Menu Planning: Less Stress, More Money

menu planningMy son’s famous first words these days when we get home after work and school are “Mom, I’m hungry. Can I have a snack?” Since it is usually close to supper, I encourage him to go play and let him know that supper will be ready shortly. And since I plan my evening meals a week at a time, I can get supper on the table in a short amount of time. I know what we are having and have the ingredients on hand. Menu planning is a win-win for us. I’m not stressed out thinking about what we are going to have and my son doesn’t have to wait long to eat when he is hungry.

Eating a balanced meal and saving money at the grocery store are other benefits of menu planning. When you plan your meals, you can take the time to include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and calcium-rich foods in your meals. And when you go to the grocery store, you can be sure to buy these items to have on hand and it prevents you from buying items you won’t need. Here are some tips to successful menu planning:

  • Determine what meals you will plan. Since the meal my family eats together is supper that is the meal I spend time to plan. However, you can plan for breakfast, lunch, supper or snacks. I go to the grocery store once a week so I plan my meals a week at a time. You might choose to plan them for more or fewer days.
  • Write the plan on a calendar. I write my meal plan on a calendar that hangs in my kitchen. This calendar includes other family activities so I know if we will be gone for a meal at night or have a really rushed evening. My husband knows to look at the calendar to see what we are having.

Another option is the 5-day meal planner on our Spend Smart. Eat Smart. website. Since weekends tend to be less structured for most people, the plan is for only 5 days. The meal planner also has a checklist of the food groups to help you plan balanced meals.

  • Check what you have on hand. Check your refrigerator, freezer, and cupboards for foods that need to be used up in the next few days. Think of ways to include these items in your meals. I always plan a night to have leftovers so they don’t go to waste.
  • Review the grocery ads for specials you can use. Save money by purchasing items on sale that you can pair with the foods you have on hand to help complete your meals.
  • Keep a list of the recipes your family likes best. Having a list helps make meal planning go really quickly because you can easily spot the recipes that use things you have on hand or are on sale. Some recipes my family likes are Beef and Vegetable Stir Fry, Quick Pad Thai, and Crispy Salmon Patties.

For more information on menu planning watch “How to Plan a Menu.”

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Labor Day Meal Plan

Labor Day Meal, serves 4 for less than $3.50 a person!

Labor day is quickly approaching! This national holiday on the first Monday of September results in a long weekend filled with relaxing, picnics, and spending time with family and friends. This simple menu is easy to prepare and easy on your wallet.

labor day menu plan


New labor day label

I put together this menu plan with a day of soaking up sun with friends and family in mind. The pita pocket is easy to eat on the go and provides the perfect opportunity to light up the grill or use stovetop and avoid turning on the oven in the heat. The carrots and whole wheat pita chips are finger foods that are packed with vitamins to keep everyone fueled throughout the day. The dessert will satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth while featuring any fresh fruit that is in season.

The total cost of this meal is only $13.85. This breaks down to $3.46 per person.

Click here for recipes! I have separated the recipes into two sections, the first is recipes to prepare the night before serving the meal and the second is recipes to prepare the day of serving the meal.

Guest Blogger,

Liz Breuer

How much money do you spend on food each day?

This is a question I have been asking myself since I saw this blog, $4 A Day Challenge.  Stephanie Moore, a channel 13 (WHOTV, Des Moines, IA) reporter decided to take on the challenge of eating for $4 each day for a week.  Why $4?  That is the average amount a person receives for Food Assistance.

For some people, Food Assistance is the only money they have to spend on food each month.  That means that they have to budget to spend only $4 each day on the food they need to stay healthy.  Last June, this became an immediate need for many Iowa families when the Missouri river flooded, destroying their homes and their source of income (farms, job sites).  Over the past several years, many job sites have closed in Iowa, leaving people without income and needing Food Assistance to feed their families.  It is not surprising that the number of people receiving Food Assistance in Iowa has increased.

So, was the news reporter able to make it on $4 each day?  Yes, she was, and you can see more of the story here.  And, how much do I spend on food each day?  For my three person family, we spend about $5-6 per person each day.

Justine Hoover, MS, RD, LD

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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Try Mint to Track your Grocery Spending

The SpendSmart.EatSmart web page and Facebook have been running a poll asking What do you think saves you the most money on your grocery bill? Here is the breakdown from the 315 people who responded:

Strategy Votes % of Total Votes
Making a list and shopping less often 139 44%
Making menus 65 21%
Comparing prices between brands 43 14%
Shopping at a store with lower prices 37 12%
Coupons 28 9%
Other:  sticking to your menu, shop at the same store because I get too distracted looking at a new store, buy in bulk 3

The results of this poll indicate to me that our readers are very savvy shoppers!  These are similar results to what research and the experts promote as the best ways to save money.

Do you know how much you spend for food each month, how many times you shop and where most of your money goes? That is good information to know before you set goals.   I wrote about tracking my food expenses on SpendSmart last June, but now I have a much easier method.

I downloaded a free app on my phone called Mint a couple of months ago and now it does most of the work tracking my expenses.  Mint, which is also available free on-line at, links to all your  checking, savings, credit cards, etc..  Whenever money goes in or out of your accounts it is recorded.  The best part is that Mint is pretty smart about categorizing your expenses from the names of the businesses.  For instance, it knows to categorize Aldi and HyVee as grocery stores and Younkers as clothing.

There are many more cool features about Mint.  You can see a recent review of Mint in Doughroller.  The author said Mint is a “good concept and very well executed.”

So what did I find out about my spending? First, I need to spend a little more time categorizing transactions.  Second, there is a lot of variation month to month in both the amount and spending occasions. I can tell when I am not taking the time to plan and just running to the store and buying…these are the months when I have 10 or 11 charges from grocery stores.

I really need to follow my own advice.

Spending Less and Eating Healthier: Part 1 of 3

Meal Planning

Even if you did not make a resolution, I would bet many of you are thinking about spending less or eating healthier. The best way to do both at the same time is to use a menu and a shopping list.

I know planning menus sounds complicated, but it isn’t bad if you keep it simple.   There are many ways to plan meals, so just experiment to see what works for you.

Here is an easy way to get started creating some menus:

1.  On index cards or sheets of notepaper write down the main dish for meals you currently eat.  Involve as many members of your household as you can in this step.

2.  Go back and add foods you usually have with that main dish.  Check to see if you have something from each food group (protein, fruits, vegetables, grain, dairy) If not, fill in and make adjustments.If you have seven or more meals using this process, that is great.  You have enough for a week of planned meals and you can now create a shopping list. If you did not have 7 meals think what you would like to have.  Remember, keep it simple.  This is not the time to start paging through cookbooks, magazines or surfing the internet.  What about making extra one night and using it for another meal (like cooking 2 # of ground beef one night and making chili  from half of it and then using the other half or homemade pizza or sloppy joes; using your crockpot,  making a meatless meal, or breakfast for dinner.

3.  Save your menu cards and add to them as you go.  Then thinking of what to have will not be such a chore.


Next week: the grocery list

Here are some other resources and methods for menu planning with more details:

Meat and Veggie Mac – SUPER QUICK AND EASY

Everybody is extra busy during May.  It’s the beginning of outdoor sports such as soccer, softball, and baseball.  Spring celebrations abound such as graduations and Mother’s Day, plus it’s time to get the vegetable and flower gardens going.  Whatever the reason, it seems no one wants to be in the kitchen.

Our featured recipe this month starts with a package of macaroni and cheese.   Add in cooked beef, pork or chicken (beans for a vegetarian meal) plus some vegetables and you have a filling meal that takes 10 minutes to make and costs just $0.82 per serving.  This meal will be simpler if the next time you cook meat and vegetables, you prepare extra.  Then all you have to do is cook the macaroni and stir everything together.

Meat and Veggie Mac


  • 1 7 1/4 ounce package macaroni & cheese mix
  • 1 16-ounce package frozen mixed vegetables
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped cooked beef, pork, or chicken
  • 1/4 cup nonfat milk
  • 1/8 teaspoon garlic or onion powder


  1. Cook macaroni in large saucepan as directed on package. After about 5 minutes, add the frozen vegetables and continue cooking until macaroni is tenderand vegetables are cooked; drain.
  2. Return macaroni and vegetables to the pan. Add the meat.
  3. Stir the cheese sauce mix, milk, and garlic or onion powder together. Stir into macaroni mixture. (Omit the butter/margarine recommended on the package).
  4. Cook over low heat for 1 to 2 minutes or until heated through, stirring occasionally.

Feed 50 People for $50!

Need recipes that will feed a crowd (e.g. a club, relatives, or a post-event gathering) for $50 or under?

Stacia Sanny and our nutrition staff in Polk County used the menu below to serve 50 people at a get acquainted activity.  We wanted to recruit families and show volunteers at the First Assembly of God Church in Des Moines about EFNEP (Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program).

The recipes are on the SpendSmart EatSmart recipe page except for the Garden Salad.  You could substitute carrot/celery sticks for that.  The recipes are easy to multiply to match your group size.

  • 3 Can Chili.  Cans of beans, corn and tomatoes with chili powder.  Reduce the sodium by using frozen corn if you like. To go really inexpensive, cook dry beans instead of using canned.
  • Splendid Fruit Salad.  For 50 people you would probably use 25-30 fruits.
  • Garden Salad (lettuce mix out of a bag, chopped tomatoes and carrots, dressing)
  • Pumpkin Apple Cake.   Two cakes will do it.  Sprinkle with powdered sugar if you want. 

Here’s what Stacia reported after the event.
We received wonderful comments. They loved the cake . . . and couldn’t believe that it was considered a healthy snack. We multiplied the recipes about 13 times (chili and fruit salad). We actually had leftovers. The chili was so easy — and the fact that you could see vegetables in it already made it different than normal chili. The recipe uses corn besides the usual tomatoes and meat.

We had a number of people ask for the recipes so they could make them at home!

pointers from Peggy

Trim Your Waistline and Your Budget – Three Simple Steps!

Woman measuring waist with tape measureWith the holidays behind us its time to find ways to trim some of those extra pounds and pay off some bills.  It’s possible to eat healthier and stick to a budget.  Here are three ways to trim your food spending without sacrificing good nutrition.

1. Before you go to the store know what you are going to buy.  First, check your refrigerator and cupboard.  Do you already have items on hand for this week’s meals?  Then review local flyers for weekly specials.  No need to buy a newspaper; most stores have their ads online.  Include some of the sale items in your weekly menu.  Finally, make a list.  It’s critical to help manage your grocery budget; otherwise, it is easy to be swayed by unhealthy foods and things you don’t really need this week.

2. Back to Basics.  Fill your grocery cart with fruits and vegetables, meat, beans, chicken, fish, pasta, brown rice, whole grain bread, basic cereals like oatmeal, non-fat or low fat milk, and yogurt.  Skip the high profile foods like granola, power bars, chips, special drinks, and juices.  Package your own single size servings of  cheese and crackers and granola bars. (Peggy’s Pet Peeve …. Frozen vegetables are a good buy because you can use only what you need and the rest won’t spoil. Now, in the name of convenience, it’s hard to find a bag that isn’t a “steamer” bag.  The cost of the bags hasn’t changed, but now there are only 12 ounces instead of 16.)

3.  Drink Water.  Stop buying soda, juice and sports drinks, and switch to plain water or water with lemon.  Consumption of sweetened beverages for women in the U.S. has more than doubled, at a cost of 300-400 calories a day and $500 a year.  Soda, fruit drinks, sports beverages, lattes, smoothies, and sweetened iced tea are thought to be one of the main contributing factors to our epidemic of obesity.  Invest in two (2) refillable water bottles for each member of the family so there is always a cold one in the refrigerator.  Label them with names so you can reuse the containers.

-pointers from Peggy

Slow-Cooker Meal for a Crowd

Last night I had my siblings, their spouses, and my parents for supper (11 in all). It was one of those times that I invited everyone and then started thinking about what I could make. The menu was a little trickier since my oven stopped working last week and I don’t have a replacement. I didn’t want to spend all day preparing the meal or spend lots of money—plus I wasn’t sure what time we would actually sit down to eat.

Here’s the menu I planned:

Stew in my slow cooker
Mashed butternut squash
Apple slices
Italian bread
Assorted desserts (My sister provided these from her freezer.)

The only foods I purchased were the meat, carrots, apples, and Italian bread. Using those costs, plus estimating what I used on hand, the meal total was around $16 (not including the squash harvested from the garden). 

Pork steak was $1.59/pound while beef stew meat was $3.29/pound. I bought 3 pounds of the bone-in pork steak. It took 20 minutes to cut it into bite size chunks. It took another 20 minutes to peel and cut up the potatoes, carrots, and onions. (I used about 2.5 pounds potatoes, 1 pound onion, and 1.5 pounds carrots.) The recipe I found on used bay leaf, Worcestershire sauce, beef broth, salt, pepper, and wine. I choose this recipe since it did not use a seasoning mix. I also added a can of diced tomatoes.

I had two large butternut squash left from the garden which needed to be used, so I cooked them in the microwave and mashed them with a little brown sugar and margarine.

The apples I sliced right before we were ready to eat, so they wouldn’t brown.

For an appetizer, I had a package of a knock-off chex mix. Since this didn’t look like enough for everyone, I made several batches of popcorn. Interestingly enough, the chex mix was left and the popcorn was eaten. Next time I’ll just do popcorn, which is super cheap when you pop it on top of the stove.

Here are the savings tips from this meal:

  • Plan menus around what you have on hand.
  • Cut the meat yourself—you frequently pay a premium for the butcher to cut it for you.
  • Soups and stews stretch your meat dollar because you can add more vegetables and use less meat.
  • You can skip the cost of seasoning packets when you use a recipe with the spices included.
  • Simple foods like apples, popcorn, squash are inexpensive and healthy.

-pointers from Peggy

$30 serves 8 a Healthy Holiday Dinner

Thanksgiving is just a couple weeks away and for many of us that means lots of great food. But it doesn’t have to mean a lot of calories, extra weight, and an empty wallet. Last weekend we figured out a traditional menu that will serve 8 people a healthy meal for $30.

Why is it healthy? The turkey is roasted—not fried, the food is homemade so it isn’t loaded with sodium like many of the  convenience foods, the vegetables and fruits are prepared letting the natural flavors shine rather than be smothered, and we have skipped the crust on the pie and gone right to the ‘good for you’ pumpkin filling.

My sister is trying to promote a “Turkey Trot” on Thanksgiving morning for us—just like they do in her husband’s hometown. The Turkey Trot is a 3K route and everyone walks or runs as far as they want and are able. This sounds like a great plan to me, and I think it would work with our family since we share the cooking. Walking and talking sure makes the exercise go more quickly.

Check out the turkey dinner recipes and see how we figured the costs.

-pointers from Peggy

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