24/7 MOMS

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Groceries into Affordable Meals, on a Moms Schedule

by:Amy Hannold

247Moms Frugal Living Editor

I’m still learning the whole concept of “meal planning”. I tend to live mobile life, rarely ever stopping to sit down and peruse my pantry. I’m a couponer, a “cook-from-scratcher”, and a list maker (usually) – so, how does my less than “on paper” meal planning strategies translate into affordable meals?

It starts with a money-stretching attitude and a keen eye for the store specials. When I do head into the store, I have a route I follow which leads me to the markdowns, keeping an eye out for red-tagged reduced items along the way. With me, I have coupons for my frequently used items, just in case I encounter a great unadvertised special. My kids have been trained to help me look for coupons, clearances and the best deal for our money. They rarely ask for anything if it’s not on sale – and they know that a regular cycle of their favorites occur whenever we find a deal on those items.

My home pantry inventory usually consists of several “meal options”. Staples, I’d call them, that I rarely run out of. Pasta, canned vegetables, canned meats and beans, a blue box of macaroni and cheese – and an emergency can of soup or two. When you can look into your pantry and see a meal, you don’t have to run out to the store for “just a few things”. Dinner out or delivered also is deleted from options – bank that take-out meal money instead. Make sure you always have a few days’ meal ingredients at home. You’ll be ready for an emergency any type.

Our children have been raised to be “meal flexible”. I don’t cook more than one meal at a time and they love “Breakfast for Dinner”. If you don’t like the meal tonight, the bowl of cereal is option number two. When breakfast is dinner, I surprise everyone with a secretly stashed pound of bacon, fruit, or other delight. If you’re family is not as thrilled with breakfast for dinner, do what you can to make it fun. Follow dinner with games, or other activities which can be something to look forward to once you’ve cleared the table.

Meal charts and planners are a good idea – and getting input during the family meeting gets everyone involved. OrganizedHome.com and ChartJungle.com websites give you free, printable planning tools. Teamwork and creativity are great lessons – and great tools for meal planning. Get some help with “what to serve” with a list of “National food of the Month” ideas. Create a list of “Countries to Visit” (at home) this year – eat as though you are there! You’ll make many great memories too!

Instill life lessons by giving the kids an assignment to come up with some ideas for next week’s meals. Show them how to shop for the ingredients, using coupons and a budget. Voila! Math comes to the family table as well! Older kids can practice their budget/math skills, planning/organization, and the stretch of their horizon beyond the usual mac n’ cheese. Give them the parameters and be ready with positive feedback.

Once you’ve polled the family and perused the pantry, it’s time to prepare the shopping list. This is where differing practices of planning come in:

1. You can search this week’s specials to find your ingredients. (Store special may even influence your meal idea from this week, to next – or vice versa) Once you’ve found a store with several of your needs on sale, build a list around those – and coupons you have for other items you need to buy. Look for “Loss Leader” specials on produce and other items at a second and third store only if they’re on your route this week – and if you’re a disciplined shopper.

2. By receiving a weekly update from money-saving bloggers, shoppers who do the “Stacking” of sales with coupons for you, you’ll skip reading the ads and go for who has the greatest deals on items your family can use this week or next. Favorite blogs: MoneySavingMom, SurvivingtheStores, AFullCup, and CouponMom. Read what’s on sale, clip the coupons from your filed inserts, compile a list and you’re on your way to buying for less.

Beyond the ideas, favorites, and traditions of your own family, you can expand your meal ideas to include those of your friends. Make meal planning a social affair when you exchange ideas for themes, freezer meals, and new home-dining experiences. Find those around you who know how to make the kinds of meals you’d like to enjoy, and share a meal once in a while too. A night away from the kitchen will be a blessing to someone you know.

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