Budgeting Tips: How to Menu Plan Like a Kindergartner

This guest post was written by Jana, author of the wonderful personal finance blog Daily Money Shot , where she discusses money, family, relationships, pop culture, and everything in-between. You can also find her on Twitter  and Facebook .

How to Menu PlanAs far as financial role models go, I am far from perfect. I still make many mistakes and I have a long way to go before I reach my goals. However, one area that I’m pretty good at—and have been good at for a while now—is menu planning.

I first became adept at menu planning out of necessity. When my daughter was an infant, my husband and I had very little money and our grocery budget was paltry. In order to make it last, I had to devise very specific menu plans and I had to stick to them. No deviations allowed! Because if I deviated, that would affect the shopping list which would impact the budget and things would get ugly. And no one really wanted that.

But as our financial situation improved, I kept menu planning around. Mainly because it was easier and also because I’m not one of those people blessed with the gift of staring at the pantry or fridge and figuring out what to cook. It’s become such a habit now and it’s so much easier to answer the question “what’s for dinner?” I just direct them to the publicly available menu plan, which they’ve all had input in creating.

Now that my daughter is older (she’s almost 6), I let her help with the menu planning. She loves helping, too. She’ll sit with me and go through my cookbooks or some websites and give me a thumbs up or down on a recipe or meal idea. She gets to pick one to two meals per week that we eat as a family. Which benefits me a great deal because a) less work for me and b) my daughter is a great menu planner.

I know. I’m lucky.

But you’re probably wondering what makes her so good at it. Here are a few ways:

  • She’s cheap. My daughter prefers foods like waffles, pancakes , soup and chili. I usually have all the ingredients on hand so, if I do need to buy anything, it’s usually under $3. I can live with spending $3 on a meal.
  • She plans for leftovers. If she picks something like soup, I double the recipe since it’s no extra effort. I’ll freeze some and use the rest for lunches. It prevents us from going out to eat and it’s easy to prepare the next day (heating up already cooked food=my favorite way to cook).
  • She doesn’t like to wait. Most of the recipes that my daughter adds to the menu plan take less than ½ hour to make, including prep time. The best part about this is that when I think about how long it takes to get to a restaurant, order, wait for our food and then eat, by the time I’m done cooking, it’s 20x faster than going to a restaurant. Even if it’s a little messier.

If you look closely at what makes my daughter so great at menu planning, from my perspective at least, is that she does a fabulous job of saving us money. She picks quick, inexpensive recipes that can stretch over a few days. And she does it without realizing it! It makes me proud that she’s picking up frugal habits at such a young age. I’m not sure if that means we’re setting a good example or if she’s some sort of frugality prodigy! I just hope that, with some encouragement, she can keep up these habits well into adulthood.

Anyone struggling with keeping their grocery budget in check can take a page from my daughter’s version of menu planning. It’s simple, easy, and really does leave room in your menu planning for variety. Those elements are essential if you are going to maintain your food budget, particularly when paying down debt. Experts suggest paring down this budget line item first for a reason—it’s the easiest and most flexible. It becomes even easier if you use menu planning as a tool.

If you’re unsure how to get started menu planning, you can check out these tips or, if you’re an expert menu planner, please leave your favorite tips and strategies in the comments. 

Image by woodleywonderworks

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