A menu saves money because you can plan ahead, work seasonal fruits & veggies into your daily meals, and work in ways to use leftovers. Changing the menu seasonally provides lots of variety, which keeps things interesting all year long. Include a variety of healthy recipes and as you find recipes that you and your family like better, replace some of the existing recipes. After all, a menu is only a series of guidelines and not rules.
When I initially started my menu, it was primarily to add variety to our daily meals. I kept getting stuck in a rut and serving the same meals repeatedly. As a single parent who worked 2 jobs, there was little time to be creative. Then I heard many men say they lived on pasta and canned soup because they did not know how to cook. That scared me because I wanted better for my son when he grew up. So, I got him involved in making dinner one day each week. That day ended up being Fridays because by the end of the week, I was exhausted. I did not care what he served as long as everything he made was from scratch. For his very first meal, he made a list of ingredients that he needed. When we went to the grocery store to get those items, I had a rude wake-up call. See Surprising Result of a Lesson of Independence!
Fast forward to today. Over the years I began to learn that some food items were cheaper around holidays. Also, produce was cheaper when it was in season. Back then, the emphasis was more on putting food on the table rather than how it tasted. However, over the years, food flavor began to be more important and then healthy foods entered the scene. My menu continued to morph to include holiday food items and seasonal produce, replacing some red meats. When my primary care provider advised me to make some changes in my diet to reduce my cholesterol, I learned to make a series of lifestyle changes. It turned out that making that lifestyle change was easy. Even better yet, many of the foods that I needed to include were cheap. And, if stored properly, lasted for MONTHS! That meant, I could stock up on those foods when sales ran! Keeping all of that in mind, I began revising the menu that I had been using. I found recipes that included the complex carbs, omega-3 healthy fats, high fiber “super foods”, etc. By the time I was finished making revisions to my menu, my new lifestyle change was easy to keep. The recipes that I found were really delicious. Who knew that making a major change in your life could taste so good?!?!
My menu started out in one of the notebooks that I had bought for my son for school. However, I now have it in an Excel workbook with one worksheet for each month.
Notice that I list at the top the various food awareness events that will happen each month. Many food items will be on sale for those events.
On each Month, I list the produce that will be in season for that month. I recently had to overhaul my entire menu because the growing season in Florida is totally different from that of Delaware.
I created a cheat sheet with examples of veggie trays, chef salads, fruit & cheese platters.
Because my son is now a gourmet chef, I researched the difference between a Cobb salad and chef salad.
I have a reminder section on each month with a “key”. Many times, I intentionally make a double batch. Sometimes I freeze the 2nd and 3rd servings. Other times I build the 2nd serving into the menu for the same week. That “leftovers” is different from when I just use up all the leftovers from earlier in a week. Green also means I save money. Blue is for items in the freezer (illustrations always show people turning blue when they are cold!). Light green means Salad (green for salad leaves). EM – English Muffins. The space in each cell is limited. Therefore, I abbreviate.
- 1 = Memories. I had fruit & cheese platters during a vacation to Wales, UK.
- 2 = Trying to incorporate more seafood into my menu.
- 3 = This tip is on the months when berries are in season and, therefore, cheaper. I found a way to freeze berries so they are not soggy when they thaw out.
- 4 = Usually this note is listed somewhere in each week. Just a reminder to use everything.
- 5 = My focus this year is to include more Mediterranean foods due to research that I just completed about the health benefits of Mediterranean diets. I do not want to only use Mediterranean foods. However, I do want to remember to include as many Mediterranean food items into my menu as possible.
- 6 = Memories: recipes from family, friends, and other sources. By the way, “Parkview” is the nursing home that I worked at many years ago. The chef there shared some of her recipes with me.
- 7 = Holidays and awareness events mean fun food items. In this case, I include a number of German recipes during the entire 2 week Oktoberfest celebration. I do the same thing for Chinese New Year, Mardi Gras, Easter (many egg uses), Cinco de Mayo, etc.
Keep in mind that I have worked at this for many years. Sometime in October of each year, I set up the next year’s menu. All I do is to copy the current year’s menu and change the title to be the next year (2018 Menu). Then I revise the date of the days in each month. Normally, I just need to change each day by 1 number. I change the year at the top of each page.
By the way, I link directly to each recipe so that I can easily see the needed ingredients. I open each recipe, copy the ingredients needed for that recipe, and when I have all the recipes I will want to use for each 2-week period, I sort and then divide the food items into categories: Produce, Freezer, Dairy, Meats, and Miscellaneous. I sort alphabetically and that gives me a total list of ingredients that I will need for all recipes for that 2-weeks.
I take that list to my kitchen and go through my pantry and cupboards, crossing off items that I already have. After that is done, I can peruse weekly circulars for stores that I normally use and know instantly which items are really on sale. How? I have used my price book for YEARS. THE Most Important Save Money Tool, which is the 1st step in my 10-Step Supermarket Combination Technique.
That sounds like a lot of work. That was the case when I first started the menu. Now, I replace some menu items with recipes that I found that I like more. Copying the year’s menu to the next year takes maybe 5 SECONDS. Changing the date on the days of each week in each month might takes about 20-30 minutes. Open the recipes that I will use, copy the ingredients needed, and alphabetizing them takes about 30-40 minutes (for the whole year!). At that point, I am done until I prepare for each month’s grocery shopping trips.
From my perspective, spending even as much as 2 hours once/year to save a significant amount of money off my grocery budget is well worth my time.
Family Quality Time
My granddaughter and I spent some quality time together and we decorated the months with clip art and pictures, changed the print font for different months, based on the holidays in each month. We had loads of fun being silly and designing each month. I asked for some of her favorite foods and included those items in my menus. From that point forward, every time she came to spend a weekend with me, she would get the menu that I posted and ask if she could make the meals. It was kind of like Deja vu for me because if you recall, when I started including my son in my menu, I got my son involved. New generation now! And, she loves to cook today!
Another advantage of planning my menu for a full year in advance, I can plan on getting non-perishable products when the regular supermarket sales rotations will happen. So, not only do I save TIME, but I also save MONEY.
Fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, watermelons, etc. are much cheaper when they are in season. Include more berry-related recipes into your menu. However, this is the time to get extra fruits and freeze them. You can prevent berries from being mushy when they thaw out if you spread them out on a cookie sheet and put the cookie sheet in the freezer. When the berries are frozen, move them from the cookie sheet, put them in re-sealable bags and freeze them.
Cranberries go on sale around Thanksgiving. Yams and sweet potatoes go on sale around Thanksgiving. Cranberries freeze beautifully and can be used throughout the year. Yams & sweet potatoes will last about 3-5 weeks in the pantry and will last 2-3 months in the fridge.
Corned beef goes on super-duper sale around St. Patrick’s Day and freezes well. Eggs go on sale around Easter and can be I hard boiled to include in salads, make egg salad, use them for custards, etc.
Keep that kind of information in mind as you build your menu and you will begin to save money without even thinking about what meals you will serve. You will have a built-in cheat sheet!
You can build family quality time into your menu, too. Take the family to pick-your-own orchards and farms and make a day of it. If you pick-your-own berries, remember to rinse berries with a solution of white vinegar and water in the parking lot so the fruits do not go moldy before you get home. We picked apples in the fall and laughed and had loads of fun doing it. At home, we made apple pie, applesauce, baked apples, made apple cobblers (and froze some), etc. Or, find Pick-Your-Own Farms. You can also search by entering “pick your own” and add your state.
Remember to put your savings in a savings account so that you can watch your savings grow. You will amaze yourself at how quickly the savings adds up. It is like having your own money tree! Keep in mind that there are other steps that help to save money. All that money should go into your savings account.
TAKE ACTION #1: Set up a 2-week menu: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Find recipes that your family will like and remember to include snacks.
TAKE ACTION #2: Get the kids involved in finding recipes that are healthy and they will like. Some great places to start looking for healthy kid-friendly recipes are:
- Smart Nutrition Starts Here
- USDA Cooking Resources for Kids
- What Fruits & Vegetables Are In Season?
- Nutrition Information for You