Ideas and inspiration for efficient living.

Menu planning challenge

on February 15, 2012

I’ve been meal planning on a weekly basis as long as I’ve been cooking and I’ve adjusted according to our family size and my culinary inclinations over the years. But for a while I’ve felt that my way of doing it wasn’t working anymore.

My family is growing and the cost of groceries is climbing. I also want to integrate more organic and fair trade products, and they are often more expensive. (But not always, this week I bought organic broccoli and romaine lettuce for the same price as conventional!)

So I wondered, What if I meal plan monthly instead of weekly? Will I save more time and more money?

This week I spent hours working on a new meal plan for my family. It was actually fun, there’s something about those spreadsheets! I’m happy with the result. It’s very detailed. I know how much each meal costs and what ingredients (staples or need to buy) are needed from different stores.

My new meal plan accomplishes the following things:

1. It covers 2 months, or 8 weeks

2. It has variety, but it is not pretentious. It has simple, common ingredients.

3. When I cook, I double the recipe so we eat the same meal twice in a week (I’ve always done it this way). There are no repeats of meals over the 8 weeks, unless it’s a meal we really enjoy.

3. Each month has the same meal cost.

4. It’s balanced (equal meals of beans, lentils, tofu, vegetable-based, eggs, fish, red meat and white meat).

Now the challenge: Will I manage to stay within budget during the next 8 weeks? This was something I was unable to do these last months using weekly menu planning.

I’m certain I will save time. Just this week, I was able to buy all non-perishable items needed for the month in one trip, instead of going each week. Writing down my grocery list will also be quicker, since I made a list of every ingredient for every recipe – I won’t need to thumb through my recipe book.

In 8 weeks, I will be updating to tell you whether I stayed within budget!

What about you, do you meal plan? Do you do it weekly or monthly?

Edited to add (Feb. 16, 2012): How do I evaluate the cost of my meals? 

I’ll use meat sauce and spaghetti as an example:

Ingredients I need:
olive oil
1 onion
4 garlic cloves
2 carrots
2 celery sticks
1/2 pkg mushrooms
1 lb ground beef
2 28 oz cans crushed tomatoes
1 can tomato paste
1 lb ground beef
salt, pepper, sugar, dried herbs
3 pkg spaghetti

I do not count items that I consider staples. I always have them on hand no matter what: olive oil, onion, garlic, carrots, celery, seasonings.

So I ended up adding:
1 pkg mushrooms – 2.00
2 cans crushed tomatoes – 1.25 x 2 = 2.50
1 can tomato paste – 0.50
1 lb ground beef – 4.50
3 pkg spaghetti – 2.00 x 3 = 6.00

My total for this meal is 15.50$. This batch of sauce makes 3 meals, but that’s an exception to my 2 meal rule.

What about the fluctuating cost of fresh food products?

The short answer is that I don’t really worry about it. My numbers are all rounded and I pretty much know what everything costs on average. I expect slight variations and if an item becomes overly priced, I find a different option!


14 responses to “Menu planning challenge

  1. Myriam says:

    Je peux lire l’anglais, mais pas l’écrire !!!!
    Suite à de nombreuses lectures, mon défit depuis quelques semaines c’est déliminer le gaspillage…principalement de bouffe…
    J’ai longtemps fait des menus à la semaine, mais jamais pour 8 !!!
    Je trouve l’idée trsès intéressante…je vais y réfléchir… et attendre de voir ce que tu en pense dans 8 semaines ;o) …
    Je reçois à toutes les semaines un panier de légumes/fruits bio…j’en connais le contenu quelques jours à l’avance… je peux y faire des modifications…mais je peux pas choisir le contenu…ça suit les saisons…
    Bref, ça ajoute au défit !!!!
    Comment tu fais pour évaluer le coût de tes repas…avec les produits frais que tu dois acheter au dernier moment et qui change de prix ?
    À suivre 🙂

    • wellrunlife says:

      I’ll respond in English. 😉

      The idea with the 8 week menu is that I can cycle it back over and over and still not get sick of eating the same thing. I thought 4 weeks was too short.

      Thank you for bringing up the issue with wasted food. I forgot to mention that it was a reason I wanted to improve my meal plan. I was wasting too many ingredients trying new recipes (that my kids or husband did not necessarily approve!) or not making certain recipes often enough.

      I like the concept of fruit and vegetable baskets delivered to my door. For the moment, I’m not sure it’s something I can make work. I’ll probably know more at the end of this test!

      I will edit my post above to add the answer to your last question: How do I evaluate the cost of my meals with the fluctuating cost of fresh food products?

    • wellrunlife says:

      I updated my post above to answer your question.

  2. Mélissa says:

    Wow, félicitations! Je sais tellement que je gagnerais à faire la même chose. Peut-être ton billet sera le coup de pied dont j’ai besoin pour le faire, il n’y a pas mal que des avantages. Inclus-tu aussi les collations et desserts (s’il y en a!) ?

    • wellrunlife says:

      Melissa, try it too and tell me your results!

      I made a list for snacks, but I didn’t calculate how much they cost (for now). I’m going to try hard to track how much we spend on every food during the next 2 months to see where our money is really going.

      For dessert, we have homemade treats and I tend to use staples that I always have around, so it’s hard to figure out how much they actually cost me. (How much does 2 cups of flour really cost?!)

      I’m thinking that at the end of this, I’ll have a menu budget, maybe a snacks budget and a staples budget.

  3. Steenybopper says:

    I have tried to meal plan in the past, but I’m finding now that what works better for me is to plan meals around what’s on sale in the flyer of my favorite grocery store.

    If I want to make chili, for example, I won’t do it till I’ve got the major ingredients on hand at a cheap price, such as the meat and the canned tomatoes. Otherwise, I find it to be counterproductive.

    Ever heard of a book called “Dinner’s In The Freezer”? I used to do that occasionally, prepare several meals in advance all in one day. Now that I work from home and have a bunch of kids, time for meal prep is limited, so I try to do as much as I can on a weekend, and then maybe one day a week cook something. Otherwise, it’s “fend for yourself” or me and/or Daddy will whip up something simple for the kids like a bowl of packaged oatmeal (I know, sugar – eeww – but they have to eat something), PB sandwich, etc.

    Oh, and just to let you know how I found your blog – I saw it in the blog sharing thread on GCM. I posted just before you in post #783.

    • wellrunlife says:

      Thank you for your input Steenybopper!

      Planning around sale items is also a very good idea. I still look at sales every week, but I only buy or stock up what I know I will actually use.

      I know SOS Cuisine sends weekly meal plans based on what’s a sale in your area: http://www.soscuisine.com/?sos_l=en

      Do you find that this way of meal planning is compatible with particular diets?

  4. Tracy says:

    Interesting. I’ve thought about doing this too, but I never actually stick to the plan. My main problem is that I get to that day and then don’t feel like making what’s on the list, or it ends up being a busy day and I don’t have time to cook what I had planned.
    I will be interested to see how this works for you 🙂

  5. Davida says:

    We have to do things a bit differently with my family because, my parents, brothers (+ sister-in-law and two boys) share our spaces, cars and food bills. We have different food tastes/requirements. I am learning how to buy dried bulk foods wholesale for long term (a year or two). Which is a very large one time bill, but ends up being more than half the cost of buying from the grocery store. We live far from any grocery store, so we buy multiples or by the case so we don’t have to travel to the grocery store too often. We bake our own cookies and cakes, on occasion bread. we also try to pick or catch nuts, berries, fruit, crabs etc. And trying grow a verity of vegetables.

    We basically buy the ingredient we know we will use without planing too much in advance and then decide what we want as the time comes. I would probably do as you do and make a meal plan if i was the main person deciding on what the menu would be. We try to make double batches too,

    I also don’t use too much sugar, i substitute it with honey (which of course is more expensive yet better for you or i use small quantities of maple syrup which is supper expensive here on the east coast).

    Chocolate is on of the few treats that i can eat so it would be very difficult for me to give up.

    • wellrunlife says:

      Thanks for your input Davida! It must take a lot of space to buy a year of food, but I know you’re saving a lot!

      • Davida says:

        Yes this is true we have space. For those who do not, if there already is one or if someone starts a food buying club, then many can benefit the way we do without having to stock up too much. Or if you have family or friends who have space…..:)

  6. Becki says:

    Wow! I can’t imagine the calculations it must have taken to create your menu plan. I’m interested to see if you save money.

    • wellrunlife says:

      It has taken quite a while, indeed! It’s turning out to be very interesting though, halfway through, and a little discouraging too. Despite being very careful with what I buy, it doesn’t look like my starting budget was realistic, I suspect it will be about 100$ over budget for the month. That means not too much space for more organic buys, unless I really get into bulk buying. I will know more at the end of this month!

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