It was 5pm. I opened the pantry and stared listlessly at the rows of cans, boxes, and bags. I came to the same conclusion that I did nearly every week. There is “nothing” in the house to eat. Grabbing the phone, I begged my husband to stop by Dominos on the way home and grab a couple of $5 Hot and Ready pizzas.
I sighed, feeling guilty.
If this describes your life, you are not alone. It was my life for a long time. Then, several years ago, I became “fed up”. (Yes, that was a pun). I decided to get my life, cooking, and menu planning in order. However, we were on a really tight budget. So, I also needed to figure out how to feed my family healthy food, without breaking the bank.
That’s when I discovered the one strategy that I use every single week to save both time and money on our food budget: reverse menu planning.
What is reverse menu planning?
I coopted this term to refer to the process I devised, which allows me to create a weekly menu plan, while focusing on using ingredients that I already have in the house and saving money on supermarket sales items.
By using reverse menu planning I am able to feed my family more nutritious food, avoid throwing out rotted produce, and maximize the value of store sales flyers. The entire process takes me no more than thirty minutes each week and helps me to feed my family of four a whole foods diet for under $300 each month.
Learn more and watch me create a reverse menu plan in this video.
Step 1: Begin with what you have on hand.
Menu planning should never begin with you browsing through a stack of cookbooks, magazines, or your favorite internet cooking sites. Instead, you need to start by knowing exactly what ingredients you have on hand.
The easiest way to do this is to have an up-to-date list of the contents of your pantry, freezer, and perishable items. This will allow you to more effectively use what you already have in the house and help you avoid pitching rotted food into the garbage can.
Inventory perishable use by shelf life.
When you write down on paper the contents of your fridge and countertop, the items which you need to use first should go at the top. With this prioritized list you will instantly become aware of not only what you have, but also the order in which each item needs to be used.
We all know that produce has a finite life. It doesn’t last forever. Generally, we head to the store on a Friday, determined to purchase healthy items. We fill our carts with an edible rainbow and then promptly wind up throwing much of it out seven days later.
That’s why prioritizing your list of perishables is important. Leaf lettuce may last for six days, but a head of cabbage will easily stay fresh for at least two weeks. Therefore, on my perishable food list, I write lettuce at the top.
This helps to remind me that using up those greens is a top priority. The fruits and vegetables which appear further down your list are the ones which will last the longest. This simple strategy will help ensure that you use up precious produce before it rots.
Step 2: Create a “rough cut” menu.
I worked in broadcasting for a long time. A rough cut, is an industry term for a project on which you have made initial cuts. It isn’t the finished product, but it gives the manager a really good idea of the concept and direction of the video.
In this case, a rough cut menu involves looking at your list of available ingredients and using recipes from cookbooks and websites to pre-fill as many spaces as you can on a weekly menu plan. I look for recipes which allow me to pair my perishables with ingredients which are in my pantry and freezer.
Although many of us believe that we just don’t have any food in the house, this is not really true. Most of us could feed our family for a week or more, just using what we currently have on hand.
So, rather than filling your grocery list with a long list of ingredients that you need to make five, brand new recipes, begin your strategy by finding recipes which allow you to utilize what you already have on your shelves.
Write these down on your menu planning sheet. Now, you should have just a few open meal slots to finish filling out your menu.
Step 3: Look at the flyers – and use them correctly.
After you have created your preliminary weekly food plan, now is the time to look at the weekly flyers. Sales flyers are designed to do one thing: get you into the store. However, when you know learn to see them through the eyes of frugality, these weekly missives can be your ticket to lower food costs.
Look at the front and the back. For the most part, ignore the rest. The front or back of the flyer will feature what are called “loss leader items”. The grocer is literally taking a loss on these products in the hope that you will come in for the $.25 bananas and leave with an entire cart full of food. Don’t fall into that trap!
Do yourself a favor. Circle those extra special deals. Make a prioritized shopping list with items you absolutely need to purchase at the top. When you buy only what’s on the list, you’ll be saving both time and money. You will not only be cherry picking the best deals, you’ll also be avoiding the tendency to stroll slowly through the store aisles, silently praying for meal-time inspiration.
Focus on Single Ingredient Foods
When shopping, focus on single ingredient foods, instead of high-priced prepared products. Not only will it cost you less, but the nutritional value of your meals will skyrocket. For example, if you set a large bag of chips to ten pounds of russet potatoes side by side, you can easily see that although these items may cost about the same amount of money, there is no comparison in how they will feed your children.
My boys would inhale that bag of chips in about twenty minutes flat and then be “starving” a half an hour later. However, you can create four distinctly different recipes with those potatoes and the fiber will keep them full for hours. That’s the incredible power of single ingredient foods.
Step #4: Finish your menu plan.
Now that you are effectively utilizing items you have already bought and put on your shelves, created a rough cut menu, and made a shopping list of only the least expensive, most nutritious weekly sale items, it’s time to finish your menu plan.
The key to this final step in the meal planning process is those weekly loss leader items. To show you how this works, I’ll give you a real life example. A few months ago, a local store, HyVee, offered huge heads of cauliflower and bunches of broccoli for just $1.49 each. I walked into the store, grabbed three of each, paid just under $9.00, and walked back out.
I used this produce to complete my weekly menu plan. In about fifteen minutes, I found recipes for creating a soup, two salads, and four main dishes, each featuring cauliflower or broccoli. I’ll even use the leaves, stem, and cores. Nothing will rot or be thrown out.
Buying featured sale items at a tremendous discount and then having a plan to use them will save you an astronomical amount of money on your monthly grocery bills.
Remember that quality counts.
I am a child of the sixties. Wonder bread sandwiches filled with lunchmeat and cheese, slathered with a thick layer of Miracle Whip were my standard lunch fare. I topped them off with a stack of Ritz crackers sandwiched with peanut butter. There was no fiber in sight!
As an adult, I initially focused on just getting food on the table – any food. When I was in my late-thirties, I began to take a hard look at what I was feeding my own children. When it comes to food, quality does count. Yes, you can buy pre-made, processed, and prepared foods, but often that choice comes with a lack of nutrition and leads to detrimental effects on our health.
Cooking is more than food.
Cooking is an act of service and love. Food is more than just calories in and energy out. It’s relational, communal, and spiritual. We owe it to our families to create a weekly plan to nurture their bodies and souls with the nutrients available only in whole foods.
The surprising thing is, planning to make that happen doesn’t need to take a lot of time – or money.