I haven’t always been a fan of menu planning. I love cooking, and I used to insist on cooking based on the impulses of the moment, instead of being a slave to a piece of paper. Times have changed: now I dearly love plotting out my meals in advance, because I’ve seen the benefits. I’m a believer.
Menu planning saves time and money
If I plan a week’s worth of dinners before going to the grocery, I won’t have to go back for a week. I save hours by not making multiple trips to the grocery, and by having a plan, I’m much less likely to make those impulse purchases that notoriously drive up the grocery bill. A well-stocked fridge also makes it harder to justify ordering takeout.
Menu planning based on the weekly grocery ad saves even more money
When we were newlyweds, my husband came home from work one day with an interesting story. His coworkers had given him a hard time when they found out we were devoted Kroger shoppers. It was well known that he was frugal–we were determined to pay off two student loans lightning-quick and were living on, literally, 1/3 of our income at the time. Our monthly grocery budget was $80. These people could not believe that we shopped at Kroger. “But it’s so expensive!” they said. “You should shop someplace cheaper!”
When he told me the story, I couldn’t understand what they meant. But after examining our shopping habits, we realized that many Kroger price tags were a little high–if you paid full price for the item. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts were $4.39 a pound. Almonds are $5.49 a pound. Canned tomatoes are $1.19. Okay, so maybe it was expensive.
But here’s the thing: I never paid those prices.
Every week I would faithfully examine the sales flyer from my local store, looking for good values, which usually come in two forms: loss leaders and in-season produce. And I’d build my list–and my menus–around those items. So I’d buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts at $1.79 a pound, almonds for $3 a pound, and cans of tomatoes for 33¢. That’s not expensive!
How to plan your menus around the sales
Gather your grocery store sales flyers, which can usually be found online or in the Sunday paper. This is easy for me because I only have one large supermarket within 5 miles. My part of town is crawling with specialty grocers, but Kroger is my mainstay so I focus my efforts there. I would peruse more than one grocery sales ad if I had several competitive stores nearby.
Take notes on what looks good, cheap, or delicious. You’re reading the ad for good deals, but be open to cooking inspiration as well. You can see my list on the right. (And no, I did not think this week’s sales ad was particularly interesting. That’s a pretty short list.)
See what you already have on hand. I know that I have tons of meat in the freezer–at least ten organic chickens (that I got on a killer sale at Whole Foods), lots of grass-fed beef, a leg of lamb. I also know that my produce drawer contains one carrot and some green onions. My pantry shelves have gotten a little bare and could use restocking.
Check the weather. I’m not joking! I don’t want to grill in a thunderstorm or run my oven for hours if it’s 88° outside. This is a really important part of meal planning for me, and helps me better predict what we’ll all be in the mood for later in the week.
Filter your list. Look over your list of promising items and turn them into an actual meal plan. Fresh strawberries and pineapple are two of my favorite things, boneless skinless chicken breasts are cheap and make for an easy weeknight dinner, and my children adore brats, so I definitely want to incorporate those into this week’s plan. We’ve been eating more fish so I’ll get some tilapia as well, but the last pork loin I got at Kroger was not very good so I’m passing on that.
Play the matchmaker for your main dishes. Now it’s time to turn that list of ingredients into actual meals. I like to start with the things that really jump out at me, and fill in from there, beginning with the main dishes. For example, I would love to grill that chicken, and the brats. And the tilapia, too–because I’ve got a new grill, and I’m eager to use it! We have a favorite family salad that contains strawberries, and it would go great with the steaks in the freezer.
I came up with four ideas right off the bat, but I need five dinners this week. Well, I haven’t made one of my favorite grilled chicken recipes in a while, and I often serve it with grilled pineapple, so I’ll use that for my fifth dinner.
Plan your methods/Find your recipes. I’ve been cooking regularly for a few years now, and my mental reserve of good recipes is growing. This makes meal planning a lot easier. I also have a few favorite go-to cookbooks and websites. If you’re just starting out and finding menu planning isn’t coming easily to you, don’t despair! It gets easier.
If you’re just going to bake the chicken and you know how to do that, you obviously don’t need a recipe. Just write “baked chicken” on your menu and move on. Otherwise, you need recipes. There are too many cookbooks and websites out there that contain millions of not very good recipes, so I recommend finding a few sources you trust and sticking to them. Here are my personal favorites:
- Cooks Illustrated (most recipes require subscription)
- Alton Brown
- Pam Anderson
- Simply Recipes
- Michael Ruhlman
- Ina Garten
If I’m having a hard time coming up with a chicken recipe, I can google “Ina Garten chicken recipe” and get loads of inspiration.
Don’t forget the side dishes! This is becoming more and more important to me. My family is growing, and it seems my kids are eating more every week. If I don’t plan side dishes for every meal, I don’t come home from the grocery store with enough food, and then I’ll have to go back in the middle of the week. Also, if you love grilled mushrooms with your steak, or roasted asparagus with chicken, remember that now and put it on your list.
At this point, you should have your menu plan.
Make a grocery list from your notes. Go into your kitchen to make your list. Don’t just assume you have black beans or baking soda–I can’t tell you how many times I have forgotten that I used the last of the lemon juice or cinnamon or frozen spinach last week until I need it for my recipe-in-progress that I want to have on the table in 20 minutes.
Add to the grocery list. Before you’re finished with the grocery sales flier, look over your list of interesting items and add any items that aren’t in your meal plan but that you still want to purchase. For example, I’m adding cranberry juice and apples to my list, along with some smoked sausage to have on hand for an easy future dinner.
Here’s my menu for the week:
Monday: Pam Anderson’s Orange Glazed Chicken (from Perfect Recipes for Having People Over), corn on the cob, green beans
Tuesday: Steaks, spinach salad with candied pecans, strawberries, blue cheese
Wednesday: Brats, potato salad, slaw
Friday: Soy and pineapple grilled chicken, red bell pepper strips, grilled pineapple, coconut rice
Do you menu plan around the grocery store sales? How’s it working for you?