Sunday, December 4, 2011

Meal Planning, Food Budgeting, Grocery Shopping...How I Manage the Details

I have had a request to blog about how I handle meal planning, grocery shopping, and budgeting for food. I'm not sure that my method is the most efficient, but here it goes...

I will start with meal planning.  Every two weeks, I sit down with a chart that is really a calendar that I keep in "My Brain" and plan out the meals for the next two weeks.  Here is my meal plan for October.  You can see that we were eating out every Thursday.  We try to plan for eating out and not eat out unless planned.  (This is a budget category outside of groceries.)  In October, Thursday afternoons were quite busy.  We were going from PE to the library and then straight to soccer practice.  This means that we were out of the house from about 1:30-7:00pm.  So, we decided for the soccer season just to eat out Thursday evenings.  We have a favorite family friendly pizza place just around the corner that has a great "family meal" that is really cost effective:)  Now that soccer season is over, we are not eating out weekly.

Breakfast:  I don't plan individual breakfasts but have things available that the kids can get independently such as instant oatmeal, whole wheat bagels, whole grain cereals, bread for toast, fruit, etc..  Or, I will have steel cut oats in the good on a cold morning.  It has taken a little trial and error to understand just how much we will eat in a two week period but I have it down to a science...for will change over time as kids grow and eat more:)  I will add a few things like eggs that I can make on Saturdays when we have a more relaxed schedule and we can all have fun cooking in the kitchen together.  I also buy fresh and frozen fruits and greens to make green smoothies (which I have exclusively for breakfast on a normal school day). 

Lunch: Lunch planning is much like breakfast in that I ensure that we have supplies for sandwiches and salad to last the two weeks.  I also get supplies for mac and cheese to make a few days as this a favorite in our house.  Some days the kids will eat dinner left overs instead of sandwiches and salad, but I stick to spinach salad most days as I have so much more energy and actually feel less moody when I am eating all of those raw veggies:)

Dinner:  Dinner gets the most planning.  However, even this is a really simplified process.  I need to plan fourteen dinners, but I really only plan seven and then repeat the next week.  For example, this next two week period, we are having soup & wheat bread on Mondays, tacos (taco salad for the adults) on Tuesdays, baked potatoes on Wednesdays, spaghetti and meatballs on Thursdays, waffles or pancakes on Fridays, fish and veggies on Saturday, and a crockpot meal that I can put on Saturday evening and wheat bread that I can bake on Saturday for Sunday lunch.  We usually have a movie night with popcorn for dinner on Sundays.  I also plan some kind of dessert and buy grape juice as part of our Sabbath Celebration...just because everyone loves these:)

I create my lists by store, so I will have a Costco, Wal-Mart, and Sprouts list every shopping trip...but all on the same page:)  Occasionally I will have other stores listed that I need to visit, but these are the staples.  I also try to list things according to the path that I take through the store (because it is hard to backtrack with six kids!).  For some reason, I tend to make a counter clockwise circle in the stores and rarely go down the center isles.  I guess the basics are around the edges:)

I have a general "base" list of things that I buy every trip or every other trip that I can jot down by memory.  For example, I know that at Costco I will buy three boxes (2 gallons each) of milk, one gallon of orange juice, and so on every shopping trip.  But eggs (5dz) and butter I buy every other shopping trip.  I put the date of the shopping trip on the top of each list so that I can have multiple list going at once.  This way I can jot down things that I will need to get on a later shopping trip for a specific event.  I can also add items to these lists that I notice are getting low around the house like olive oil, trash bags, etc. right when I notice that they are low...because I won't remember later:)  I can also add occasional items like little boy's socks that need to be purchased soon (these items can be adjusted to a later list if I am tight on the budget that trip).

Here is the list that I have started for my next shopping trip...pretty bare but it will fill up!  The numbers that you see in this list are how many I need of that item but I do put the price also...more on this later.

After I have the basic items listed, I add the items that I will need for meal planning.  So, for my shopping list, I know that I need to add double items for soup, wheat bread (berries that I buy in bulk every few months), tacos, baked potatoes, spaghetti and meatballs, waffles, fish, veggies, two crockpot meals, and popcorn.  Then I add in the breakfast items, and lunch supplies. 

I usually run back over the meal planning for each day thinking about each meal and the items needed and check that against my list to make sure that I am not leaving anything out.  Then I do a quick check in the pantry and kitchen drawers for things like paper plates, ziploc bags, etc..

Now that I have my list, I am ready for the budgeting.  I start by going through my shopping list and putting a small number next to each item.  This number is an estimate of how much that item costs.  Sometimes it is exact because I have purchased that item hundreds of times (like milk) and sometimes it is the most that I am willing to pay for an item (like I might end up buying a smaller package of socks to stay within budget and then buying more later if needed).  I then add up what I am spending at each store and write the total at the top of the the totals...and compare to my budget.  If I am over budget, then I look back over the list for things that I can remove (like black olives for tacos...not a must).  There are months (like around the holidays) when we purposefully increase the budget to buy special treats or items to take to events.

If I end up under budget, then I can add in any "extra" things (like socks) from the next shopping list...this rarely happens:)

Now for the actual shopping.  I do most of my shopping with all six kids at this phase of life.  I don't have any kids old enough to babysit the little ones and I like to spend time together as a family when Peter is home.  So, we will take a morning field-trip to Costco and Wal-Mart every two weeks.  Sprouts I do in the evening either alone or with just one of the older kids for some one on one time:)

I LOVE the shopping carts at Costco.  I can put my two littlest kids in the front of the buggy.  I have one of the older boys be the "list master" and read off the next item to purchase.  Because the list is already in order (for the most part) of our path through the store, we can walk together and the little kids can be sent to grab the items that we need.  This works well for Costco and Wal-Mart because I am buying very little produce (I get mine at Sprouts when I have just one child with me and I can teach them how to pick out good produce).  As an item is placed in the buggy, it is crossed off the list and the "real" price (rounded up to the nearest dollar) is exchanged for my "estimate number".  This is the job of the "list master". really is a learning experience worthy of being called a field-trip!  After I get all of my items I do a quick count of what I am spending to ensure that I am not going over and then check out.  (I have a small calculator in my purse.) 

It can be difficult to keep kids behaving in a store but getting them involved in the process helps so much.  It seems like it takes longer at first but it is SO much quicker and more peaceful than dealing with melt-downs or fighting from bored children!  I will post later on different age appropriate jobs and entertainment ideas for kids while shopping:)

So, now I have made my list, checked it twice...well really once:), budgeted and adjusted the list, gone through the store and purchased what we will need for the next two weeks.  I repeat the same thing at Costco and Walmart although I usually have the baby in a backpack at Wal-Mart as their buggies have only one seat and I despise the huge "train" style ones (I mean really...It's hard enough to shop without trying to manage bushing a train too!.  I did push one the other day when I was out with only the little ones to get a few items for Lit. Club because they begged me.  They loved it and I enjoyed saying yes to their pleading little faces:)  But, it is not the norm.)

I have all the kids help with the unloading when we get home and then I put things away in the pantry, fridge, freezer, etc..  It is usually time for lunch at that point:)

Feel free to post any ideas that you use to get your shopping done.  I'd love to hear other ideas!


  1. Thanks Alli! This was very helpful. I think I try to make too creative a meal each night, and we end up eating out too much, because of it (and how many pots/pans I use to 'create' said meal). Gonna re-read it when i'm more awake :) Thx!

  2. Glad it was helpful! Simple meals like this aren't for everyone but it works well for our family...quick, easy, healthy (mostly anyway...haha), and fits our budget. I have moved away from tons of big meals so that we are focusing on eating to nourish our bodies and not because it taste so good:) If we tire of say...tacos, then I replace Tuesdays with another simple meal for a while. An added bonus is that the weekend "bigger meals" are eaten without complaint from kids. They really look forward to the weekend foods:)