Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Thrifty Tip Tuesday: menu planning

I've decided that rather than tackle a series of gigantic posts about the how-to's of coupons, I'm going to be doing a weekly post with one idea at a time for those new to the world of saving money and couponing. So today, we're going to pick an easy one that everyone can do to start shaving a little bit of your grocery expense: Menu Planning!

I've been a serious menu planner for about 2 years now. I started doing it bi-weekly, not because I was trying to be thrifty, but because I had just had my first baby and needed a visual reminder/motivation to make dinner every night. Realizing that I was able to cut my grocery bill was a really neat perk. How much of a menu plan you want to create is up to you- some people go gung-ho and plan every single meal and snack in their day (a great way to stick to a diet and a budget) and others (like me) just need a little bit of organization. Here are my best suggestions to get you started:
  • Decide how much of a plan you need. I plan all of our dinners for two weeks at a time (because we get paid every two weeks). I like to leave one night open- this helps me not over plan in case we get invited somewhere for dinner, ditch the planned meal one night, or decide to eat out. I also keep extra ready-to-heat meals stocked in the freezer in case we're staying in and need something quick. We keep a good stock of breakfast foods on hand so I never plan that in advance. For lunch the toddler and I usually stick to leftovers, sandwiches, fruits&veggies, and/or things that can be done with a tortilla- no need to plan that one either.
  • Take stock of what you already have! Tons of spaghetti sauce? Then don't buy any this week (barring an amazing sale, of course!). Taking a good look around and seeing what you can do with what you have is a great way to save money at the store.
  • Check the weekly ads to see what the "deals" are this week. Most people know to shop the "loss leaders"- items on the front page of the ad, usually marked lower to get you into the store. Incorporating some of these items to your plan is a good idea, especially when it's meat and produce since it's hard to find coupons for these things. Not sure what to do with $0.77/lb whole chickens (not the best price, but okay) at Safeway this week? Or maybe the veggies on sale are ones you're not too familiar with? Try googling new recipes! You're saving money and expanding your cooking skills. You may also want to take a peek at your favorite money-saving blogs to see what deals people are excited about that you may have missed. Quite a few bloggers even post their menu plans- take a look at those for inspiration or visit $5 Dollar Dinners for Bargain Meal of the Week Highlights and look for your local grocery store!
  • Plan effectively for "leftovers". Take for example the whole chicken mentioned above. I might throw in in the crockpot one night with some potatoes, carrots, celery, water, and herbs to make an easy weeknight meal. Can we eat a whole chicken? no way! After dinner, I'd chop up the leftover chicken meat and can now re-use it for any number of things. Chicken Alfredo, chicken & rice casserole, homemade pot-pie, chicken noodle soup, burritos, stir-fry, or chow mien are just a few of the ways I like to use up extra chicken. That's two whole dinners out of a single chicken. You can also strain the liquid from the crockpot to make a yummy chicken broth- won't use it right away? then freeze it! Tonight's tacos make great lunchtime nachos/burritos. One jar of spaghetti sauce and 1 lb. of hamburger easily stretch into two meals for us. Making lasagna? Try doing it in two 8x8 pans instead of the big one, and freeze half of it for another night. Leftover pot roast is perfect for stew. Thinking out of the box about how you use things is another good idea. Whenever we do hot dogs, we always have leftover buns. Rather than throw them away, we split them in half and turn them into individual loaves of garlic bread for another night.
  • Write it down! Now that you've got some meals in mind, write it out for yourself. I like to look at our calender and fit the more time consuming meals to cook on less busy nights. It doesn't mean you can't change your mind later if something comes up, but writing down the meals you're going to make will help you formulate a shopping list. I think we all know writing a list and taking it to the store is a great way to stick to your budget and avoid impulse purchases. If you need to hit multiple stores, make multiple lists.
  • Go shopping! Make sure you have your list and any coupons you plan to use. The idea is to stick with your list, but don't be afraid to buy things unlisted either! Sometimes you'll see great unadvertised specials, markdowns on meat, or products that have been put on clearance. True, these might not always be the best deal, but if you spot a cut of meat you always use and it's 40% off then don't be afraid to buy it (just be sure to cook it quick or stick it in the freezer!).

Are there any special tips you have that help you menu plan? Please share them in my comment section or send me an email! Got your menu-plan for the week done? Feel free to link it below as an example. I haven't done my plan for the upcoming week yet (I like to wait til I have my ads in hand) but will make sure to post it this week as an example.

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