Striving for organization, time efficiency, and for a low grocery budget… *smile*
  • 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!
Meal planning can be a really big, time-consuming headache for many moms, and a really big expense for the check book. However, it is also a regular and necessary part of life! So this is an area I have planned carefully for and have really tried to master for our family to the best of my ability. Living life ON PURPOSE in the area of meal planning and shopping for our family. And with a good plan-of-attack, it actually only takes me only 20-30 minutes per week to plan for our family of 11. I strive for organization, time efficiency, and for a low grocery budget.  *smile*  And I am asked frequently how I orchestrate this, so I’d love to share with you…


My Meal Planning Strategy:

Meal planning can be approached ON PURPOSE just like anything else in life. *smile* I do our grocery shopping every week, instead of every 2 weeks or more. When we had only 1 refrigerator for many years, I could only hold one week’s worth of food at a time. We also eat a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits which take up most of the space. But also, I love getting out every week for a few hours with one of our daughters for some good one-on-one time!  *smile*

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:

Breakfast plans:
Over the years we have tried and enjoyed many different breakfast foods, such as yogurt, bagels and cream cheese, healthy cold cereals, eggs, protein shakes, but now we need to cut our grocery bill down as much as possible and these things are fairly expensive (some more than others).  We currently have a few main breakfasts that we alternate between for the week, so I don’t “meal plan” per say for breakfasts, creating a new plan every week; we simply stick with these staple meals.

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.

Lunch plans:
Our lunches have a foundational plan as well. We used to eat pre-prepared foods for lunch from Costco such as burritos, chicken nuggets, or pizza pockets, or macaroni and cheese. However these were not only costly but also not very healthy. I tried lunch meat sandwiches for years but we rarely ever ate the meat up before it went bad, no matter what quantity I purchased it in.  Then several years ago my husband was unemployed for months at a time on two separate occasions, and because of this we had to cut back on expenses as much as we could.

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*

Dinner plans:
Dinner is really the only meal I “meal plan” for creatively, and this takes 20-30 minutes once-a-week.  I know that I only need to plan for 5 dinners per week, because two nights per week we have standing plans.

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*

To make note of the ingredients I’ll need for that week’s recipes, I refer to my post-it note and the actual recipe cards and write down on my Master Grocery Lists the items I need to purchase. When it’s time to go shopping I just remove my Master Grocery List from the refrigerator and head out the door!  (love this!)

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.

We also practice something about once-a-month that we call “eating the pantry.”  *smile*  This is where we eat things from the pantry which have been sitting in there waiting to be used.  I never buy things at the grocery store that “I think I’ll use for something”, I only purchase that which is on my list and which I have a specific recipe for, but none-the-less I seem to still acquire some ingredients that weren’t used as planned and are then sitting there taking up valuable space in the pantry.  We don’t eat the “back-up” dinner items, such as the canned soup, but “eating the pantry” would mean eating whatever is there already.  This may include any condensed soups that I’ve had sitting there for a while, or maybe pasta that needs to be eaten, or a couple of unused chicken breasts can be sauteed. The point is to eat what we already have, even if it seems a bit random. It’s usually not a balanced meal per say, but it’s financially wise and it frees up space in the pantry without having to throw food away.  And we save on the grocery purchasing that week by not purchasing food when we already have things at home that need to be eaten.

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*

  1. Breakfasts – staple ingredients
  2. Lunch – staple ingredients
  3. (snacks – staple items, rotating)
  4. Dinners – choose 5

Master Grocery Shopping Lists

Here’s a little about how my Master Grocery Lists work. Whenever we run out of a staple food item that family member simply highlights that item on the list to be purchased next time I shop. And the list is in order of where foods are located in the store, making my shopping trips also time-efficient. *smile* This also helps me avoid making additional trips to the store for items that were missed the first trip, and saves a lot of time by preventing me from having to re-create the nearly same shopping list every week. Non-staple foods (ones we don’t keep on hand all the time) are simply hand-written on a bullet point on the list, as well as recipe ingredients for dinners that week.
(click on the page to enlarge once or twice)

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.

We buy as many foods in bulk quantities as possible, however we only keep a little bit of that quantity in our upstairs pantry. We have large Tupperware containers in the pantry that we fill from the 25 pound bags (stored in buckets) in the garage. All paper products from Costco such as toilet paper, napkins, paper towels, Kleenex, and other bulk items such as garbage bags, and zip lock baggies, Saran Wrap and foil, all have one box upstairs on hand, and the rest in the garage. This includes food products as well. For example, butter is purchased in bulk from Costco which comes in a package of 4 boxes. I keep one box upstairs in the refrigerator and the other 3 boxes go to the freezer in the garage. In fact, most all of our food we buy in large quantities from Costco and all but one container of each thing stays in the garage refrigerator and freezer.
We also don’t need to have tons of variety of food items available to everyone all the time. *smile* We would need to have an enormous house and pantry if everyone had all of their preferences on hand all the time. And really, having lots of choices in life – including foods – isn’t the best thing for children. It’s good to learn to be appreciative of whatever is served to everyone as a group, to be patient for their favorite things to be rotated back into the options, and to learn to be frugal by purchasing things in bulk (which can be done when tons of variety is not an option). So here’s what that looks like.
I purchase apples every week at Costco, and we buy one additional fruit for everyone. One week this is nectarines, another week it is grapes, another is cantaloupe, etc. We can’t cater to the 11 of us each preferring different fruits at breakfast time, we can’t afford it, can’t store it all, and it’s ultimately not good for children anyway. They know that everyone is served the same thing during a meal. We all have grapes this week for breakfast. Next week we’ll all have cantaloupe. And the children learn to smile, and say, “Thank you”, and go with the flow.
The same principle applies to snack foods. I purchase one type of crackers for the week such as Wheat Thins, plus pretzels or corn chips. That’s what they have to choose from that week. If corn chips are served with salads for lunch then that’s what everyone is having. The next week I’ll purchase Triscuits as the cracker of the week, and the next week Cheeze-It’s. 
The same applies to breakfast cereal on the very rare occasion that I buy it because it’s so expensive. I buy one type and everyone gets to have it that week. The next time I’ll buy a different type. But I don’t have room, time, or finances for having 5 types of breakfast cereal available to all the children all the time. And this has served our family really, really well! I used to feel guilty that they did not have more variety as a large family, until I learned how valuable it is for them to not have unlimited choices all the time.  *smile*

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.

Grocery Shopping with Kids:
How do I get the shopping done with so many children?  *chuckle*  Actually…I don’t!  I used to shop with all of the children, and it was very educational for them, and I love being with them (as much as there were also a lot of training issues), but while I was expecting our 6th baby I could no longer manage it on my own.  I had so many little ones to manage and lift in and out of the van, of the car seats, and of the shopping carts, which I could not do while in my 7th-9th months of pregnancy.  So I started taking just one of our older girls out shopping with me at a time, while Daddy stayed with the other kids at home.  This has turned out to be a wonderful one-on-one time together for me and a daughter.

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.

Keeping meal planning and shopping to a simple, manageable plan has been such a blessing for our family. I used to feel badly that our children did not have more variety in their food options such as many types of snacks or foods to select from when they chose to, but then the Lord taught me that this simple food plan is what He has provided for them at this time, and therefore they will be better off for it.  By eating simply and by not having tons of choices always at their disposal they have the opportunity to learn some good character qualities such as flexibility, contentment, gratitude, thankfulness, appreciation, and how to be frugal with their own finances some day.  The Lord has provided for us a small house and a smaller budget – but we are healthy, the food is delicious, and the children are learning with me to make bread and cook from scratch.  These are very good skills to have.  So we smile and thank the Lord for His provision.  *smile*
So meal planning can be very simple, and it takes just minutes, especially while we are really trying to keep the budget as low as possible.  Any way that I can conserve energy and time is always a good plan for me in this season of life – and then there’s more of me to go around and with a smile.
If you would like to have any of my charts, lists, or schedules that I’ve shared you can download those for free from Drop Box.
Blessings on your efforts,
Recommended resource:
Book: Simplicity Parenting, Kim Payne, M.Ed

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