Ideas and inspiration for efficient living.

Menu planning challenge – Results

Eight weeks ago, I challenged myself to follow a set meal plan and stay within budget for my grocery shopping for the first time in months. You can read about it here.

The results are in! For the first half, I went over my February monthly budget, simply because I started after the first week (so I just followed my plan for the remaining 3 weeks). I wasn’t very successful, but I expected the second month to be better, because a lot of the way I shopped changed.

For the second half of the challenge, I only went over by 13$. It think that is excellent! We have plenty of food and the menu is varied enough that we don’t get bored.

One major money saver I have found is to make one trip at the beginning of the month to buy non-perishable items at the cheapest grocery store I know. This is the only store I shop at that carries all kinds of junk and convenience foods, so the fact that I only go once a month saves me the “extras” that I ended up buying on impulse before.

I started buying more organic produce, such as apples, pears, bananas and lettuce. They are usually the same price as conventional, so they didn’t impact my budget.

I switched from canned to dry beans, they are at least 4 times cheaper.

Instead of buying fresh-baked white French bread to eat with soup, I make my own in my bread machine and make it with whole-wheat. It’s time I put my bread machine to good use!

I make dessert less often, usually no more than once a week, so I am saving on sugar, even though I wasn’t using that much already. We eat dried fruits or applesauce instead and no one minds!

I picked up my first order of organic beef this week. I ordered 1/2 beef with family, so we got a good price per pound and the cost is about equivalent to the meat I buy at the conventional butcher.

I’m also about to join an organic coop, and I will save on everything organic from flour to dried fruit. I can’t wait for a spot to open so I can join!

I’m saving time on my weekly menu planning. My lists are already made, so I look at my pantry and write down what is missing.

I think all the time I put in planning in January/February was worth it, both financially and time-wise. Because of the coop, I’ll be able to afford more organic because it will cost the same as conventional.

I’m pretty happy about the changes our family is making. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s already better!

What are you doing right now to move toward healthier and thriftier eating? 


Menu planning challenge

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!


Long-term and short-term lists

Do you have a life list?

A life list, also known as a bucket list, is a list of things that you would like to do before you die. It can consist of things as big or as trivial as you’d like. It can be as long as you’d like (100 things to do before you die – google that) or as short as you’d like (5 top things).

Like I’ve said, I like lists, so making an exhaustive one wasn’t difficult. My husband on the other hand, loathes lists, and he only has 3-4 things in his head that he’ll like to do one day, with no specific timeline.

The problem with life lists is that they can easily turn into a piece of paper tucked away somewhere while you hope that the things on it will magically happen “someday”. However, it’s time to turn them into manageable pieces that you will actually follow through on.

This is where you take your life list, and make a 5 year list. You’d be surprised how much you can get done in 5 years once you actually make a plan.

Then you make your 2012 list. What can you work on doing this year? Again, you’d be surprised how much you can fit in.

And slowly, you’ll be checking off your life list, glad that you’re doing something fun and worthwhile with your life.

Are you working on your lists for 2012? List your top 5 for this year.

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Outlining priorities and goals

What did you do in 2011? What will you be doing in 2012?

Don’t know?

Here’s an idea. Make a list of priorities.

I’ve been a fan of life lists for years now. Well, not just life lists, lists in general. They help me stay focus, organized and efficient.

Every January, I make a list of priorities and goals that I want to strive for in the new year. I’m not talking about resolutions, which die off within a week, like memberships at the gym on January 12th, but realistic, precise objectives that you actually make a plan to attain.

Last year I divided my list by specific areas I wanted to focus on: Me, My Husband, My Children, Work/House and Family/Friends.

Here is a peak at my 2011 list:

  1. Exercise 3 hours/week
  2. Run 3 races
  3. Eat a balanced diet (basically reduce my sugar intake)
  4. Read 36-52 books
  5. Knit myself a scarf
  6. Raise 600$ for a cleft lip surgery for a child with Show Hope
Now that the year is almost over, I can take a look back at my list and see how I did:
  1. I ran a lot from May to September
  2. I ran 5 races, including my first half-marathon. I’m very proud of that!
  3. “Balanced diet” is a very subjective term, but I did just okay. Until I actually limited the amount of sugar I buy every month and switched to fair-trade, it was hard to control my intake. I needed a concrete restriction.
  4. I read 28 books, I would have reached at least 36 if my brain was not stolen by a tiny uterus dweller starting in October!
  5. I finished my scarf in time for winter.
  6. I raised 375$ for Show Hope, so not quite the 600$ I was aiming for. When I set the 600$ goal, I knew it was pretty high and I didn’t make a strategy to get there. I kind of waited around, hoping an opportunity would show up. Next year, I need to make a specific plan as to how I’m going to raise that money.

What I have learned from my successes and failures: some goals were realistic, some were idealistic, and one I know I didn’t work enough at.

As I make my list for 2012, I will pull out my life list and my 5 year list. More on that in the next post.

What about you? How was 2011 for you? Did you have objectives? Did you reach them? What worked, what didn’t?

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