How I Shop and Plan Our Meals

 Posted by on November 18, 2009  Add comments  Tagged with: ,
Nov 182009

Yesterday, I received this question from a reader:

“My main problem is meal planning. I loath meal planning. My family wants me to change the menu every week. I noticed you cook everyday. WOW. I spend hours reading recipes and reading the reviews and still end up with no meals. I have been struggling with simple lunch and dinner ideas. I noticed that you eat leftovers for lunch. That could solve half my problem. Where do you start in planning your meals? Any advice is appreciated.”

OK. As always, here comes my little disclaimer, which most of you have probably memorized by now – I am not an expert (every time I say this, I think of Richard Nixon’s jowly face exclaiming “I am not a crook!”). Seriously though, the way that I shop and cook will not work for everyone, but I’ll explain it, and hopefully it will help some of you.

First – I don’t plan a week’s worth of meals, and then go buy the stuff to make them. I shop according to the “pantry principle,” which means that I buy what I need to keep my pantry well-stocked – not to make specific meals. I do this because the idea of a predetermined, stick-to-your-list menu plan doesn’t work for me in terms of frugality, and here’s why:

– I buy groceries according to what’s on sale each week.

– I frequently see unadvertised or clearance sales on items that I wasn’t planning to buy. If, according to my price book, the deal is really phenomenal, I’ll stockpile that item whether it’s on my list or not.

– I plan our meals each morning, based on what I need to use up. To avoid waste, I strive to be a master at creative leftover cooking.

I typically shop weekly, because we always need perishables like milk, orange juice, produce and eggs. When it’s time to make my weekly grocery list, here’s what I do:

1) I scan the sale flyers that come in my weekly “PennySaver” newspaper. I compare the sale prices to the lowest price recorded in my price book.

2) If the sale is really good, I inventory my supply of that item and make an educated guess as to how much to buy. After 12 years of keeping a price book, I’ve learned when most items typically go on sale, so I buy enough to get us through until then.

3) I inventory my staples (flour, rice, pasta) to see if there’s something that I must purchase because the supply is low. These items don’t go on sale often, but I always need them. Therefore, I try to stockpile them when I do see good sales.

I’m occasionally asked what the “frugal pantry” should contain. This is a difficult question to answer, because dietary needs and preferences vary widely. For example, we hate most convenience foods and rarely buy them, but many people like them and can purchase them very cheaply through the use of coupons. If that’s your preference, I say go for it. Rather than prescribing must-haves, here is a list of what we typically keep in our pantry, fridge, and freezer. Feel free to use it as a starting point, and alter it to fit your needs.

Pantry Items
Bay Leaf
Beef broth powder
Cayenne pepper
Chicken broth powder
Chili powder
Celery seed
Cream of Tartar
Dill weed
Dry ground mustard
Enchilada sauce mix
Garlic powder
Lemon pepper
Onion flakes
Onion powder
Seasoning salt
Stir fry seasoning

(Please note: I make homemade spice mixes, such as onion soup mix, taco seasoning, chili seasoning, dry rub, etc. using the above spices, which I purchase in bulk. You can find some of these spice blends on my recipe blog, under the money saving mixes label).

Baking Supplies
Baking soda
Baking powder
Brown sugar
Butter flavoring (for homemade pancake syrup)
Canola oil
Chocolate chips
Condensed milk
Cornmeal (not cornbread/muffin mix – I make cornbread from scratch)
Corn syrup (occasionally, for certain recipes)
Dry milk
Evaporated milk
Flour-all purpose, unbleached
Flour-whole wheat
Instant pudding
Maple extract (also for pancake syrup)
No-stick spray
Pie filling
Powdered sugar
Vanilla extract
White sugar

Flour tortillas
Pita bread
Split-top wheat bread
(I make other breads)

Dried Beans, Pasta and Grains
Brown rice
Bulgur wheat
Egg noodles
Elbow macaroni
Lasagne noodles
Popcorn (not microwave)
Quick oats
Pasta shells (small-for pasta salads)
Thin spaghetti
White rice (mainly for rice pudding and other desserts)
Wild and brown rice blend

Canned Goods
Black beans
Chili beans
Creamed corn
Cream soups-chicken & celery (when on sale for 50 cents or less)
Fruit cocktail
Green chiles
Kidney beans
Mandarin oranges
Pineapple (chunks & crushed)
Salsa (occasionally)
Tomato paste
Tomato sauce
Tomato soup
Tomatoes (crushed, diced & stewed)
White beans (ex: Great Northern or Cannelini)

Chocolate syrup
Cider vinegar
Coffee Mate (liquid)
Dorothy Lynch salad dressing (for taco salads)
Jam/Jelly (grape & apricot)
Lemon juice
Maraschino cherries
Miracle Whip
Mustard (yellow & dijon)
Powdered non-dairy creamer (for homemade hot cocoa mix)
Parmesan cheese
Soy sauce
Sweet and sour sauce
Tahini (for hummus)
Teriyaki sauce
White vinegar
Worcestershire sauce

American slices (we only use Kraft-not generic)
Shredded (cheddar, mozzarella, mexican blend)

Butter (we recently eliminated margarine from our diet, because of the trans fat)
Crescent rolls/refrigerator biscuits (when I can buy them for $1.00 or less)
Orange juice
Milk (1%)
Sour cream

Boneless rump or bottom round roast (very lean)
Chicken breasts, bone-in, with skin
Ground beef-80% lean
Ground turkey-85% lean
Hot dogs (very rarely)
Sliced turkey
Turkey bacon
Turkey ham (we recently eliminated all pork products from our diet)
Turkey pepperoni (for homemade pizza)
Whole breast of turkey

Nuts and Seeds
Flax seed
Sunflower seeds

Green bell peppers
Romaine lettuce

Packaged Goods
Breakfast cereal
Graham crackers
Macaroni and Cheese
Raisins and other dried fruit
Snack crackers
Stuffing mix
Taco shells

Green beans
Hash browns
Mixed vegetables
Peas and carrots blend
Stir fry veggies
Tater tots


Breakfast items
Toaster waffles

Cool Whip
Ice Cream

I find that if I keep these items in stock, I can make pretty much any recipe I want, but as I said, I rarely plan an entire week of menus in advance. If I do, it’s for a specific reason, such as a pantry challenge, or because I cleaned out the fridge and found a whole bunch of stuff nearing the end of its useful life.

I plan our supper menu each morning. I consider what needs to be used up, and the types of meals we’ve had recently, so that I can make sure we’re eating a variety of foods. In fact, we seldom eat the same meal twice in one month. A while back, I made a list that I call “Menus by the Month” – 30 meals, including side dishes, that my family enjoys. If I’m at a loss for ideas, I can just scan this list and find something that will work. When planning our meals, I try to make sure that all food groups are represented. For example, when I make baked chicken, I add a starch, like rice or potato, and a non-starchy vegetable, like green beans or green salad. If I’m making a one-dish meal, like a casserole, I make sure that it has meat or cheese (or both), pasta/rice, and a veggie. Once I’ve decided on a menu, I take meat or anything else I need from the freezer, so that it can begin defrosting.

I’ve been cooking for 20 years, so it’s pretty easy for me to survey random ingredients and come up with something to make, but this isn’t possible for everyone. If you’re new to cooking and meal planning, I would suggest that you sit down and think of 7 basic meals that you know your family likes, and write them down. This is a very good starting point. For example:

Meat Loaf
Pot Roast
Baked chicken
Tuna Casserole

If you don’t have recipes for these basic meals, use a site like AllRecipes to search for them. Sort the results so the highest-rated recipes are at the top, and pick one to try (You can also find our favorites on my recipe blog, Economical Eats). Remember that your family may not like every recipe you choose, but you won’t know unless you try. Cooking involves a certain amount of trial and error, and that’s OK! When you find a hit, cut and paste the recipe onto an index card in a file box, or keep it in a sheet protector in your HMG food section (don’t have one? See this post to help you get started).

Once you have 7 simple meals that your family likes, you can branch out into other variations of these meals. For example, instead of spaghetti, try lasagne or baked ziti. Instead of tacos, try chicken enchiladas or mexican pizza. If your family likes meat loaf, try porcupine meatballs. If they like chili, try different varieties, like white chicken chili, turkey and black bean chili, or chicken tortilla soup. This is a great way to build up a recipe file of tried and true recipes, with plenty of variety.

I hope this helps. If anyone else has suggestions for this reader, please post them in the comments. Have a great day everyone!