31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget: Menu Planning on a Budget (Part 2)

Missed the first posts this series? Read them here.

You’ve “shopped” your cupboards, consulted the sales fliers and surveyed your coupons, now it’s time to get down to business with menu-planning. But first off, let me re-iterate a very important point:

There’s not a perfect way to plan a menu.

Everyone is going to plan their menu a little bit differently. As I said yesterday, there’s no right or wrong way to menu plan. What matters is that you do it, and that it works for your family. For the record, I do it a little differently each time I plan–depending upon how much time and inspiration I have and what our plans for the week look like.

Sometimes, I have lots of extra ingredients to work with, there are lots of sales, and I have numerous coupons. When that happens, it’s pretty easy to pull together a week’s worth of meals without a lot of extra thought.

I’ve found that once-a-month Freezer Cooking makes menu planning a breeze. In fact, many weeks, I can just write out breakfast, lunch, and dinner ideas on this form here, and we’re good to go for the week. I use the sheet for ideas, but I don’t necessarily follow it to a tee. In our home, flexibility and creativity is okay–provided it doesn’t mean any extra trips to the store!

However, at times, my cupboards and freezers are pretty bare, the sales are sparse, and my coupon box is relatively empty. If that’s the case, I see how much grocery money I have to work with, and I usually pull out some cookbooks to get the wheels in my head going. Or I’ll go to one of my favorite food blogs (like Tammy’s Recipes) for ideas. You can also check out Menu Plan Monday for a plethora of menu ideas from around the blogosphere.

Find a method that works for you.

You might find it helpful to take 30 minutes and make a list of 30 meals your family loves to serve as inspiration if you’re ever feeling a lack of creativity while menu-planning.

Or, you could have pre-established themes for dinners each week. Tsh, over at SimpleMom, does this and here’s an example of what her Themed Menu Plan has looked like:

Mondays – pasta
Tuesdays – soup, salad, and/or sandwiches
Wednesdays – stir fry
Thursdays – crock pot
Fridays – pizza
Saturdays – something new
Sundays – something easy

Jenna from the Newlyweds blog left a comment sharing how she plans her menus:

I try to plan 2 meals around items I already have at home in the pantry or freezer, and then plan some meals based on what’s on sale, and some based on what we would like to eat. I keep my plan flexible and allow for anything that will pop up. I also like to keep items on hand all the time for a few quick meals like taco soup and spaghetti. This way, if some comes up, I can whip these up in a jiffy. -Jenna @ Newlyweds

It might seem like a daunting task at first–especially if this is all new to you!–but don’t be overwhelmed. Do the best you can do and remember that it’s never going to be absolutely perfect. Over time, though, you’ll likely begin to realize significant savings just by taking a few extra steps and putting the effort forth to make a plan.

Free Menu Planning Worksheet and Grocery Shopping Lists

To aid you in your menu-planning and grocery-list-making, Joy from FiveJ’s and I put together some free downloads for you. (By the way, Joy put together a snazzy free downloads page here so you can access all the free downloads we currently have available. Enjoy!)

Meal Planning Worksheet :: This brainstorming form contains spaces to write down store deals, coupons, items on hand, and recipes that can be made from those items.

Shopping List :: Contains space for the items to purchase, the cost of the item, whether there is a coupon for it, and how much the coupon is for. Also includes a space for notes where you can record extra information about your shopping trip.

Two-Store Shopping List :: Two separate shopping lists on one page, each of which includes space for the items to purchase, the cost of the item, and whether there is a coupon for it. Also includes a space for notes where you can record extra information about your shopping trip.

How do you normally plan your menus? I’d love to hear what works for you!

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Comments

  1. says

    I menu plan for two weeks and only grocery shop every other week. Sundays and Mondays are usually big dinner days because I seem to have the most time and Wednesdays are normally crockpot day. By the time Thursday rolls around, I am tired of cooking and it is an easy dinner night! I usually have to go back to the store once a week for milk, fruit, veggies, and lunch meat for school/work lunches.

  2. says

    I’m pretty new to meal planning and am going on week two. I have already cut my grocery bill in half! My favorite way to meal plan is around leftovers. I love buying a whole chicken and using the leftover meat for other meals. The same with a 5lbs package of ground beef. I also like to plan around what I have in my home, for the sides. For breakfast and lunch I keep it light, not only for myself but my son which I’m sure helps to save on our budget just a little bit. Meal planning is giving us such variety and helping me create balanced meals for my family. I could never go back to just going to the store and throwing things in the cart!

  3. says

    Sometimes I cook for 2 days and we eat leftovers on the 3rd day and still have leftovers that we can take for lunch to work.

    I wanted to see how your shopping list compared to the one I made in Excel, but the link is not working. Please let me know when it is fixed. Thanks for all you do and all you share.

  4. says

    LOVE this! I figured out how to do this a few months ago when my husband came upon his first deployment after we had our 4th baby. I was a little loopy trying to figure out how I was going to make it through a grocery trip every week with all four kids (6-birth) in tow. I think God just lead me to menu planned my way through an entire month (the length of that deployment), and saving a crazy amount of grocery money instantly- even w/o coupons! Then, when he got home, I started coupons, and now I’m HOOKED on coupons and menu planning. Saved $50 with coupons at yesterday’s grocery counter. Thanks for helping me on my mission to frugality, Crystal!

  5. says

    I definitely plan menus around what we have on hand and of course around what activities we have going on for the week.

    Now that my kids are older, I let them get involved in menu planning. They love to have input on what we’re eating this week (and they certainly love to eat). :)

    I’m hoping to help develop this skill in them for thinking ahead and planning around what food we have.

  6. says

    One other idea is to get your kids’ help with the planning and execution of mealtime. Friday is usually a good day for us let the kids plan and cook (some are more self sufficient here than others) the meal. Each Friday a different child chooses, helps plan what is needed, and then cooks that meal. They really like having an input in what gets served.

  7. says

    Love this series. It goes along so well with a series I started on my own blog a couple of weeks ago. I use a four-week “Know Thy Family” plan. Each week I try to incorporate at least one meal that each member in my family enjoys. I find this helps avoid “burn-out” and constant complaining from the kiddos.

    I also shop from my stockpile first (it’s cheaper than a grocery store) and find recipes that fit with what we have on hand. One of the reason I love a four-week plan is the peace of mind I have – I know I have a plan and I don’t have to scramble at 5 o’clock. Also since there is a plan in place it allows me to shop only rock-bottom prices for the rest of the month – which keeps the grocery budget in check for the next month.

    • says

      @Kelly, I like this “know thy family” tip. My little guys are not yet at the age where they’re demanding certain types of meals, but it is definitely something I will keep in mind as they get older – it’s such a good way to love your family with your cooking!

  8. says

    Since becoming a vegan family, we have been focusing on keeping our cupboards full of grains, rice, beans, and produce. Our planning is for 2 weeks at a time and we focus on recipes that are yummy yet veg.

    Also, it has been EXTREMELY difficult finding coupons for products which we use since going veg. (so we’ve excepted that our grocerie bill will be higher than when we were buying “helper” mixes and “instant potatoes”.
    Crystal- do you have any recommendations for those of us who are vegan, vegetarian or just on a healthier diet? (I love to feed my family the good stuff- but it is more costly)

  9. Julie says

    I’m really enjoying this series.
    Another thing to remember when planning is the family’s activities for the week. On days we’ll be out and about all day, for example, a crock pot meal is ideal. If someone has to leave for a meeting or will be home late, I try to plan accordingly.

  10. Lisa says

    I created 8 different weeks of menus and corresponding shopping lists (to which I add and subtract depending on what I have on hand). I has been a HUGE timesaver in our house.

    I always know what ingredients I’ll need in the next several weeks, so I can stock up on sale items in advance.

  11. says

    Every weekend I sit down and write out my menu on a $1 “weekly” magnetic notepad. I just jot down the main dish on there and then make up my grocery list for all I’ll need. I don’t feel like I have the time or energy right now to match my menu to sales/coupons, but I do use dealseekingmom’s coupon database to look up any coupons there might be for what I’ve got on my menu. I’m slowly moving toward shopping the sales and stocking up, but right now, we don’t have the extra money to stock up. I love reading all the ideas on this blog (and others)! And I love how she encourages you to make it work for you and work up to the full-blown deal :)

  12. says

    Since changing our diet towards local and organic/organically-grown, my menu planning style has also changed. I used to plan my meals mostly around the sales in the grocery store circulars. But most of my shopping now is done at our local farmers markets and health food stores which don’t offer rock bottom sales. So I plan first by looking at what we already have on hand. Then I consider what fresh vegetables are in season in our area that will most likely be available at our farmers markets. My menu plan usually includes several meatless meals (especially Fridays during Lent). Eating more meatless meals helps to offset the increased cost of buying local, grass-fed and pastured meats. And since I work full-time, I plan my easier meals during weekdays and save more time consuming dishes for the weekends.

    Mary Ellen

  13. says

    One thing I have done to help keep costs down and give me inspiration for meals is to keep a spreadsheet that has both meals I’ve regularly made as well as the estimated cost per serving. That way, if we’re running low on our food budget, I will scan the spreadsheet and look for some inexpensive meals. But if we have a little wiggle room and our spirits really need some lifting with a nicer meal, I might pick something that costs a little more per serving. I usually don’t include meals on this spreadsheet, though, that cost more than 1.25/serving, and many of them are in the 60 cent to 75 cent range.

    Eventually I’d also like to compile a list of meals based on loss-leader sale items so that not only can I stock up on them when they go on sale, but also maybe do some bulk cooking around those sales.

    • Karen says

      @Jenni @ Life from the Roof,

      I love this idea of keeping a list of regular meals and their estimated cost per serving. I would find it so helpful at times. I will have to try to do this when I get the time.

      Thanks for the great idea!
      Karen

  14. says

    We do meal planning a little bit differently. My husband loves to experiment and cook and does most of the cooking in our house (he will actually be starting culinary school soon). What we typically do is make up a list of 5-6 meals that we plan to cook for the week, either based on what we have in the cupboard, what is on sale, or what his current fancy is (he loves cooking international foods). I then shop based on that, getting the best deals I can find. We eat lots of produce and lately we’ve been trying to make some sort of soup at least once each week since its cheap and filling.

  15. Laura says

    I, too, keep a list of about 30 of our favorite meals. I use it for inspiration when nothing comes to mind. Thankfully, I keep most of the items on hand and these meals are all pretty quick to whip up.

    For menu planning, I write our menus on a copy of the family calendar. This helps me avoid the problem of planning a big meal on a day when I have errands or someone has a 5:00 practice.

  16. Bethany says

    Now this might be a totally screwy question and somebody has probably already addressed this and I haven’t seen it but what do you do with leftovers? I know you don’t throw them out but does anybody use them for lunches next day or snacks or refreeze them for “ala carte” day or something? Or do you gauge how much to make of the main dish then use salad, veggies, rolls, etc. as filler in case anybody is still hungry???

    • says

      @Bethany,
      There are only 2 of us, but I often cook enough for 4 or 5 people because I love having leftovers. Leftovers make great lunches & are perfect for days when you need a quick dinner.

    • Pat says

      @Bethany,
      I use the leftovers for lunches, or if after a couple of days I am getting a bunch in the fridge I have a leftover night. Sometimes if its just a little meat or veggies, I put them in a soup, or salad, just depends on what it is. Or if it is onions, mushrooms, peppers, things like that I make us an omlet for supper and use them up that way, sprinkle a little shredded cheese on the top, and a sprinkle of fresh chopped parsley, and It looks wonderful! No one even thinks of it being a leftover meal.

    • Sarah says

      @Bethany, There are only 2 of us too, and while I do adjust my recipes for some things (i.e. I won’t cook 2 lbs of chicken for 2 people- I’ll just cook 1 lb, which is enough for at least 4 meals ), I won’t for others. For instance, I won’t make just 1/2 a pan of lasagna. Anything that can be easily frozen, I freeze… which is basically anything, I’ve found, if you’ll use it again soonish (within a month). I tend to freeze things in individual portions for my husband to take to work for lunch in the coming weeks or also in bigger portions for us to have for dinner in the next few weeks. We like leftovers but just need to space them out a bit, otherwise we get really sick of eating the same thing!

  17. says

    Menu Planning is a lifesaver in our home as well. My husband & I both work full time. Menu planning has allows us to prepare for our busy days. We freeze meals or do meals in the crock pot of days that we expect to work late or when we have evening meetings & events. It is so nice to come home & have a plan for dinner instead of going through the- “so, what do you want for dinner?” routine.

    Menu planning also encourages us to try new things using items we have in our cupboards.

  18. says

    I began my blog to help me stay focused on getting my home organized. I started meal planning purely because it was a blog party to join that fit in with the theme of my blog. It has been so much more of a help than I ever thought it would be. It not only saves me money, it has made a huge impact on home organization in general. I can’t recommend it enough.

  19. Willa says

    One thing that has helped me tremendously with menu planning was to sit down and make a big list of all the meals that we make. I put on the list all the meals we’ve tried in the past (and would like to eat again) or are our regulars. Then when I sit down to menu plan, I can look in my cupboards and see what I have on hand. Then I look at my list of meals and come up with what should be put on the menu for that week. Having a list has helped me come up with ideas from the pantry and keeps me from getting in the same 2-3 meal rut! I then continually am adding to the list when we try new meals that we like!

  20. Lynn says

    I have a “summer meals” list and “winter meals” list of about 30 meals each. Like most, I tend to grill, do salad for supper, stir fries, etc. in the summer when the CSA produce is pouring in. My winter list has many soups, stews, casseroles, etc. I keep a pantry stocked with the shelf-stable ingredients for most recipes and stock up when prices are at their lowest. From the list of meal ideas I make a weekly menu based on what perishables need to be used up. When I have cheap cottage cheese I batch cook lasagna or stuffed shells. We have one that night and the extras get put in the freezer for later.

  21. says

    I try to sit down every Sunday with a list in my head of what I already have on hand that I can make. Then I look at our calendar and see what nights we have church, small group or dinner plans with friends because that will make a big difference in what I make! For example on church nights we usually do pizza or a crock-pot meal. Something with little to clean up because we have to get on the road right after dinner usually!

    Once I know what things I have on hand, I will check out our grocery ad. Based on what is on sale- then I will go to my “recipe box” which is mealplanningmommies.com Me and 2 other friends started it as an easy way to swap recipes, have our recipes on hand at all times (on the internet!), and to encourage other mommies (and daddies!) that meal planning does make your week go smoother!

    I always try to be as frugal as I can be when making up my meal plan/grocery list. My week usually goes like this (but not always!):
    Monday: Crock pot meal
    Tuesday: Leftovers, Brinner (Breakfast for dinner ) or A Quick Easy Meal I have made before
    Wednesday: Pizza (homeade, frozen or a $5 Little Ceasers)
    Thursday: Fish (Hubby cooks!)
    Friday: Pasta or dinner with friends/family
    Saturday:New recipe I have been wanting to try

    Like I said, it doesn’t always go like this… but I like to make sure we have pasta once a week (frugal reasons!), fish once a week (health reasons!), and pizza (b/c it’s my husbands favorite meal!).

    Feel free to stop by our blog and check out our weekly meal plans with recipes and pictures to show you step by step directions! Meal Planning is the way to go, if you are new to it… just jump in and do it! You will figure out what works best for your family as you go!

    Sarah

    mealplanningmommies.com

  22. lisa says

    grocery lists: I <3 efficiency. When I was on a shopping trip I also wrote down what order the aisles are in (produce, breads/PBJ, frozen, deli, etc.) then I made spreadsheets on the computer that have the headings in columns & lines under each. I can print it on a half sheet of paper & fill in what I'm shopping for that week. No more backtracking in the store!

  23. says

    Hi, Crystal. I would occasionally meal plan, and I would hit weeks where I wouldn’t “get around” to it, and every night I was thinking about what to make or hurrying to make dinner. So, my New Year resolution was to plan meals. I started out big..planning MONTHLY…and I have stuck to it so far. My husband has even gotten into it and helps me. It makes life SO much easier, and it only takes about 20 minutes or so.

  24. Chelsea says

    I usually sit down with my 2010 planner (used only for meal planning) and come up with two week’s worth of meals. I write down in the notes some items we have in our cabinet and freezer, write down items that are on sale, and try to brainstorm 14 meal ideas. As I come up with them, I write them under a day of the week until all the days are filled.

    I then make a list in my planner of items I need to pick up, then take it to the store. The order I write the meals down in is not the order I make the meals. I just do that to make sure every day is accounted for. Throughout the week, I look through my list of meal options before I go to bed, decide what to make based on what we have planned the next day, and start refrigerating the meat the night before.

    My method is pretty simple, but I just got married, I’m pretty new to this, and it seems to work very well for us! It’s funny… we never meal planned growing up, yet when I got married it’s what I immediately started doing without any guidance. It was because without a list of items and a purpose for each of them, I would have been extremely overwhelmed at the grocery store trying to figure out what to buy, and would likely have spent much more!!

  25. says

    Menu planning has been so good for us. My hubby buys the groceries normally ( we always know we need the staples like butter, eggs, bread, milk) and picks up the good deals, then I plan meals around this. Even if I only plan ahead one day it sooo helps me.

    Thank for sharing all your freezer cooking days. I have been so inspired and these freezer meals have really been a God send.

  26. Heather says

    I plan our menu two weeks at a time. With three children ages three and under, getting to the grocery store can be a bit of a challenge! Only going to the store twice a month saves me time and money. Sure I miss out on a few deals, but I figure I’m also saving money by not making the extra trip! ;-) Also, something else that has helped me is to start dinner as soon as I finish breakfast clean up. Even if it’s just filling a pot of water for pasta or thawing the meat, it can often be enough to get me motivated to get dinner going at the end of a busy day – which prevents me from resorting to calling the pizza guy.

  27. Siskokid says

    I’ve seen a number of people mention “leftovers”. My kids never wanted “leftovers” but I was too frugal to waste food so now we have “encore night”. (Same left over food displayed on the counter “buffet style”). The family simply gets servings of their favorites from the “buffet”! I save money, all the leftovers get eaten and the family loves it! It’s a great way to stretch your budget! (No additional shopping or coupons required!)

  28. says

    By nature, I would rather “fly by the seat of my pants” and cook whatever I feel like eating at the moment. Unfortunately, if I want to stay within a certain budget, it helps to have a plan.

    Each week, I create a meal plan for what my family is going to eat around the weekly sales flier for Publix. There are four people in my household; we eat “three squares” a day, plus snacks (ooh, we like snacks) and I aim to spend no more than $100. (To make it more interesting, I have food allergies.)

    Since I publish this meal plan each week as a post on my site – and there are readers who count on me to publish it – it holds me accountable to really do it. The good thing is that all I have to do later is print out the list of “What to Buy” and “What to Make” and my week is set.

    If the price of items, such as meat, are a little high that week, I tend to shop at other stores (such as Costco and Walmart) or use something from my pantry stockpile. But I do keep the recipes the same – that keeps life simple!

    • says

      I am clueless as a homemaker, and I need all the help that I can get. I was using an Excel spreadsheet to list our favorite recipes and try to plan our meals. It was working fine, but I wanted something more. A friend recommended http://www.plantoeat.com. Here you can enter your recipes, import them from any website, and then drag and drop to a calendar to make the meal plan for the week, month, etc. It generates shopping lists which you can separate by store and you are able to add other items to the list. Unfortunately it a subscription based service :( I am currently using the free trial but I am loving it so much I am very temped to go ahead and pay for it. My frugal self tells me not to, but my clueless cook tells me is worth it!
      What do you all say ladies? Should I do it? :)

  29. Beth says

    I use a free web based program called springpad.com to keep all of my recipes, and then to map them onto a menu for the week or month. It allows my to drag and drop recipes into a menu, and then allows me to use that to build a grocery list. I can also search my recipes for particular ingredients and meal type so that if I know I want to have a pork recipe I can quickly search all of the recipes I have. It takes a little time to get everything into the database, but ultimately you can then share your meals and recipes and search others’ recipes as well.

  30. says

    I only plan dinners, and usually on a theme related to what is on special or what I happen to have in the freezer.

    I buy tons of breakfast food like oatmeal and other hot cereals when they are on special and hope it lasts until they go on special again.

    Lunches are quick, so I just buy an assortment of sandwich type things, or whatever I need to make something quick the kids will eat.

  31. Becky Olson says

    I only plan dinners also. I work outside the home and plan the dinners before I go shopping, using what I already have or sometimes I’ll try a new recipe because I tend to get in a rut with cooking. I buy the usual breakfast stuff…usually have the same thing unless I get a request from the kids. I have two high school age girls so they get their own breakfast every day.

  32. Sarah says

    I love reading all of these creative ideas and comments! My mom taught me a method of menu planning that works for me. It helps keep our meals balanced and keep variety in them, too.

    The base of the meal is the starch. Rotate potatoes, pasta, rice, and corn.
    Next add the meat and one or two vegetables. Then depending on how big of meal you want, add a salad or fruit, then a bread and/or dessert.

    I also select meals using the meat I have in the freezer and the ingredients stocked up in the pantry, as much as possible. Then I just add to my list the things I need to complete the meal. If I do plan to buy an unusual ingredient, like green onions for example, I try to plan 2 or 3 meals using that same ingredient so I use it up and make it worth buying special. Lowering my grocery bill is still a work in progress for me but I am enjoying the challenge!

  33. Becky says

    I just love your blog! You have so many great ideas and they are all down here for us to use! Thank you again for all you do!