Would it be helpful to you to know that last month, my family (of 6) used:
- 12 cans of tomato sauce
- 12 bell peppers
- 5 onions
- 10 pounds of potatoes
- 2 gallons of whole milk
- 3 containers of almond milk
- 5 boxes of pasta
- 15 bags of frozen vegetables
- 2 bags of chips
- 3 bags of cheddar cheese
- 1 jar of peanut butter
- 8 dozen eggs
- 5 heads of romaine lettuce
- 4 bags of pretzels
- 6 pounds of carrots
- 2 pounds of rice
- 45 bananas
- 4 boxes of cereal
That might not be helpful to you. But it’s extremely helpful to me. For a month, I tracked the groceries that we ate. Not the groceries that I bought, but the groceries that we ate. There’s a difference.
Now the list above is obviously not a complete list. That’s taped to the inside of my kitchen cupboard. I also didn’t track several things like:
- Ground beef, chicken or butter.
- Baking supplies like flour, sugar, or baking soda.
- Spices like garlic powder, thyme, salt & pepper.
I either always have a lot of those items on hand (like a few month’s worth of ground beef in the freezer) or they’re items that I don’t buy every month (like pepper). I also wasn’t looking to make myself crazy with every little detail. My goal was to get a realistic idea of what my family actually eats in a given month.
Why Track What You Eat?!?
I didn’t do this just to satisfy my curiosity. Or to prove to someone how much food we actually eat. It wasn’t to figure out the least amount of food we could get by on. It wasn’t to determine the cheapest meals I could make. There are other (better) ways to satisfy those goals.
I’ve written before that we’ve got some food sensitivity issues that we’re trying to diagnose. We’re about 3 months in of going mostly dairy-free, gluten-free and egg-free (well, egg-free for one of my sons). We’re aiming for another 3 months of those restrictions.
For a couple of months before that, we were even tomato-free, chili & bell pepper-free, apple-free and orange-free. To put it mildly, all these changes have really thrown a wrench in my menu planning. A majority of the foods that I used to make had key ingredients that I no longer wanted to use. It created a lot of stress on me. And because of choices I made out of panic, it really skyrocketed our grocery spending. Some increase in spending was needed, but not nearly as much I overspent by!
No, the real reason I did this was so that I could have a repeatable shopping list for each month. But that’s only helpful if we’re going to eat those same meals again. That’s what I did. To reduce my stress and to get my grocery budget back under control, I came up with what I’m calling a Master Menu Plan. It’s essentially a monthly menu that I plan on repeating (mostly) in its entirety for the next 3 months.
Because I’ve always menu planned our dinners, I thought I knew what groceries I needed. But I found myself missing a few items here and there, necessitating either another trip to the grocery store OR making a new plan. Because I never really menu planned breakfast, lunch, snacks or side dishes before, I was often missing things that I needed. And while I knew that we ate cereal for breakfast some mornings, I never translated that to how many boxes we actually needed.
So I stepped up my game and planned it all. I love it. I adore it. It’s been fantastic for me. Been great for my family. Even better for my budget! Is it right for you?
Here are the things to keep in mind when using a Master Menu:
Menu Planning Goes On Auto-Pilot
I don’t have any statistics on it, but I’m guessing most families eat the same meals over and over again. Oh sure, someone plays around with new meals found on the internet. But I’d bet money that 80% of meals that the typical family eats are repeats. Because they’re easy. Because the family likes them. Because they work with the food allergies that a family has. So, to do this, just pick your favorite meals that you’re going to be eating anyway and make it a plan.
It isn’t hard for me to menu plan because I’ve been doing it for years. But it does take a certain amount of work, especially if you’re going to be really detailed. The benefit of a Master Menu is that once you go through that work once, you can reap the benefits of it many times! Maximizing your reward for your effort.
When it came time to do this month’s menu, it was easy. I just opened up the Excel file and make a few tweaks to accommodate what didn’t work the month before and print. Done!
Flexibility Can Be Worked In
The first month, I planned it so that we had spaghetti every other Monday and fajitas every other Thursday, but that didn’t always happen. I moved things around as needed during the week. It’s my plan and it’s my kitchen and it’s my life so if fajitas happened on Wednesday that week, awesome! Having a plan gave me the framework I needed to work with. For the first month, I did keep track of where I deviated so that I could make changes for next month. Examples: I forgot that 1 roast beef dinner gives me enough leftovers for a whole ‘nother meal, so I accounted for that next time. I also forgot to plan quicker meals on nights when we had after-dinner activities. Oops!
There were things that changed this – family coming into town as an example. There are things that will change this for next month such as Easter and birthdays. But 90% of it will be re-used.
Take Advantage of Re-use
Call it COST (Cook Once, Serve Twice). Call it Using What Ya Got. Call it whatever you need to, but you can build the plan to allow for re-using common ingredients. Maybe one week you want to use a lot of ground beef while the next week, you use a lot of chicken. Like I forgot to do, maybe you plan for Roast Beef on Monday and then plan on Roast Beef sandwiches for Tuesday to use up the leftovers.
If you have sloppy joes twice in that month, you can make 2 batches at once, freezing the rest. You can be confident that you’ll use it in a couple of weeks and it won’t get lost in the freezer. I do that with spaghetti sauce, teriyaki sauce and homemade chicken broth.
It Can Be Simple. It Can Be Complex.
You can plan Cinnamon Toast Crunch for every breakfast. You can plan Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwiches for every lunch. You can plan for take-and-bake pizza for every dinner. Or you can plan for Filet Mignon with Baked Alaska. It’s your choice. Your meals can be as simple or as complex as you want.
Likewise, the frequency in which you schedule an item is up to you. Most of our meals were every other week with the weekend meals either being leftovers or they were a little more complex/special/extraordinary simply because I had more time or more help (aka: husband was home!).
It Allows For A Mega Shopping Trip
Because I know what we need for the month, I can plan a big shopping trip at the beginning of the month to get what I need. Sure, I’ll still shop for perishables during the month, but it allows me to do 1 big trip to get most of what I need.
Since I have my list, I check to see what I have on hand and determine what I’m missing. I need 12 cans of tomato sauce? Great! I have 4 in the pantry, so I really only need 8.
I don’t have to do it this way; I can still do a weekly or bi-weekly trip, but this makes a big monthly trip much easier to do.
Smart Stockpiling is a Cinch
I love a good, smart stockpile! A stockpile that has things that are useful without being ridiculous in its quantity. If there’s a great sale and pasta is at a stock-up price that month, I can buy a few months’ worth until it goes on sale again. At 5 boxes/month * 3 months = 15 boxes that I’d need. That’s a good, practical amount for me. 2 boxes wouldn’t be enough and 100 boxes would be too much.
If you remember anything, remember this: This is YOUR plan. You are the boss of it. It is not the boss of you. But, for me, creating 1 Master Menu that we’ll rotate through the next few months has been a real sanity saver!
This isn’t for everyone. It probably isn’t even for me in a different season of life. But if it sounds useful to you, to help you get started, I’ve created a Master Menu Plan that might work for you. I’ve included breakfast, lunch & dinner. I even included a Notes section where I gave you ideas on how to make things easier for yourself. Such as making a double batch of mexican rice to serve part of it that night and the rest a couple of nights later. But feel free to blank everything out and start from scratch. This is YOUR plan!
Jayme is a wife to 1 and a mother to four little boys. She coupons, price matches and meal plans. While she likes to cook, she’s in the stage of life where simple is usually better – she never knows how many hands she’ll have free at dinner time! You can find her at No Regrets Living.