How to Save Money with Menu Planning

I have sung the praises of menu planning before on this blog, and earlier this week, I shared with you my likely menu plan for October. (“Likely” because sometimes life happens and potato and kale gratin turns into potato bourekas from the freezer!)

In the comments section on that October menu plan post, my friend G asked about ingredients, and whether I had them on hand or would be shopping based on the circulars. In order to answer her question, I need to explain a little bit more about how I menu plan. While it’s generally quite straight forward, there are a few different “methods” you can use and some of them will result in bigger savings than others.

Method 1: Make a menu based on what sounds good

Three years ago, before I had ever read a frugal blog, this was how I menu planned. I didn’t always do it consistently, but when I did, it went like this: “Honey, what do you want to eat this week?” And then between his answers, and my own cravings, and whatever I thought might be quick and easy and palatable to the kids, I’d make a menu with seven days worth of dinners.

Then I’d take that menu and figure out what ingredients I was going to need. I’d exclude anything I knew we already had at home. And I’d add in all of our favorite breakfast and lunch foods, like eggs, cereal, milk, yogurt, chumus, pita, etc. I’d head off to the store, buy the ingredients for my menu plan and more or less cook from that list for the rest of the week.

If I had to estimate, I’d say shopping this way saved me at least $40 a week over not having a menu plan at all. Here’s how:

  • First, it significantly cut down on impulse shopping, which is a major weakness of mine (would you like to see the new dish towels I got at Costco today?).
  • Second, it cut down on wasted food. Since I was buying for specific meals, I was less likely to forget about the fresh mozzarella that I had impulse purchased, which was now sitting in the bottom of my fridge.
  • And third, we ate out a lot less because we had a plan, and the ingredients to implement that plan, right in our fridge! In fact, even though we were spending less — and presumably buying less — we still felt like we had “more food” by shopping this way.

No matter where you are at in the whole “kosher on a budget” constellation, if you implement just this basic level of menu planning, I can almost promise you that you’ll see similar results.

Method 2: Inventory your fridge, freezer & pantry — and then make a plan

With the first method, you make a plan based solely on what you want to eat that week. With this method, you make a plan based on what you already have on hand, first, and what you want to eat, second.

For example, let’s say you open up the fridge and see a container of cottage cheese and a head of cauliflower. To me, those ingredients lend themselves perfectly to a crustless cauliflower quiche. And since I probably also have eggs and bread crumbs (made from leftover Shabbat challah) on hand, this is essentially a free meal! All I need now are the sides.

Some weeks, you will have the makings of — or at least the beginnings of the makings of — a couple of meals. Other weeks, you really will be starting from scratch. But the value of shopping your kitchen before making your menu plan is that you will really amp up your savings. You will also reduce redundancy in your fridge/pantry/freezer and further insure that food isn’t getting tossed out — which in our experience, is the fastest way to blow your food budget.

Method 3: Inventory your kitchen, scan the weekly grocery store circulars, and THEN make a menu plan

A lot of frugal bloggers reference this method of menu planning as the pinnacle of money saving. Here’s how it works: You sit down with the circulars and a Sharpie. You circle the hot deals. You match those up with what you already have on hand and then you fill in the blanks with meals that utilize both those two sets of ingredients.

I can totally see how this method would save you a lot of money, but, in my opinion, it works best for non-kosher keepers. If I didn’t keep kosher and I saw that boneless, skinless chicken breasts were on sale for $1.79/lb (oh, the inhumanity!), I’d be planning chicken stirfry, chicken fajitas and BBQ chicken for dinner. But sadly, $1.79 chicken breasts just aren’t part of my kosher-keeping world. And while I get pretty stoked about cottage cheese for less than a dollar, I just don’t think it packs the same punch in our menu plan.

Okay, this post has gotten crazy long, so I’m going to make it a two-parter. Tomorrow I will tell you about my personal method for menu planning. It’s a combo deal – a little bit from column #1, #2, and #3, with a sprinkle of month-long planning thrown in for good measure.

So, what’s your menu planning method? Do you write a week-long plan, a month-long plan, or something else entirely? Do you shop your kitchen before shopping the stores? Tell me everything!

Comments

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Comments

  1. We value our dinners together as a family and arrange our schedules around making sure we ALL get to sit down together every night. In order for this to be successful (and as stress-free as possible) we found we needed to have our menu planned for the week. We have never taken out any further than that. A week at a time seems to work for us.

    We design our menu every Sunday morning with a cup of tea while the kids do their guitar lessons. At that time we also try to line up our Shabbat guests/invites out for the week.

    I did not start the menu planning to be frugal or save money, but I do need a certain level of organization to stay sane and get everything done that we need to each week. I also have great guilt if I find a bag of carrots have gone bad in the bottom of the fridge. I mostly started the menu because I know that eating together is an asset parents can give their kids so they know they are loved and safe. It is alos an opportunity for us to all cook as a family. The kids like having the menu on the erase board too. When it is their week to set the table they know whether to get out the meat or dairy dishes.

    • I agree with you 100% about eating together as a family. I like the idea to post the menu on a white board. Now that my 1st grader is reading (so exciting!), I think he’d really enjoy that.

  2. Also…we cook a lot of soups and legumes/beans. We make all of our foods from ingredients as close to the earth as possible. We might actually be the only US family that lives without a microwave. It is hard to decide to make a lentil soup at 5:30pm when you use dried beans (which are much more economical). So we find that using a menu allows us to eat healthier and reminds us to soak the lentils in the morning as we are making our breakfast. Can you tell we are having soup tonight?

  3. OK, kinda freaky because the exact ingredients I have in my fridge are cottage cheese, eggs and a head of cauliflower! I bought the cheaper publix brand cottage cheese and my hubby doesn’t like it. I was wondering what I could do with it! Can you share your crustless quiche recipe, please?

    • How funny! It’s not a fancy recipe, and in fact, it’s not really much of a recipe at all. But we all like it. I cut the cauliflower into small pieces and lightly steam. If you’ve got broccoli, you can do that in addition to or instead of the cauliflower. Mix together about 3/4 of a big container of cottage cheese with three eggs, 2-3 T of bread crumbs, 2-3 T of flour and a little salt and pepper. If you have gvina levana or sour cream, add in 1/2 – 1 cup. If you don’t have it, no worries. If you’ve got any kind of hard cheese – cheddar, jack, mozz — add in 1/2 cup or so. As you can see, this is a very forgiving recipe! Mix in whatever dried or fresh herbs your family likes (we like dill and basil). I pour into a pie pan, as it’s usually too little for a full 9×13 pyrex. Cook until done (40 minutes?) at about 350 degrees.

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