These days, we all feel the purse strings tighten when we make the weekly trek to the grocery store. I have found that weekly meal planning and a bit of organization has helped me save time and money.
First, I take a quick inventory of my freezer, fridge, and pantry. I’ll check to see if there are fresh vegetables I need to use or frozen meat that’s been in the freezer a while. I will then plan my week of meals around those foods that need to be "used up" sooner rather than later. I also consider what is "on sale" at my local grocery store. If it is cost effective to plan my meals around those items, I do. (Check out this website to find out what's on sale NOW at your local grocery store www.madamedeals.com ) Next, I plan my meals. This step takes about 20 minutes. I try not to plan my meals for specific nights of the week, i.e. hamburgers on Monday, grilled chicken on Tuesday, etc. You never know what is in store for you. Your whole schedule could go up in smoke due to a rained-out baseball game or a stomach bug. The idea behind this style of meal planning is to have the ingredients on hand during the week, and then decide day by day which meal you’ll throw together. I generally only plan five meals per week. Of course, I know there are seven days in a week, but we reserve Friday night for our family "pizza & a movie" night. And, one night a week, we eat hodge-podge leftovers. Our five-meal-plan usually includes one ground beef or venison dish, one chicken breast dish, one slow cooker meal, one fish or shellfish dish, and one beef or pork roast dish. I try to vary the styles and sides due to the season, but we love our meats, so most meals center around meat. The trick to variety is to re-invent the dish that you’ve cooked. John 6:12 (NIV) teaches us that Jesus said to "...Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted." So, it is in that spirit of letting nothing waste that I create new dishes from ones I've already prepared. For example, if you have roast beef one night, it can easily be turned into French dip sandwiches or beef hash later in the week. Sometimes I’ll serve grilled chicken breasts, then chop up the leftovers to make chicken tetrazzini. Of course, you need to make sure you grill enough chicken the first time around so that you’ll have enough chopped, cooked chicken. Many recipes call for about 2 cups, so 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts yield approximately this amount.
I have found that preparing and freezing foods really stretches the dollar and allows me to feed my family homemade, healthy dishes from the freezer with minimal prep. I don’t buy many frozen foods except vegetables. Frozen food boxes take up too much room in the freezer anyway. Plus, I can make and freeze more healthy, budget friendly meals than the store-bought equivalents. For example, I have pork barbeque, Brunswick stew, chicken & black bean quesadillas, roasted garlic manicotti, meatballs, macaroni & cheese, chicken pot pie, venison veggie soup, chili, and clam chowder in my freezer right now. Of course I didn’t make all of these meals in one day or even one week. But, each time I made a dish, I’d double the recipe and put half in the freezer. This eliminates the need to fill your freezer with store-bought, preservative-filled boxed meals. You can thaw your own home-cooked meals for your family anytime.
If your family loves chili mac, spaghetti, and grilled chicken breasts, then start there. Make your own chili mac doubling the recipe. But, before you add the macaroni, freeze half of the chili. Double your meat sauce or marinara and freeze half of it. Grill two extra chicken breasts, then chop and freeze the cooked meat. You’ll find that this little prep step will help you get ahead of the game in meal planning. The next week, you’ll have chili for the taco salad, meat sauce for the lasagne, and chicken for the chicken & dumplings.
Don’t try to start meal planning by trying out a bunch of new or complicated recipes. Just start with what you know your family likes to eat. Think through your week ahead and decide if you want a couple "on-the-go" meals like subs. Then, make sure you prepare a roast early in the week from which you can make roast beef sandwiches, wrap them up, and take them with you. Here’s an example of a week of meals:
1. Roast beef, smashed red-skin potatoes, peas
2. Shrimp scampi with pasta, green salad
3. French dip sandwiches, fruit
4. Spaghetti with meat sauce, garlic toast, steamed veggies
5. Taco salad, fruit
1. Slow cook the roast beef in the crock pot, reserving the cooking liquid for day 3. The only thing to prepare just before supper time is the smashed potatoes and peas.
2. Cook 1 ½ pounds of pasta and reserve 1 pound for day 4.
3. Beef simply needs to be sliced and use cooking liquid from day 1 as your au jus.
4. Brown 2 pounds of ground beef (or a mix of venison, turkey, chicken, beef) and reserve one pound for day 5.
5. Use browned ground beef from day 4 and add your taco seasoning packet. Use salad from day 2 and fruit from day 3.
Each family has it’s own eating style with likes and dislikes. Build your menus around your family's favorites. All the while, you'll be doubling up to save yourself time later and re-creating foods you’ve already prepared. Have fun and healthy eating!