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!