal is cheaper than cereal, usually, so we have that 3 days a week. The more cold cereal we have, the more milk we need.
To cap this off, heres a few quick tips to consider:
*save money by preparing your own fruits and veggies; forget the convenience packages, they typically run you about 3 bucks more for less.
*buy only whats on sale, and never steer from your list.
*try to buy in bulk whenever possible. not only does it save money, but you consume less. Less packaging and less shipping=less carbon footprinting
*check out farmers markets in your area, 9 times out of 10 you're gonna get a better deal on in season produce
*consider planting a few staples of your own, including herbs. maybe even think of raising chickens for fresh eggs.
*when your family's extracurriculars make it difficult to get a meal made, a menu will come in handy because you can better prepare. Plan quick and easy or crock pot meals and prep the night before or in the morning. You can eat earlier or later than usual this way, no more spendy fast foods or unhealthy convenience items. You'll have snacks prepared ahead of time as well to tide everyone over.
*have one or two nights a week dedicated to a left over meal. this is one of my favorite ways to be frugal!
To sweeten the pot:
I can feed my family of 5+ (WE OFTEN HAVE EXTRAS!!), very, very well on $400 or so a month, and often much less, in Southern California. I used to spend $600 a month for 4 because I wasn't organized and kept buying things that weren't on sale. I also ended up making a lot of the same things for dinner and running back and forth to the store to get something I didn't have, or bought take out because I didn't want to deal with the "Whats for dinner?" question. More trips, more gas used. I was also better able to plan for when we would be busy, like during softball or soccer season, when practices and games dominate the week nights.
*edited with a full 2 weeks menu, here.