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  • 5 Menu Planning Tips

    menu planning tips

    Last week, I shared six ways that menu planning saves us money. Hopefully, that convinced you that menu planning is worth the effort!

    Over the years, I’ve picked up a few tricks that help make menu planning a little easier. Here they are:

    Plan monthly menus. I found creating a monthly menu plan daunting at first, but I got the hang of it after a few months. And now I find that I’m much more likely to plan for the week if I already have a starting point in a monthly plan. A monthly menu also allows me to space out different kinds of meals.

    Start with your schedule. I use a basic monthly calendar template in Google Drive to create my menu plan each month, and I always have my calendar open as I plan. This allows me to take into account social plans, the kids’ activities, and anything else that might affect what we have for dinner. For example, if we’re going to be out in the late afternoon but home in time for dinner, I’ll plan for something that I can make ahead and have ready when we walk in the door.

    When prepping your menu for the upcoming week, you may also want to check the weather report. I use the 7-day forecast to figure out which days I want to grill or bake, taking into account any rain or temperature fluctuations predicted.

    Decide on a weekly pattern. Some people do meatless Mondays, Mexican Tuesdays, pizza Wednesdays, and so on. Here’s how I like to plan my week:

    • 1 meatless meal
    • 1 pasta meal
    • 1 fish meal
    • 1 Japanese meal
    • 1 freezer meal
    • 1 breakfast meal {for dinner}

    Sometimes these meals overlap, such as when I serve misoyaki, which covers both the Japanese and fish meals. Or if I make my favorite bolognese sauce, I always make extra to freeze and it is also our pasta meal for the week. These parameters help me vary the meals we have throughout the week, as well as manage costs since meatless and pasta meals tend to be cheaper than Japanese and fish meals.

    Have some tried and true recipes to incorporate into your menu plan. I like to plug these recipes in when I’m first starting my monthly menu plan. These recipes are particularly handy because I have a good idea of how long it will take me to prepare them, and I know which ones I can make ahead for the busy days on my calendar.

    Collect recipes you want to try. I used to have a large three-ring binder for my recipes, but I now exclusively use Pinterest. As I plan my monthly menu, I peruse my Pinterest boards for new recipes I want to try. I take into account the season, what’s languishing in my pantry, and of course, whatever captures my fancy. As I mentioned last week, regularly trying out new recipes keeps things interesting at home and reduces the temptation to eat out just because we’re bored of having the same foods.

    If you have a menu planning tip or recipe to share, please leave a comment!


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    Original menu image via FreeDigitalPhotos.net by Sujin Jetkasettakorn.

    Six Ways Menu Planning Saves Money

    You’ve probably noticed the icon to the left in my weekly menu planning posts. And if you’ve been reading CFO for a while, you’ve also probably noticed that I’ll go through periods when I give up on menu planning.

    This past summer is a great example – if you go through the archives, you’ll see that I stopped menu planning when summer vacation started, and didn’t start again until last month. Like almost everything else, menu planning is easiest when it’s part of a routine, and my biggest problem this past summer was that I didn’t have a routine. The kids didn’t go to camp, they had crazy sports practice schedules, and I felt like I was barely maintaining my sanity.

    But by mid-September, I’d regained my footing, and although life is still crazy, it’s manageable because I have a routine! So I’ve been menu planning lately, and I’ve noticed anew how the practice saves us so much money:

    I waste less food because I use what I buy. My biggest problem when I don’t plan my menu is wasted food, because I end up buying more than we need, or I’ll buy something that catches my eye that I don’t quite know what to do with. With a menu plan, I tend to stick to my list, so I don’t buy more than I need.

    We try new meals. You might be wondering how this saves us money, so let me explain: I have better control over the impulse to buy something novel (i.e., those things I don’t really know what to do with that I just mentioned). By planning for meals that are new to us (I love my Pinterest boards for this), I can plan to use the novel ingredients so they don’t go to waste. Plus, constantly eating new meals reduces the urge to eat out simply because we’re bored.

    I waste less food because I can plan to use what I have. During these last few weeks of menu planning, I’ve really noticed what ingredients I have on hand, and what I’m running low on. I’ve also noticed what’s been sitting around for a while and needs to be used up. Menu planning allows me to incorporate those ingredients into a meal so they don’t expire and end up in the trash.

    I can plan truly frugal meals. I generally take the view that any meal we have at home is going to be cheaper and/or healthier than any meal out, so it doesn’t really matter how much it costs. I regularly plan a $40 sushi and sashimi meal, which would cost double that if we had a similar meal at a restaurant. But menu planning also means I can plan a really cheap meal. For example, tomorrow I plan to serve bean and cheese enchiladas. I use a can of refried beans ($0.99), Mexican blend cheese ($1.75 for a half bag
    of RBST-free cheese at TJ’s), tortillas ($1.49 for a half bag), and store-bought enchilada sauce ($1.49 for half a bottle). I add a salad, and figure that’s $0.99 for a half bag + $1 for avocado + $1 for jarred roasted red peppers. That works out to a total of $8.71 for a meal that serves at least 4 people!

    We eat out less. Except for pre-planned social occasions, we usually eat out for two reasons: convenience or cravings. Usually, it’s convenience – I don’t feel like cooking, or the timing doesn’t work out for a home-cooked meal (such as when games end at 7 p.m.). But when I plan our meals ahead, I can take timing into account. Sometimes we’re just too far away from home, but more often than not, a meal waiting in the slow-cooker or the fridge will work just fine. I just have to make sure it’s waiting for us when we walk in the door. And as I mentioned before, regularly trying new recipes drastically curtails our urge to eat out.

    We have leftovers for lunch. My husband is fantastic about brown-bagging his lunch, so almost every day, I pack him a lunch with what’s left of our dinner from the night before. I do my best to make it a desirable bento (these containers are a favorite), and frequently supplement with fruit and a cookie. Each lunch he takes to work saves us at least $5, and that figure is probably closer to $15!

    Next week, I’ll share some strategies that make menu planning easier.

    My New Favorite Way to Save: Price Matching

    As I mentioned on Facebook the other day, I shop at Target all the time but just price matched for the first time ever there.

    I loved it!

    And I will definitely do it again.

    See this basket?

    Lego gift basket

    I just put it together for a fundraiser at school, after collecting money from other parents and purchasing the Lego sets at Target. The giant box at the back of the basket is the Lego Star Wars Sith Fury-class Interceptor, which had a shelf price of $89.99. I was standing in the store, talking to a mom I’d run into, when it suddenly occurred to that it might be cheaper at Amazon and that I could price match if it was. And it was! When I looked it up on Amazon on my smartphone, it came up $71.36.

    Naturally, I headed over to Guest Services, and asked them to match Amazon’s price. They have to look up the item on the Target-owned iPad to verify the price, and I was told that for Amazon, the item has to be “sold and shipped by Amazon.” (Luckily for me, the Lego set was sold and shipped by Amazon at the time, because it’s over $130 from a third-party seller right now!)

    It seems like once the Target team member has verified the other store’s price, it’s a simple matter to change the price when ringing up the item. My receipt shows the item at the price-matched price, and underneath that, it says “Regular Price $89.99.”

    You can read Target’s full price-matching policy here.

    Do you price-match?


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    The New Ibotta: New Users Get Free $2 Credit

    Ibotta

    A few months ago, I told you about a new iPhone and Android app called Ibotta, which can potentially save you lots of money. They’ve rolled a new version today, so I wanted to re-introduce the app because I still love using it.

    What’s The Same

    The basics of Ibotta have stayed the same: Once you’ve downloaded Ibotta, you simply choose the offers you’re interested in, then go shopping. Once you’ve purchased a qualifying item, you upload a photo of your receipt through the app, then scan the barcode of the qualifying item, also through the app. Ibotta will verify that your purchase qualifies for the offer, and then credit your account. I’ve done it many times and find Ibotta very easy to use.

    You can cash out your savings through Paypal when you hit the $5 minimum threshold, or donate your savings to a school or the United Way. Maybe the best part about Ibotta is that you don’t need a store loyalty card, and it works at so many stores, including Target, Walmart, Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Kroger stores and their affiliates including Ralphs, and Safeway stores and their affiliates including Vons/Pavilions. See the full list here.

    What’s New

    Bonuses and Store Extras: To find bonus offers and special store-exclusive offers, go to the Main Menu in the Ibotta app (tap on lines icon at the top left of the screen). Bonuses include $1 when you refer one friend, $5 when you refer 4 more friends, $1 when you redeem at least 1 offer each week for the 4 weeks in a row, and $0.50 when you redeem 4 offers by the end of April. My store extras include 4 offers redeemable at Target only.

    Friend Bonuses: Ibotta is now offering extra incentives to refer as many friends as possible. In addition to the $5 bonus I just mentioned, you get $7 for referring 5 more friends. If you can get 100,000 friends to sign up, they’ll give you $150,000 (good luck with that!).

    Newbie Bonus: New Ibotta members can get a a free $2 credit when you join Ibotta and redeem 2 offers within the first 2 weeks of registering. Current offers include Capri Sun (perfect for Ralphs), Ball Park Franks, Healthy Choice and more. It should be really easy to redeem 2 offers in 2 weeks.

    I’m not sure how long the $2 sign up credit offer will last, so join now while it’s still available!

    And thank you if you join(ed) Ibotta using my referral link!

    Save on Everyday Items with Amazon Subscribe & Save

    Amazon has made some changes to their Subscribe & Save Program that could potentially save you a lot of money. But there are pros and cons to weigh, so I thought it was worth dedicating a post to discussing the new Subscribe & Save.

    What is Subscribe & Save?

    If an item is eligible for Subscribe & Save, there will be a box just under the price that tells you the Subscribe & Save price, and over to the right, there will be an option to order through Subscribe & Save:

    Subscribe & Save

    Subscribe & Save gives you a discount of 5%, plus FREE shipping with no minimum. The “subscribe” part of it means that the item will be automatically shipped to you again. You can select an interval of anywhere between 1 to 6 months. However, you are not locked into anything, and you can cancel your subscription or delay the next shipment at any time on the Your Subscribe & Save Items page.

    What’s New

    Recently, Amazon revamped Subscribe & Save to consolidate Subscribe & Save orders into one shipment per month. They also increased the Subscribe & Save discount to 15% if you have 5 or more Subscribe & Save orders in your monthly shipment (except diapers and wipes). While this doesn’t help if you need something right away, it’s a fantastic way to save on everyday items that you might need but can’t easily get for less in The Drugstore Game or by being an extreme couponer at the grocery store.

    For example, my March shipment included Gillette Mach3 Razor Cartridges, Mr. Clean Magic Eraser Cleaning Pads, and Philips Sonicare for Kids Replacement Brush Heads. The Mach3 is my husband’s favorite razor and less than $2 per cartridge is a lower price than I can find in-store, plus a good price for a new razor these days is $1.99 so it’s cheaper to buy these cartridges – whereas a few years ago, it made more sense to buy new razors because they were free at the drugstores. As for the other items, I was out of magic erasers, which I love to use, and I couldn’t even find the kids Sonicare brushes at Target. Add in a couple more subscriptions for things we use, and I got things I need at a great price, all delivered to my door. (And I paid for them with FREE gift cards that I earned though Swagbucks!)

    When to Buy Through Subscribe & Save

    Every shopper should have a stock-up price list, so that you know when something is a great buy. If you shop regularly and pay attention to sales, you tend to know what you regularly find on sale at your stock-up price, and what’s rare to get super cheap.

    I find that Amazon is a great place for those items that don’t fit into either of those categories, but which you buy regularly. The razor cartridges from my March order are a perfect example, since I rarely, if ever, find them at the same price at a brick and mortar store.

    Amazon is also a great source for hard-to-find, and consequently more expensive, items. A perfect example is fair trade cocoa powder, which I can only find at Whole Foods, and for a much higher price.

    And of course, there are the irregular bargain buys that pop up fairly often. For instance, we often see a stock-up price on toilet paper – there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to when the deal is available, but if it’s there, then it makes a great addition to your monthly Subscribe & Save shipment.

    In sum, shop wisely and let Amazon Subscribe & Save save you money and time.

    This post contains affiliate links that help support this site at no additional cost to you. Thank you for clicking through them! You can read CFO’s full disclosure here.

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