How can I save with menu planning?

Having just returned from the shops with boxes full of melomakarona (μελομακάρονα, a dessert made of flour, olive oil and honey) and kourabiedes (κουραμπιέδες, a butter shortbread dipped in rosewater and powdered sugar) in preparation for Christmas in Greece, food is on my mind!

Saving money on groceries is one of the easiest ways to cut down on your living expenses, unlike the fixed costs of rent, council rates, school fees, or other expenses that are difficult to modify without taking drastic action like moving.

Save and enjoy more

The best news is that there are certain areas in which decreasing your spending actually results in a better quality of life. Taking public transport and walking more, or riding a bike, rather than paying to run a car, for example, results in a better environment and better health, and removing the ‘ease’ with which you can run to the shops to pick up unnecessary items results in better financial health above and beyond the immediate savings on fuel, insurance, and vehicle maintenance.

Likewise, decreasing what you spend on food, contrary to what we are frequently told by the media, can often come with extra benefits for your health and the environment too. As I’ve shown previously, buying a selection of vegetables, fruit and meat from the supermarket is cheaper than purchasing even the cheapest of takeaways or instant meals. And if you go to the local farmer’s market, and eat seasonally, not only can you often find even cheaper, fresher produce, but you can purchase ingredients that have not traveled a great distance and spent months in cold storage, or been subject to lots of processing, providing environmental benefits too.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the easiest ways to save on food is to menu plan.

Nutrition + Taste + Price

There are three important factors when it comes to food: nutrition, taste, and price. The order in which these are important depends on your situation and needs, but everyone needs some combination of them.

Starting out, I wasn’t really sure how to plan an entire week’s worth of meals, let alone a month’s, but fortunately, there are plenty of sample meal plans available, online and in magazines.

Each of these needs to be tweaked in order to fit your own personal circumstances and desires when it comes to nutrition, taste and price.

The easy way to menu planning

The way I eased myself into menu planning was via the magazine Super Food Ideas. While this magazine does pretty well when it comes to meals that are nutritious and delicious, it isn’t so good when it comes to foods that are cheap, requiring quite a few special ingredients I don’t normally keep on hand, and that aren’t necessarily budget items.

To taken an example from a few years back, one issue recommended the following:

  1. Chicken pasta
  2. Pumpkin soup
  3. Tomato casserole
  4. Vegie patties
  5. Sweet potato gnocchi with basil pesto
  6. Italian beef pot pies
  7. Chicken and pork cassoulet

Here’s how you can save on a menu like this:

  • Double dinners. One of the challenges the excellent Simple Savings community often sets is to make double dinners – cooking double the amount you would normally, and freezing the leftovers. This is something we do frequently, either ending up with a cooking-free week, or saving what’s left over for lunch. Most recipes are written for a family of four, and many ingredients are also sold in family-size servings, which is great news if you have a family, but even better news if you’re a couple or are single, in which case you can easily cook in bulk.
  • Group like ingredients, substitute and buy in bulk. As it so happened, we had a giant pumpkin given to us and were able to make the pumpkin soup from the leftovers. However, if we didn’t have any pumpkin, it’s likely that we would have bought a bulk bag of sweet potatoes and used those instead, seeing as they were already called for in another recipe. Variety is important, but try to find ingredients that are nutritionally and taste-wise pretty equivalent in any meal plan so that you can get bulk discounts and use the whole lot up. You’re throwing money away if you come to the end of the week and have half a pumpkin and half a bag of sweet potatoes left over that you then don’t use the following week and have to throw away.
  • Use up what you have. We managed to cook the first three meals from this list largely using ingredients we already had at home, and looked for other ingredients that could be substituted for the recipes requirements in the others. For example, while the Italian Beef Pot Pies called for olive oil, you can substitute margarine or butter without greatly changing the taste or nutritional composition of the meal. Naturally, this would not work as well in a recipe where olive oil is a more major component – such as a salad (no one wants buttery lettuce!) but if you’re running low on funds, it’s much better to spend $8 on some meat or some vegetables than on a bottle of fancy oil you only need for a couple of drizzles.
  • Use dried instead of fresh herbs. If you have a herb garden, great – enjoy as many fresh herbs as you can grow. For the rest of us, dried herbs are perfectly sufficient for most recipes. While fresh herbs are nice, I’d much prefer to buy a packet of dried thyme for less than $1, use what I need, and have plenty to enjoy later, than to purchase a whole bunch for several times that price, use the 2 sprigs called for in the cassoulet recipe, and then end up wasting the rest after it goes soggy in the fridge because no other recipe in the menu plan requires it. Dried herbs are convenient, strong in flavour, and result in much less wastage of food. Because they’re so much cheaper, they also allow you to buy a greater variety of herbs, and you can very affordably build up a collection of tastes to add to your dishes.
  • Buy meat on the basis of what’s on special. Eating a variety of different meats is just as important as getting a variety of fruits and vegetables, as different meats offer vitamins and minerals. Even so, many menu plans both in magazines and online recommend more meat-based meals than is nutritionally recommended, and you can very often substitute one meat for another, or even decrease the amount of meat and increase the number of vegetables in a recipe without sacrificing taste. For example, in this meal plan, I left out the chicken drumsticks in the chicken and pork casserole, as neither of us really like drumsticks, adding extra vegetables instead. That particular meal already has a protein component (the pork), and the menu plan already has chicken (in the pasta) so I felt we weren’t missing anything. Don’t be bound by the script – you don’t have to follow recipes to the letter. There’s no reason, for example, that you couldn’t make lamb pies if lamb happens to be cheaper than beef this week or you already have some in the freezer.
  • Use whatever cheese you have on hand. Rather than buying an expensive block of parmesan for again, just a couple of the recipes, I used a smaller amount of the tasty cheese we already had in the fridge. Buying a new block of cheese would have simply resulted in the tasty we already had going to waste, and the leftover parmesan likely doing the same.
  • Cut down on ingredients that aren’t vital. Many recipes that call for, say, two eggs, can be made just as successfully as one (this is especially true of recipes like the vegie patties, but less true for cakes!). Similarly, some recipes that use cream can be made as successfully with yoghurt or milk, and ones that use milk may be made with powdered milk or even water. Don’t be afraid to experiment a bit!

Combining these tips, and using up what we already had at home, we spent less than $20 (on tuna, vegetables, lemon juice, canned tomatoes, meat, onions, potatoes, carrots, and the magazine) to make a whole fortnight’s worth of dinners. Obviously, had we followed the meal plans in the magazine exactly it would have cost us a lot more. But as this post shows, there are many ways you can modify existing meal plans to be more economical – or modify budget meal plans to be more nutritious (for example, I love adding frozen spinach to soups, pastas, sauces, patties, stir-fries and many other meals – it’s so rich in vitamins and not too expensive!)

Over time, I developed the ability to menu plan on the fly, whilst in store – and this is how we shop now. In my next post, I’ll cover how you can step up your menu planning and save even more too!

MenuPlanDo you menu plan? What are your best menu planning tips?

Today’s featured image is the pumpkin soup we recently made, with home-roasted pumpkin seeds! Waste not, want not!

If you enjoy #Enrichmentality please share it!

Also check out my recent guest post, Stay motivated and reach your financial goals – even during the holiday season!

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