13 August 2014

Menu planning

Menu planning can help reduce the cost of living for most of us. It encourages you to think about your food choices, it helps create a healthy balance of meals throughout the week, it gives the potential for less food waste and, for most of us, it reduces the amount of money spent on food.  I think there are two main ways to plan your menus:
  1. you plan before you shop
  2. you plan after you shop
Everything else is dependent on how your household runs. Variations that will impact on what you have to buy include growing food at home, bartering, the amount of time you are able to spend in the kitchen, the number of people in the household, the distance away from the shops, how food is stored in your home, and possibly many other things. So for those reasons, I won't be giving you a list of menus, it is up to you to start working on your menus and shopping lists, dependent on your own circumstances. Basically, you use a calendar-type form containing all the meal times you need meals for. When you decide on a meal you write in down in place then work out if you have everything to make that meal. If you don't, the ingredients you don't have are added to your shopping list. Put aside a couple of hours to set up and prepare your first menus but it won't take that long every week. Keep all your weekly menus because they can be reused when you have enough of them to provide a good rotation.

How to use a menu plan
Menu plan templates

I encourage you to use what you have on hand and what you grow yourself before you think about what to buy. If you shop weekly, the produce you already have in the house shouldn't be too old to consistently do this.  When you start writing up your menus, this produce should be used on those first couple of days.  If you have the time, make as many things at home as you can and if you do that, it will mean you buy more ingredients and less ready-made meals or jars of sauce etc.

 If you menu plan before you shop,  read through the flyers, know by experience where the best value for money is found and shop in those supermarkets. Make up your menu plan and your shopping list at the same time and try to make a regular time to do that every week. Go through your fridge and pantry and note what you have on hand and what needs to be used first and plan you menus accordingly. If you have food  left over from the previous week that should be the first item on your menu, that makes way for the rest of the week which will be based on what you buy that week, what you're growing or bartering, the season and your food preferences.  Try to plan double batch cooking into your plan so you cut down on cooking time, and make sure you plan for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Make up your menus and your shopping list at the same time.

  If you menu plan after you shop,   some of the above will apply but your main focus will be on shopping for fresh seasonal food, what you can find that you want to cook with, and the rest of your week's groceries, and all for a good price. A problem you might find with this method is that you overbuy and then waste food, so keep that in mind and have a general idea of your week's menu in mind when you buy. Before you shop, check your pantry and stockpile and make sure you stock up ingredients that you're running short of. When you come home with your bounty, sort out what you have, then plan your menus around it. Again, double batch cooking is a time and money saver and make sure you have a plan for every meal and snacks.

Just a quick note on loss leaders: a loss leader is a popular product advertised at a much reduced price. It's a real temptation to go to the store to buy that product. The people who place the advertisement hope you'll buy the loss leader then stay and do all your shopping in their store. Don't be tricked into moving away from your preferred supermarket. If you want to buy the loss leader, make it worth your while and buy as many as you can afford, then leave the store and continue shopping back at your local best supermarket.

Don't forget to mark your special family days, such as birthdays, on your calendar because these will have to be planned for in your menu plan. And if you're cutting down on the amount of meat you eat, maybe you can consider buying organic/free range meat. You might spend the same amount but you'll be eating healthier meat from animals that have lead a decent life.

If you're a new cook, make sure you start building up your recipes to include favourite meals as well as new meals you think the family will enjoy. Always think of the nutritional value of new meals as well as the time they take to prepare and the cost per meal.

I know quite a few ladies from the US and Canada use coupons to cut down on what they spend but here in Australia coupons are generally only for takeaway food or processed food that's not worth buying. I'd be interested in knowing if you've found coupons for healthy food and groceries.

But this post is about menu plans and I'm mainly interested in reading how you do that. Tell us your meal plan secrets.

= = = ♥︎ = = =

If you want to be more prepared this Christmas, Judy has started a Christmas gift, decoration and card list over at the forum. There are lots of good ideas there and plenty of motivation to get started so you can avoid rushing later in the year.


  1. I use a wall calendar to plan my menus. I started this as self defense against 5 children asking what was for supper multiple times everyday. Now that they are all grown I still prefer it. I try to plan for the month all at once. I pull from what I have in the freezer and the stockpile when I plan. If I do not use one of the days I circle it. When I plan for the next month I move the circled meals forward first. Having the year all there together allows me to look back and get ideas. When I start a new year I keep the old years calendar to work from which is a huge help.

    Here in the US we do get coupons for fresh foods, meat and produce quite often now. This week I had a $2 coupon for cheese which made it 99 cents out of my pocket. I had a $1.50 coupon for a Caesar salad kit which made it 50 cents. I was able to get four packages of frozen salmon for nothing this week by combining a sale and coupons. There are usually a few deals like this every week. Coupons for processed foods are most common and often make those products free or nearly free but I just leave those items at the store or buy them for charitable donation since we do not eat them.

  2. Hi Rhonda,

    some great tips there. I'm currently doing something new with menu planning. Due to the high cost of organic fruit and veg, I now plan my menu as I shop. I had cut down on the amount of organic food I bought because of financial constraints, and I wasn't happy with this. So now I go to the shop and look at the price of everything per kilo - I then decide what to buy based on that, rather than on a pre-planned menu, and I note on the back of my shopping list what I will make with the produce. This means we're back to all organic, and it's affordable.

    For years I made the mistake of buying fruit and veg the kids liked, no matter what the cost. I did this because I wanted them to be healthy and eat plenty of fruit and veg. But, really it's not sustainable financially, or for the environment. So now I just look at the per kilo price, which usually reflects what is in season, and buy that. Incredibly, the kids have adapted to not always having their favourites ( I do have to 'hide' some veggies in other foods too).


    1. Hi Madeleine. I like that way too - planning after you shop. You can see whatever is the best quality before you buy and you're not locked into a menu before you've seen the produce.

    2. I agree with this way of doing things in principal but it just doesn't seem to work for me. The only way menu planning works for me is to sit down at home and figure out what to have and purchase things down to the letter. I'm not very good at this but when I do it I notice a lot of savings in my weekly shopping, so even if I don't buy the cheapest things on offer I still save money by menu planning. The other thing is that where I live we don't get the grocery flyers. I guess I could go on line and check out the specials but for some reason I don't get around to this. If I am at the shop and see specials for things I use regularly, of course I take advantage of them.

  3. Here in Texas I often get $10 coupons out of the Sunday paper. Target offers them at $10 off a $50 purchase. Then I stock up on milk, bottled water, and staples like flour, oatmeal, etc. If you use the phone scanned ones, you're limited to one, but cut out one from the newspaper and you can use as many as you like. We get two newspapers, so I use both on separate days. My other go-to is to use less meat in a meal instead of going meatless. I cook four porkchops, then use each one for a separate meal. I put one in veggie soup by chopping it up and using a box of broth and a can of refried beans, plus fresh and frozen veggies. The beans make the soup like minestrone and adds a layer of fiber. One pork chop will make a great stir fry sliced thin and used with bok choy and other veggies. Another pork chop becomes fried rice using cold left over rice, two scrambled eggs, soy sauce and lots of sliced veggies. The last pork chop becomes Chinese Noodle soup with bok choy, green onions, noodles, and other veggies I have on hand. It doesn't take a lot of meat to make a filling meal.

    1. Love your pork chop meals, Rivercrest. :- )

  4. I'm a simple living mama of 4 little babes over in New Zealand and I don't think we have coupons at all for groceries lol all you need is the discount card specific to the supermarket {of which there are 2 so hardly a big deal} and voila you get whatever sales they have going. Anyway with menu planning I made a list of chicken dishes, mince dishes, other meat dishes, vege dishes, bean dishes and soups awhile ago based on our fave meals. I tweaked the recipes to include the same basic ingredients i.e spices/herbs, stock, tinned tomatoes, oils, plus veges we grow year round in our garden. All the recipes can be changed up to suit whatever veges are in season. This means I have one grocery list and I can pick and choose what we feel like at the time. I have meals I know I can chuck together in 5 minutes when its been a rough day and I can't spend much time in the kitchen and I have meals that require abit more prep for when I'm super-organised. I always have the ingredients on hand for any of the dishes but because we eat simple, whole food I can buy almost entirely organic {we live in a very isolated part of the country so some things just aren't available organically} and our food budget is still very low ~ $200 give or take for a fortnight for a family of 6 which is really good for NZ.
    As an example of some of the meals on my list -
    Vege Soup - any and every vege I have in the garden or kitchen, tinned tomatoes, stock, herbs, cheese
    Vege & bacon {or sausage or leftover roast lamb or chicken} quiche - eggs, flour, herbs, cheese, any and every vege I have, leftover meat or bacon or stay vegetarian
    Chili w greens {kale/onions/mushrooms in winter, garden salad in summer} - mince, any root vege plus kale, stock, spices&herbs, sometimes beans, tinned tomatoes, then more veg plus rice for sides.
    I also keep a large stock of nuts, fresh & dried fruits, homemade yoghurt, homemade dips {again using the basic ingredients}, boiled eggs, baking, etc for snacks. We usually eat leftovers for lunch as we are all at home except when the Papa is on shift and its the more frugal option. Anyway hope this gives someone ideas.
    Re-found your blog after a couple of years away and planning a wallow in your archives :) I got such huge fines when I got your book from the library and kept putting off returning it a couple of years ago LOL I need to buy my own copy methinks ;)

  5. Hi Rhonda,

    I love your blog and appreciate all the ideas and encouragement to live simply. Thank you. I've learned a lot from you and try to pass it on to friends or in classes I teach.

    Today you asked about the meal planning we use. Years ago when the boys were teens, I used the Once-a-month cooking method . . . and it worked wonderfully, helping me save time and money. I found that, contrary to the opinion that cooking for the freezer would produce lots of casseroles, I actually had time to add fresh salads and veggies to meals that would have been too labor-intensive if the main dish weren't already prepared. I made roasts and meatloaf, browned beef for tacos and burritos, and prepared chicken Parmesan and lasagna -- then added a salad and voila -- a great meal in no time.

    Now I'm a widow with grown sons, but I still cook once a month and fill the freezer. It gives me the freedom to share with friends when they are sick or busy with company, or just gives me something to look forward to when I'm eating alone. I don't say that to be sad -- I have a blessed life -- it's just a lot quieter now and I package food for the freezer in smaller containers.

    For the younger moms at church, I teach several classes that I hope are helpful. (They seem to like them.) One is called, "Got Leftovers? . . .make soup" and the other is a version of the Once-a-month cooking that I've used for years. I have alternate ideas for cooking for singles and cooking for older couples (who eat less) and it's fun to fellowship with other ladies and share ideas about meal planning.

    Anyway, that's what I do. Thank you again for all you do. Wish we lived closer and could share a cup of tea . . . but oceans stretch between. Blessings on all your work.

  6. I am a menu planner, I do the plan before you shop method. We have a veg bag delivered each week from a local (five miles away) farm co-op. I use that and veggies from my garden in the summer as the basis for my menu so we eat in season. I buy the ingredients to make the dishes I need, I also have a blackboard in my pantry to write up ingredients that I have run out of that I like to keep in the house and don't buy that often.

    In the UK most of the coupons that I have seen are for processed food. Some supermarkets do a card where you earn points as you shop, you can get vouchers to earn extra points. These are usually based on the shopping you normally buy. The points convert into money which you can use to pay for your shop. They used to be called loyalty cards but nowadays they have other names :)

  7. Hi Rhonda! Yes, I have to menu plan! I still work outside the home and I would go crazy if I didn't. I always plan before I shop to use what we have on hand first. I am still working on building my recipe binder and therefore more meals to rotate around. Summer is hard because the kids are home from school and consume all the leftovers for lunches. Now with them going back to school we will have one meal a week of left overs. Usually this is Sunday dinner and supper.

    1. I face the same thing with the kids home (though I am fortunate and work from home in the summer, so I can cook more often). This year, I changed my menu planning a bit--usually I just plan dinners, but during the summer I plan the kids' lunches too. It made it much easier to figure out when I needed to be making meals and when I could rely on leftovers--and it got rid of the kids' waffling about what to have for lunch! (I do include them in the process of that planning.)

  8. I sometimes try to set a menu after I go to the farmers' market or grocery store...but I tend to waste way too much that way, so I typically plan then shop. Menu planning is a life saver during the academic year with both parents working and both kids in school. During that time, my cooking mainly happens on weekends, and we do simple meals (and/or reheated meals from the stand-up freezer) during the weekdays. We've also taken to buying our produce only a few days in advance...that way, if I need to make a change to the menu, food is less likely to be wasted. It's not perfect, but we're working on it, and with life as busy as it is right now--it's what we can do, and still eat mostly real food. We're trying to look at budget more closely this year, so maybe that will become a more regular part of my planning too.

    Rhonda, thanks again for a site that lets me think about these things so deeply and meaningfully, without feeling that it's not "good enough" that I can't do the whole nine yards yet! You always make me feel good about doing what I can.

    1. You should feel good about doing what you can. I don't think any of us should compare ourselves with anyone else. We should try to do our best and if we can say that on this day, we did that, it's a good day. :- )

  9. Even tho it's just the two of us I find menu planning invaluable! I buy meat in large quantities as good quality meat isn't easy to come by in the country we're currently living in. But I've found a supplier that does nice grass fed Ozzie beef and lamb so I am happy to travel a little to visit them an then freeze it. Veggies are plentiful at the markets but the quality is up as and down and I can't always get what I might plan to cook so need to be a little flexible. But I did by having the meat in the freezer which I can defrost when needed I can make vegetables/salads with whatever is available and this works for us.
    I'm also blessed to have a husband that isn't picky with food as long as I make it taste nice he's happy :)

  10. I have been menu planning a 4-week cycle of evening meals for my hubby and me for the past year. We get most of our meat from a local farmer and I get my other meat from a good grocer when there is a sale. I do not start my plan by doing Sunday through Saturday. I plan meals across the month starting with one day. For example, Tuesdays are usually casserole and salad days. Wednesdays are ethnic meals and Thursdays are soup and sandwich days. Sundays are usually special meals where I can use some of the leftovers for other meals. We make our own pizzas and I can my own pizza sauce from our garden tomatoes. Pizza is on our menu at least once a month. When I make a casserole, I freeze half of it for another month's meal. The same way for soup.

    I also have some frozen vegetables on hand from our garden and I have others that I have got on sale. I have been preserving a few herbs this summer and will do more next year now that I know how to. My garden isn't big but there's always room for improving on how and what I grow.

    I use coupons and I have had some very significant savings over the past several years. While I make a few cleaners myself, most I can get very cheap or free using coupons and store rewards. I keep a stockpile of items we use consistently when I can get it cheap or free. I do find coupons for produce and try to have my produce bins full. I vacuum pack my cut salad greens into glass canning jars which makes for an easy salad and cuts down on waste. I've gone 10 days using salad like this.

    I cook the majority of our food by scratch and we eat well, although somewhat simply. I like trying new recipes and am always on the hunt to try something new that sounds good. Menu planning works for me and I would be lost without it. And it does save us money.

  11. Rhonda, I'd like to talk more or rather hear more about this post and the previous post. Menu planning and food budgeting (in my life) is based on the basic "what do I need" quality products in my "pantry." A pantry filled with 'unwanted-out-dated-what-on-earth-is-that' goods does not inspire me.
    Every product that I make or buy must fill a need - herb salt, vanilla extract, muesli, mustard.... etc. A pantry filled with good ingredients motivates me...and around this pantry I build my meals. I'll go shopping (with a list of what I need - for the pantry) and buy seasonal goods, meat and other fresh produce...only if at a good price. If the prices are too high I don't buy. I know there's enough "good-food" ingredients stockpiled in the pantry. And, I also know that the prices will drop some time.
    The food that I buy determines the main meal of the day. A good pantry has enough ingredients to provide for the other two meals of the day. I plan day to day - as I love reading cook books and practicing what I read. No two tomato soups are ever the same....;-)

  12. I had a difficult time staying focused on the post because the pictures were so delightful! I am now a hungry girl. Breakfast was just an hour ago. Stay safe.

  13. I feel like I've written this so many times on your blog, Rhonda! I've been planning a weekly menu for the two of us for all our married life (36 years). When I was working full time I coudn't face the thought of sitting at work thinking "What are we going to have for tea tonight?" so I spent about half an hour once a week, looking at recipe mags and cookbooks and deciding what we would have for tea for the following week. From that menu, I made up my shopping list for the next night, and didn't have to shop for food other than bread, milk and fresh fruit and veg. for a week. Saved so much time and probably money, but I wasn't thinking about that so much then.
    So here we are both retired, but I still plan my weekly menu, not just from habit, but because I still like to know what I'm going to be cooking in advance.

  14. I am still struggling with this so thanks for all your advice and ideas.

  15. Menu planning helps us eat so much healthier, in season, and for a fraction of the cost of impulse food purchases or eating out. Sometimes we slack on our planning and we can really tell.

  16. I use the back of a used envelope to write up my manu two weeks at the time , but I leave the weekends free,then I make my shopping list for one week from that. We grow some vegetables, fruit, such as lime, lemon, passion fruit, beetroot, carrot, herbs, zucchini. So I use whatever is coming from the garden on the weekends and turn my acces into pickles, jams, spreads. Ive used many of your recipes Rhonda and I have to thank you for that, they all work and we love it.


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