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How we save thousands on groceries

Bimonthly meal planning can generate serious savings on food and make you look like a genius too.

By MSN Money Partner Dec 2, 2011 11:46AM

This post comes from Len Penzo at partner blog Len Penzo dot Com.

 

Len Penzo dot Com on MSN MoneyWhat's the toughest question in the world to answer?

 

If you search 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 compares 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 about once per week. On average, we're spending $75 per week on that luxury which, for a four-person family, comes out to $3,900 annually, or $18.75 per person per meal. Yikes!

 

In contrast, our household spent $9,895.16 on groceries last year, which comes out to roughly $2.37 per person per meal after accounting for the meals not eaten at home. So for us, eating out is, on average, eight 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. Post continues below.

So, what's for dinner?

Now, whenever my kids ask me what's for dinner, I always have an answer because I sit down twice a 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 and stuffing.
  • Tuesday -- meat loaf.
  • Wednesday -- white lightning chili.
  • Thursday -- beef Stroganoff.
  • Friday -- dine out.
  • Saturday -- leftovers.
  • Sunday -- shrimp scampi and linguini.
  • Monday -- sesame chicken.
  • Tuesday -- tacos.
  • Wednesday -- pork chops.
  • Thursday -- beef stew.
  • Friday --  nacaroni 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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Learn to love leftovers. I recently wrote about how my family saves $1,400 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.
  • 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.

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, 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.

 

More on Len Penzo dot Com and MSN Money:

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