Monday, November 28, 2011

Menus and freezers and budgets, oh my! (Part 1)

Anyone will tell you that meal planning is the key to saving money at the grocery store. As far as I can tell there are two main strategies for menu planning, as it relates to saving money.

The first strategy is to plan an entire week's worth of meals before you go to the grocery store. Make a list of all the ingredients you will need for your dinners, as well as anything you may need to make breakfasts and lunches. Buy only those things.

The idea here is that you save money by avoiding impulse buys, by avoiding extra trips to the store mid-week when you realize you forgot something (extra trips which inevitably lead to impulse buys), and by avoiding food waste when you buy something because it looks good but have absolutely no idea or intention of using it.

You can save even more money if you make your meal plan with your grocery ad next to you, planning the main ingredients around what happens to already be on sale. You end up with a little repetition of meat this way, unless you have a lot of great sales, but you can save big.

This is a great way to grocery shop. It is efficient, frugal, and can be very successful. But it's not what I do.

The buy ahead principle

Instead, my goal is to have everything I need for an entire week's worth of meals before I go to the grocery store. On Friday, before I go shopping, I survey my freezer and pantry and make a meal plan based on what I already have. Some of the meals are things that I've cooked ahead and stashed in my freezer. Some of the meals are quick cooking staples in our house, or easy crockpot recipes, that I just keep the main ingredients of onhand. But the idea is before I go to the store, I should be able to count at least 7 easily available dinners in my house. I double check all the extra ingredients and sides for each meal, and add any that I'm missing to my list, but it is a very small part of my weekly grocery list.


There are a few main reasons for this. The first is that I'm generally just not good at sticking to a plan. When I count my 7 meals of the week, I know I won't get to all of them. I'll probably have a leftover night. I may have a sandwich night. We may go out. DH or I may decide we don't want to eat anything I planned and just make a frozen pizza. If I bought only the week's worth of meals, I would lose that flexibility.

The biggest reason, though, is saving money. I try to buy things only when they are on sale. Other than fresh fruit and milk, which we buy almost every week, almost nothing enters my house that wasn't at least 50% off. This saves me big at the grocery store.


The basic principle here is that you need to start small. Every week, you can add just one extra meal to your freezer stash. This way you won't go crazy overbudget or make yourself crazy with all the cooking.

Then as you start to develop a freezer stash, you'll be able to spend more of your budget on stockpile items and less on weekly need items. If I know I have 5 containers of chili, 5 containers of slow cooked taco beef, and 3 lasagnas in my freezer? Then each week's meals become very easy to plan.

The plan is to write part 2 about how I shop, and part 3 about how I assemble freezer meals, and possible a part 4 with recipes. But I'm not good at plans. Leave a comment letting me know how you meal plan, or what you would like to know about my meal planning and shopping, and we'll play it by ear, okay?


beckykid said...

LOVE this! I try to do what you talked about here (except for the 'nothing enters my house that isn't 50% off' part - That? Is awesome), but my freezer just isn't up to the task.

Sigh. Need. Bigger. Freezer.

Tonya (ZippyKittyToo) said...

I like your plan. I have no frozen meals in the freezer which does bite me sometimes. I do like to menu plan based on what I have in the house (oh look 3 frozen chickens... roast chicken this week!).

I keep trying to do it your way... but I keep sliding. Need more practise

Tonya (ZippyKittyToo) said...

Beckykid... me too. I have my little apartment front opening one and the top of my fridge. Need to save for a full size.

Sarah said...

Love this! I am trying to get started on planning, but I have failed very attempt so far.

The plan, which might have happened sooner except for that pesky car that crapped the bed, is to get a 21 cubic ft standalone freezer. I want to start buying meat, especially beef and pork in bulk. And I know from raising our own that 1/4 or 1/2 a cow is a lot.

I am also having trouble with finding good deals on fresh fruits. We ave one sort of local market, but everything is second quality and it's just out of the way enough to be inconvenient.

I have been eyeing up Rachel rays 20 meals for 1 day of cooking.... Seems like something I could do. I love the idea of freezer meals, but suck at execution.

Rach (DonutsMama) said...

I really want to do some freezer cooking but don't know what I can or can't freeze and how to freeze (before baking/cooking? after? partial cooking??).

elizabetht said...

this is so helpful! i would love to learn how you do this. especially the frozen dinners. as you know, i don't really have, you know, real food around. :)

Valerie Hewitt said...

I wanna share this to your readers. Keep organization looking good by labeling your individual containers. I came across these functional- and aesthetically pleasing- labels from a new line by Avery found only at, get this, Staples. With these preformatted labels, you can have your kitchen staples looking good in no time. Instead of lugging out my big jar of flour in order to sprinkle one tablespoon in my saute pan, I have my small container close by.


Valerie Hewitt
Weekly Meal Planning