Meal Planning 101

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Meal Planning.  Oh, Joy!

I know that I am cheap.  Some would be kinder and say frugal. The one thing I love to be the most frugal with is our family’s meal budget. Being frugal with your meal budget doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality or substitute cheaper foods and higher carbs.  It’s all about planning and creating fresh ideas and flavors. That’s why I developed a simple-to-follow system of Meal Planning 101 and Meal Planning 102.

Why Meal Plan?

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: I love to make memories with my family, and although I consider myself a “foodie,” I like to take amazing trips and share special time with the kids. By being super-frugal with the day-to-day budget, our family is able to take such trips. And, at one point in our lives, my husband was out of work for a year and a half, and this budget was one of our saving graces next to Jesus!

We all live on somewhat of a budget. Be it week-to-week, year-to-year, or minute-by-minute. So I looked at all the categories and decided that the place I had the most control over the family budget was in meal planning. We are a family of 6 and I was able to cut our food budget (not including laundry soap and cleaners etc) to around $350-400/ month. I created a system to do this.

The Meal Planning 101 System

This can be tweaked a bit as you go!

  • Start by creating a list of all the meals your family will eat.  
    • The categories for the meals are listed on a piece of paper that is divided on both sides. Your categories will be something like: Hamburger, Pork, Chicken, Breakfast, Beef, Vegetarian, Fish/Seafood, and Holidays.
  • Brainstorm with your family.
    • Fill in all the columns just by thinking about what your family will eat. So for example, with hamburger, you might have things like spaghetti, ziti, lasagna, stroganoff, tater tot casserole, shepherds’ pie, etc…
  • Add to your meals by going through some of your favorite cookbooks and recipes.
    • I have a slow cooker cookbook that I love and also an Amish cookbook I use. I note the pages for the recipes I am adding to my list, that way I have a reference point as to where to find the recipe.
  • At this point, if you are super organized, print the recipes you will want to use that you haven’t memorized.
    • Place these recipes in a binder with protective page sleeves so you can reference them as needed.
  • Print off some blank monthly calendars.
    • This doesn’t have to be fancy, but I like to theme the seasons as I go. And honestly, the dates don’t even have to correlate with the present year.  You will see as you do this system, the years and dates don’t matter very much.
  • Strategically place your meals in the calendars.  
    • Being strategic means that if you are making a pot roast, you will most likely have leftovers.  So you will take those leftovers and make them into a vegetable beef soup or maybe pulled bbq beef for sandwiches later in the week. Place this calendar in protective pages and in a binder.
  • The hardest part for me is keeping a list of what I need to purchase at the store.  
    • Isn’t it frustrating when you go into the pantry for ranch mix, and you have three boxes of stevia but no ranch?! I get your pain! A crucial point to keep an ‘inventory’ of what is in your pantry and freezer. This will also help you figure out what you will be cooking for the month.

Now the fun really begins!

Plug your meals into whatever day you feel. Make sure you have those leftover meals close (or that you have a deep freeze) so that you’re more easily able to eat those “carry-over” meals.

Here’s the beauty in this Meal Planning 101 system.  You DO NOT have to eat exactly what is on a specific day.  For example, say that today is marked down for tater tot casserole. You really don’t have the time to throw that together, but you do have time to grill a couple of burgers or make some grilled cheese and soup. No problem! You simply take an expo erasable marker and make a slash through that day. You are simply removing that food from your pantry, and you then choose something else on the day it “lives” on. This is why you don’t really need an accurate calendar. You simply need the days of the month. When the month is over, just wash the marker off with water and it will be ready for the next cycle!

Up Next: Meal Planning 102

I actually made an entire year worth of calendars. It works for us. We enjoy different things in each season. Maybe whoopie pies for the fall and soups and then more salads in the spring and summer.  You do you. Make it work for you and your family. Stay tuned for my next post, Meal Planning 102, and we’ll talk about the money aspect of this system.