If you've been reading CFO for a while, you've 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.