By Mac Fife
Unlike our beloved Stephanie, I hate cooking, I almost never come up with my own recipes, and I have no idea how to operate a food processor. Just a few weeks ago, I knew I wanted an easy dump of ingredients into the slow cooker each morning. I also wanted the food to taste like “springtime”, whatever that means. I also needed a menu I could purchase entirely in one trip to Aldi. I posted this desire on Facebook and within 5 minutes, Stephanie had produced a list of five entrées, with recipes, exactly to my specifications.
This week, Stephanie is buried in the aftermath of a cross-country move with four toddlers, and while I don’t share her enthusiasm for gourmet, or her culinary creativity, I do understand the importance of meal planning to one’s grocery budget. I can’t say enough how sticking to a weekly meal plan can affect food spending! If you’ve never followed your own menus before, here’s some tools to get you started. Prepare to give yourself a raise!
I’ve found the easiest way to plan my meals is by enacting some limits. To start with, I look at the limits of my own schedule. If I know my hubby won’t be home for dinner one night, that’s the perfect time to break out those dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets for me and the kiddo. If you know you’ll be playing chauffeur all evening, maybe that’s when you pack a picnic or splurge on fast food. For those of us with church related commitments, Wednesday nights can be problematic. Put some healthy snacks in your bag and have something scrumptious simmering in the slow cooker when the family returns from midweek worship!
But what about all those other evenings? When my creativity is starting to run out again, my next set of menu planning limits reflects my budget! Sometimes I theme my nights around budget friendly proteins! Ground beef Tuesdays, Egg-centric Wednesdays, Legumey Thursdays… Stephanie wrote a great piece on part time vegetarianism last week! Why not make that part of your menu plan? Foreign cuisine often offers budget friendly alternatives to indulgent American fare. One friend of mine weathered a layoff by eating their way around the world! Each night their family learned about a new country while recreating a national dish as best they could from their local Save-a-Lot. (Hint: You can “beans and rice” your way through about two thirds of the globe!)
If time and money don’t create enough limitations on their own, you are lucky, indeed! You can still enjoy the creativity that flourishes in limited surroundings with other kinds of themed suppers. For example: “Try Something New Tuesdays” where you just try a new recipe on the family. “Sophisticated Saturdays” where you serve something kid friendly a bit earlier for the little ones, then put on a movie for them to watch while you and your honey, or maybe some friends, enjoy a fancier, more grown up dish with a glass of wine. Of course there’s always simpler ideas like, “Meatless Mondays” or “Slowcooker Sundays”, or just try having a day for each meat: beef, pork, poultry, and seafood. Sometimes a special holiday or event will dictate a whole week’s worth of meals: For example, Sunday through Wednesday will be simple slow cooker or thirty minute dinners, Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, and the week after is based entirely on turkey leftovers!
Last summer was unusually hectic at the Fife house. I picked our seven favorite dishes and that’s all we ate! Particularly if you’re new to breaking the fast food habit, don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t repeat the same menu plan several weeks in a row! You may even go a year like this, changing out only a few seasonal foods (like chili in cold weather and tacos in the summer). Having a basic plan to fall back on can also aid you when your mind and heart are occupied with other life events, whether it be an emergency of some sort or a special event. (My brain goes on vacation at least a week before I go physically! And when we first received news that our second child was on the way, I was much too busy daydreaming to apply my mind to such a practical question as “What’s for dinner?”) Why not make this basic plan, laminate it with the grocery list, and store it and all the necessary recipes in a folder your partner (or the kids’ grandparents) will know how to use! It might just save your budget next time you’re down with the flu or unavailable for meal prep!
To get you started, I’ve included two printable PDFs: my own Menu Planning Worksheet along with a grocery list. The grocery list is blank and can be used anywhere, but the categories are laid out according to my local Aldi store. The budget tracker section allows you to mark out dollar amounts as you place items in your cart. I’ve made the little chart in two dollar increments all the way up to 100, which works pretty well for me. For example, a box of Aldi crackers is about two dollars, so I put an X through one of the numbers. For a one dollar purchase, I’ll just make just one slash, until my next “odd number” purchase completes the other half of the “X”. If I’m really watching my budget carefully, I’ll look at each “X” as four 50 cent increments, marking just “half a slash” when I put a packet of taco seasoning into my cart. Sometimes I’ll even work this chart backwards, so I can easily see how many dollars I’ll have left over after my shopping trip. This simple little chart has helped me stick to a consistent grocery bill like no other method I’ve tried! Print the pair out front and back on a single sheet of paper, so that you can adjust your menu plan when a good sale comes up!