There is no menu.
What I mean is, there is no one menu that is the cheapest menu, that is the perfect menu, that has food your kids like, that you can get at your store.
You cannot go online and just type “Perfect Customized Poorganic Menu for My Family.”
Actually, there is such a menu, BUT YOU have to make that menu. I am going to teach you how to make a poorganic menu for yourself. I am going to tell you what I do to make a monthly menu. When I started Eating Poorganically, this took forever. Now, planning takes me about an hour once a month. I also have to plan and coupon about half an hour once a week.
(If you are TOTALLY new to shopping real foods, you may need to read “The Naughty List” first and then come back.)
1. First, print out several real food menus or meal plans for ideas. Don’t follow them exactly. You will just use them for a guideline. There are tons online that are free, but you can also buy them. I suggest that you start with the meal plans at 100 Days of Real Food because all her meal plans are already priced at $167 for a week’s worth of food. Plus they are all real food and include great recipes. Don’t worry; we are definitely going to beat that price. Just FYI, directly following someone else’s mealplan WILL NEVER BE THE CHEAPEST. NEVER.
Let me explain this. When I first started eating poorganically, I used the menus and shopping lists from 100 Days of Real Food. I went to the store and I bought everything on the shopping list for one week and made it exactly as she outlined. They are wonderfully complete and very well made plans; however, even with couponing a bit, it cost me $160 FOR ONE WEEK! Also, it was not really enough food for us, and I was frustrated by how it didn’t really accommodate our lifestyle.
After I learned from my mistake, I decided to incorporate the method I explain below. Using the mealplan and shopping list as a guideline, I made ALL the meals on her plan over the course of SIX weeks, buying the items only when they were at their lowest price. I made the SAME meals, over time, for $96, shopping poorganically. The bottom line: if money is an issue, use mealplans as a GUIDELINE, not a rule.
2. Take inventory of your freezer, refrigerator, and pantry. Write down at least every main dish staple. (Meats, rice, pasta, veggies, beans, eggs, grains, and veggies that need to be eaten, etc.) The first time you take inventory, it might be a good idea to write down EVERYTHING.
3. Create meal categories that work for your family schedule, the season, and your inventory. Create at least 6 realistic meal categories. These are not exact meals, but categories of meals that your family enjoys eating AND possibly are low priced during this season.
Some examples might be: Soups, Pasta, Mexican, vegetarian, crockpot, Egg dish, breakfast for supper, Dine out, Poultry, Beef, Fish, Italian, Asian, etc. I select one theme for each day of the week. In the summer, I might have a “cook-out” night or a salad night. Usually, I can get about a month out of a particular category before I have to work it out of the rotation for a while. For example, this month looks like this.
Monday: Meat Dish Main (Monday is usually a “home” day, so I try to make a nice meal.)
Tuesday: Pasta (Tuesday I volunteer at the school and my husband teaches music lessons and is home late, so I make a quick, easy kid-friendly dish.)
Wednesday: Soup or Crockpot (Soup is a winter staple.)
Thursday: Earth Fare free kids meals/ Dine out (Busy day for us, so we shop at Earth Fare and get free kids meals)
Friday: Pizza & Family Movie Night!
Saturday: Mystery/ Leftovers
3. Write down AS many specific meals from your pantry as you can think of. Use the mealplans you’ve printed for meal ideas. Remember, the cheapest meal is the one you don’t have to buy. As you plan a meal from your pantry, jot the meal on a calendar in pencil. Write missing ingredients on the shopping list. Remember, a pantry meal is one for which you have MOST of the main ingredients already–not only ONE ingredient. You are trying to eat from the pantry. Be sure to include breakfasts and lunches in your plan, jotting down if you need oats, flour, raisins, milk or eggs.
4. Schedule your pantry meals throughout the month based on category. So if I have four boxes of spaghetti, one pound of meat, four cans of tomatoes, and four cans of tomato sauce, I can plan four spaghetti nights each Tuesday. (I don’t usually do EXACTLY the same meal every week, but you get the idea.) On my shopping list, I might write “veggies for pasta sauce” to get the sauce to stretch. Be realistic about how often you really “cook” and when you need an easy meal.
NOW, here is where it gets tricky . . . .
5. For the remaining meals, you will plan to eat whatever real food are at their lowest price. This means that if four of the meals on my “idea” mealplan are at a LOW price, I will schedule them and eat them. The rest I will not schedule UNTIL the ingredients are at a low price. For this part of the menu planning, you have to become skilled at knowing what the “low price” or “buy price” is for real foods. It took me about three months to feel like I really KNEW the buy prices for real foods.
Here are a few tips to keeping the “lowest price” in mind.
- Spend one-third of your weekly budget on seasonal produce and plan that into your menu. If it isn’t Farmer’s Market season, I buy conventional produce, often at ALDI, and thoroughly wash it. (Remember folks . . .it’s not organic; it’s poorganic. You gotta’ pick what works for you.)
- Know the low price for real food items that can’t be bought with coupons. This may mean knowing a sale cycle OR it may mean knowing which store has the best price AND ALWAYS buying the item there. For example, I buy all my cheese, almonds, maple, syrup, and flour at Trader Joe’s. They have undyed non-rBst cheese for $3.99/b. I have never seen that price beaten. I only go to Trader Joe’s once a month, and I buy ALL the items from them that are the lowest price. At Earth Fare I buy all my bulk items (oats, beans, salt); milk; and organic items that aren’t couponable. I also get the weekly freebie, which is often meat. The remaining items, I buy at my regular grocery store where I . . . .
- KEEP COUPONING. If you are a couponer, you probably already are used to matching sales and coupons at a coupon blog. You are going to keep doing that for real food items. I use My Coupon Teacher. Watch for sales on real food items. I use my store’s online shopping service to watch the prices for organic and real food items, which go on UNADVERTISED sales, but are listed online. Search for coupons for real food items at My Coupon Teacher’s Database. During coupon promotions, be ready to coupon for real food items.
6. WHEN A REAL FOOD ITEM HITS ITS LOWEST PRICE, BUY IT. Even if you don’t need the item for this month’s menu, it will become part of your pantry for next month’s menu.
So, to summarize.
1. Get ideas from online mealplans.
2. Take inventory.
3. Create categories that work, but are flexible.
4. Getting ideas from mealplans, first plan meals using your inventory.
5. Getting ideas from mealplans, fill in gaps in the menu when food can be bought at lowest price.
6. Sticking to your overall budget, buy real food at lowest prices for your pantry supply.
Does that make sense? Do you have more specific question? Do you have a way that works better? Please let me know!!