I hope you found some time last week to evaluate your household's budget and determine your family's food budget using the USDA food spending averages. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, last week on the Blog, I shared how setting a monthly food budget, and sticking to it, is a top priority for maximizing your food budget dollars. In case you missed it, you can find that post here. This week, I'll be sharing some additional tips to help you get the greatest return on your food spending investments. If setting a budget and sticking to it is the top way to maximize your food budget, then meal planning is definitely a close second. There are so many reasons I love meal planning, and saving money is one really good reason. However, taking the time to meal plan also saves time on shopping, reduces time in the kitchen, and keeps food waste to a minimum. I'd love to share some of my tips for designing a meal plan, shopping for your plan, and utilizing that plan.
Personally, I get bored very easily. So, cooking the same exact meal once per week is not an option for me. However, if that is something that would work for your family, I do encourage repeating meals as there's far less preparation time needed for both shopping and cooking when you're making something familiar. Yet, because time is not something I have unlimited amounts of, I do have to make some compromises in the creativity and spontaneity departments. A meal planning design that I have found to be most beneficial for our family is a themed plan by day of the week. By having a theme, I know the basics of what I'm going to be preparing for each night of the week and can utilize familiar staples from week to week. For example, our current meal rotation looks like this:
Wednesday- Stir Fry
Thursday- Burger Night
Friday- Pizza or Pasta
Sunday- Supper at my parents'
In order to keep things interesting, I will switch up the meat that I incorporate into the meal (for vegetarians, you can switch up the protein or starch source). So, for any given month, we might have BBQ chicken one week, BBQ beef another week, BBQ turkey meatballs another, and then BBQ salmon the next. To cut costs, I use very little portion sizes for meat, choosing to use meat for flavor instead of having it be the dominant part of a meal. This leaves plenty of room on our "Perfect Plate" to fill half with non starchy vegetables and the remaining quarter with a starch/carbohydrate (this can be vegetable based or grain based, depending on your diet). For our family of 5, one pound of meat is what I typically prepare. On BBQ night, we'll usually have green beans or peas, the kids and Shea may have corn or baked beans, and we'll all have a side salad. I do something similar with taco nights--hard shell ground beef tacos one week, soft shell fish tacos the next, followed by chipotle chicken taco bowls, and then taco salad. The options are virtually endless as you can mix and match different vegetable combinations and condiments as well. The same is true for Stir Fry Night, Burger Night and Pizza/Pasta Night. So. Many. Options.
Saturdays I keep open so there's some additional wiggle room in the menu, which is perfect for those of us who get a bit claustrophobic when we feel boxed in to anything. If we happen to go out for supper on a Friday, I'll move Pizza/Pasta Night to Saturday. Otherwise, we'll often have breakfast for supper on a Saturday, put something on the grill, or just eat leftovers from earlier in the week. Every once in awhile I like to pretend I'm Julia Child and make something extra fancy on a weekend, but that doesn't necessarily happen every month. I'm a bit spoiled on Sundays as I get to experience the incredible blessing of a night off from cooking because we go to my parents' for supper on Sunday nights. However, if you don't have an option like that, Sunday nights are also a great leftover night to clean out the frig before starting a new week.
About a week before the start of a new month, I'll sit down with a paper calendar (because I feel like we all spend way too much time looking at electronic screens) and I'll fill it out for the entire month using my nightly supper themes. If you pack sack lunches for your kids (or yourself) you could add that plan to the calendar as well. I don't add breakfast to my meal plan because I don't eat breakfast (I practice intermittent fasting--I'll save that topic for another day) and I use a rotation for my kids' breakfasts so I don't have to waste an ounce of brain power on coming up with new breakfast ideas. Curious what our breakfast "plan" is? Here's what I do:
Tuesday- pancakes and berries with bacon
Wednesday- sausage egg bagel
Thursday- yogurt parfaits with fruit and granola
Friday- cereal (yes, my kids eat cereal; I save it for Fridays when I'm attempting to finish strong, but am tired)
Saturdays- muffins and scrambled eggs
Sundays- waffles (this is the one morning that I'll typically eat breakfast)
By using the same breakfast menu each week, I'm able to carry ingredients over to the next week, and we have virtually zero waste because I know exactly how much of these meals my kids will eat each morning. If you're an adult who eats breakfast, eating supper leftovers the following morning is a great way to reduce waste, save money, not have to think about what to make, and you're more likely to eat a more nutrient-dense breakfast this way. However, if you do opt for making "breakfast" type food in the morning, making this meal from scratch is a great way to save money. For example, buying bulk rolled oats is significantly cheaper than buying packaged oatmeal packets. Pancakes, muffins, waffles and granola are also significantly less expensive if you make them yourself. Plus, it's very easy to make extra and freeze or store for a future meal. And, I know some of you are really not going to want to hear this, but, if you're really needing to watch your food spending, skipping the tall double shot mocha frappuccino and brewing your morning coffee at home can really help free up some $ in your food budget. Again, limiting meat (especially for breakfast) is yet another way to reduce your spending.
For my kids' sack lunches, I have found that a rotational meal plan again works well for our family. I'm still tweaking this year's menu because all three kids are in school every day, but it will likely look something like this:
Meal 1- turkey sandwich, carrots with hummus, applesauce, trail mix
Meal 2- ham pickle rollups, cheese curds, broccoli, peaches
Meal 3- tuna salad stuffed peppers, chips, mixed berries
Meal 4- grilled chicken cobb salad with cherry tomatoes, croutons, apple slices
Meal 5- PB&J bagel, kale chips, (soup when it gets colder outside), banana
I don't assign specific lunches to specific days because I try to give my kids some choice in what day they have each meal. However, we use each meal just once per week. Some hints for cutting costs on lunches include using whole vegetables instead of cut or "baby" versions and doing the chopping yourself, limiting or avoiding expensive processed/packaged foods, including a meatless meal, incorporating a canned meat like tuna (I suggest SafeCatch brand to avoid high mercury levels), and (this is my strongest suggestion for kids lunches) paying attention to portion sizes--do not pack more than they will eat. In the past, I have really struggled with food waste from our kids' lunches, so this school year I'm starting small and only giving them what I know they will be able to eat in 10-15 minutes (because realistically that's all the time they get). I figure if they are starving at 3:00 when they get home, they can always have a second lunch.
Speaking of after school, many families offer after-school snacks when kids return from school. I've found that the best options for these snacks are single ingredient items like popcorn, fresh fruit, nuts, dried fruit and raw vegetables. These are much more cost effective than processed alternatives like packaged crackers, chips and gummy fruit snacks. I'm always amazed at how much money gets freed up in a budget when processed food is drastically reduced or eliminated.
Okay, I know that this was probably a lot to take in. So, here are the top 4 take aways this week:
1. Take time to meal plan (I suggest themes/rotational meal planning)
2. Make food from scratch as much as possible
3. Don't waste leftovers
4. Snack on single ingredient foods
Next week, I'll be diving further in to the shopping component. I'll be sharing tips and tricks to get the most for your money while you're at the grocery store. Until then, if you have questions, don't hesitate to stop in to Simply Nourished to talk to one of our knowledgable Team members. It's our joy to help bring wellness within reach for our customers!