Menu Planning for the Free Spirited Chef (Or I Satisfy My Inner Perfectionist and My Inner Flake)

Yesterday I wrote about the power of freezing leftovers to keep yourself on a budget. Another key to the equation is organized menu planning. Now, I’m not going to pretend I have THIS totally figured out, but I have made some serious headway.

Here’s what you need to know about me first, though: I’m equal parts driven-type-A-perfectionist and swayed-by-passion-can’t-stand-feeling-controlled-free-spirit. It’s quite a vexing situation, frankly. I mean, my head and my heart are fighting with each other all day long, and it’s super confusing.

So, when I’m coming up with a budget — or a menu plan for the week — I have to satisfy both sides of my personality. This means working some flexibility into my menu and my budget without causing my financial ruin.

I usually start my menu planning process by identifying one or two recipes I want to try in the next few days. These recipes will either be inspired by something I find in Bon Appetit, a craving I’m experiencing, or even by the ingredients I have in my refrigerator that need to be used.

For me, a week doesn’t necessarily need to go from one Sunday to the next because I find that too confining. I might just do it for a three day period and then assess my food (and my money) situation from there. This leaves flexibility to account for new cravings, and I find it makes it easier to stay on budget. Plus, grocery shopping sort of satisfies my need to shop in general, so this way I get to shop a few times a week without buying shoes from Tory that I don’t really need.

Today, I’m craving clam chowder, so I started there. Before making my grocery list, I looked to see if I already had any of the ingredients I will need.

It turns out, I have celery so that was a good start.

Digging around on Pinterest and various blogs today, I also found a copycat recipe for Panera’s cheddar and broccoli soup and decided I wanted to make that as well. The upside here is that both recipes use half and half and bay leaves. I’ve found one of the keys to cutting costs is to make recipes that have overlapping ingredients.

So, step one is identifying the recipes I want to make, preferably recipes with overlapping ingredients.

Step two is to make my grocery list in preparation for hitting the store(s).

Yes, I know there are Christmas lights on my grocery list. My Snoopy Christmas notepad knows no season.

I also like to include the approximate prices for each item to make sure I’m not making too many dishes with expensive ingredients in one week. This is another key to staying on budget in the food department. Let’s call this step three.

You might have noticed I have written a “T” or an “F” next to each price on my list. This notates which store — Trader Joe’s or Food 4 Less — offers better value for the item. I also frequent a high end grocery store in my neighborhood for my deli and fresh fish purchases, but I didn’t need to make any of those this week. I never buy my staples at that store, though, because they are outrageously priced. Paying attention to the prices at various stores is another powerful budgeting tool that can make your money go further for your menu planning. Let’s call this step four.

From here, I kinda sorta let my free spirited side take over. I know I will have items left over from both recipes, and I can get creative. I could use some of the extra potatoes to make baked potatoes with broccoli and cheese because I will have all three of these items left over from making the broccoli and cheese soup as well as the clam chowder. Plus, I also have chili in my freezer in case I want to add that to the potato to make the meal heartier. This is a good option if I need to reign in my spending on food because I don’t need to buy anything new to make this meal.

If I want to splurge a bit and have enough money left in the budget to do so, I could pick up pork chops to make a sour cream and pork chop meal with rice and a side of broccoli. I always keep brown rice in my pantry, I have sour cream left over from a cheesecake I made last week, and I know I’ll have extra broccoli. (The recipe also calls for chicken broth and thyme — both of which I have on hand.)

Another factor to consider in my mid-week menu planning (or any stage in the process for that matter) are the expiration dates on various items in my refrigerator.

No rush on eating this right away. It won’t expire for a while.

Even though I don’t have to use the sour cream right away, I might want to. If the pork chop with sour cream doesn’t sound good to me in a few days, I could pick up some refried beans, grab a slab of cheese, and make bean burritos slathered with sour cream because I already have tortillas and cheese at home. So much cheese…

I usually keep at least four kinds of cheese in my refrigerator because I would die without cheese. For those of you who think cheese will kill me faster than not eating it, you are just wrong. Oh, and yes, that is cheap beer behind the cheese. It’s my football beer.

One of the last keys to my menu planning budget success is to purchase large quantities of items that do not spoil quickly, like canned tomatoes and garlic. I use garlic and tomatoes constantly, so it’s nice to know they’re always handy. They’re also cheaper in bulk.

I’m fending off vampires — and first dates — with this garlic stash.

If you’re more regimented than I am and this amount of flexibility in a menu seems way out of control for you, there are ways to apply the principles of overlapping ingredients, lists, price monitoring, and buying in bulk to help you stay on budget.

If you have other ideas I haven’t though of, let me know!!!