Picture this: It is 5:30 p.m. and you are trying to fight traffic to get home. The rain slowly starts to come down. You finally pull into your driveway at 5:50 p.m. and walk through your door and are immediately greeted with “I’m starved!!! What’s for dinner?!” Of course, you don’t have any idea, so you load up the family and drive down the street and grab a bite to eat. It wasn’t in your budget, but since you didn’t have any idea as to what to cook, you just opt to spend another $20 (at least) to feed your family (for the 3rd time this week).
Now, imagine reliving that same scenario 8 – 10 times per month. That means you will eat out more than 200 meals in a year. Put a dollar value to this and you will have spent more than $4,000 dining out! When you look at it as just $20, it isn’t so bad, is it? However, when you add that up over the course of a year and realize how many thousands of dollars you end up spending dining out, it can be rather depressing.
I am not saying you shouldn’t eat out at all. You just need to make sure that is a line item in your budget and stick to it. Our family eats out one meal per week at the most (sometimes we don’t even eat out at all). We started doing this when we were working ourselves out of debt (you can read Parts 1, 2 and 3 of our own debt free story). For us, it is normal to fix dinner at home and something to which we are accustomed.
When it comes to dining in, the key factor is planning. You absolutely must plan ahead. That is where a Menu Plan can help. Otherwise, you can have great intentions to eat dinner at home, but if you aren’t sure what to make, then you are back to dining out again (or having to run to the store to buy things, which may not be on sale and end up impulse shopping while you are at it).
Menu planning is not difficult and really is not that time consuming, when you have some tools and tips to help you do just that. Sometimes, it just isn’t in the cards to do your own and you need some help. That is where menu planning sites can help. One I’d recommend is Meals by the Week – where you can sign up for a free 1 week trial!
If you do want to tackle this weekly project yourself, there are some things you need to take into consideration when planning your own meals.
1. Plan no more than a week at at time.
If you are new to menu planning, don’t try to be a super hero and plan out 30 days worth of meals. You just won’t stick with it. Instead, work them up for one week at at time – Sunday through Saturday.
If you need some ideas for meals, you can check out my weekly menu plan, which is posted every Saturday morning. My plan is not being posted to necessarily tell you what to fix, but to inspire or give you some new ideas!
2. Check to see what you have on hand before you plan.
When planning your menu, take a look in your refrigerator, freezer and pantry. Perhaps you have some left over chicken which will go bad if you don’t use it – that might turn into chicken salad one night. You might notice 4 boxes of pasta and realize that if you picked up some sauce and used some beef from your freezer you can put together spaghetti for little cost.
Checking to see what you have on hand helps ensure that you are not throwing away foods which might spoil, which in turn saves you money.
3. Look at your store’s weekly ad for deals.
If you find that soup is on sale this week, it might be the perfect night for soup and sandwiches (don’t forget a few extra cans for your stockpile at those low prices). You might also notice that your favorite meat is on sale. Go ahead and pick up an extra couple of pounds and place them into your freezer. That way, you save money on your meal this week and have more at a lower price to eat in one of the upcoming weeks.
4. Ask your family for input.
Why not ask them if there is anything they want to have for dinner this coming week. This helps because you don’t have to do it all yourself and you know you will be preparing meals they will actually eat!
5. Write your plan down before you shop and make sure it is visible.
You can have great ideas in your mind, but if you don’t write them down, you may forget come Thursday what it is you have left to prepare for the week. You should also have it displayed or kept where you can easily find it (as can others in your family).
This can also help your family members know what is for dinner so that someone might be able to start cooking dinner if your are running late. It is also good so that you can pull out those items from your freezer in the morning so that they are thawed by the time you get home from work in the evening. You can print a FREE menu plan form.
Not only does it help keep you on track, it also helps you plan your shopping trip. When you go through each meal on your list, you can check to see which items you need to purchase so you have all of the ingredients needed come dinner time. This can make that 5:50 arrival home less stressful since you already know what is on the plan, the meat is thawed and the ingredients are waiting in the pantry.
This will make dinner time less stressful, and will also save you time and money! When you make additional trips to the store, you are spending fuel and money (most people don’t buy just the one item they need when they go to the store). You are also spending your time at the store, when you ‘d probably rather be home sitting down to dinner.
Here is what my menu plan looks like and the steps I took to make it easy to keep posted for my entire family to find it:
It took my family and I a little time to get use to the menu plan, but now that we use it, we can’t imagine NOT having it available to help us plan our meals. I still am not a fan of sitting down to plan out what to eat each week, but when I am done and realize the time (and money) am saving because of it, I always smile and then hang the plan back on the fridge.