Save Thousands & Look Like a Genius with Bimonthly Menu Planning

What’s the toughest question in the world to answer?

If you google the term “world’s toughest question” you’ll come across a panoply of potential candidates:

  • What is the meaning of life?
  • What is the secret of happiness?
  • How can I get rich quickly?
  • Where is the video contrast setting on an iPad?
  • Why does the line you’re in always move the slowest?
  • Why are there Interstate highways in Hawaii?

Yep. Those are pretty tough questions.

Still, I think none of them compare to this one: What’s for dinner?

Don’t scoff; you know I’m right. Especially when you find yourself hopelessly cornered in the kitchen at suppertime by a bunch of hungry kids and you’re stuck looking at an empty pantry.

Of course, the way most folks get out of that jam is to run to the local fast food joint for a hyper-caloric high-cholesterol meal that not only ends up assaulting everyone’s health, but your pocketbook as well. That’s because, over time, those constant cop-out trips to your local burger and taco stands, coupled with occasional jaunts to more expensive establishments can really drive up your annual food expenses.

How much so? Well, in my case, I take the family out to eat a little more than once per week. On average, we’re spending $60 per week on that luxury which, for a four person family, comes out to $4140 annually, or $15.22 per person per meal. Yikes!

In contrast, our household spent $13,758 on groceries in 2013, which comes out to roughly $3.62 per person per meal after accounting for the meals not eaten at home. So for us, eating out is, on average, five times more expensive than dining at home.

That’s why, for a lot of folks, feeding the family at home is one of the easiest and most effective ways to cut monthly expenses.

So, What’s for Dinner?

Now, whenever my kids ask me what’s for dinner, I’ve always got an answer because I sit down twice per month and create a 14-day daily dinner menu. I then post the menu on the refrigerator. For example, here was one of our most recent 14-day menus:

Sunday: Spaghetti
Monday: Chicken & stuffing
Tuesday: Meat loaf
Wednesday: White lightning chili
Thursday: Beef Stroganoff
Friday: (Dine out)
Saturday: (Leftovers)
Sunday: Shrimp Scampi & linguini
Monday: Sesame chicken
Tuesday: Tacos
Wednesday: Pork chops
Thursday: Beef stew
Friday: Macaroni and cheese
Saturday: (Leftovers)

In my house, everybody gets to contribute to the menu. The kids get two selections each, and the remaining spots are then filled in by the Honeybee and me. That way everybody has at least two of their favorite dishes to look forward every 14 days.

Menu-Making Tips and Strategies

As you can see, creating a two-week dinner menu not only provides a daily riposte to the what’s-for-dinner conundrum, it also makes you a more efficient grocery shopper — with respect to both time and money.

Every other week, I spend a little over an hour or so creating my menu and then using the bill of fare to assemble the grocery list.

However, for those who are willing to invest a little more time in exchange for even greater grocery bill savings, try searching the Internet and your local newspaper for coupons first. Then build your menu based upon any specials you may come across.

Here are a few other tips to consider when creating your menu:

1. Longer is NOT better. Stretching your menu out to cover the grocery shopping duties for, say, an entire month, can be tricky if only because making meals that require fresh vegetables and other perishable ingredients becomes problematic. Then again, it can be done as long as you’re comfortable cooking lots of dishes with items that come exclusively from the freezer and/or pantry.

2. Don’t forget the pantry and freezer staples. We always keep our freezer and pantry stocked with staples and easy-to-prepare entrees and side dishes. These are handy on those days when you’re running short on time, or are otherwise unable to get to the grocer — so don’t forget them when pulling together your grocery list.

3. Learn to love leftovers. I recently wrote about how my family currently saves $1400 each year because we love eating leftovers. With that in mind, for every “off” day you include on your menu for dining out, make sure you also include one for leftover night.

4. Stay flexible. Who says the menu plan can’t be changed in midstream? After all, life happens. In my house, I can’t remember the last time we got through a two-week menu period without swapping at least two nights around to meet changing circumstances.

Faithfully maintaining a two-week dinner menu is one of the very best methods for keeping your food bill under control; our household has kept one for the past 15 years. Smart menu-planning not only virtually eliminates those expensive last-minute fast-food runs and quick trips to the grocer to get ingredients for one measly meal, but it also frees up cash for the other important things in life.

Best of all, you’ll never have to worry about looking like a dummy ever again.

Well, at least not in the kitchen.

Photo Credit: Collin Kinner

Comments

  1. 1

    Erin says

    My family just started doing this a few months ago and we’re already noticing the savings! It is amazing how menu planning can reduce the number of times you go out to eat.

    And I love that you let your kids get in on the menu picking. Great idea!

    • 2

      Len Penzo says

      Funny how a little forced discipline results in more money staying in your wallet, huh? ;-)

      As for the kids picking their menu items, they seem to enjoy it — although that usually means we’re guaranteed to have stuff like tacos and mac & cheese twice a month. I guess that ain’t all bad — I’m just glad they don’t like liver and onions!

  2. 3

    says

    We mainly do menu planning a week at the time. And do most of our meat cooking on Sunday afternoon/evening and cook enough for the week.
    We then add the meat to spinach for a spinach salad, or quickly saute a side veggie.

    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      That just goes to show, Dr. Dean, how flexible menu planning can be — there are lots of ways to implement it. I like the slightly longer period between making menus, but it really doesn’t matter as long as there is always a menu plan on the refrigerator!

  3. 5

    Mindimoo says

    Sound advice Len. We do this on a weekly basis. I also have a list of seasonal meal ideas too. You can save lots if buying seasonal produce rather than something that’s been imported. Growing your own herbs and vegetables too is great. Herbs especially are good because when you need fresh herbs you tend not to use the whole bunch that you’ve bought at a store and often a lot of it goes to waste. Now I only pick what I need and it’s fresh as can be, free once your garden is established, and organic.

    • 6

      Len Penzo says

      Great tips, Mindimoo! I love cooking with fresh herbs, but I have to admit, I rarely do except for a few select dishes. I think I might try growing a little herb garden next spring.

  4. 7

    says

    My wife does menu planning to simplify shopping and meal preparation. There are times when she may switch things aroung (in the same week). I like it because I know what we are having each day.

    • 8

      Len Penzo says

      I like knowing what’s for dinner each day too. Take today for instance. I knew we were having beef stew and I was practically giddy all day at work in anticipation for it. I know. But I really love beef stew — especially when it is accompanied with a loaf of fresh-baked bread. Mmm mmm mmm!

  5. 9

    says

    I’m going to implement the idea of letting my kids have some involvement. I like the “team” approach. Plus, I like what they’re gonna pick: hamburgers and mac & cheese. Awesome!

    • 10

      Len Penzo says

      My kids have been contributing their dinner choices for at least the past six or seven years and I can’t remember the last time we went a whole month without mac and cheese on the menu at least once. I’m not kidding. So to combat “mac & cheese fatigue” I alternate between a few recipes (including different stove top and oven-baked techniques).

  6. 11

    Mary says

    I just started doing this about 2 months ago – way better – less money wasted and less stress. If you have Microsoft Publisher 2010 there is a menu planner template that combines spaces for your menu at the top and a sorted by category grocery list. I’ve modified mine to remove the deli and have more produce spaces.

    • 12

      Len Penzo says

      A menu planning template sounds like a great idea, Mary. I wonder if they also have a grocery shopping template too. Now THAT would save me LOTS of time!

  7. 13

    says

    With lots of little kids, going out to eat is such a pain I’m rarely tempted. But planning meals tends not to happen either. So rather than menu plan, I tend to just try to have the components of several easy meals in the house, so I can pull out one of several dinners: hamburgers & hot dogs; pasta with Italian sausage and veggies; salmon + rice + veggies; fajitas; frozen pizza, etc. Someday we’ll get into cooking casseroles on the weekend and freezing them but right now this is as much as I can manage!

    • 14

      Len Penzo says

      I can see that working, Laura, as long as all the components stay in stock. If you think about it, if you’re consciously shopping for enough meal components to get you through a week or two of shopping, you ARE menu planning, in a back-handed way!

  8. 15

    Michelle says

    Really really good idea. It seems simple and obvious but hard to do without planning! I “try” to be aware of waste but still end up throwing out a lot of food. A bit of this, a bit of that, and it all adds up to a full trash bag! A little planning will go a long way. My teenagers will eat their favorite foods in large amounts (It doesn’t matter how many fries I make, they will all be consumed) but they would not touch an onion if they were starving. So planning leftovers is a little difficult–but Im going to try this—work my way through the freezer and pantry, plan around things that need to be cooked now, and have a plan for what I buy!

  9. 16

    Gina says

    Great idea, I just made a two week menu using what we had in the freezer, so great way to move on out… the meat and canned goods to make way for new!

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