The single most effective tool for feeding your family on a budget is Meal Planning.
After you have made the preparations I mentioned yesterday, you are ready to start entering menus on your calendar. We have already established some practical considerations of time constraints, number of people to be fed, and grocery bargains. The next consideration is reality. When you get home after church on Sunday, are you really going to want to cook, serve and clean up after a big meal? Do you have time on Saturday to prepare it then and reheat on Sunday? Is that really what you want to do with your Saturday? Will your family actually eat the economical meals you come up with? If you serve rice and beans, will your husband be running out to McDonalds for a burger and fries within the hour? Do you need to serve bread with every dinner? The price per pound to buy a whole chicken is lower than the price per pound for chicken breasts, but will it all be eaten? Is the meal conveniently made from a whole chicken or would chicken breasts be better for the purpose? And do you really want to cut up and simmer the whole chicken, peel off all the skin and fat and separate the meat from the bones, keeping the cooking water for broth (after refrigerating it so you can skim off the fat when it rises and solidifies)? Sometimes that is worth doing, but be realistic about the work and time involved and your own willingness to do it. Meatless dishes may sound like they would cost less than meals featuring meat, but remember that cheese may cost up to three times as much per pound as meat.
Circumventing reality is possible, of course. Larger servings of meatless meals, especially if you serve them with large loaves of homemade bread, will fill up a family accustomed to meat at every meal. Using the crockpot will help with scheduling issues. Including the children (and husband) in planning, shopping and cooking might help them accept meals they would not ordinarily enjoy. You might make a game of trying a new recipe each week. Serving chocolate cake for dessert helps foster a more pleasant memory of the tofu casserole dinner. Just about any meal is made more palatable by fresh hot bread.
Start with dinners. Most of us eat our main family meal in the early evening. If the biggest meal of your day is served at noontime, start there. Using a pencil with a good eraser, and bearing in mind the considerations listed above, start filling in the bottom halves of the boxes on the calendar with your favorite dinner entrees. In most homes, certain main courses come with standard side dishes. In our house, a beef roast is always accompanied by potatoes, carrots and bread. A simple green salad is nice when it’s affordable. Stir-fry anything is served with rice. Split pea soup is served with cornbread. Write those in along with the main course, and then select the side dishes for the other meals. You don’t have to fill in every box at this point. Stop and look at it. Are you eating chicken all week? Having spaghetti twice in one week? Or spaghetti and then chili and then goulash? Serving tacos and burritos and fajitas within days of each other? Break it up.
If you shop infrequently, consider the life span of your purchases. If you have meals that use perishable fresh produce, plan to have them first or be prepared to make more shopping trips. Think about meals that last two or more days – soups, for example. Those are convenient to make on a relatively free Monday and serve again on a hectic Tuesday. The leftovers from one meal sometimes morph into an entirely different meal on the next day. A beef roast is usually followed by vegetable beef soup. Turkey is often followed by hot or cold sandwiches or quiche.
Rearrange the menus as necessary and fill in the gaps. As you schedule menus, keep the budget and the grocery bargains in mind. If chicken is on sale, come up with a wide variety of chicken dishes. Or, if you can afford it, buy enough to store in the freezer for the future.
In the top half of each box, start scheduling breakfasts and lunches. Everyone needs to eat breakfasts and lunches. Lunches might be leftovers (look at the previous day’s menu to make sure there will BE leftovers), or you might eat PBJ sandwiches every day. Breakfast might be oatmeal all week and eggs with toast on the weekends. Even if it seems simple and obvious, write it in. As you develop your own system for menu planning, you might decide to leave them out or only include them on the weekends and during summer months, but for now, write them in. It will help you create your shopping list.
Also make note of any meal prep that must be done ahead of time. If you are planning Hawaiian chicken for Saturday, make a note in Tuesday’s box to start the bean sprouts. Then get in the habit of checking your menu plan a day ahead of time, especially if you make meals that require longer to cook; beans, bread, marinades and other items may need to be started early the next day, or you may need to defrost something.
Go through your menu plan and make a shopping list. Double check your pantry if necessary, to make sure you are including everything you will need. Make sure you know how much of an item you will need. If you are having three meals with ground beef, don’t just write “ground beef” on your list – write “ground beef 3X”.
After you have made a list that includes your meal items, you can add the “extras” that are important to you. Remember, while adding them, that they are indeed “extras” and often unhealthy anyhow. This is the best place to pare down the list, but remember to be realistic. If your husband eats a bowl of ice cream every night, he may be resistant to giving it up. Perhaps your children need a snack after school or to bring to soccer practice.
Next time, I am going to talk about economical and healthy food habits and options. It’s much cheaper, here in America, to live on macaroni and cheese, Ramen noodles, and white bread than it is to eat healthy foods, but that doesn’t make it optimal!