If you’re anything like me, you are a marketing major’s dream. All the junk they design and put at the register – I buy. The pretty packaging – I buy. The orange clearance sticker – I buy. The free online coupons for stuff I don’t need – I buy. I don’t think I need to embarrass myself anymore; you get the idea.
When my daughter was born and I stopped working, I knew theoretically it would be a financial challenge. I just figured we’d go out to eat less and we’d be fine. Challenge accepted! Who wants to go out to eat with a new baby anyway? We’d be so fine! I was so, so wrong. I think I just completely underestimated how much my income meant to us, and as a result undervalued my contribution to our family.
I spent a lot of money the first few months my daughter was here. What else is there to do with a newborn? Go shopping for cute newborn clothes. Go Pinterest crazy and try new and expensive recipes. (Wait, what? Just because you cook it at home, doesn’t mean it’s cheaper?!) I mean, this was my new job now. I should take it seriously, right?
It took us awhile to realize that we were struggling to make ends meet with all the spending I was doing. I had to take a real hard look at where we could cut back – what actually was frivolous, and what was necessary. Like, for real, necessary.
We started tracking all of our spending. ALL OF OUR SPENDING. Those random $1s really add up! Recognized where we were overdoing it and cut back. (I will do another post soon on family budgeting because although related to monthly meal planning, is a completely separate task.) One area that needed major improvement was grocery. I am so embarrassed to tell you that we spent sometimes $200 on groceries – PER WEEK. Just us two adults. I don’t know how it happened. Don’t ask.
I went on a parade of coupons, sales, circulars, etc. I still wasn’t spending less. I couldn’t help myself when the baby clothes were “on sale” or I saw a delicious new recipe on Pinterest that required like 8 new spices. I finally decided that if I went to the store less often, I would spend less. (Sorry marketing majors.)
I know, I’m brilliant! I have to say that monthly meal planning isn’t for the faint at heart. It takes a lot of work and planning (hah, really?) but it is totally doable and will save your family hundreds of dollars a month.
STEP 1: PLAN
There are a lot of things to consider before you begin meal planning. I will list a lot of questions for you to answer for yourself and your family. I’ll share my answers to help you out and explain how I did things, but it’s important for you to be honest with yourself about these answers. It won’t work until you are. Promise.
How often do you go out to eat per week/month? Be honest. Can you cut it back?
We used to go out to eat 3x a week or more before Norah was born and we were both working. Maybe a lunch or two at work and dinner at least twice. Now, we go out to eat maybe 2-3 times per month. You should factor those into your monthly plan – both in a financial and a scheduling sense. And also recognize that just because you are eating at home, doesn’t mean you are automatically going to be spending less. Just believe me; don’t test it.
How long does it take you to go through one dinner? I mean, do you have leftovers for days, or is it eaten all in one sitting?
For us, it depends on the dish. Of course the size of the dish, and what it is. Really yummy food does not hang around that long. ;) Generally speaking though, we have enough leftovers for 3 meals per week, in addition to several lunches per week. So in planning meals – we make sure we buy items for 4 new meals, plus a handful of lunches. If you have a larger family, you will probably have one leftover night, if any. So you’ll of course spend more on your groceries than I will. I’ll go more into detail about our meal schedule later on.
How often does your family eat meat? Three meals a day, every day? Once a week? Never?
This question is important because meat is expensive. Arguably the most expensive thing on your grocery receipt. (Besides cheese, if you’re me. Honest to God…) I have tried since starting this meal planning adventure to have at least one dinner per week that is meatless. (AKA the countless Meatless Monday challenges you see all over the internet.) We also hardly eat meat for breakfast anymore. (I miss you, bacon.) We will occasionally buy lunch meat for sandwiches, but not always. It’s more of a treat now, than a necessity. (See what I mean about redefining what is necessary??)
What do you want to eat for lunch? Leftovers? Sandwiches? Are you okay with having the same lunch every day for a week?
We typically have enough leftovers for lunch in addition to the 3 dinners per week. Some weeks we run out or just get plain tired of the same casserole, so we have extra lunch items on hand. Frozen lunch tacos are a big hit. We also always have bread, peanut butter and jam. Sometimes we have lunch meat. We always have cheese (can’t help it). And cans of soup. We also usually have fresh fruit available for snack or as a side with lunch.
What do you want to eat for breakfast? Are you okay with having the same breakfast every day in a week?
For breakfast we stock up on bread, eggs, peanut butter, jam, and yogurt. We sometimes have breakfast burritos in the freezer for quick and easy. We also have fresh fruit most mornings or as a snack. You will spend less if you just eat the same thing for breakfast every morning, and buy in bulk, but we have not yet been willing to make that kind of sacrifice.
What are you willing to/can you make yourself and/or grow? What can you reuse?
I have learned a lot this past year on what my limits are on making/growing. I have now started to bake my own bread. Not only is it delicious, but it’s a lot cheaper than buying bread at the store. Same goes for buns, rolls, and other baked goods. (Including dessert – yum.) Want buff arms to boot? Shred your own cheese. You’ll save millions. We also started our driveway garden experiment. At this point in early August, we haven’t harvested enough to impact our monthly grocery budget, but I hope the day is coming soon! I also made my own baby food for Norah which saved us a significant amount of money. In the reuse category, we stopped completely using paper plates. How wasteful – both from a financial and a planet perspective. We still do use paper towels, but significantly dropped how often. We cloth diaper and repurpose shirts and washcloths for cleaning rags instead of buying clorox wipes (oh, how I miss you!).
What groceries can you cut back or nix altogether?
This one is tough. It’s hard to give up luxuries we didn’t even know were luxury. Soda. Mmm, craft beer. Fancy shampoo and face wash. Makeup. Pre-packaged meals. Pre-marinated meats. Specialty bread. Paper plates. Ooooh, fancy coffee. But as each month went by, I realized that it was less about deserving nice things, and more about being less wasteful.
STEP 2: WHAT YA GOT?
Before you do anything else, you need to go shopping in your own house. Do this part before you plan your meals. Trust me. Remember those boxes of Hamburger Helper from college? The 10 cans of soup? The 5 salad dressings hidden behind each other? Mystery meat in the freezer? Use up all that stuff. You’ll be SHOCKED at how much food you actually have.
1. Throw out what is bad. What is actually bad, not just what looks weird or you don’t know what it is or you just don’t plain like it that much. Just do it and don’t feel bad about yourself. Sure, it’s wasted, but leaving it sitting in your fridge or cabinet isn’t making it un-wasteful, it’s just hiding what you actually CAN use.
2. Make a list of what is usable. Do you have a bunch of meat in the freezer you can use? How about some soups or some rice or pasta? Marinades and dressings? Write it all down; at least at first. Once you get better at using what you actually have, you won’t need to write everything down; you’ll just know.
3. Decide if there are any meals in what you already have. Marinade and meat – done! Soup and sandwiches – done! Rice and beans – done!
If you do it right, you probably have a few meals available to you that you didn’t know you had! Try to avoid the “nahh, I don’t feel like having that” attitude. Eat up what you have already. By the end of each month, you should literally have nothing left to eat. Not like “I have nothing in my closet to wear – wah” – literally nothing. No more waste, friends!
STEP 3: SALES
Okay, take out the circulars. What is on sale this week? If you’re lucky, it’s meat! Your goal is to buy only what is actually on sale. And if you have a coupon to go on top of it – good for you! But get the sale first. It’s the better deal. Did you hear me? Coupons are not a good deal. But what about extreme coupon ladies? Say it with me again: coupons are not a good deal. Buy on sale only. Coupons are only a bonus AFTER things are on sale. This is my mantra I chant when I am at the store, staring longingly at my coupons.
I know this is hard. I know you need stuff that isn’t on sale this week. That’s okay. You’ll get better at it. The longer you do this, the more you can anticipate your family’s needs when things are on sale. For example, we only buy a certain kind of toilet paper. (I have a sensitive bum, okay?) When its on sale, I stock up! I leave room in my budget to buy “stock up” items. I don’t mean extreme coupon lady stock up – I just buy what we’ll use in a month or two, in case I don’t hit the sale next time. For things that brand doesn’t matter – I get whichever is on sale.
Circulars and online prices don’t cover everything. Sometimes you won’t know certain items are on sale until you get to the store. You may have to change up a recipe to use a different type of meat. Or you may choose to leave your side items open ended til you see what’s on sale. Or you have to completely bag a recipe you wanted to try and pick something else that’s on sale. I know this
made me makes me stressed out while shopping, but it gets easier.
STEP 4: MEALS
Aha, yes! Finally to the meal planning part! Get out your calendar (I print plain ones from Word) and cute markers and get going! Okay, color coding is not required, but it’s my favorite part.
1. Plan any outings for your month. Do you have a wedding or a trip or friends visiting? You’ll need to not only budget for that but also plan your meals around that.
2. How many leftover nights per week can you handle? Factor those in. We do 3 per week, so 12 per month.
3. How many meals do you already have in your house? Plop those down on your calendar. Be sure to spread out ingredients. You don’t want variations of chicken and rice all week.
4. Now plan new meals. How many do you have to do? We normally range from 12-15 dinners and 30 lunches and breakfasts each. You can go on Pinterest for new recipe ideas – though beware of the pricey ones! They can sneak up on you. Put down some family favorites – do you love pizza night? Soup and sandwiches? Pot roast? Meatloaf? Whatever you love/want to eat.
Things to Consider
-Use the same ingredients for multiple recipes so you can buy in bulk and/or take advantage of sale prices.
-The less ingredients per recipe, the better.
-Certain ingredients are always cheaper: rice, beans, some kinds of pasta, some freezer meal items, certain cuts of meat (like chicken thighs vs breasts). Incorporate these things into your menu. Certain ingredients are always more expensive; ahem, cheese.
-Not all meals are created equal. Some are better for monthly planning than others. Crockpot = golden. I suggest planning non-freezer-friendly meals for earlier in the month.
-You can freeze a lot of things really well that you probably didn’t know. Milk. Bread. Yogurt (though the consistency changes). Cheese. Some herbs. Some fruit and most vegetables.
-Don’t be afraid to eat the same thing twice in one month. It’s cheaper to buy in bulk and better to use the ingredients than let them rot.
-Plan any meals with fresh items earlier in the month to avoid them spoiling before you get to eat them. This seems obvious, I know, but worth mentioning as I have made this mistake before.
STEP 5: LIST
Yes, the list is required. Write down ingredients you need for your recipes. Household essentials you need for the month: paper goods, toiletries, baby items, etc. The list will be long; it’s helpful if you organize it by aisle. Don’t forget about freezer bags or containers.
STEP 6: SHOPPING
The number one rule of shopping is stick to your list. I break this every time. But do as I say, not as I do. ;)
The only exception with sticking to the list is if things are not on sale. If they’re not on sale, you shouldn’t buy them, remember? You may need to rearrange some meal ideas if that is the case, but hopefully you won’t have to do that too much if you checked the circulars before you planned.
If you have “helpers”, it may be wise to have a babysitter or your partner stay home while you do the shopping alone. Otherwise you will end up with your 9-month old carrying your rotisserie chicken and bag o’ apples (see photo).
If you have a “stock up” budget, be careful. Only stock up on items that are on a really good sale (for real, now), will not go bad, and are NECESSARY. Sure, those frozen pizzas are a great deal, but do you even like those cardboard boxes? Are they even cheaper than making your own pizza, even at the great deal? Think about it really hard. Items we routinely stock up on are toilet paper (because we only buy one brand), canned goods we eat several times monthly, cheese on really good super sale, and meats. If you hit meat on a good sale, buy it.
Things to Consider
-Freezer vegetables are a smidge more expensive than canned vegetables but are healthier. For us, the few cents per ounce more is worth the extra benefit.
-Check the “per ounce” price. Sometimes the bigger package is cheaper, sometimes not. Sometimes with sales, the name brand price is cheaper than the store brand. Furthermore, when things are on sale you will have to do your own math to calculate the per ounce price. At least at my store, the per ounce price listed is the non-sale price. Tricky, tricky!
-Take a cold, hard look at what your “staples” are at the store. Whether that be brands, or pre-packaged items, or whatever. There are still times where I realize that I am buying something just because “we always buy it” instead of whether we actually needed it or not.
-A lot of freezer recipes call for stock (chicken, beef, vegetable). Get the bouillon cubes instead and you will save a pile of money.
-Avoid snacks if you can. This is a big budget buster. And, ya know, potato chips aren’t healthy anyway. I’m doing you a favor, see?
Where You Shop
This can make a huge impact on your budget. Depending on where you live, you may have more options available to you. Smaller towns with less competition (like where we live) have higher prices. Certain cities have higher prices than suburbs. The drive to a cheaper store may or may not be worth it. Additionally, price club stores like Costco or Sam’s Club might not be worth the membership fee unless you have a large enough family to justify the bulk items. With only one child who eats like a bird (toddler, anyone?), it’s not worth it for us. But, only you can figure that out for your family; there isn’t one straight answer. But, it’s just something to think about.
STEP 7: PREP
Meal prep is honestly the worst part of the whole thing. It takes a lot of effort to prepare the meals ahead of time for the freezer.
1. Label all your bags/containers with your meals, instructions, and the date. Any old sharpie will do. Good time to practice your handwriting.
2. Add your raw meat to the bags or containers first. This just makes the bags (what we use) easier to stand up to put in the other ingredients. Then you can clean up the meat juice and start clean with the rest of your ingredients. (If your recipe calls for the meat to be pre-cooked, then obviously do that first.)
3. Chop vegetables, fruit, etc. all at one time. Henry Ford thought the assembly line was a good idea, and so do I!
4. Add marinades, oils, spices, etc.
5. Pop the bags into the freezer! To save space, lay them down flat to freeze. They’ll make a nice shape that is easy, once frozen, to stand up in a row. Saves space and also makes it easy to pull out what you need when the time comes.
Things to Consider
-I also make breakfast and lunch taco/burritos. (The name is up for debate in our house.) I wrap these up in tinfoil and can fit about 10 or so in a freezer bag. A minute in the micro is all you need.
-If your recipe calls for canned items, such as tomatoes and green chiles, you may want to keep those in your pantry and add them to the meal/crockpot after you take it out of the freezer. Canned items will stay good through the month obviously, and it will save you some space in your now crammed freezer.
-Meats will marinate as they thaw, so if you’re planning a marinated steak or pot roast, mix those up in freezer bags as well.
A note about freezer space
My husband swore to me up and down that all this food would not fit in the freezer. Would. Not. Fit. It fits. We have a 5 cu.ft. freezer. When you cut out the junk in your life that you don’t need and don’t have a freezer full of mystery items you forgot about, it’s amazing how much space you have to store everything.
That said, if you want to be really crafty and stock up on meat sales, or buy a 1/4 steer like we are doing at the fair this year, or you have a large family – a chest freezer might be a good option for you. They are affordable for what you get out of them, though they are an upfront cost you will need to consider for your budget. We are currently shopping around for a scratch and dent or reconditioned model for the basement. (I am refraining from sharing my nightmares with you.)
STEP 8: EAT!
Arguably, the best step. You now have a freezer and pantry FULL of food for the month for your family. Did you save money? I sure hope so! I know I get better at it every month. It’s really satisfying to pull a meal out of the freezer that is already prepared in the morning, and have it ready by dinner time for you to enjoy. Don’t be afraid to rearrange your meal plan. Everything is frozen (or perhaps canned) and will last the month – if you’d rather have pot roast tonight instead of pizza, go for it! Your meal planning should work for you, not against you. The hard work truly pays off and I hope you are proud of yourself!!
Addendum: Return Trips to the Store
This one is so tricky. We do sometimes have to go back. We eat all our fresh fruit. I forgot something (or 10 things). We just really, really want ice cream. It happens. It’s okay. Leave room in your grocery budget for return trips, or you’ll be up the creek without a paddle.
I hope my version of monthly meal planning is helpful to you. It has taken a lot of work, a lot of mistakes, and sadly, a lot of wasted money to get here. Hopefully with my help, it doesn’t take you quite as long! I can now proudly say that some months I spend $250 in groceries! If you remember (or read the whole post), that’s what I used to spend per week. That’s a significant savings!! You can totally save this much, I promise! It just takes some effort, some sacrifice, and some time.
How do you plan your grocery budget? I’m still new to this and would love additional tips and suggestions!! Happy Planning!