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3 Ways Menu-Planning Saves Time and Money

The guest post of Abby of Mother on a Mission

I’ve been reading money saving and homemaking blogs long enough to know the lowdown on this meal planning thing. I’ve menu-planned off and on since my husband and I got married nearly five years ago, but I’ve been doing it regularly since my daughter was born seven months ago. Since then, I’ve found a few strategies that keep things running smoothly for us.

1. I don’t “schedule” leftovers.

In the past, when I planned our monthly menus, I would allocate at least one night a week for leftovers. That made sense to me, so that we didn’t throw away money in the form of food that didn’t get eaten.

The problem was that I didn’t have a backup plan for those nights when I couldn’t pull dinner together in time. All too often, I found myself asking my husband to “just pick something up” for dinner.

Now, I don’t include leftovers in the menu plan. I love knowing that, if meal preparation just isn’t happening one night, I have an easy go-to option. The best part is that my family isn’t eating unhealthy, over-priced takeout anymore. Instead, they’re getting healthful meals that I’ve prepared myself, which means I know exactly what they’re eating.

2. I cook chicken once a month.

I plan our supper menus a month at a time. That means that when I do a major grocery shopping trip the beginning of each month, I already know what meals I’ll be cooking for the next four weeks.

To save myself time throughout the month, I prepare all the chicken we’ll need right after I bring it home from the store. I bake it, shred it, and portion it out into freezer bags labeled with the name of the recipe I’ll be using it for. When I need chicken for a specific recipe, I just pull a bag from the freezer.

3. I cook when I can.

More often than not, I actually prepare our evening meal early in the day, when both kids are napping. I’ve found that I can make in twenty minutes what would take me at least twice that long to prepare if both kids were awake.

The result is that I get a little solo time in the kitchen, which I love, and I breathe a big sigh of relief come supper time when all I have to do is cook or reheat what I prepared earlier. I’m also a big fan of doing things this way because it allows me to spend my children’s waking hours fully focused and present with them, not distracted by several different chores and projects.

Some people view menu planning as boring and restrictive, but I feel the opposite. Knowing what we’ll be eating for each meal makes our days go smoothly and allows me to focus my attention on more important things, like my husband and children.

Note from Crystal: Be sure to check out our free downloadable menu planners.

What are your best tips and tricks for successful menu-planning?

Abby is Mom to two energetic blessings and wife to a handsome high school science teacher. She co-owns the Etsy shop Three Thousand Miles and blogs at Mother on a Mission, where she writes about her journey to make the world the kind of place she wants to raise her children in.

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  • Diana says:

    Abby, when you grocery shop for the month’s meals, do you just plan the month’s worth of meals based on what’s on sale that week? Or do you just plan what you feel like, and even if it’s not on sale it all evens out with not making extra trips to the store?

    I’ve always been curious about that aspect of once-a-month shopping 🙂 Also, I like the idea of not scheduling the leftovers–perfect for busy nights!

    • Abby says:

      I live in a very small town where the tiny locally-owned, largely over-priced grocery store doesn’t offer impressive sales. My huge monthly trip involves stops at Sam’s and Walmart, where I don’t have to worry about sales. Instead, I just buy items that I know are a good value and that are versatile for the recipes I have planned. I do make a few trips to the local store throughout the month for milk and produce, but that’s about it.

      I have to say that the way I use leftovers was nearly life-changing for me; it often makes meal time so much easier!

  • Theres says:

    When I plan for the week, I also coordinate my “oven and stove top times.” I prep everything and it all goes into the oven at once- a meatloaf, a tray of chicken, roasted vegetables, potato dish, a casserole- even a quick bread. I’m not cooking anything so “gourmet” that it has to be precise. I just pull things out as they are done. I’ve never had any problems like banana bread smelling like onions. =) My oven is on for about one hour a week. I coordinate all the stove top items too, so my veggies are steaming in the basket over the rice or pasta.

    All this not only saves me time but money on the gas/electric bill. I spend about 2-3 hours cooking on the weekend and I’m finished. Everything goes into “grab and go containers” to take to work, microwaveable dishes for nights at home, or into freezer bags for extra meals.

    Healthy, homemade food for every meal with minimal time! Best thing I ever did!

    • Abby says:

      At the beginning of the year my family moved from Oregon to Mississippi. Much to my surprise, our utilities are more expensive here. You’re cooking strategy seems like a realistic and legitimate way to reduce them. Thank you so much!

  • Lana says:

    I use a freebie wall calender. I have been doing this for many years. I try to plan the entire month at one time. As the month goes on if I do not use one or more of the meals I circle it. When I make meals for the next month I can just move those circled meals forward. Having my menus on a calender means I can look back at previous months for ideas and the entire meal with sides and main dish can just be copied forward. I keep my calender for a few months at the end of the year so I have my ‘cheat’ sheets. When our now grown children were growing up they were supposed to check the calender to know what was for supper but of course they never did! It was still the age old question of what are we eating for supper.

    • Abby says:

      I absolutely love the idea of circling the meals to make the next month! My strategy has always been to just remember those meals, but you can imagine how well that works out 🙂

  • janel says:

    I read things like this alll the time, but I must be in the minority (and my family too). None of us like frozen food. (this goes for bread, vegetables, meat, etc….everyone can always tell)

    I hate when my meat has been frozen (both raw and cooked), and find that food that has been frozen just doesnt taste very good and doesnt get eaten, especially the leftovers.

    Its awesome for people who do freezer cooking and enjoy it, but I just can’t. Sometimes I think I’m the only one whose family hates when food has been frozen.

    • Abby says:

      I’m so glad my family can’t tell! We definitely don’t care for lots of frozen foods, especially any prepackaged frozen meals, but no one knows the difference when I’m just using one frozen ingredient and everything else is fresh, especially when it all gets cooked together.

      Since you can’t use the convenience of frozen foods to save time and money, do you have any other tips or tricks? I’d be interested to read them.

    • Susan says:

      Janel, you’re not alone.

      I find that it is a real time-saver to pre-cook ingredients, but not finished dishes. I’ve tried making dishes ahead of time and freezing them so that they just need to be microwaved. A few dishes have turned out okay, but most we end up not eating. Either they’re not as good, or they get lost in the back of the freezer, or whatnot.

      I like to keep pre-cooked rice in the freezer. Quick and easy to add it to a variety of dishes, like soup or casseroles. When fresh fruit is in season and inexpensive, I like to freeze it and use it in smoothies instead of ice.

      We don’t like pre-cooked frozen-and-reheated chicken unless it is just one ingredient in a dish, such as soup or casseroles. We won’t eat it plain, like on a tossed salad or a sandwich. I find that when reheated frozen meat, it works best to add a little more that you otherwise would in order to keep it from being too dry.

      We don’t like bread that has been frozen for sandwiches, but we like it okay for french toast. Bread has to be an awfully good deal before I’ll buy excess for the freezer, because we prefer it fresh.

      • Abby says:

        I should have been more specific; I prep and freeze ingredients, but I rarely freeze whole meals. I agree that the taste is less appealing after a meal has been frozen. When I prepare chicken, I shred all of it and freeze in one or one and a half cup portions to use in fresh meals later. You certainly aren’t saving yourself time or money if you’re making and freezing meals that no one will eat later on.

    • Sarah says:

      Same here. I’ve tried freezing cooked ground beef several times and we’ve hated the meal we used it in every time. Not sure what I’m missing, but it just doesn’t seem to work for me!

    • Roxanne says:

      You aren’t alone!

      My husband is an extremely easy going guy, but he won’t eat anything frozen. Period. He would rather eat a bologna sandwich for dinner than a reheated freezer dinner.

      I can tell the difference between frozen food too, but I’m not as picky as him. But since he doesn’t mind extremely simple meals, sometimes we eat grilled cheese or oatmeal for dinner if I didn’t have time to cook.

  • jennifer says:

    With a two month old son I definitely don’t have the time I used to for dinner. My trick now is to prep my mise en place (everything in it’s place) throughout the day during naps/floor time. That way once dinner time comes, I can dump all the prepped ingredients in the order the recipe calls for already measured, cut, precooked, etc! Recently, not counting my random prep work dinner comes together in 20 mins or less!

    • Heather says:

      I do this too. It’s more fun to cook a stir-fry if everything is chopped before I turn on the heat, and I’m not frantically trying to do it as I go along while a kid has an “emergency”. Plus, the food tastes much fresher if it’s cooked right before serving.

  • Menu plan in pencil not pen. Then if you really aren’t “feeling it” for that meal or plans change, etc. It is easy to change. I can’t tell you how many time I have had to erase and move things around.

  • Monica says:

    I have recently started cooking our dinner meal during the day as well. This has saved me so much time and anxiety.

    • Abby says:

      This is something my mom did the whole time I was growing up. I always assumed it was because she has chronic back pain and by the dinner time she’s hit a wall, pain wise. Now I know that, with five kids, it was as much about necessity as it was pain management.

  • Angela says:

    I love the chicken idea!! We raise our own chickens, so this would make life so easy.
    I have a suggestion for your menu planners: add a section to write what is going on that day that might affect your supper time/plans, eg. kids sports, activities, meetings, etc. I like to have my whole week in front of me in one spot 🙂

  • Stay at Home Mom says:

    Since becoming a stay-at-home mother 2 months ago, I’ve worked hard to menu plan. However, I’m more a fly-by-the seat of your pants type of person. Each week, I’ll make a menu based upon our local sales and pantry items. I also know my “stock up prices” for items we use regularly, like canned tomatoes. I determine what we will be having for the week on a google calendar, but give myself the flexibility to change days (or even rework the menu if I can do such simply from items in the pantry). It’s worked well, and has given me the freedom to feel a bit more creative!

    • Michelle says:

      I do this too! I will pick 7 meals for the week but not assign them specific days because I have found when I do that I end up not wanting what I’ve planned and then it is easy to just go out. I always make sure I have the ingredients to make pizza for those nights I want something quick and I am just not feeling the meal plan.

  • Kay says:

    I started menu planning last month, and love it! I took it a step further this month and spent all morning prepping meals for the freezer, so at least 1/4 of the meals for the month are already in the freezer! Such a feeling of accomplishment! 🙂

  • Although I’ve been menu planning for almost 10 years (gasp!) recently I started using google calendar. It works great for me over an only paper version for four reasons: 1) I can see our other activities so I can think about which nights I’ll have more time for prep/cooking 2) my husband shares my calendar so if he is handling breakfast for the toddler or wants to know whether he can take dinner leftovers for lunch he can just see what I’ve planned, 3) google send me a daily agenda via email which I can check in the am and remember what prep work I need to do during the morning or naptime, and 4) if our meal schedule gets changed, I can just shift the meals around on the calendar.

  • I love menu planning! I even post my weekly plans on my blog, and my hubby jokes that he can just look online while he’s at work to see what he’s having for dinner.

    I find that menu planning makes dinner prep easier because there are no decisions involved…no “what should we have for dinner?” But, I do schedule leftovers. We have two days a week that we routinely have leftovers because of our activities that day. If we don’t have enough leftovers in the fridge to eat from on those days, we can use some of our frozen leftovers.

  • Cindy says:

    I do a lot of pre-prepping for meals. I keep vegetables, such as onions, celery, carrots, broccoli, peppers, etc. diced or sliced or shredded and in the freezer. When I need a quick meal, I can always do a stir fry-type of dish and utilize what is already cut up in the freezer. This also allows me a way to utilize veggies that are starting to droop before they go down, thus I save money with no waste.

  • NickiS says:

    I spent hours yesterday trying to find a good menu planning app for my ipad. Do you use one Crystal? I was so happy to see you have great free handouts, I am really hoping one will work for me 🙂

  • Erin says:

    I, too, love meal planning, although my style is a bit different 🙂 I plan 5 menus for the week (generally eat leftovers once and eat with family once) but I don’t assign them a specific day. I enjoy the flexibility of picking what to make each day based on my mood, schedule, ect. I do try to include a good variety though, including quick fixes for those buy days. I also plan around the grocery store sales and shop once a week. I don’t freeze much. Our apartment fridge/freezer is tiny and poor quality. I swear food gets freezer burn within a week 🙂 I only have one kiddo in tow right now so it’s not a big hassle, but in a few years when the family grows and we transition to a real home with a real freezer/fridge, I’d like to try the once a month shopping.

  • Kathy says:

    I love your tips! I always just keep a running list of recipes I want to make and then keep those ingredients on hand!

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