Menu Planning

Tips to Make Menu Planning Manageable

To tell the truth making up a menu can be easy for a week or two, but then it can sometimes become a chore.  When it gets daunting, it helps me to remember a few things to make it a bit more manageable.

1.  Take turns.  At least two nights a week, my husband does the cooking, and plans what we eat those days.

2.  Make a routine.  During the summer especially, we have homemade pizza every Friday.  I make large batches of pizza dough and freeze it in one pound balls.  We use it as a way to clean up any left over veggies.  That means we have weird sounding, but delicious tasting pizza.  Steak, onion, and bell pepper;  tomato, basil and chard; potato and rosemary; eggplant, thyme and Swiss cheese; etc.  This makes every Friday a given on the menu.  Combine with whatever my husband has planned, now I only have to think of four more meals.

3.  Be flexible.  Keeping my pantry reasonably well stocked means that if I really don’t feel like fixing what I had planned on the day I planned it, I can usually go another direction without impacting the rest of the week’s meals.  Also, if your neighbor invites you over, feel free to delay you menu by a day.  It’s ok to plan take out once in a while.  Give yourself a night off.  The plan is more like a guideline, really.

4.  Use those bulk purchases.  The elk needs to get used up.  So I make sure to plan one or two meals a week using elk meat.  This removes still more brain damage in coming up with a plan, because I only have so many meals I can make out of red meat.  In the winter, there are lots of stews, chilli, steak.  The summer, we use less, mainly grilling, always with a big salad, sometimes stir fried or fajitas.  When I had to get us through a hog, we had pork a couple times a week too.

5.  Cook once, eat twice.  Plan for left overs.  Your pork roast on Monday becomes Wednesday’s pulled pork sandwich.  Tuesday’s left over pasta becomes Thursday’s frittata.  Cook a little extra early in the week to make it easier on yourself later, when your willpower starts wavering.

What tips do you have for making and sticking to a menu plan.

Categories: Menu Planning, Thrift, Top 5 | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

UH Boot Camp: Menu Planning Made Easy

Menu planning may not sound like an urban homesteading skill, but I assure you it is.    It is something that, like a budget, takes thoughtful time and effort and doesn’t come naturally to many of us.  Our family would never stay within our food budget if we didn’t do it, however.  It saves us time, money and helps us waste less.

Menu planning saves time. When I sit down for fifteen or so minutes and make a plan for the week, I am gaining loads of time before dinner.  I can plan to eat something quick on the nights H has a violin lesson, and I can plan something that can keep cooking for a while on the nights that Rick could get home late or early.  I know the answer to, “What’s for dinner, Honey?”  There is no standing in front of the fridge trying to figure out what to throw together last-minute.

It saves time at the grocery store too.  If I know what we need for the week, and have a list, I don’t need to wander down every aisle.  I can just grab what’s on the list and get out of there.  And anyone with kids knows that the grocery store can be a time sink.  Trust me, a plan saves time.  😉

Menu planning saves money.  If you don’t know what you need for the week, you are going to spend a lot more money at the grocery store too.  You will need to wander around looking for what you think you might need or use, and you’ll probably buy more or less than is necessary.  Buying more isn’t tragic (unless what you bought will spoil), but not buying enough will kill your food bill, because then you’ll be heading back to the store for convenience trips.  Those convenience trip add a lot to your bill.  I don’t know how many times I’ve run into the store for one or two things and come out with my pocket fifty dollars lighter.  We always find a few extras that we “needed” during those quick trips.  For the most part though, sticking to the plan prevents those.

Menu planning also saves us from the days when we are exhausted before dinner time and too tired to think of what to make.  Somehow, just having it written down already makes it manageable enough to happen.  So instead of being tired and saying “I don’t know what’s for dinner.  Let just get take out,”  we have a plan and can throw together the dinner we have planned.  That mental energy seems to be a tipping point for us.  If there is no plan, we eat out a lot more.  And if our food budget ever gets blown, it’s due to one pizza order too many.

Menu planning keeps waste down.  When we know what to buy at the store and what we’re making each night for dinner, we rarely have any food waste.  I tend to remember the celery or kale and use it before it spoils, I don’t buy as many things that I don’t know if I’ll need or not, because I know what I need.  We eat more regularly from our stored food in the freezer and pantry, and things don’t go bad in the abyss of food storage any more.

I’ve written about menu planning in the past.  While that post is still valid, I have changed the way we plan our menus from monthly to weekly.  The main reasons I plan weekly instead of monthly now is we have gotten in the habit of eating from the freezer in the winter, there is no longer any mystery food in there; and in the summer, our CSA picks our vegetables for the week and I don’t want them going to waste.  Plus it is a lot less daunting to plan a week’s worth of food than a month’s worth.

So, how to plan.  Remember, this is boot camp – the very basics.  If you know how to plan already, make sure I haven’t missed anything.  If not, here is how we throw down a plan on our homestead.

  1. What do you have?
    This week, I planned our menu on Sunday night.  I sat and thought a moment about what we had in the icebox to use up, what was in the freezer and pantry, and how much money we had left in our budget for the month.  In the freezer, we have elk, green chiles, corn, asparagus and tomatoes.  In the pantry, there are still hard squashes, black beans, rice and pasta.  And it’s the end of the month, so we need to use what we have as much as we can, since I don’t want to blow the budget in the last week.
  2. What do you need to use first?
    Is there a little left over from last week that needs to get used up?  Did you get too much of something out of the freezer?  Use those things first.  If you are planning on eating greens, use them right away so they don’t go bad before the day you’re supposed to eat them.  Last night, Rick got eggplant down from the freezer, and then decided not to use it last-minute.  That means, tonight, eggplant is on the menu. 
  3. Look at your schedule.
    Do you need something quick on Tuesday? Are you having family over Friday?  What day are you going to the market?  Figure out what kinds of meals you need.  We are shopping on Wednesday this week.
  4. Make the plan.
    Monday:  Eggplant and tomato pasta bake with olives
    Tuesday: Ham and Egg Fried Rice
    Wednesday: Spinach and black bean enchiladas
    Thursday: Asparagus soup with cheesy bread
    Friday: Mexican elk steak with tomato, onion, chile sauce over rice
    Saturday: Pumpkin Coconut Curry
    Sunday: Bacon and tomato pasta with roasted asparagus
  5. Make the grocery list.
    While you are making your grocery list, keep in mind breakfast and lunch too.  This week, we need: milk, spinach, lemons, limes, avocado, onions, buttermilk, cheese, butter, nuts (for granola), fruit (for lunches), white wine and bread.

Simple enough, right?  In the summer time, the only difference is, I wait to plan our weekly menu until the day we pick up our CSA share, so I can see what produce we have for the week and plan around that.

Do you plan menus?  Does you method look similar or different from mine?

Categories: Menu Planning, Thrift, Urban Homesteading | 4 Comments

UH Boot Camp: Eating Well without Breaking the Bank

Yesterday I talked about the basics of making a budget.  For today’s urban homestead boot camp, I wanted to give you my best tips for saving money on your food bill while still eating well. Some things, to really save money, do take some investment up front, but the pay off in the long run is well worth it.  Other things are simpler, they can be started right away.  But first let me share what I think eating well means.

By “eating well” what I mean is eating real food.  Food that doesn’t come out of a box, that was raised and prepared with care.  Top Ramen is not eating well.  To me, sustainability is important, as is cost.  Eating sustainably means different things to different people.  To some, it means eating all organic, even if your bananas came half way around the world.  To others, local is most important.  And I know what it’s like when you have really limited funds.  Sometimes whatever is cheapest starts to look appealing.  For me, the most sustainable means locally grown without chemicals and pesticides.  An organic certification is optional.

So, how to get those things while not breaking the bank?

Things that take some investment upfront:

A freezer.  This is a tool that can save your bacon.  And beans.  And everything else.  You can freeze most things.  If you find a really great deal on some chicken, it makes sense to buy a little extra and put what you’re not going to use right away into the deep freeze for another day.  Freezers are pretty inexpensive and run more efficiently than most refrigerators.  Check craigslist or freecycle.  You can get a great deal.  Even our chest freezer from the 80’s runs more efficiently than our fridge did.  We have two.  Both were given to us; hand me downs from relatives.

Joining a CSA.  Community Supported Agriculture, where you buy a “share” of a farm’s predicted crop before it is even planted.  You and the other CSA members front money for a farmer to plant and then, along with the farmer, share in the risks and rewards of the weather.  In my experience, this is an incredible investment.  The farm we’ve been with for the last five years has never had a bad year.  Of course you are betting on nature, a crop might be totally wrecked by hail.  But you are also sharing in the reward when things are good.  Some are bumper years for bell peppers or corn, while the beans didn’t make it.  But we always get WAY more than we paid for.  Local and organic.  Our CSA also sells optional shares of fruit, honey, eggs and meat.

Oh, and when you are getting way more than you can eat in a week, you can put the surplus in your freezer for the winter.  January is the time to call CSA farms.  Farms are filling memberships as I type this, so check around.  Some farmers will even work out a payment schedule with you if the fee is too much for you to pay all at once.

Hunting or buying meat in bulk.  Both of these methods do the same thing; receiving a whole animal at one time.  You better have a freezer first.  When we bought a hog a couple years ago we paid about $400 for the whole animal.  This worked out to about $1.33 a pound for bacon, hams, pork chops, shoulder roasts, pork loin, lard, everything.

Hunting requires a skill set, equipment, time and licenses.  It’s not complicated, but you will need to attend a hunter’s safety course and get access to land (and a gun) in the fall.  The cost is slightly harder to figure, but not counting the gun my husband already owns to hunt with, we spent about $360 on licenses and gasoline for various hunting trips.  We have an entire elk in the freezer to show for it.  Roughly $1.44 per pound of lean red meat, said and done.  Some years, it’s much less expensive, depending on success rates.  And some years, we’ve gotten nothing.

For either meat option, now is a good time to look into it.  Local farmers and ranchers are taking orders, and you need to buy hunting licenses in advance (April here in Colorado).

While I’m talking about buying in bulk, I’d also like to mention that once a year we drive to an orchard to pick peaches.  It’s a far drive, to the western slope, so we make it count.  We spend about $400 on 300 pounds of peaches, including gas.  We race home with the A/C blasting and then spend the next week slicing and preserving peaches.  The majority of them get frozen, though we jam and can some too.  But these peaches last us a whole year.  So investigate local U-Pick farms.  We do the same on a smaller scale for berries and cherries.

Things that everyone can do now:

Make a meal plan for the week.  I used to plan a month’s worth of meals at a time, but that can be daunting, and over time I’ve realized that weekly works better for us.

Plan meals that are in season.  This is easy with a CSA.  Apples are least expensive in the fall, strawberries are cheapest in the spring.  If you want asparagus in August, you’re going to pay a lot for it at the market (and it won’t taste all that great).   This puts us eating things that are in season the majority of the time.  In season means relatively inexpensive.  We pretty much don’t eat bananas.

Use up what you have.  Until you get into the habit, it’s easy to keep ignoring the beans in the back of the pantry or the sausage in the bottom of the freezer.  Get into the habit of planning meals the use what you’ve already purchased.  You’ll spend less at the grocery if you aren’t buying what you already have.

Plan to eat less meat.  Meat costs more than other forms of protein.  Use meat more like a side dish.  Try adding one more vegetarian meal to your menu per week than you normally make.  Try making chili with black beans or stir fry with eggs.  Over the last few years we went from eating meat at dinner every night to eating meat only three – four times a week.

From your meal plan, make a grocery list.  And stick to it. This keeps me from impulse buying.  Also, it cuts down on incidental/emergency trips to the store which end up costing a lot more over time.

If the store that I’m going to has a double ad day, I’ll go on that day, but I don’t usually plan my meals around the ads.  I just figure if I go on that day I double my chances of finding things on sale.

I don’t use coupons at all.  There are never any coupons for bulk rice or apples or pork loin.  I can’t recall seeing one for milk.  Coupons usually make me feel compelled to buy things that I would not normally put on my list.  They are always for things in boxes or bags, things with weird ingredients.  Things that are processed and full of chemicals…

Buy whole foods. Processed foods are expensive.  Potato chips cost more than potatoes.  Rice-a-Roni costs more than rice.  Pasta and milk is cheaper than a package of noodles with a powdered sauce.  Not to mention a billion times better for you.

Buy foods from the bulk bins.  When you buy a pound of rice or oatmeal in a box or bag, guess what.  You care paying for that box.  And for the marketing of that box.  It’s much less expensive to buy oats from the bulk bin.  There is no packaging to pay for.  No labels, no marketing, and no weird ingredients.  And if you buy or make your own reusable bags, there is no waste either.

There you have it.  Those are my big tips for saving money on food.  Between the meat in the freezer, the vegetables from the garden and the CSA, and eggs from the chickens, there are times I can spend $30 at the store for the week.  All I’m buying at that point is dairy and grains.  But it takes time to get to that point.  And I’ve already invested money up front.

What does your family do?

Categories: CSA, Food, Hunting, Menu Planning, Thrift, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , | 9 Comments

Getting Back on the Menu Planning Wagon

Ack – the day is almost over (at least nap time is almost over) and I’m just now sitting down to post for the week!  So it’s a simple and short one.

One of my other goals for 2011 is to get back on that menu planning wagon again.  I’ve written about planning menus many-a-time before, and it really does save time, money and sanity, as well as usually results in healthier and tastier meals for the family.  I don’t know exactly why I stopped planning menus last year.  Or when, for that matter.  BUT I have seen our budget take a hit.  Usually in the summer we have so much food around that much goes to waste if we’re not careful to plan what to eat and what to store.  But in the winter, I’m often lazy and forget to get things down from the freezer or wait to go shopping until our house is mistaken for Old Mother Hubbard’s.

This week, as I was helping Rick make the grocery list (he’s been shopping AND cooking while I’ve been gestating), I realized that I was finally sick of the “what’s for dinner tonight” question that one or both of us asks every night.   This week’s menu is pretty simple.  I used some example menus from one of the magazines I subscribe to.  But it’s not cheating.  It’s just getting the ball rolling again.  Here’s what’s on the docket for the week:

Tonight: Spicy Black Bean Soup
Tomorrow: Potato-onion Frittata
Wednesday: Mushroom and Black Bean Tortilla Casserole
Thursday:  Butternut Squash Pasta Bake
Friday: Orechetti with Spicy Bacon-Tomato Sauce
Saturday: Pheasant Noodle Soup

On Sunday, we are celebrating Rick’s thirtieth birthday by going out for barbecue and bowling with friends.  I’m excited about this, since it’ll be a fun night out.  For my birthday, my mom is taking me to see Riders in the Sky on Friday.  I can not contain my excitement!  I’ve been a fan since I was a kid!  Yee-Haw!

Categories: Food, Menu Planning, Simple Living | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Frugal Friday: Menu Planning

Ok, it’s another late Thrifty Thursday… Happy New Year by the way!

When I first heard the idea of the Thrifty Thursdays, I immediately started writing down different ideas that I had to share.  Then, being my crazy, list-making self, I organized the list into monthly categories.  For the month of January, I originally thought I’d focus on Budgets and eliminating bills, since it was the new year, but I’ve had lots of questions from friends recently about one specific expense: cutting the grocery bill.  So you’ll have to hold on for the budget stuff I guess… I’ve moved up my May topic to this month:  Meals, Menu Planning and Marketing.

Our grocery bill varies through the year, but during the winter we keep it under $100 a week (usually closer to $80), and during the summer it hovers around $60/week, with a few bonus weeks that won’t top $35.  That is not factoring in the price we pay for our CSA membership, of course, but more on that in another post (as if you haven’t heard enough about it already).  😉

There are a lot of factors in keeping this particular bill down.  A lot.  Sometimes I only take cash to the store, so I CAN’T go over budget.  Some of the burden is relieved by Rick hunting for a lot of our meat, or buying meat in bulk.  In the summer, the garden helps immensely (and you can bet you’ll see more about that one too).  But I know not every family is part of a CSA, or hunts, or gardens.  So the tips I’ll focus on this month are ones that every family can use. 

menu-planningThis week: Menu Planning!  I usually plan a month of meals at a time.  I know that it can seem overwhelming to a lot of people to do that… even planning for the week is hard for some people.  But I do think planning for the month cuts the grocery bill a lot for us.  First I’ll share what I do each month, and then why I think it works for saving money.

First up: inventory!  Specifically the freezer and any meat I’ve picked up through the previous month(s).  I make a list, on a post-it, that usually ends up looking like this:  

  • Deer steaks. 
  • That whole chicken buried way in the back. 
  • Bacon.
  • Oh, look, a couple of tilapia fillets I forgot about. 
  • When did I buy bratwurst?  Well, add it to the list. 
  • Pork roast, enough for two dinners.
  • Etc., etc. 

Then I inventory the cabinets for grains (how long have I had that rice??) and whatever veggies I have, frozen, fresh or canned. 

Next, I open up Excel, to a saved monthly menu I have.  I’m happy to email this to anyone who asks for it!  I change all the dates for the upcoming month and either I start typing in meals or I print it and hand write them in (or a combination of the two). 

The first items I add to the menu are, unsurprisingly, the things I found in the inventory.  I think this is a lot easier then starting from scratch.  It’s a good jumping off point, and it guarantees that my grocery bill will be lower in the first couple of weeks when money is tighter for our family, since I’ll have to buy less. 

Each time I add something to the menu that was on my inventory post-it, I cross it off the list so I don’t accidentally add it twice.  Also, I usually try to do one meatless meal a week, and one left-over meal (or a cook once, eat twice meal, as I’ll explain).

Once I get through the inventory or if I have a lot of something in particular, let’s say pork, for example, I will pull out a couple of my “go-to” cookbooks, past menus I’ve made, and a few favorite websites.  These help with the ideas, and keeping things fresh and from getting boring. 

My “go to” cookbooks are: Glorious One-Pot Meals by Elizabeth Yarnell, and my new fave, Everyday Food: Great Food Fast by Martha Stewart Living.  More about these at the end of the post.

A good website to check out, especially if you are a beginner at the menu planning is Woman’s Day Magazine’s site.  They provide a Month of Menus each month, along with shopping lists, and cooking instructions for many of the meals, all posted in one place on their site.  It’s a good starting place.  I wouldn’t recommend using their menu as is if you’re really trying to save money, because I don’t see much savings when I look at the grocery lists, but it’s a good place for new ideas if you get stumped.

Anyway… blah blah blah, fill in all the squares of your menu.  Then, comes the shopping. 

I think this method of menu planning (monthly, as opposed to weekly menu planning) saves our family more money, and this is why: 

  1. I use what I have first, easing the grocery bill during the first weeks of the month.
  2. Most grocery stores have what you need on sale at least once a month.  You can look ahead, and if something you need later in the month is on sale this week, you can buy it cheap.
  3. I make a list, and don’t buy anything I don’t need.  I stick to this, with one exception:
  4. If there is an amazing sale, or if I make a trip to Costco, I stock up on the good deals.  This provides the jumping off point for the next month’s meals. 
  5. The rest of inventory for the next month comes from any meals I was too lazy to cook the previous month (hey, we all have those days, right).

The last piece is the meatless meals and the left overs (cook once, eat twice).  Meatless meals are less expensive.  And they are faster to prepare… great when you have plans in the evening or get off work late.  With a little practice and some spices, your family won’t even mind one vegetarian (think spaghetti and a big salad with fresh mozzarella) meal a week.  I promise! 

The left overs, or the cook once eat twice meals work like this.  Everyone deserves a night off, even you.  And if you’re like my family, that doesn’t mean ordering a pizza, since pizza money isn’t always in the budget.  So let someone else do the cooking one night a week (it’s usually Friday or Saturday for us).  Reheat the left over soup from Wednesday, or when you make pork roast on Tuesday, make a little extra to shred for BBQ pulled pork sandwiches on Friday.  Left overs don’t have to be the same meal twice.  Use the left over roast chicken to make chicken salad.  Be imaginitive.  I especially love this in the summer… cooking once for two meals means one less day with the stove on.  We don’t have A/C, so that’s important!

Menu planning is not that hard once you get the hang of it.  And you can use the same menu over if you really don’t want to come up with something new each month (except you still need to do the inventory part… there really is a lot of savings in using what you already have).  Be flexable with it.  If your husband is late home from work one night, make that night your meatless meal, and swap it for whatever was planned later that week.  You might even enjoy having an answer when your kids (or hubby) asks what’s for dinner.  🙂 

If you are not bored (or full) yet, keep reading.

I wanted to take a minute to share why Glorious One-Pot Meals and Great Food Fast are my go-to cookbooks.   Both books use fresh, wholesome ingredients.  No condensed soups or pre-packaged foods.  In other words, they are healthy.  I know people who are not used to this kind of cooking might think it’s more expensive to buy fresh, non-convenience foods.  Well, it looks that way on the surface, yes.  But, if you look at the true cost of what you’re eating, you might change your mind.  But that is actually a whole ‘nother Oprah for me. 

Another reason I like these books are because they are convenient.  The Glorious One-Pot Meals book is somewhat self explanatory… one-pot.  Less dishes.  And I use a big pot and usually double the recipe, which gets me left-overs, good for another dinner or at least two lunches.  It also uses whole grains and lots of veggies… both of which are always hard to get enough of, so it helps me remember to do it! 

The Great Food Fast book has prep times listed on every recipe.  And it is arranged by season.  This is important because food is less expensive and more nutritious when you buy it in season.  So in January, when I’m stumped with what to put on the next menu square, I can flip through the winter section and know I’ll find a meal that is healthy, not expensive, and all the ingredients will be there in the grocery store. 

Be sure to check the other blogs for more Thrifty Thursday tips!  And if you decide to join in, just let me know… post a comment already!
Genny, Katie Jean & Tracy

Categories: Menu Planning, Recommended Reading, Thrift | 3 Comments

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