Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Budget Right: Saving Money with Meal Planning

Menu planning is a great way to save money on your grocery bill each month. With a little time and effort, you can not only save money in the grocery, but save time and sanity in the kitchen as well. Whether you shop once a week or once a month, learning how to effectively plan out your meals will reduce unnecessary spending and help you stick to your budget.

1. Take inventory of your pantry. Before compiling a list of menu ideas, it is important to check what ingredients you currently have on hand in the pantry. Many times, we forget about food pushed to the back of the refrigerator or pantry. After you have assembled your list, you are ready to think of meal ideas to help save you money.

2. Make a list of meals. This should first be done in a separate notebook so you can add to it each week or month. Consider what ingredients you have in your kitchen-- can you make a meal out of them, or do you need to buy more food to complete the meal? Look at the example below:

Inventory: Black beans, corn, peas, salsa and pasta.
Meal Ideas: Black Bean Burritos (need to buy tortillas); Spaghetti and meatballs (need to buy meat and sauce)...

3. Decide on possible meals. When first starting out with menu planning to save money, I recommend beginning with a list of 7 dinner meals rather than 7 lunches and breakfasts as well. As you get better, you may want to start planning these meals as well, but focus on dinners first. In another notebook, write "Menu Plan" followed by that week's date (or month if you grocery shop monthly). Write down your choice meals. Then, on a separate sheet of paper, begin to create your shopping list. This is where you would add the extra ingredients needed to make meals with the food already on hand in the pantry. If you do not have any food in the pantry, then you will have a bigger list. Whenever you think of a favorite dinner or meal idea, write it down in the meals notebook. This will become your "Master Meals" source you can consult for easy menu planning in the future.

4. Consider local sales and coupons. If you like to coupon, it helps to plan your meals around what it on sale and what coupons you have. This will save you even more money with menu planning. If consulting sale ads and coupons, it is helpful to begin menus at the beginning of each week when the sales start.

5. Stick with your budget. If your grocery budget is $100 a week, then add up the anticipated cost of each ingredient on your shopping list. Does it exceed or meet the budget? If it's too much, try adjusting the meal ideas in your menu. This ensures that no surprises happen at the register. If you are unfamiliar with the cost of an item, try writing it down the next time you grocery shop. You will eventually be able to approximate the total cost of your grocery bill with relative precision, allowing you to save more money while maximizing your budget.

6. Go by the menu plan. I find it helpful to post the menu plan for the week on the fridge. That way, everyone in the household can see it and make decisions based on it. If you do not like the idea of planning out each day's meals, then choosing from a list of 7 each day allows more freedom in the kitchen while still sticking to your meal plans.

Remember to account for anticipated events where a meal at home is not necessary. For example, if your family attends a church dinner on Wednesday, only plan for 6 dinner meals that week. Whenever you think of a new meal idea, write it down in the "Master Meals" notebook so you don't forget. Use coupons and sales to save more money at the grocery store, or buy store brands.

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