A Menu for Success

Denise Trowbridge

It's time to make a weekly menu plan. Trust me. Since I've switched to mapping out meals in advance, I've gone from grocery shopping every other day to once a week. I'm saving time, gasoline, money - and that 4 p.m. what-the-heck-are-we-having-for-dinner stress is gone.

According to researchers at Penn State, 20 percent of ALL grocery-store purchases are impulse buys that weren't on the shopping list. The typical U.S. family of four spends between $629 and $1,244 a month on groceries, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cutting impulse buys with a meal plan could save $125 to $250 a month.

"You have to put in some effort and time but, once you get in the habit, it's not that hard," said Carol Scudere, Powell resident and author of Beyond Couponing, a guide to money-saving meal planning (she also has a website, beyondcouponing.com). Scudere spends about an hour each week planning a menu, including cutting coupons and looking over sale flyers, then only shops once a week at one or two stores.

Here are her tips on how to keep the family fed and save money:

•Plan meals around the protein first. It's usually the most expensive item at the store, so plan main courses around the meats on sale that week, Scudere said. Pork, chicken and eggs are usually least expensive. Then plan sides such as vegetables, fruit and starch. In-season produce is often least expensive.

•Shop your cupboards and plan meals based on what you already have.

•Print out recipes you need for the week and make sure you have all the ingredients.

•Now make your grocery list, adding items you need to make each meal. Then search for coupons for items on your shopping list.

And here are a few more tips:

Keep at least one meal a day (like breakfast or lunch) simple or similar every day. It makes planning and cooking easier.

Eat leftovers. The typical U.S. family of four throws away 15 percent to 25 percent of the food it buys, or about $1,560 in food each year, according to the National Resources Defense Council. Using leftovers could mean "taking some to work for lunch, because they are better than the vending machines or drive thru," Scudere said, or planning one night each week where everyone eats leftovers for dinner. And be creative with leftovers: Monday night's extra pork chop can be part of Wednesday night's stir fry.

Check out Pinterest and YouTube for ideas on how to organize, plan and cook multiple meals - even organic ones - on a tight budget (MommyGoodness on YouTube is a good channel).

Read cookbooks, whether they're ones already at home or available at the library. Some of my favorites: Veggies Please and the Taste of Home cookbook.

Cook from scratch. The more you make from scratch, the more you save. "If we all cooked from scratch, we would never need to use coupons," Scudere said.

--Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch,bankrate.com andmiddlepathfinance.com.