Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Make the Most of Your Food Budget: A Weekly Dinner Menu and Shopping List

About a year ago I wrote a post about being smart about how you shop for produce. And while I shop for a lot of produce, there is another way that I learned to be smart about my food (and this I do religiously because it saves me so much time, money, waste and fridge space!)

What is my "brilliant" idea?

I write a weekly dinner menu and 

a corresponding shopping list of ingredients.

Okay, when you think about it, it's not so brilliant. It's common sense. Going to the grocery store and standing in the middle of the aisle, thinking, "What am I going to make this week?" (which is what I used to do every week) really doesn't make any sense at all. I would end up forgetting what I was going to make for dinner later on in the week because I never had actually written down the ideas that I had had to brainstorm in the midst of the grocery store. Or I would think I had ingredients that I didn't which I then needed to go out later in the week after work to go buy. Or I would get stuck making the same damn meal over and over again. Or I would end up buying a whole lotta crappy (and I mean CRAPPY) boxed or frozen previously-prepared-and-therefore-processed-with-tons-of-sugar-sodium-and-chemicals foods that literally were hurting me from the inside out. (And, no, I'm not being paranoid. Talk to a chemical engineer about what goes into our processed foods and see what she thinks about processed foods.)

I think I'm not the only one who used to do (or still does) such a ridiculous thing on a weekly basis. I think a lot of us do that very thing because we are pressured for time.

Folks, taking half an hour to an hour to plan is going to save you the same amount of time in the grocery story as well as much, much more. I promise.

SO. Here's what I do:

On Saturday or Sunday morning, as I sit with my coffee, I interrogate Chef Reiton and peruse my foodie magazines/cookbooks to decide what I/we want to make for dinner every single night that week. I write down the meals we decide on in an organized list on my phone. Below is an example. I keep a template in Notes and then update it weekly. (If I want to save a particular week because I love the meals I made and want to save them as a reminder of what to make again, I just copy and paste the whole note into a separate Weekly Dinner Menus folder.)

As I am writing up my list, meal-by-meal, I keep a separate, running "To Get" list where I write down each of the ingredients I need for each recipe (this may require popping up and checking the fridge to make sure I really do have Worcestershire sauce). 

Here is a snapshot of what I have on my "To Get" list today. Not much is on there because I only have a few random things left to get (thanks to crappy selection on earlier shopping trip and a few random things that popped up):

I try to enter the ingredients in coordinating sections to save me time running back and forth in the grocery store: produce section first, meat next, center aisle items next, then the dairy section. 

Since the list is on my phone, I never forget it. And as I shop for the ingredients, I delete them from my phone.

On the occasion that something pops up (the neighbors ask us over, we do an impromptu night out, I decide we need to eat leftovers, whatever), I bump the dinner list down a day by doing a quick copy-and-paste.

Planning my menu out for the week helps HUGELY with the following:
  • I rarely have to go to the grocery store during the week, giving me extra time at home in the evenings.
  • I always have everything I need to make the dinner I want.
  • I save time at the grocery store because I already have an organized list of what I need, so I'm in and out as quickly as possible.
  • I save money and waste because I don't buy foods that I end up not using and throwing away.
  • I usually buy ONLY what is on the list, saving me money because...it's not on the list, so I'm not buying it—unless it is something I will use later for sure AND it is on special. This way I know that I'm still saving money in the long run.
  • I save my health because I don't walk down the junk food aisles and buy bad-for-my-bod processed foods that are SO tempting when I walk down those aisles list-less-ly.
  • I save fridge space (and my sanity). You will be amazed at how streamlined your fridge gets when you only shop for what you need!
I really, REALLY encourage you to give this a try. Not only have I learned how much time, money, etc. I've saved, but it's also done so much more for me as a cook and a lover of food:
  • I actually try those recipes that I've bookmarked/dog-eared/torn out of a magazine.
  • I broaden my tastes and try recipes using ingredients from countries that aren't American (no ingredient is hard to find anymore, folks. Shopping on the internet has existed for decades now...)
  • Cooking has become a fun and rewarding (I get to EAT!) way to explore and push myself to learn new techniques, ingredients, flavor pairings, etc.
If you do take this step into streamlining your schedule and amping up your cooking, leave a comment below. We'd love to hear how you've adopted this strategy and what it's done to help you!

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