Close to 6 years ago I began meal planning. At that time we were not eating a real foods diet. In fact, the entire reason I started meal planning was because the diet we were eating was no longer working for us.
You see, about 10 years ago I had ‘stopped’ cooking. We ate alot of dine out, take out and frozen meals during those 4 years. We’d also had lots of canned and boxed meals and the very rare home cooked meal of roast beef or baked chicken. One day my husband and I knew things had to change. First of all, we were starting to think that all that processed food couldn’t be good for us even though we often tried to choose low-fat or low-sodium options (during that time I thought low-fat was essential, you know the whole food pyramid and USDA stuff. Now I know better) and financially we knew changes were needed. I was working in the mortgage industry at the time and was beginning to see the ‘writing on the wall’ as far as things changing. I began actively searching for a new career. We were tightening our budget and even sold our city house and moved to a country house.
With our new budget our food expenses were cut dramitically. What we used to spend a week with all of our dining out and take out was almost the budget for the entire month. We were fortunate that while I hadn’t been cooking for several years, I used to cook and knew how. I had never been good at following recipes since the way I learned to cook (from my mama) was by throwing in a little of this and a little of that (and hope for the best) but in the beginning of my re-training time I did use lots of recipes. And put those recipes into a weekly menu plan. During that time I pulled out my old (dusty from lack of use) copy of The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn. I specifically wanted to look up the menu planning method used by her family and described in the book. Their method of shopping actually dictated their menu planning. Their entire shopping goal was to fill the pantry. This meant that when things were on sale–at rock bottom prices– enough would be purchased to keep on hand until the next sale came around. I loved that concept and really needed it with our new budget. What didn’t work as well for me was the Dacyczyn’s actual menu planning.
The Dacyczyn’s menu planning consisted of choosing the next days dinner the night before. While this would probably work I really needed something a little more planned out. I wanted a menu plan that was set up for an entire week or even better a month. I wanted to know exactly what I would be making for dinner when I walked in the door from work.
What ended up working for us was for me to inventory our fridge, pantry and freezer making a menu plan from those contents and then filling in with other things as needed. Believe me, in the beginning this was somewhat challenging since I’d been on a cooking hiatus for so long. But we did have several boxes, cans and some freezer things so it worked out okay (remember, this was prior to real foods). I was able to start adding to our larder as I found sale items and pretty soon had a fairly decent pantry to shop before using the grocery store.
A little over 4 years ago, we knew we would be leaving Oregon and moving to Wyoming. We decided to reduce our pantry to help lighten our cargo. By the time we finally arrived in Wyoming, May of 09 via a winter living in a 23 foot camp trailer in Northern California, we had absolutely no pantry to speak of. During our winter in California, we also started baby stepping toward our real/whole/traditional foods journey. Our baby steps consisted of small changes such as swapping butter for margarine, wheat and unbleached flour for (white) all-purpose flour, etc. Very small changes for sure but little things that really helped our transition. We also focused on knowledge by studying and learning more about WHY we wanted to make these changes and HOW we could do it without busting our budget or becoming overwhelmed.
Setting up our home in Wyoming took about 8 weeks (we lived in the camp trailer) and a considerable amount of money. By the time we were in the house our food budget was fairly tight averaging $475 per month for our family of 5 (2 adults, 2 teenish girls and a baby) with the goal of focusing on real/whole/traditional foods.
With this small budget we knew that we wanted to get back to being able to shop our pantry first and then make our menu plan. And believe me, I really needed to menu plan in order to stay in budget! Now that you have my background story, I’ll share the steps I currently use for menu planning.
Before I start, I should mention that I don’t use any fancy menu planning templates. My standard menu template is a legal size envelope that came in the mail (free paper). Most weeks I only plan our dinners which makes the envelope the perfect size for listing the meal and the day’s “To Do’s”. If I’m not careful things to get a little tight near the bottom but I usually don’t have To Do’s on the weekends with our schedule. I don’t plan lunches since those are usually leftovers or something easy to prepare from this list. Sometimes if, after making up my menu plan, it is a week that is not likely to have many leftovers I’ll make a special pot of soup or casserole to have for the weeks lunches. This works fairly well. Breakfast is also not planned. Quite often we eat eggs and toast for breakfast or when the chickens are not laying well (like now due to their molt) we’ll eat some kind of hot cereal. This post describes our usual breakfasts. When our budget was super tight and our pantry was fairly empty, I did also plan breakfast and lunches (I used a second envelope for those) to be sure that we would have enough food for the week.
1. After I have my paper ready, I take a look in the refrigerator and see what needs to be used up. Is there broth already made? Produce that needs used? Something that should have been eaten and hasn’t (take a look at this post to see how we deal with leftovers)? Next up the freezer. We currently have the freezer that is part of the fridge and a chest freezer. We do have a decent amount of protein choices in the freezer but it wasn’t always like that. The first year we were here most of our protein was from our monthly beef CSA, the single antelope my husband provided plus eggs from our new (5) hens. While I’m at the freezer I might pull out a few things if I think we’ll have them early in the week. Then the pantry (shelf stable storage) to see if there is something there that sounds particularly good this week. I’ve been trying to use a variety of different grains. We tend to want to eat in our comfort zone so I have to make an effort for us to try different things. Now that I know what I have to work with it’s back to the paper.
2. I try to make my menu up on Sunday. We often have leftovers or whatever we can scrounge up on Sunday evening so that day is pretty easy. The other days I fill in based on what we have on hand first. At this point, our well stocked pantries allow us to fill in each day with at least the main course. I’ll usually not have enough produce for the entire week so that will need to be purchased. When our pantry was quite bare, I could often only fill in a couple of days. Beans were certainly our friend during those times! We do still have a pot of beans most weeks. Check out this 13 week menu plan for examples of our bean menus. Even though we did (and do) eat a fair amount of beans, we still try to combine those with a good protein source. Our beans are often cooked in meat or bone broth to increase the nutrition. We also have several chili style dishes that combine beans with a small amount of meat or something like an Egg Foo Yung (see photo) that has eggs and a gravy made of meat broth. Lydia of Divine Health has an excellent post on the importance of protein even when the budget is tight.
At this point my menu plan has been filled in. As I mentioned I usually don’t have enough produce to fill out the week and my menu plan will usually reflect that. On Monday it may be very complete such as crock pot chicken, mashed potatoes, broccoli and glazed carrots. By Thursday it would probably just say salmon patties with sides TBD (to be determined). The sides would then be determined after my Thursday shopping trip.
3. After I have my menu plan then I make my shopping list. For produce (our main shopping item) I’ll usually just list ‘vegetables for 5 meals’ or whatever we need. That way I know how much I need and can choose what is on special. During farmers market season (6 short weeks here) knowing how many meals I need really helps since one never knows what will be at the market. I’ll also add anything else that I need to finish my planned meals such as spices, grains, proteins, etc. While I’m making my shopping list, I’m also indicating how much I estimate the cost will be. Next to my vegetables for 5 meals I might write $15 and so on down the list. This way I have an idea how much my purchases will add up to. AND I can have an idea if I can add in any extras to help fill up the pantry. Even when our budget was super small, we always tried to have our estimate come in $15 to $20 below our limit. That way if prices had suddenly jumped (they do that) we were covered plus it would leave us a little to add to the pantry. Maybe a great deal on produce that can be preserved for later (fermented, dehydrated, etc) or a few extra cans of wild salmon can go in the cart. Oh and I should mention that my shopping list is also made out on one of my re-used envelopes.
Even with my menu plan and shopping list in place it is still necessary to remain flexible. Sometimes we’ll end up with more leftovers than anticipated so we’ll have a leftover night. Also important is flexibility while shopping. By keeping track of my estimated costs I can hopefully make additional bulk purchases if a great deal comes along. This month I got a call from a farmer who had some extra ground beef, soup bones, and roasts from a cull cow. We were happy that we had a little bit of food money put back to buy a decent amount (and he was super nice to throw in lots of extras at no charge). In the beginning of building our pantry these extra purchases were few and far between. But as we have our home food store better built up we can rely less on weekly shopping.
Do you menu plan? What tips can you add for using a menu plan to help stick with your budget?