What's for dinner? 6 steps to save money on meals

Planning meals for families can be a daunting task. Hamm offers six steps to save money on family-meal planning.

By , Guest blogger

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    A customer sorts through her coupons while shopping at Choice Grocery in Gulfport, Miss.
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Five long years ago, I wrote a post outlining our process for planning meals for the upcoming week. It was mostly composed of six steps:

Step 1: Get a Flyer
Step 2: Find Sales on Fresh Ingredients
Step 3: Do Some Recipe Research
Step 4: Create a Week-Long Meal Plan
Step 5: Make a Shopping List from the Meal Plan
Step 6: Go Grocery Shopping – And Stick to Your List

This is a great structure for planning family meals, but after doing this routine for several years, I’ve come to find that the devil is in the details when it comes to making this work for my busy family.

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So, I decided to go back and rework that post, adding in the changes we’ve made in the interim to make this process work for us. 

Step 1: Get a Flyer
Back then, I wrote:

The most important step is to get a flyer from your grocery store – or perhaps flyers from two or three local grocery stores. There are a lot of ways to get these – in a local newspaper, in the mail, or online, for starters. I usually download the flyer from the website of the grocery stores we visit – Hy-Vee andFareway.

I find it useful to have the exact location of the latest flyer for each of my local grocery stores bookmarked on my web browser. This way, with just a couple of clicks, I have the flyers on my computer, ready to go.

At this point, virtually every grocery store chain (and many standalone grocers) have weekly or monthly flyers on the internet. I no longer use the newspaper or the mail to get them – I exclusively use the internet.

I usually get four flyers – Fareway (for staples), Hy-Vee (for most things not found at Fareway), Wheatsfield Co-op (for specialty items), and Target (for household goods).

Step 2: Find Sales on Fresh Ingredients
Back then, I wrote:

Once I have the flyers, I go through them and mark any sales on fresh ingredients that they have. For example, as I write this, I’m reviewing Hy-Vee’s ad for October 14 through October 20, and I’m noticing several things on sale: fresh zucchini for $0.89 a pound, fresh yellow squash for $0.89 a pound, sweet yellow onions for $0.99 a pound, yellow bell peppers for $0.99 a pound, tons of apple sales, ground turkey for $2.18 a pound, hormone- and antibiotic-free cageless chicken for $1.99 a pound, and so on.

I ignore the sales on most prepackaged items. We focus on buying fresh foods and staples like flour for our meals. Over the long haul, the fresh items are cheaper and healthier. 

Today, I still focus heavily on the fresh item sales, as they form the backbone of many of our meals. I also look for discounts on things that I know will pop up frequently in recipes we use, such as frozen vegetables (which are ultra-convenient for a busy family that seems to have something going on every week night).

Hand in hand with this, we also keep a pantry list. Whenever Sarah or I notice that something is getting low (but isn’t completely out), we add that item to the pantry list and I (since it’s usually me doing this) check the flyers each week to see if the item is on sale. If it is, we buy it then; otherwise, we wait until it’s actually out.

Most of the time, when we go grocery shopping, we make at least two stops, but the exact stores we stop at varies from week to week. If I’m shopping, one of those stops is usually Fareway, since I’ve verified that their prices are always very strong on non-specialty items, so I’ll usually pick up non-sale items there. The other store varies depending on the flyers.

Step 3: Do Some Recipe Research
Back then, I wrote:

This week, I know I’ll be working with ground turkey, whole chicken, zucchini and squash, yellow bell peppers, sweet yellow onions, apples, and the other meat we have in our freezer from bulk purchases. What recipes can I find that utilize these ingredients?

I go to a recipe search engine like Foodieview and just enter combinations of the on-sale fresh ingredients that sound interesting. My first attempt was searching for “turkey, zucchini, onion” and I immediately found a turkey and zucchini meat loaf recipe from Epicurious. Searching for “yellow bell, chicken” gets me an interesting chicken bell pepper recipe (which I’ll use, but modify a bit). Chicken-apple-bacon burgers? Yum. Plus, you can easily grill sliced squash (dipped in olive oil and ground pepper) for a wonderful vegetable side dish.

Most of the online tools mentioned above are defunct, so instead I’ll share exactly how I find recipes now.

Once I have a list of fresh ingredients that are on sale, I simply go to Google and type in “fast recipe” followed by two of the discounted fresh ingredients that I think might pair well together. If I don’t find anything interesting, I’ll search for “slow cooker recipe” followed by those two ingredients.

For example, if tomatoes are on sale alongside quinoa, I’ll search for “fast recipe tomato quinoa” and see what I find. Right there, in the results, is black bean and tomato quinoa, which only takes 20 minutes to make.

I’ll try several different pairings just to see what I find and I’ll select the ones that I like the best out of those findings with an eye towards quick recipes. Generally, I don’t have time for long meals during the week, so we save those for weekends.

If a meal looks particularly promising, I’ll figure out if it works for a double or triple batch. Is there a point in the recipe where it would make sense to freeze it, leaving the rest of the preparation for a future date? This works really well for slow cooker recipes, where you can combine all of the stuff into a couple gallon freezer bags and mark them with cooking directions. Then, when you actually need something for the slow cooker, pull out those bags and add them to the slow cooker.

Step 4: Create a Week-Long Meal Plan
Back then, I wrote:

I usually start off with my blank meal-planning worksheet and fill in the dinners first based on the above recipes. For us, breakfasts are usually quite simple and lunches usually consist of leftovers, so those columns are quite easy as well.

I usually try to make most weeknight meals pretty easy. I usually attempt one difficult recipe during the week and one on a weekend, with the others being simple. Whole chicken roasting? That’s a difficult one. Chicken-apple burgers? Easy.

We usually have homemade pizza one night a week, often Fridays. We also often have pasta one night a week, often Tuesdays (for some reason). So I’ll pencil those things in, too. We have plenty of ingredients on hand for both, so I don’t really need to shop for them – buying flour in bulk makes crust easy, and we keep tons of tomato sauce and ground beef on hand at all times.

Given all that, it’s pretty easy to fill in the rest of the squares on that meal plan. I usually only need to come up with five suppers per week and two to three lunches per week (for meals where leftovers from the night before don’t carry over). Often, these are just simple sandwiches.

We still follow this same basic idea, with a few caveats.

First, we generally make a meal from the freezer at least one night a week. This is a meal of which we made a double or triple batch at an earlier date. These meals tend to work best on nights where the kids have activities, as I can generally start such meals around the time they get home from school, take them to their activities, then come home to a meal that’s ready to go.

This reduces the number of meals that I actually have to prepare during the week. On the other hand, at least one meal is usually a “double” or “triple” batch meal, so I mark that on the meal plan with an “x 2″ or an “x 3.”

I also use slow cooker meals for the busiest nights. I prefer meals where I can just add all of the ingredients earlier in the day and it’s simply done at dinner time. If a recipe says that you just add all ingredients, turn the cooker on low, and eat in eight hours, that’s perfect – I’ll start it early in the day and we’re ready to eat when the family comes together in the evening.

Right now, for example, I’ll generally use a slow cooker meal on Monday and Thursday nights, as those are the busiest, and a meal from the freezer often happens on Wednesday nights, as there’s one activity right in the middle of the late afternoon/evening timespan. Tuesday nights are the ones most likely to see me making a double or triple batch of a meal.

Knowing those constraints makes it much easier to slot in meals throughout the week. Because I plan ahead with those constraints, know the meal plan will work.

Of course, life sometimes intervenes, and that’s why we always have an extra meal or two in the freezer. Generally, there’s always some opportunity to get something in the oven so that it’s ready when we’re all at home, so even if an evening offers an unexpected challenge, I have something that works in a pinch.

Step 5: Make a Shopping List from the Meal Plan
Back then, I wrote:

Once the meal plan is in place, I go through and list all of the ingredients for all of the recipes I’ll make and then cross off the things we have as I find them in the cupboards or refrigerator. Most of this is very easy, but it saves us money – we don’t accidentally buy things we already have on hand.

I also check the staples – flour, milk, yeast, juice boxes, and so on – and add replenishments to the list.

Generally, I’m buying for three to four evening meals. Leftovers and school lunches cover the mid-day meals, so I also need to pick up items for breakfasts.

The key thing to remember here is to check for double or triple meals. Those need to be reflected on the grocery list or else you’ll wind up with a depleted freezer really quickly. I use the “x 2″ and “x 3″ (and sometimes “x 4″) notations on the meal plan to remind myself to make extra batches.

Step 6: Go Grocery Shopping – And Stick to Your List
Back then, I wrote:

Once you have the list in place, it’s simple. Take it to the grocery store and stick to it. Don’t toss stuff that’s not on your list into the cart. Since you’ve already planned your meals, you know that you don’t need it.

Using this path will also make grocery shopping itself substantially quicker. Most of your purchases will be around the edges of the store, in the produce and meat sections. You won’t have to go up and down every aisle to find the items you need. This will shave significant time off of your shopping trip.

The biggest challenge I have in the grocery store is impulse buys. I’ll go in there, see something that would make for a great snack or an impromptu meal replacement and I just buy it. Not only is that expensive, it ends up wasting other items on the list.

My solution for that is to eat something before I go to the store. Ideally, I go to the store right after a meal, but if that doesn’t work, I eat some sort of filling snack before I go in the door.

That way, I’m not hungry and thus the appeal of impulsively-purchased foods is much, much lower than it might otherwise be.

Meal planning really doesn’t eat up any extra time as compared to shopping without a plan or a list. What it does save is money – and a surprising amount of it. We have a family of five and with a sensibly constructed plan, I can do a week’s worth of grocery shopping for right around $100. In fact, I just did that yesterday afternoon, spending just over $100 to cover my family for at least one week. I also know exactly what we’re going to eat for each meal and it’s all lined up to match our busy weekday activities.

That’s how a meal plan works, and that’s how it can save you a lot of money week after week.

The post Meal Planning for Busy Families appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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