Okay, this is going to be a long, detailed post, so if you know from the title that you have this down, check back in on Wednesday. But this fall I’ve had several seasoned homemakers ask me about menu planning based on sales, and after describing my method in length several times, I thought it might be relevant for some of our readers, too. Does the prospect of studying sales fliers and planning ahead fill you with fear? Then this post is for you. This is how I do it, but obviously details will vary depending on where you live and what your family eats!
Anna and I shared sample menu plans last fall, and I mentioned in that post and last week’s post that I do most of my shopping at just a couple of stores. Sadly, there are no Aldi stores within an hour, and the SuperWalmart with groceries is far enough away that I don’t shop there more than every few months. While I do have rock-bottom prices that I prefer to pay for groceries, I don’t have the luxury of shopping at stores that always sell for those prices. So I shop sales, but I don’t run to every store that has a sale. Our stores run sales Wed-Tues, so when I get the sales fliers on Tuesday evening, I sit down and plan out my menu and shopping list for the week. Last week, here are what my sales flyers looked like:
Sprouts is my go-to store for all my produce and bulk goods (their sales prices and quality can’t be beat), but this week, I needed to look elsewhere for meat sales. So I glanced through the other fliers, and Vons had the best meat options.Once I saw what meats were within my price range, I started brainstorming. With the holidays coming up, turkey and ham are a really good deal right now. I could get my Thanksgiving turkey for 57 cents a pound with an additional $25 purchase. I decided to get a ham and a few other sale items ($5 roasted chickens are my kids’ favorite “fast food” item when Daddy is out of town and I don’t want to cook) to make up that total, but since the roasted chicken was only on sale on Friday, I knew I had to shop Vons on Friday.
So I needed to come up with meals from Sprouts or my freezer before I bought my meat for the week. As you can see below, I decided to pull some sale beef out and make a shepherd’s pie and then do an easy breakfast-for-dinner the next night. Then I plugged in meals using the roasted chicken and ham. I’m bringing cranberry sauce to our community group potluck this Wednesday, so I won’t have to make a meal that night. Since the meat meals were going to be a bit pricey, I put in some of our favorite inexpensive meatless meals, too.:
Whenever I have a big hunk of meat, I know I’ll have several planned leftovers meals. When I buy a roasted chicken, I make homemade broth with the carcass in the crockpot and plan on a couple soups on the menu. When I bake a ham, we’ll use the leftovers in soup, frittatas, homemade eggrolls, scalloped potatoes with ham, and split pea soup with the hambone. Some of those meals will be on next week’s menu
I make up my shopping list at the same time I’m making up my menu. I’ve mentioned before that we don’t do a lot of prepared snacks–my kids mostly eat fruit and cut-up veggies, and when it’s under a dollar a pound (as it is year-round out here), we eat a lot of it. So I’ll generally pick up quite a bit of produce that doesn’t fit into my menu plan but will be consumed for breakfast, lunch, and snacks over the course of the week.:
I should add that when I got to Sprouts on Wednesday, I realized I’d need potatoes and more carrots for my shepherd’s pie that night. I do try to stick to a shopping list when I’m at the grocery store, but realizing you forgot to include an ingredient is not the same thing as impulse buying chocolate and junk food!
You can also see the principle of stockpiling going on here. I won’t need 3 onions this week, but at 33 cents a pound, the extra two will keep into next week. Fresh cranberries were on sale this week and probably won’t get lower, so I picked up some for our potluck this week as well as for Thanksgiving. I have my turkey and half a bag of potatoes that I can use up then, too. Our big Thanksgiving meal is already mostly purchased! Also, I don’t have any brown rice on the menu for this week, but it was on sale for 69 cents a pound. We eat a lot of brown rice here (and are getting pretty low), so I bought a couple dollars’ worth to fill up my rice cannister. That will last us for several weeks until the next sale. I didn’t have to buy beef, flour, eggs, or pasta this week because I’d stocked up previously.
For those of you who are interested in numbers, I’ll do my best to share that info, too. Our food budget is $100 a week. I spent $40 on all that meat, but I won’t be buying meat again for a few weeks. I spent $30 on all the produce, which is a pretty standard weekly expense for me. I also had some other expenses this week–my mom was in town and got me $30 worth of dairy products with her Costco membership. We’re set for cheese until Christmas! And I’d just done my monthly big Target trip the previous week and stocked up on pasta and flour and sale ground beef, which doesn’t figure in to this week’s budget, but put my food budget over last week and shows what I didn’t have to buy this week. I’m halfway through the month but have spent more than half of my month’s grocery budget. As you can see from my menu, though, I put more expensive meals (shepherd’s pie costs about $8, roasted chicken and sweet potato fries was $7.50) alongside moderate meals (with eggplant 88 cents apiece, I can make eggplant parmesan for about $5) and cheap meals (butternut squash soup with homemade broth? $3 for enough to fill us all, plus plenty of leftovers).
How do you know how much a meal will cost to make? I try to pay under $2/lb for chicken and pork and ham, under $4/lb for beef and cheese, and under $1/lb for produce (fresh, frozen, or canned). Those prices have stuck pretty much everywhere in the country we’ve lived. If I stick to those parameters, my usual repertoire of meals will be within budget. By the end of the month, I will have spent around $400 for our family of 6. When we entertain (we had all of my husband’s students over in groups all fall), we do spend more because feeding 18 people is so different from feeding 4 or 6!
One last thing to touch on is time. Most of the girlfriends who have asked me about menu planning around sales fear that they just don’t have the time to plan and shop this way. But it literally took me five times longer to type this out than it did to sit down and plan it all out last Tuesday night. I usually only need 5-10 minutes to read the sales fliers, jot down my menu, and come up with a shopping list. When I have an exhaustive shopping list in hand, my shopping is so much quicker! It may seem daunting at first, but it truly does get easier with practice. If you need more help, the ever-sensible Auntie Leila has great advice on coming up with meal options that your family actually likes, and I used menu planning ideas from here in my early years of marriage. And once you have a weekly menu jotted down, you don’t have to panic at 4 pm and try to decide what to make for dinner. It’s already decided! A short investment of planning the night you get your grocery ads will bear fruit the rest of the week.
There are many related topics I could get into, but I’ve gone on quite enough, and I think I’ve answered all the questions my friends have had about the whole thing. If any of you dear readers are still reading at this point, do you have any other questions? Or would you care to share your own menu planning tips?