Gretchen’s Note: Today Retired by 40! is welcoming Kelly Whalen of The Centsible Life, an amazing blog about family & finances. She even has free meal plans on her blog! Take it away, Kelly!
It’s dinnertime and once again you’re stuck without a plan. You scan the contents of the fridge and try to come up with something to throw together that will please picky palates, won’t take long to cook, and is healthy-ish. Ketchup counts as a vegetable, right?
Does this sound familiar?
If so you may find yourself like many other families spending way too much money on groceries that go to waste or buying inexpensive and buying fast food for dinnertime several times a week. Trust me, we’ve been there.
Several years ago I made a New Year’s resolution to cook more at home. I could see our food budget was out of control, and I knew that my lack of planning and that long stare into the fridge each night wasn’t helping matters.
I set out to do something crazy.
I had tried meal planning each week, but it never stuck. Eventually I would give up or throw the ideas out the window when we had to resort to cereal for dinner one night that week. Instead I decided to make a yearlong meal plan. I broke it down simply. I knew if I could plan out 4 weeks of varying menus I could just repeat them with slight variations for seasonal meals. No one in the house would know how easy it was, and I would save us money.
I couldn’t predict then what happened next, but by using the meal plan, and later refining it based on our lifestyle and habits we were able to save thousands of dollars every year. Even better? Despite out kids growing older we are still finding new ways to trim the grocery budget while feeding two teens, a picky eater, and someone with allergies.
The meal plan is a simple concept.
You simply put together 4 weeks worth of menus and then repeat them every 4 weeks with occasional tweaks. In all you have 28 slots to fill. If your family is like mine you already have a stable of family favorites. Filling those 28 slots gets easier as we go.
Here are some ways to fill the slots:
- 4 of those meals go to a ‘leftover/clean out the fridge night’: Those meals consist of eating up leftovers and making sure to use up anything that needs to be eaten before it goes bad thus also reducing your food waste. We chose Saturday night for this, but you can pick any night that makes sense for your family.
- 4 (or more) of those meals can be a repeating them like ‘Pizza Fridays’ or ‘Taco Tuesday’. You can have slight variations every week, but the basics are down.
- 4 meals can be a ‘New Recipe Night’ so you can still experiment if you want. This is helpful especially if you want to explore new cuisines or try to find some healthier family favorites.
Now you’re left with 16 slots. That means you can either fill in with more repeating nights or add in family favorites depending on the number of dishes you have that you love. For our family I took the route of picking a type of meal like ‘beef for dinner on Tuesdays’ or ‘brinner once a week’.
You can make small tweaks to your menu plans based on what activities your family has going on each season (say late night baseball games or early morning swim team practices). You can also adapt your menu seasonally from roasts in the fall or winter to grilling burgers in the summertime.
The great thing about it is that you won’t have to think too much about your meal plan or your shopping list since every four weeks you’ll have the same menu.
It makes planning, shopping for, and cooking meals simpler, and will decrease your budget as you find ways to shop smarter for your staples.
While it’s simple enough to do on your own you can get a free meal plan template from my site here. I post weekly menu plans on my site so you can get inspired and you’ll also find recipes that we’ve tried and perfected.
My hope is that you find the process as straightforward and simple as I did, and it will help you save money every month and thousands of dollars each year.
About the Author;
Kelly Whalen is the author of The Centsible Life, a website dedicated to helping readers live well on a budget. Kelly also writes about personal finance as a freelance writer for companies such as H&R Block, Citibank, Kmart, and more. When she’s not writing or managing a busy family schedule that includes her four kids she can be found talking money and motherhood on twitter and Facebook.