Planning Meals & Cooking at Home
Planning your meals is essential to saving money on your grocery bill. By taking the time to plan out what you will serve to your family every day, you can better plan your shopping trips and really focus on what you need in your pantry.
As with most things, there are a lot of variables that go into the process of planning meals for your household. This page will pose some questions to help get you started, and links to further your education about this process.
Here are some things to ask yourself:
Question: What does your family like to eat?
Cook what they like. That’s the easy part. Beyond making sure they like what you’re feeding them, figure out how often they are willing to eat certain dishes. You might find a rotational menu plan works well for you. Also consider if there are seasonal meals you fix, like soups and stews in the cold months and salads and sandwiches in the summer.
It is helpful to have a list of Go-To Recipes. Things that you know they love to eat and you can cook well. If you ask them what they’d like to eat next week and no one has any suggestions, then pull out your handy list, check what ingredients you already have, and pick a few things to cook.
Question: How much does your family eat?
Part of learning to accurately plan your meals and maximize your savings is being able to correctly estimate how much your family will eat of the meals you cook. Depending on whether you want leftovers to deal with or not, you should aim to cook enough, but not too much.
Question: Does your family like leftovers?
I have a small family. It’s just me, my Hubby and our young daughter. Despite that, I cook BIG. We do not mind eating leftovers, so I minimize my time in the kitchen each week by cooking larger meals less frequently. I plan my menu around leftovers.
You should also find out whether your family will eat items prepared ahead and then frozen. This concept, often referred to as “freezer cooking” can be a time saver and a money saver. If you plan to cook items ahead and freeze them for later use, be sure to include that in your meal planning.
Question: How many meals are eaten at home?
To accurately plan your meals, you need to know when you are going to be home during mealtimes. It sounds like a simple concept, but with working families, daycare, school, activities and more, it becomes even more important to accurately plan for all meals.
This includes meals you might prepare to serve outside your home, like packed lunches or food you take to a pitch-in meal at church. Also consider ALL meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner. Snacks, too!
Question: How often do you want to cook?
The more you cook at home, the more you can save. Look at your schedule, and your desire to cook, and figure out how often you would like to cook. Once a week? Every day? Once you know how often you’d like to be in the kitchen, you can start to shape a menu.
If you’d like to cook only once or twice a week, then plan to spend a larger amount of time in the kitchen preparing things that can be stored and eaten later, frozen and thawed at a later date, or meals that are large and can safely be stored while your family enjoys leftovers for the next several days.
If you’d like to cook smaller meals more often, then plan accordingly. You’ll be cooking less food, so you will be in the kitchen a lesser amount of time, but on a more frequent basis.
What’s Next? Find Ways to Save Money!
The act of planning out your meals alone will help save money by reducing the amount of unneeded items you buy when you shop. You won’t need to buy items “just in case”. You will already know what you’re cooking and what you need. Here are some things you can do to save even more money…
Look at the ingredients that you use in your meals. Figure out a Go-To Ingredient list and try to have the basics always stocked in your pantry. If you choose meals that have common ingredients, you can buy in bulk to save money, or shop ahead and stockpile items for when you need them. Then you can create menu plans that maximize those items. For example, I always have diced tomatoes on hand. I used them in chili, vegetable stew, spaghetti and other tasty meals. I buy them when I can get them as cheap as possible, and then I have them when I need them.
Explore the brands you buy. There are some things that I am fine getting the store brand of, and other items must be a certain brand. Kraft Singles is one item I must get in name brand only, but I am willing to buy the store brand for most other things. Examine your brands, see what savings you can get from using coupons, and then shop around to see where you can get the best price. Maybe you can try switching to a new brand and using a coupon to save, or you could try a store brand. Sometimes buying the store brand is cheaper than buying a brand name with a coupon!
Can you make anything from scratch? It is easy to go for the convenience factor when you’re in the grocery store. I have found small ways to alter my cooking habits that have shaved pennies here and there. I make my own pizza dough rather than buying it. I use fresh pumpkins for pies rather than canned. I shred fresh cabbage for coleslaw rather than buying it pre-shredded in bags. Find small ways to save money by preparing things yourself.
Other Tips for Meal Planning:
- Before you start your meal plan, consult your pantry. You might be able to cook that week with items you already have. Consider keeping basic ingredients on hand that you stockpile at low prices and then only buying fresh items or add-on items for a recipe as you need them.
- Coordinate your meal planning with your grocery shopping. If you shop once a week, then plan at least one week of meals in advance. You may even want to plan a whole month in advance, especially if you rotate your menus, but always make sure you know what you will be cooking BEFORE you go shopping.
- Keep your Menu in a visually accessible place, like the refrigerator. You might want a reminder to thaw things for upcoming meals, and it can be helpful in keeping us on track with our plan. Without a menu in place and easily accessible, it can be tempting to grab a pizza instead.
- Re-use old Menu Plans. If your family isn’t picky, you could use a monthly rotation of meals, or simply keep old weekly plans to pull out and re-use again down the road. Make any adjustments to the plan or add notes before filing the plan away for the next time.
- Look for budget-friendly meals. With a little trial and error, you can figure out which recipes are the cheapest and easiest to make. There are tons of sites out there with frugal recipes. Find ones you like!
Did you notice the graphics up there?
These are FREE printable resources for you to print:
Here are some links that should be helpful:
Budget-Friendly Meals from Hoosier Homemade - I love this site. She has so many awesome and easy-to-cook recipes, plus this wonderful section of frugal meal ideas.
Weekly Meal Plans & Recipes from Heavenly Homemakers – This is another one of my favorite sites. You can not only see the wonderfully nutritious meal plans that have been successfully used, but a large number of the items on those menu plans are linked to their respective recipes. And I can attest that she’s got some GOOD recipes! I also really like that she shows her menu plan for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Recipes & Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals – this is an AWESOME 78 page booklet from the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. It has a wealth of information about planning meals, saving money and a TON OF RECIPES!
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