A few years ago I decided to add up my grocery receipts for one whole month.
What I found was shocking. I was spending $1,200 a month for our (then) family of six, and I was grocery shopping nearly every day of the week.
What was worse (yup, it gets worse)--even with all that shopping, we still ate out a few times a week.
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It was clear that something about my grocery shopping habits was not working, and that something drastic had to be done ... which is why I decided to test drive a menu plan. A menu plan is essentially a plan you put together that lays out what your family will be eating each week or month, however you decide to do it. From your menu plan you can create shopping lists, find coupons for what you need and start saving money immediately.
As you may have guessed, I was eager to get started. While there are plenty of websites that provide meal planning services for a small fee (we covered our four favorites here), I decided to spend a little time and go about it the DIY way.
Here's what I did ...
1. Start Small and Involve the Family
It can be intimidating to think about planning family meals for a whole month, so I'd suggest starting with something more manageable, like planning for 15 meals over the course of three weeks (I'll talk about building in leftover night later). Here's how to do it:
- Gather your family and create a list of 15 dinner ideas, both entrees and sides. I found it easiest to focus on dinners only, especially since we usually eat the same general types of food for lunch and breakfast anyway. Make the dinner ideas foods that everyone will eat and enjoy. (No use making chicken the star of one week if Bobby won't go near the stuff.)
- Meal ideas in hand, create a new list that will be your menu plan. You can either plan out all three weeks in one sitting, or else plan out each week at a time, whatever works best for you. Note: If you're planning for three weeks at a time, you don't need to go grocery shopping for three weeks of food at one time, especially since that might prohibit you from eating fresh fruits and veggies every week. If you're planning for three weeks out, all that means is that you'll know what your family is having for dinner for three weeks, and you can still go shopping at the beginning of each one for the fresh food you'll need.
This step might take a little time. Once you come up with your meals, though, you've done the bulk of your work. I also found that getting my family involved in the meal planning encouraged them to participate in the meal prep itself, and to actually eat more of the dinners I was preparing, too.
2. Build In Leftover Night
Cut yourself a break when building your menu plan and don’t forget to make at least one night leftover night. (You'll probably eat out a couple of times in those three weeks, too, hence the leftover days. If you don't want to eat out at all, you'll need to plan for more meals.)
This is where the savings really add up. Instead of throwing away all those leftovers you're bound to have, create a leftover buffet for dinner and finish them off. (We have more ways for you to stop wasting food here.)
If leftover nights don’t work for your family, at least repurpose that extra food into lunches instead.
3. Go Shopping
Menu plan in hand, make a grocery list. I started by checking the pantry and fridge for items we already had, and only put items on the list we needed to make the meals for the week.
Once you have your list, check coupon circulars and printable coupons to see if there are any that match your needs. (One mom talked all about the ins and outs of couponing here.)
With the list and coupons done, it’s time to shop. I found that shopping alone with a full stomach helped me stay under budget. The kids couldn’t distract me (or convince me to purchase items we didn’t need), and a growling stomach didn’t entice me to buy all those fun treats at the end of the aisles. (We covered this, and 13 other steps to take to save big at the grocery store, here.)
4. Stick With the Plan
Creating the plan and shopping is half the battle--now you need to stick with it. Although my first meal plan included six meals a week, I didn’t assign them to a specific day. This gave me flexibility, so I didn't have to prepare spaghetti on a night when we felt like eating chicken pot pie.
A good way to keep on track with your plan is to hang it on the fridge. That will hold you accountable, as well as give your family a heads up of what's coming for dinner.
5. Use Sales to Plan
After you’ve successfully planned your meals for a few weeks, start planning based on what you find for sale in store circulars and with coupons. (This will probably take some extra time in the planning stage.)
After I had been at it for a while, I became a meal planning pro. By using these simple principles, and spending about 30 minutes a week planning, I found that I was able to cut our family’s grocery bill from $1,200 a month to under $600 a month. What we were eating didn’t change all that much, it was all about planning and shopping strategically.
Toni Anderson is founder of The Happy Housewife, where she blogs about practical ways to live well, save more and have fun. Toni is a military wife and stay-at-home (schooling) mom to seven kids. She is also a Savings.com DealPro and teaches Savings Nation workshops that help people learn how to save up to 50% off their grocery bills.