- My meal planning strategy
- Using a Master Grocery Shopping List
- Using an Inventory Chart
- Minimize and rotate
- Utilizing additional freezer and refrigerator space
- Having a “deep pantry” for longer term food storage
- How I do shopping with the kids
- Creating a food pantry from a coat closet!
My Meal Planning Strategy:
I really only “meal plan” for our dinner menu each week which is where we have the most variety. Our breakfasts and lunches, on the other hand, have the same staple foods most days with some added side for variety, to save both money and time with so many young children. So here is how I approach purchasing the food for our week:
1. Our primary breakfast is “Green Smoothies” 4-5 days per week. This is a combination of raw, green vegetables and fruit, similar to Jamba Juice. *smile* Mmm! This has helps us feel more alert and energetic, helps us get way more raw vegetables in to our diet, and it tastes great. And, there is actually quite a bit of protein in vegetables! Our chiropractor & naturopath encourage us to consider cows which eat only grass – yet they are all muscle! We feel much more alert and less sleepy having Green Smoothies than we do when we eat the sweet oatmeal carbohydrate; but our kids don’t seem to be effected that way as children so the oatmeal is great for them and is nice variety to the week. We then also supplement our smoothies with our favorite Whole Wheat Bread Rolls, or 10-Grain Muffins, or Breakfast Cookies, or whole wheat bagels (but as a supplement it is a very small quantity compared to being the whole meal).
2. We have also found that steel-cut oatmeal (purchased in bulk 25 lb. bags) is by far one of the least expensive way to feed our family of 11 breakfast. It also has good fiber, and it is a warm and yummy way to begin our day. *smile* So this is what the children have about 1 morning per week. Our daughter, Karen, chooses to get up at 6:00 am to get a jump start on her day, so while she’s up she prepares the oatmeal cooking at 7:15 am and it is ready by 8:00 am when the kids are ready to sit up to the table. Because this is one of our staple breakfast foods and we purchase it in bulk quantities, I don’t have to do meal planning; I simply make sure we have the ingredients we need by checking our Master Grocery Lists as soon as we run out of an item (more on that below).
3. Weekends have a routine for breakfasts as well. On Saturday mornings we always have whole wheat pancakes and fruit, and the kids really look forward to this tradition. Every Sunday morning my husband likes to cook a delicious skillet-type breakfast of eggs, hash-browns, and sausage, which we all love. It feels to me like I’ve been served at a restaurant when we all sit down to enjoy his breakfast. *smile* This meal is affectionately called, “Shupe Surprise”, for two reasons: (1) Bob doesn’t use recipes, he just likes to make things up as he goes and it’s always delicious (amazing to me; I’m a totally recipe girl), and (2) the family knows that I don’t like to have the name “surprise” attached to any food that I eat or cook *laugh!* so they’ve named the breakfast as such just for me.
Some friends shared with us that they were greatly shrinking their grocery budget by having salads for lunch! We were thrilled at the idea! Not just to save money, but for the health benefits for everyone. Since then we’ve been having Cobb Salads every day during the week, and variations on this such as taco salads some times. Condiments we include (but not all of them all the time) are: chopped celery, carrots, cucumbers, red bell pepper, yellow sweet onion, pecans, hard boiled egg, cheese, chowmein noodles, crushed pretzels, raisins, and corn chips; you could also add croutons (but they’re more expensive), or olives.
We supplement our salads during the week with one of a few different items. We either purchase or make home-made one of these recipe ideas that lasts us about a week, and then we change to a different supplement for the next week. Here are some of our favorites.
- We enjoy Ausie Bites (whole grain mini-muffins) with our salads.
- We have “chip day” once a week where we all share a single bag of chips with our salads (compared to munching on chips all week or buying them as a staple food item for the pantry – too expensive and not healthy).
- Whole grain crackers such as Wheat Thins or Triscuits. Sometimes pretzels.
- And if they’re still hungry I offer them nuts or cheese for additional protein.
So, like breakfast, shopping for lunch only involves having on hand the necessary staple ingredients which I purchase regularly every week. There’s no brain storming as to what we should have for a lunch menu.
We do also add some variety into the week by having sandwiches for lunch on Saturdays, and something like macaroni and cheese on Sundays once-in-a-while for a treat for the children. *smile*
Beginning Saturday mornings I think through the week’s dinner meals. I first check the calendar for that week to see if there is anything happening on any nights of the week that would require something specific, like the crock pot, a quick dinner due to chiropractic appointments, or enough for company. Then I consider if I have any ingredients I need to use up, or meat already purchased that I could use, and I look for a recipe to fit those supplies before planning for new recipes. Next, I select 5 recipes to prepare that week from my recipe binders. I also keep a post-it note on the refrigerator where our older children can write down dinner requests that they are in the mood for, and I try to accommodate those as well. *smile*
As I select my five recipes I write them down on a three-inch post-it note and stick that to our refrigerator for reference. I write down the main dish, and also what I plan to serve with that dish such as bread, pasta, or rice, and a vegetable. When it’s time to prepare dinner I can look at my note of recipes I purchased ingredients for that week and choose one of them for that night.
If it’s a crock pot recipe, then I write “CP” on the side of the note and circle it, so I can see at a glance that this is a crock pot dish and is therefore not an option when I’m ready to cook dinner at 5:00 pm. This also reminds me to get out that crock pot recipe and place it on my kitchen counter/desk where I’ll remember to prepare it the morning of the day we’ll need it.
During the season of life when we had mostly very little children, no teenage cooks yet, and school was very busy it was difficult for me to prepare a crock pot dinner in the morning. So my loving husband, Bob, offered to prepare some of the ingredients for me at night after I’ve gone to bed. He would brown some meat and chop some veggies in the food processor for me, for example, so in the morning I just assemble the crock pot meal without having to prepare the ingredients. *smile* Now, however, we do have two teenage cooks so far who love to help by preparing a crock pot meal for us in the morning or bake some bread to go with our smoothies before jumping into school. *sigh* Praise the Lord – this is wonderful. *smile*
If these 5 recipes I’ve shopped for do not cover what we need for some reason (rarely) and I find us needing something for dinner, then I also have a few back-up plans. I keep one meal’s worth of canned soup in the pantry (about 8 large cans – usually a Costco package) for a fall-back dinner. I usually keep on hand one bag of Costco’s Chicken [breast] Tenders which are really delicious and just need to be baked (great plain, or with pasta, or on a salad!). Not something we eat as a staple item, but something I can fall back on when I have an unforeseen need, or was not able to prepare the dinner I planned for. I buy Costco’s plain frozen chicken breasts (15-20 in a bag), which I use for recipes periodically but they also make a good “fall-back-on” meal when we throw some on to the grill. I can also whip up something like grilled cheese sandwiches with a veggie plate; or an easy, on-hand breakfast meal such as eggs, toast and fruit, or even pancakes or waffles.
If we have an exceptionally financially tight pay cycle then we also eat the pantry including the back-up meals, and I purchase only perishables that week such as fruit, vegetables, milk, and eggs. And I replenish the back-up meals gradually, one item at a time starting at the next pay cycle.
When we had babies I would also make our own baby food, and use a “Food Mill” to puree dinners strait from our table so that it was appropriate for babies to eat. This saved a LOT of money compared to purchasing Gerber foods. I initially didn’t make home made baby food for years as I just assumed that it was too “Martha Stewart” and I just couldn’t take on one more thing. But it was actually extremely simple, takes less time than going to the store to purchase baby foods, is really inexpensive, and was far healthier for our babies.
Another strategy I have implemented to save time with meal planning is to double some of our dinner recipes that I was already cooking. So we sometimes have one recipe twice for two separate dinners, or as a dinner and then as left-overs in combination with another night’s dinner left-overs.
On Tuesdays we have pizza and movie night. We use either Costco’s frozen Digiorno pizzas, or for a treat sometimes we purchase two already baked Costco pizzas, and add a veggie platter to go with it. So that dinner is taken care of regularly planning-wise.
On Thursdays grandma and grandpa have 3 of the children over for the day, and then upon their arrival back home we at home have “snack food dinner”. This includes things we can grab easily without cooking: proteins such as cheese, nuts, or deli meat, popcorn or crackers, and fruits or veggies. I then take Thursday nights then as a “teacher in-service day” and get school work corrected and things done at home instead of preparing a meal. *smile* Great for the kids as they like snack food dinners, and it’s a nice break for me.
So dinners require the only meal planning really, and with a system in place it is very efficient and simple. *smile*
- Breakfasts – staple ingredients
- Lunch – staple ingredients
- (snacks – staple items, rotating)
- Dinners – choose 5
Master Grocery Shopping Lists
Using an Inventory Chart
I made up this chart so that prior to grocery shopping I could know two things: (1) make sure we have our staple food items on hand for the week, and (2) to make sure I did not purchase unnecessarily things we already have. Currently our 9-year-old daughter loves to be the one to take this chart down to the garage refrigerator, freezer, and supply shelves and record what is there. This saves me time and energy having a child do it, and enables her to be a valuable part of the family’s functioning. *smile*
Minimize and rotate
To help maximize our space in a small house I implement two strategies: (1) I only keep what is absolutely necessary in the main living areas, and store the rest in other places, and (2) we don’t have available tons of variety for different people’s preferences.
Utilizing Additional Freezer and Refrigerator Space
We purchased these two blessing off of Craig’s List and I was so thrilled, it was like Christmas! *laugh* Our family of 11 had been rapidly exceeding the capacity of our single refrigerator in the kitchen, and I was looking at having to start grocery shopping twice a week because we simply did not have space to store a whole week’s worth of food at one time! *cringe* So it was time, and the Lord blessed us with these two needs. To have this additional space was really, really nice.
Now I can shop for not only the food we need that week, but also I can purchase additional items if they’re on sale, such as meat, loaves of bread from the bread outlet, frozen berries and veggies, butter, I freeze spinach for our green smoothies, and shredded cheese from Costco. Purchasing one additional item at a time does not significantly effect the grocery budget that week, but it does accumulate for back up foods and purchasing on sale saves money.
Having a “Deep Pantry” for Long Term Storage:
In addition to our regular pantry, we do have “deep storage” where we have foods that we hold in reserve for emergencies. We manage that inventory as we need to, replenishing it from local bulk food supply stores as much as possible. Included in our deep pantry are items such as dry beans, lentils, white and brown rice, canned soups, canned chicken and tuna, bulk wheat berries (purchased in 25 pound bags) to be ground for flour with an electric grinder, bulk steel-cut-oats and rolled oats, and we used to include jarred baby food when that was appropriate for the age of our children.
We also used this food quite a bit when Bob was unemployed for several months on two separate occasions; it was a great fall-back plan and saved a great deal of money.
I also used to like getting all of the weekly shopping done on a weekday, so that the weekends would be free of “have-to’s” and could be more spontaneous and playful. But this became very impractical after a while, as I was pregnant back-to-back (having babies 10/11/12/13 months apart) and our family size was growing, and this attempt was interfering with our homeschooling schedule. So I let that plan go and began the shopping on Saturdays with just one daughter plan. Our sons love to shop with me, too, but Bob and I have chosen to let them have the Daddy shopping trips to Home Depot or the auto repair shop, and I’ll do the food and clothing shopping with the girls. *smile*
I actually do shop with all of the children once-in-a-while and here are a couple of ways that we’ve done that. When our children’s age range was 9-months-old to 13-years this was our plan: our 13-year-old daughter and I would each wear one of the twin 9-month-old girls in front packs. We used two shopping carts and we each had a 1 or 2-year-old, in the front of our carts. Then we each have one of the “middle kids”, a 4 or 5-year-old, in the back of our carts. That left only the 8-year-old and 12-year-old walking beside the carts. We didn’t actually purchase very many grocery items from a regular grocery store (Wal-Mart in our case), mostly toiletries, some household items, and some ingredients for recipes. All of our main groceries, produce, dairy products, meats, etc. came from Costco in large quantities. So there was plenty of room in our Wal-Mart shopping carts for the children and the items we needed. We rarely shopped with everyone at those ages, however; only if it was absolutely necessary for some unusual reason.
Here’s a picture of a Costco shopping trip with the children ranging in age from about 18-months to 14-years. *smile*
Currently, the age range of our children is 4-16 which makes for very different shopping than before and far easier. I don’t take the whole crew in to Wal-Mart any longer because we simply don’t fit in the aisles easily with two shopping carts and a lot of walkers beside them. But we shop at Costco easily as a group. We still use two shopping carts, with the 4-year-old twins in one, and the 5 and 6-year-old boys in the front of another; and a 7-year-old son riding with the boys shopping cart. Then we only have 4 children walking with me, and since the aisles at Cost are really wide and spacious it’s easy. I now really enjoy the one-on-one time with a daughter each week to do the shopping, and shopping with all of the children does take quite a bit more time and energy than just going with one.
I really prefer to do all of the shopping errands for the week in a single day, rather than making separate trips on different evenings, spreading out the errands. I feel that every minute that I’m out shopping is time away that I could be spending reading stories to our children at home, so I try to be out as little as possible. I love to do the shopping, but I do like it done in one trip; preferring no to leave the house and the family over and over during the week. *smile*
We try to never miss a meal at home by being out shopping, but sometimes the timing needs to work out so that we need to be gone during lunch or dinner time during those usually 5 hours of shopping. So I purchase from Costco boxes of Zone protein bars or Cliff Bars and have those in the pantry for us to grab and take with us for while we’re out. This way we do not need to buy any fast food or anything (usually *wink*) while we’re away from home. These bars are high in protein, sweet but not candy bar-type, and a nice texture (unlike some sticky bars out there *chuckle*). I don’t have the kids eat these protein bars at home as this would add up in cost (the bars are about $.78 each I think – not too bad, though) and they’re not necessary when we’re at home with less expensive choices at hand, but this protein option has been great for me to grab when we need to, or to have with a “picnic lunch” in the car when traveling.
For me, “shopping” every week includes going to Costco, Wal-Mart, Super Suppliments, Value Village & Goodwill, and any other errands that need to be done that week such as going to Michael’s Craft Supply, Target, Office Depot, Petco, or the music supply store. I keep a written list of places I need to go to on my spiral notebook. I reference that before our weekly shopping trip, and prioritize which places should be gone to that week and which should wait until later. Our shopping trips take about 5 hours on average. And our daughter and I will usually sit for a little while and share a soda or a soft pretzel, to give her an opportunity to talk with me about anything she’d like to. The girls look forward to these times tremendously; it’s our special time. *smile*
Sometimes we all go shopping in the van as a family but I only go in to the store with just one daughter while Bob goes for a little drive with the younger children. Then Bob and I have time together to talk in the car between stores. We’ve done this plan especially when Bob and I have needed some time together if things have seemed extra busy lately and we’ve missed each other. Bob likes to drive, and the kids enjoy the car ride and learning new things with Daddy even if it’s just from the van, and I don’t even need to park and traverse the extensive parking lot such as Costco and Wal-Mart have. This has been a good alternative plan for us. *smile*
Creating a food pantry from a coat closet!
Regarding space for our shopping trip items, since we have an extremely small kitchen and our home did not have a food pantry, we created one! The Lord revealed to me that I could take our coat closet and transform it into a food pantry to suit our family. *smile* Those coats could live anywhere and did not need to be upstairs in our main living area. So off they went to the garage on a coat rack, and my wonderful husband built out a pantry for us just off the kitchen. For more details on how we did this you can see my post. And it works beautifully.
Book: Simplicity Parenting, Kim Payne, M.Ed
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