09 May 2014

Really Easy Menu Planning

If you are really serious about saving money on groceries you need to start with a menu plan. Without knowing what meals you are going to be preparing you can't create a shopping list. And without a shopping list you can't cut your grocery bill.  It really is that simple.

While it may not seem like it at first, planning your meals saves you time. It takes away the time you previously spent thinking about what you were going to have for dinner. It saves you time at the supermarket. Because you know what you are going to eat you know what to buy, no more wandering aimlessly around tossing things into the trolley in the vague hope you'll be able to use them. And no more waiting for home deliveries, to pick up takeaway or sitting in drive-through queues.

You'll also find cooking much more pleasurable when you have a menu in place. You'll know at a glance what you should be cooking, confident that you have everything you need to prepare the recipe. It also takes away the stress of cooking after a long day. The decision has been made, the choice is on the menu, so when the family ask "what's for dinner?" you can happily point them to the menu and get on with the cooking.

With your menu done and shopping list written, you can hit the shops with confidence. Sticking to your list will stop those spontaneous purchases of exotic "use once and then forget them" ingredients, if it's not on your list you don't need it so you don't buy it.

You'll see your food bill shrink before your very eyes.

Here are my top tips to make menu planning easy and effective:

1. Pick a day and time that works best for you to do your meal planning.
I plan my menu a month in advance. This works best for us as I shop on the last Tuesday of the month. If you shop weekly or fortnightly do your meal plan a day or so before you shop. This gives you time to think about it and refine it if needs be before you hit the supermarket. I like to write our menu up in an exercise book, so I can refer back to previous months when menu planner's block strikes.

2. Plan your menu around what foods you have on hand that need to be used up.
Then  fill in the missing dishes with what is on sale at the supermarket and butcher that week. If whole rumps are on sale for $6.99/kg you can bet that my menu will revolve around a roast beef, perhaps a barbecue, stir-fry beef and black bean with fried rice and steak sandwiches for a treat.  I buy our meat in bulk but I still always keep an eye out for a great sale price on chicken, beef and lamb.

3. Keep your pantry, freezer and refrigerator organized.
It's common sense, but still something that we need to be reminded of.  With your food storage organized  you can cross reference what  you have on hand and what is on sale with the recipes you are going to use so you only  add the ingredients you need to shopping list.

4. Develop a system.
At the beginning of each month I write our menu onto a whiteboard  that is stuck to the front of the fridge. With the menu on the fridge I don't get asked what's for dinner quite as often. It also acts as a running shopping list. As soon as the last packet or bottle of something is opened it goes onto the shopping list, ensuring it isn't forgotten when we do our big shop and we never run out.

5. Get the family involved. 
Ask them for suggestions. Meal planning is hard when you have to choose every meal. I asked the kids and Wayne to list their favourite meals and I use their lists to create our meal plan. I use one of their favourites every week, which means I only have to choose three meals a week to fill in the menu plan. It makes meal planning more enjoyable and everyone is happy because they get at least one of their favourite meals each week.

6. As you create your menu, check the calendar.
 What is going on in the week ahead? Will everyone be home for dinner every night that week? Is there basketball practice, youth group or a Home & School meeting? On those hectic nights, quick and easy, freezer or crockpot meals will be needed. Are you going out for dinner and if so, do you have to take a plate? Make a note of these events on your menu plan and fit meals in accordingly.

7. Plan for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 
While I only put my dinner meal plan on the website, I do plan for breakfasts, lunches and snacks and include the ingredients for these meals on my grocery list. During the week breakfasts are simple: cereal and toast. On weekends we like to have pancakes or eggs on toast, omelettes or even a fry up. Week day lunches are sandwiches or rolls, with a slice or cookies and fruit. Weekends they could be as simple as a bread roll or a barbecue.  I like to have something homemade for afternoon tea and snacks, the kids are always starving when they come in from school, so two or three recipes are put on the menu for each week.

8. Plan for every day.
Whether you plan for a week, a fortnight or a month, you need to plan for every day even if it's just leftovers. Even if you plan for takeaway one night, unless every meal is accounted for it very quickly becomes another takeaway or eating out meal.  All your hard work at sticking to your grocery budget can be undone with just one meal.

9.Plan a new recipe every week.
It doesn't have to be for dinner, it could be a breakfast, lunch or snack.  Trying just one new recipe a week will put a stop to meal plan boredom. If you don't like it you don't have to make it again. If the family loves it you will be hailed a heroine for find a new family favourite.

10.Keep your recipes handy.
I have the recipes for our favourite meals written in a notebook. These are the meals we eat regularly. Having them all in the one place makes meal prep easy but it also means that when chicken legs are on sale I can quickly look up the chicken recipes and see how much I need to buy to make our favourite dishes.

For me, meal planning is the strategy that saves me the most money on groceries. By planning our meals around what I have on hand, what is on sale and what my family likes to eat I have been able to keep our grocery bill within our budget for sixteen years.

But I really like meal planning because it takes the stress away from dinnertime, making me less stressed and our family time around the dinner table that little bit happier.


  1. Dear Cath,
    I honestly don't know how anyone can feed a family without planning a menu. I would wander aimlessly around the supermarket not knowing what to get and always cook the same things. I definitely would spend a lot of money on expensive and processed food. My biggest problem with menu planning and budgeting is that my son (my only child) is EXTREMELY fussy. He won't eat casseroles, curries, stirfrys and a whole range of vegetables. He only likes chicken breast fillets, no other part of the chicken. Sometimes it takes me hours to plan a menu for the week ahead.

    1. It is really easy to fall into the trap of catering for fussy eaters but this compounds the problem. Children learn by watching others, and as long as the rest of your family eats the meal and the child sees them enjoying it then eventually they will eat it too. (Often fussy eaters are 'cured' at pre-school or day care where they see everyone else eating it). I was a bit of a tough mum when mine decided to become fussy, and refused to eat certain food types - I would just serve up what we ate, if they didn't eat it and it was safe to put in the frig I would do so then re-heat it when they got hungry later. Eventually they get so hungry they'll try it. (You must not give in on this - it requires strong will power from you). If the you do not consider the food safe to put in the frig and re-heat, then just simply prepare the same meal again, fresh. It wont hurt the rest of the family to eat the same thing twice until the fussy child eats some of it. The battle is so worth winning for the ease of having a child that will eat anything. My rule now (after winning the battle) is that you don't have to like something but you must have a taste of it. If they then choose not to eat it that is fine, but there is no other food available until the next meal time.

    2. Choose your battles! Try to find out what it is about those foods that he doesn't like - taste, colour, smell, texture - they all play a big part in how we find food appetizing (or not). If it is taste add some seasonings and see how that goes, if it's colour try to find another way of cooking it so the colour is more natural, smell - not much you can do about that, I personally can't stomach asparagus, I find them grey, slimy and they stink to high heaven, and it's the smell that really puts me off - texture, look to find another way to cook that food.

      In our house the rule was "5". So 5 peas or bits of carrot, teaspoons of casserole etc. I found five was a number even littlies can recognise, they have five fingers so easily counted. After a few days of dishing up five of something I'd just increase it until they were eating a normal serve.

      But, there are some foods that are just not liked. I can understand that, if they've tried five and still can't eat it after a few tries I let it go and simply didn't dish up that food on their plate. I didn't give them more of other foods or replace it, they just didn't get it.

      Sometimes fussiness can be the texture of the food rather than the actual taste. We have on family member who simply cannot stand the texture of mashed potato. I just take a few pieces out of the pot before mashing, problem solved. If it is a casserole that isn't liked, it may be the texture the gravy gives it. Try taking the meat and veg out before you add the gravy and see how that goes. If he only likes chicken breast fillets then he only gets meat on the days you have that as a part of your meal plan. Just give him more of the veggies he'll eat and make sure he has a glass of milk with that meal. Or try meatless meals for the whole family, they're cheap, nutritious, quick and easy to prepare and cleaner to prepare too.


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