What’s For Dinner? The Importance of Menu Planning

content ballOne of the obstacles families encounter when trying to reduce their grocery budget is figuring out what to eliminate.  When I first took a stab at reducing our grocery budget, it seemed that we were spending an inordinate amount of money on convenience foods.  “But,” I reasoned, “it’s cheaper than going to a restaurant, right?”  Plus my kids definitely liked the stuff in the “blue box.”  When push came to shove, I realized that, with some creativity, I could make these things at home.  I mean, they had to be made somewhere, so why not in my home?  Plus, as an added bonus, I could pronounce all the ingredients!

It may not be easy to know where to begin on this journey unless you’ve been tracking your spending, but here are a few ideas to get you started.

Identify the meals you prepare most at home as well as the meals your family enjoys when dining out.  Once you have a good list of meals, write down the ingredients required to make them.  Be sure to note what you already have on hand and what needs to be purchased at the store.  After making these lists, look at the grocery sale ads for the week and further refine your menu for the week based on what you can purchase on sale.

This is how I established my price book.  I note the sale prices on ingredients so I have a benchmark for a good price to look for if I want to make a certain recipe again.  As the weekly menu plan develops, start to incorporate certain recipes into a rotation and establish a monthly menu.  As I’ve become more proficient at this (read: eliminating recipes my family does NOT like), I have been able to maintain our menu on a quarterly basis.  By doing this, when funds permit, I am better able to know exactly how much chicken to buy, for example, when I find that great price.

The second thing I’ve done to reduce our grocery spending is to work more meatless recipes into our menu plan.  I had been spending quite a lot on meat, especially chicken.  By researching recipes that call for various types of beans to work into my menu plan and I found that my family really likes beans!  Their favorites are baked beans, refried beans, and black beans so I have found recipes that use these in order to scale back on the numerous chicken recipes I was making.  I now try to have only one or two recipes with meat in them each week.

Another area I’m currently working on is dairy.  Admittedly, this is going to be more difficult for us to tackle.  In our part of the country, Mexican fare is very popular so I use a lot of cheese and sour cream in many of my recipes.  I am also from a family that married mostly Italians and learned to cook a lot of baked Italian dishes that ooze with at least three different cheeses in any given recipe.  Plus, I am originally from Chicago and feel the need to prepare authentic Chicago-style pizza for my kids so they don’t miss out on that experience!  (Again, more cheese!)

I’m not going to eliminate these recipes from my menu plan altogether, but I’m working on not offering them as often.  When I started menu planning, it helped me to have a theme for each night of the week.  For example, I had a “Mexican Night”, an “Italian Night”, and “Pizza Night”.  That’s three nights out of the week that call for cheese!  I’m working on reducing this to just one of these types of recipes per week.  Typically Friday nights were our pizza night and I would make cheese pizza.  I can still do that, of course, but if I make Friday night our dairy night, I can rotate these recipes around each Friday rather than having them several times during the week.

Start with careful planning and eventually the menu plan will become second nature, especially as you hone in on things your family enjoys.  When they appreciate your effort, the entire process becomes more enjoyable, too!

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