February 22, 2012

How I Plan Menus

Planning ahead is one of my big ways to keep on budget for groceries. I thought I would share how I do it for anyone who is curious or wanting to know how to start.

We shop every two weeks, with one big trip at the beginning of the month for the bulk items and things that last awhile plus fresh stuff for two weeks, and the second one for just the fresh stuff like milk and produce.

I know everyone says to "shop the flyers" and while I do pick up certain things we use if they are on sale, I don't base my menus solely on the flyers themselves.

I start off with my menu sheet. It is a list of meals we like, broken up into categories like "Chicken", "Soup", "Meat Free", etc. Those make up the first column. The second, third and fourth columns are Side Dishes, Breakfasts and Snacks respectively. This master list lets me pick pre-approved meals that I know we like (or mostly like) without having to wrack my brain every week trying to remember things.

At one point I had set lists that included the main dish and all the sides in one chunk, but I don't always want greasy potatoes and salad with my chicken, so I broke it up and now just pick a few sides to go with a main. The lists of breakfasts and snacks are really just to remind me what we need to have on hand such as eggs for breakfast and fresh fruits for snacks.
Master Grocery List

Next, I print out a calendar for the month from my email program and my Master Grocery List. Printing the calendar just insures that major holidays and birthdays are listed out so I can plan around them. You can just use a piece of paper that says "Monday, Tuesday...." on it if you'd like. Once the calendar is printed out I add any upcoming appointments so I know if I need to use the crock pot or something that day if I won't be home until later. I have a copy of my grocery list available to download here if you'd like somewhere to start.

So far we have three pieces of paper:
  • The meal list
  • The calendar (or blank page to write down the week's menu)
  • The grocery shopping list (or blank page to write down what you need)
 Now it's as simple as filling in the menu. Since we shop every two weeks, I make a plan for two weeks. Since I am using what I have this month, I will be choosing Main Dish items that include the meats and ingredients I already have and will be trying not to buy too much.

For example, I have a pack of chicken leg quarters, so on Sunday we will have BBQ Leg Quarters, Crispy Potatoes, Rolls, and probably a salad. Monday I will probably try a recipe for Chicken Enchiladas that uses Chili Verde sauce (since I have chicken, tortillas, and the chili verde sauce already) and serve them with rice.

I try to leave at least one night a week open for eating up leftovers. If we get to that night and don't really have leftovers then I will do something simple like sandwiches since I usually have the makings on hand.

Once I have written down my menus, I go through each day one by one and mark on my grocery list what I don't have. Since I have "salad" on the menu for Sunday, but I am out of lettuce, I need to mark that on the list. I'm pretty sure I have everything I need for the Enchiladas, but I will double check the recipe to make sure. I continue in this fashion for the rest of the week's meals as well. Make sure to double check all the ingredients of your main dish - including spices and condiments - and mark those on the list as well. If your Chicken Pot Pie calls for carrots and mustard, you'll need to make sure you have those on hand or put them on your list to avoid making a last minute trip to the store.

Next I will go through and mark down our regular staples that don't really appear on the menu.  Things like milk, butter, eggs, cheese and flour. Things we use every month. That was actually the reason I made the Master Grocery List, so I could look at it and be reminded to check the amount of yeast (or toilet paper, or oatmeal) I had left and if we needed to get more.

After that I mark/write down any extra or special things we want like chips, or if we want corn dogs, or things like that. Things that aren't necessary, but are a nice treat if there's room for them. What is or isn't a need for your list will depend on your family. Some people can't live without ice cream *cough* while others can.

One extra step I do is to write down the prices next to each thing I have checked on the grocery list. I keep a price book and know what the general prices are, so if I have marked down to get 5 gallons of milk that are usually $3/gallon, then I will put "15.00" next to the milk item. When I am done making my list then I add everything up and see where I am at. If I think it's a little high, or it will just plain put us over budget, then I will take out anything we don't really need (like the chips).

Tada! That's really it. And it really doesn't take much time at all once you get the system down. I can have menus planned and grocery lists made in about 15-20 minutes most times. The hardest part is just picking what to eat.

I usually keep the Master Grocery List on the fridge so we can mark things off during the week as we run out of them.

So, to recap, or the short version since I'm not sure my rambling on makes any sense:

  • Start with a Master Menu plan that lists the foods your family likes. This will make planning menus faster and easier.
  • Fill in your menu, using the meal list, on a calendar or piece of paper
  • Go through your menu and mark down any ingredients/items you will need but don't have onto your grocery list (do you have enough chicken for enchiladas? tortillas? cheese?)
  • Next, write down staples on your grocery list that you need that aren't on your menu already (eggs, flour, etc)
  • Finally, write down any extra or special things onto your grocery list (like snacks or treats)
  • Keep a running tally of your prices, if you can, so you know where you stand before you get to the store. This will help avoid the "Oh, that was more than I thought" problem at checkout.
  • Go shopping! And stick to your list! 
A couple of notes:
  • I try to leave a bit of room every month for things that might go on sale, like meats or sodas, or things like that. Stocking up when I can has saved us a bit of money in the long run.
  • I only really plan for dinners, since breakfasts are usually eggs or oatmeal and lunches are leftovers or sandwiches. But if you need to plan for breakfast and lunch each day as well, put them on your menu and add the items needed to your list.
  •  I have tried a few times to change my system and it usually tends to blow up in my face. This is the system that works best for us, so maybe it will work for you too.

But don't be discouraged! If you try this for a few weeks and you're still having trouble try changing it a bit. Maybe you'd work better as a "from the sales flyer" family. Each family is different, so each budget and shopping method will be different.

I can tell you that staying out of the store is the best way to save money, so try to go once a week, once every two weeks, or even once a month if you can stretch it that far. And of course, you will save a ton of money buy getting things in their rawest possible form - like produce and meats - rather than pre-prepped stuff.

I hope that wasn't too confusing!

Happy Menu Planning,


Kessie said...

Oh wow, this is really comprehensive. You're so much more organized than I am. I shop from menus and lists too, though ... usually handwritten scribbles. :-) The list of family favorite meals, though, that's a great idea. Sometimes I'll try a recipe, and we really like it, and then I forget what it was because I didn't write it down.

Kim said...

OK, my hat's off to you. That is so incredibly organized. (I bet you have lots of spreadsheets Heehee)
But I still don't know how you have time to be so organized with 3 and 3/4 little ones.

Farm Girl said...

You are so totally amazing. That is some list. You will have to write books now that you have that. :)
I love looking at your spread sheets! Hey what time tomorrow again?

Molly said...

I really want to add a "Master List" to my Big&Small method! Thanks for the reminder =D

Southwest Arkie said...

Wow, you are organized! I always shop with a master list, but not one so detailed. I leave too much room for maybes, and then end up spending more than I wanted to.

From Beyond My Kitchen Window said...

Meg, you should give seminars on meal planning and organization. I will download the grocery list and start with that. The hint that I find most helpful is to stay out of the grocery store. I go several times a week. In fact my husband jokes that we keep our food at the super market. My grocery bill per month averages $800.00. to $900.00 I would love to chop it down to 600.00 or lower. Sunday night I will start my meal plans. Thank you Meg, it is so generous of you to take the time out of your day and to be so helpful. Actually I think I'll do my planning tomorrow night and shop on Saturday.

Staci at Life At Cobble Hill Farm said...

Makes me laugh when I look at your organization because it's almost identical to mine. Love it. :) I have an extremely similar grocery list, and style of menu planning. It takes time to set up initially, but don't you find it saves so much time every month?

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