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Frugal and Healthy Meal Planning, Part 3

September 26, 2012

In part 1, we examined our priorities, in part 2 we took stock of what was in our pantries and freezer to determine the things for which we really need to seek out the best deals.  It’s amazing sometimes how we don’t even know what we really eat until we take a step back and do some inventory!

Now we’d like to discuss meal planning basics.  As you know, here at The Provision Room, we plan our meals a month at a time.  In the course of that planning, we work in two extra dinners a week that we put in the freezer.  We have found in this way, we’ve been able to put up food in case of an emergency or “life happening” without increasing our food bill!  So, we’re going to break down a little bit how we go about our meal planning.

Monthly Menu Planning 101

For years we just planned our meals a day at a time, or at the most a few days in advance.  We’d open the fridge or freezer and think, “What will we eat tonight?”  This ended up draining us in two ways:

The first way was in finances.  If the fancy struck us to make pork chops and spinach risotto, we went and bought those ingredients, without much thought of whether or not those foods were in season, local, on sale or in the budget.  When we started charting our meals and budgets for the month we were forced to reign in those impulsive food purchases.  Kristina wrote candidly about the financial impact of menu planning here: A Confession and A Testimony.

The second way this way of (non)meal planning drained us was in time.  We were at the neighborhood grocery store or Trader Joe’s every other day, it seemed!  We always needed just one more thing to complete the culinary masterpiece we needed to create.  What a lot of time!  Daja wrote about the amount of time menu planning has saved her here: Finding Time.  By doing the bulk of our shopping once a month and stopping by the store or farmer’s market for fresh produce and dairy only, we have saved ourselves so much time.  We’ve actually been able to read (like books without pictures!) again.

1. Make sure your calender is current.

On the last week of the month, we sit down with our calendars.  The first thing we do is to write in any events and holidays that may affect the plans.  Swim meets, baseball games, birthdays, guests visits, etc. are all written in first.

2. Do a little inventory check.

Then we take a little stock of our pantries and freezers.  What do we have on hand.  There may be things that should be used up that we should work into the plans in order to be the best steward of the provisions.  Half a carton of buttermilk? Might be time to have biscuits.  Little bits of about four different kinds of cheeses?  A quiche is in order.  The garden overflowing with squash?  Time for stuffed squash as a main dish.  You get the idea.  Try to work first with what you have, so your shopping list is shorter and so nothing is wasted.

Then we start planning, keeping in mind what is locally grown and in season as those things will be big money savers.  It is always going to be expensive to get fresh tomatoes in January for us.  (Plus, they just won’t taste so good.)  But, winter greens will be plentiful.  So, we’ll do those instead.

So write in an entire month of dinners.  We usually only plan dinners this way.  For breakfast we have no-brainer staples we lean on: Smoothies, oatmeal, eggs, etc.  And for lunch we often do dinner leftovers, sandwiches and salads.  Leave yourself a few free days so that, if necessary, you can use up leftovers or just let your creativity run wild.

3. Choose recipes that will use ingredients that will spill over into other recipes.  For example:  on Monday you could cook a whole chicken.  Monday night shred the breasts and use the meat to make a chicken salad (with lots of veggies and even some fruits in it, two breasts is enough to make salad for my whole family).  Tuesday night use all the dark meat in your chicken enchiladas.  Then take all the bones and skin and put them in the crockpot to make stock for soup.  Three nights of meals; one chicken!  Use the same concept for many things: meat, veggies, rice.  If you are serving rice with your dinner, make a bunch extra and the next night fry it with vegetables, spices and some egg to make a Chinese fried rice.  I have a friend of  a large family who likes to say, “Cook once.  Eat twice.”

4. Meatless meals.  We are certainly not vegetarian.  We like our meat!  But, roughly half our meals are meatless.  Use eggs, cheese, tofu (non-GMO and organic, of course), beans, lentils or nuts as the protein in those meals.

5. Cook every meal from scratch.  Prepackaged and convenience foods will destroy your food budget.  There is a price to pay for being able to eat food quicker.  This little sign I came across online sums it up nicely.  Replace the word “service” with “food.”

Good food cheap won’t be fast.

Good food fast won’t be cheap.

Fast food cheap won’t be good.

If you’ve been accustomed to buying mixes, frozen and canned food, this might be the toughest step!  However, once you get the hang of it you’ll be amazed at how quickly your meals come together with flavor that is far and away better and your pocketbook will thank you!

6. Identify the biggest budget killers in your kitchen.  Some things to consider are processed foods (addressed already), drinks and snacks.  Drinks are an expensive way to get your calories from the sodas to the juices to all the expensive coffee drinks and enhancements (such as flavored creamers). Try saving those beverages for special occasions, picnics and parties.  And start serving water with lunch and dinner instead.  Learn to drink your coffee as coffee was meant to be–with a little cream or whole milk.  Make iced tea and herbal iced teas instead of juice.  Not only will you be saving money, you’ll be removing a ton of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup form your diet.

Image source

Snacks are another budget killer.  Things like chips, packaged cookies, pretzels, packaged trail mixes, things that come individually wrapped like cheese, yogurt, and carrot sticks, things that are named by their calorie count (100 calorie snack bags), cakes and pastries, crackers and “spreads” in little packages, etc. are all very expensive ways to purchase food!  If you choose to include these things in your diet (and I think we can certainly make a case that no one needs to eat junk food no matter how it is packaged) buy it in a big bag and then portion it out yourself into reusable plastic containers or re-purposed jars.

Better yet, eliminate snacking altogether!  “Snacking” is an odd phenomenon.  We are not cattle. We don’t need to graze.  We need to eat a meal (and fully enjoy that meal) and then wait until the next meal.  However, we have trained ourselves that that feeling we get about 10:30AM is a starvation pain.  We must grab something to eat. STAT.  Well, you know what?  Hunger makes food taste better!  It takes discipline and retraining–especially if you’ve taught your children to constantly be eating–but you can cut out the snacks in your house.  It has been about a year, I think, since we have outlawed snacks at our house.  We eat three scheduled meals–and one tea time.  If a child asks for a snack, I can assure then, “Oh, well, we are just 40 minutes away from another meal.  Think how much more you will enjoy it when the time comes if you wait!”  We do have a little something with our tea time between lunch and dinner.  This is the longest gap in meals and as we try to wait for Daddy to come home from work before we eat dinner (and that time can really vary), we all appreciate a little something about then.  But, it is a little something–a piece of fruit or a muffin and a cup of tea.

7. Calculate your per person, per meal price.  Keep diligent receipts your first month of meal planning and figure out how much, approximately, you are spending per person, per meal.  Just average it out.  Then the next month try to bring that down a bit.  By working at it each month and establishing spending goals for yourself, you’ll be able to save so much.  Seeing the hard numbers in front of you really is a reality check.  (Currently, we are between $1.10 and $1.40 per meal, per person.)

8. Pray.  Pray as you take inventory of your pantry.  Pray as you do the meal planning.  Pray before you go shopping.  Pray while you are shopping.  Ask God to redeem and make up what is lacking.  I truly believe in praying over our food.  It’s not just a cute little tradition to say grace at meal time.  We are actually asking the Lord to put His grace on our food and make it healthy, make it blessed, make it safe, make it affordable, make it multiply.  I believe in modern day loaves and fishes experiences.  One time I fed about 20 people with two chicken breasts.  It was while we were living in Mongolia.  People kept showing up at the door to talk to Gana (who was pastoring a growing church).  So, I kept setting out more food.  That food s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d.  It was miraculous.

To be continued in Part 4!

Confession….it’s good for the soul.  Leave us a comment telling us what your biggest budget killer is!

(Linked to The Morris Tribe Blog Hop)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Daja permalink*
    September 26, 2012 1:32 pm

    Want to know my confession? You know at the Trader Joe’s check-out line they have those chocolates (dark chocolate with hazelnuts or milk chocolate with the biscuit inside)? That’s my reward after a long day of shopping. Love, love, love ’em!

    • September 27, 2012 11:27 am

      My confession… I buy those ridiculous chocolate covered peanut butter pretzels. Then I take them home and desperately try not to eat the WHOLE bag!

  2. nicolee404 permalink
    September 27, 2012 9:08 am

    love this post and look forward to reading rest of your blog!!

  3. Elizabeth permalink
    September 27, 2012 2:59 pm

    My splurge is drinks from Starbucks. I love a frappuchino or iced tea or hot nonfat chai. I don’t have a real sweet tooth but I love to bake and my family gets a cake or pie or cobbler or crisp or cookies every couple days. Every night at dinner my husband leans across the table and looks deep in my eyes and asks, “what’s for dessert?” I am told I am a great cook by family, friends, co-workers….everyone seems to enjoy my baking (and cooking). I seldom even sample the desserts I make. But a couple times a week my car makes its way through the Starbucks drive-thru for MY treats. Plus I get to say “HI” to my middle daughter and all her barista friends. They are great friendly people.


  1. Frugal and Healthy Meal Planning, Part 4 « The Provision Room
  2. Frugal and Healthy Meal Planning, Part 2 | The Provision Room

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