Thursday thoughts: Do you plan your meals?

Ever wonder how to make dinner (and the prep) less stressful, less expensive and much healthier? Meal planning is the answer! Check out these menu plan basics and some great recipe sites I recently discovered.

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Faye Prosser

In the many years I have been teaching workshops on cutting grocery bills, I have noticed a distinct trend – most people don’t plan their meals. When I ask for a show of hands to see how many people do any menu planning each week, only about 5% raise their hands. Don’t get me wrong. I get it. Before I was married with children, I had no idea there was such a thing as a menu plan. I was actually a good 3 years into couponing (and the married mother of 2) before I realized how awesome meal planning could be to my budget, stress level and health-o-meter. I spend so much less because I use the great deals I find to plan what we are having. There is no 5:00 PM panic when I start to wonder what in the world I am making for dinner before I finally give up and call for pizza delivery. I also have less stress because I know what to prepare and when. My whole family eats healthier meals because we don’t spend our time in the drive through – we eat meals cooked at home (for a fraction of the cost of that drive through disaster!). With the hectic school schedules starting again, it's tempting to hit that drive through too many days a week. Meal planning keeps your wallet and waist in much better shape! So today’s Thursday Thoughts focuses on some meal planning basics and then offers a few websites I have recently discovered that are devoted to helping us all enjoy frugal and healthy meals.

The basics:
  • Start with a Master Meal Plan List so you have a list of meals your family likes. It’s handy to have when the kids are fussing because you have served the same dish 4 weeks in a row and they are sick of it! I divide my list into Breakfast, Lunches and Dinners. I subdivide the dinners into Chicken, Beef, Vegetarian, etc… I keep the list in my meal planning 3-ring binder so it’s easy to find when I need some inspiration, which definitely happens!
  • Plan your meals weekly based on what is already in your house and what is on sale.
  • Plan at least 5 dinners a week including sides, veggies, fruit and dessert, if applicable.
  • Set a goal of $5.00 - $6.00 dinners (for the entire meal, not per person). If you are buying the best deals I outline in the Grocery Deals post every Wednesdays, you should have a pretty good stockpile of items like pasta, rice, sauces, condiments, cheese, etc. Use those very frugal buys to offset the cost of the more expensive meat and produce each week to keep that meal plan at or near the $5 goal. Of course, the meat and produce you are buying should also be on sale!
  • Batch cook and freeze one or two freezable dinners (or ingredients) each week for another night. You will cook and clean up pots and pans once, but eat 2 or 3 more times.
  • Use your crockpot so dinner prep is minimal after a long day - double recipes and freeze half
  • Stock up on the best deals so you have them available for your meal plan each week. Use the Rule of Two: Keep at least 2 of each item you use regularly - one that is already opened and at least one backup. When you open the backup, put that item on your grocery list for the next week or two when it goes on sale and you have a coupon. Put all newly purchased items in the back, so the older product is consumed first and does not expire. For those who coupon regularly, it’s more like the Rule of Three or Four or Five!
  • Click HERE for a printable Menu Planner Template. Once you click the link, scroll halfway down the page for the template. Fill it out for 5 dinners a week leaving a couple nights blank for leftovers or breakfast for dinner or “everyone’s on their own” night!
  • Don’t feel tied to the meal plan. It’s flexible in that you can switch around the meals or substitute ingredients for others you have on hand if desired. It’s not written in stone. Don’t feel like you have to obey it’s every letter. Just the other night, we planned to have London Broil on the grill. My girls requested Teriyaki Tofu instead (I know, isn’t that amazing?). We already had the tofu on hand and it wasn’t any easier or harder to switch proteins, so tofu it was. Flexibility is a good thing when menu planning and trying to please those on the consuming end of said menu.
  • Food Safety and Storage: See the USDA “Basics for Handling Food Safely” at the following USDA website: .
Recommended Meal planning websites: - Sign up for the daily e-mail newsletter. She offers good recipes, great meal pictures and sound advice on keeping our meals around $5.00 each. - If you need a recipe for ANYTHING, you will probably find it here. You can search for recipes using specific ingredients and exclude specific ingredients (which is gret for folks with allergies). - Tiffany is a mom of 4 who offers delicious recipes, great meal pictures, weekly meal plans with grocery lists and more. There is a wealth of meal planning assistance on this website! - The Super Healthy Kids blog has tons of super healthy recipes the author's kids love. I am going to try the homemade chicken nuggets next week. They are …..super healthy! She posted that she went on a 17 mile run recently. I will not be doing that. I may walk 3 miles on the treadmill, though. Does that count?!
All You Budget Meal Planning Recipes - All You Magazine has an online section with tons of budget-friendly recipes, kids favorites, shop your pantry recipes and more.

Please post any other recipe or meal planning sites you enjoy. Now it’s time for a show of hands. How many of you do at least some meal planning each week?

As I always say, it’s your money – spend it wisely!


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