Thursday, November 3, 2016

Menu Planning and Bulk Shopping

Have you ever gone grocery shopping with 3 kids 4 and under? If you haven't, I'll let you in on a little secret, grocery stores are about 25 degrees hotter when you have small children with you. I don't know how they keep the perishable food cold. Maybe it's just me, but even when everybody is behaving, it's a stressful situation. I'm lucky. For the most part, my kids are pretty well behaved in the grocery store. But, for whatever reason, it always feels like we're a walking time bomb. At any moment somebody could completely lose their you-know-what and then I'm just stuck there with a cart full of food. So yeah. Not my most favorite activity.

I do get myself treats though. Coffee, Noosa (you haven't tried Noosa?! Get you a Noosa yogurt ASAP my friend!), maybe a nice bar of chocolate. So, not all bad.

I have always made weekly menus and grocery shopped once a week. I did go through a phase when we were living in North Carolina were I would do a bigger grocery shop every other week, with a smaller one on the in between weeks, but I've always been a once a week shopper. For a while now though, I've been wanting to give monthly shopping a try. Besides the fact that I end up feeling stressed, grocery shopping also takes a huge chunk out of our day. A huge chunk taken out once every week gets frustrating. And once we moved, my favorite grocery store went from being 5 minutes away to 40 minutes away. I did try out a couple other grocery stores, but I just couldn't quit my old favorite (Wegman's!!) Monthly grocery shopping was making more and more sense. So I gave it a try.

I. Love. It. Love. So much love. And every time I've posted anything about it on any form of social media, everybody has lots of questions. So hopefully here are some answers.

First part of monthly grocery shopping (ok so I actually do 3-3.5 weeks at a time) is making a monthly menu. This SOUNDS very daunting, but I promise you it's not. Theme days make it a lot easier. If I cook a full dinner every night, we end up tossing so much food. So Saturdays are always a leftover night, and Fridays are a takeout/homemade pizza/eggs/leftovers/fend for yourself night. So there's a good bit of the month planned. Wednesday nights the kids and I leave around 5:30 and aren't home until after bedtime, so every Wednesday I plan for an easy crockpot meal or soup and sandwiches. Tuesdays Kate has ballet until 6:00, so on Tuesdays I plan meals that can be made during naptime and either kept warm in the crockpot while we're gone, or heated up easily when we get home. Bigger, "nice" dinners on Sundays since I have more time and to restock our leftovers for the week (James takes leftovers to work for lunch). So all that's left are the Mondays and Thursdays! Themes! You could do Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Casserole Wednesday, Crockpot Thursday, Pizza Friday, whatever themes you want. Promise it makes monthly menu planning so much easier!

I get a LOT of my recipes from Pinterest, but also from 100 Days of Real Food. Seriously amazing blog and fantastic cookbook.

I print blank calendar pages to fill in with meals and keep them in my home management binder. They could be easily kept in a folder or written out in a notebook instead of a calendar page.

I do try to plan meals that have like ingredients to save money. Things that I'll buy in bulk to use for multiple recipes include:
chicken broth
canned tomatoes
frozen vegetables
shredded cheese
meat (of course)

Wegmans sells bulk packs of chicken breasts, ground turkey, and ground beef so the majority of our dinners come from that. I like Wegmans' quality and prices on their bulk items, but you can also use a membership at a store like Costco or Sam's Club.  I portion out the meat when I get home (or at least within a day or 2 of shopping), wrap tightly in plastic and foil, and keep in labelled freezer bags. I've found that the combo of plastic and foil keeps the freezer burn away the best. Someday maybe I'll have a vacuum sealer...

When my menu is finished, I make my grocery list. I write it out by aisle which makes shopping a million times easier and FASTER. I first write out everything needed for the recipes I have planned out for dinners. I obviously can't buy fresh produce for the whole 3-4 weeks, but pretty much everything else I can. After I'm sure I have all the ingredients for the dinners, I fill in what we need for breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. I don't plan those for each day, but I do keep a running list of things we normally eat. I usually stick with snacks that I can buy in large portions or snacks that I can make homemade (granola is one). A big bag of pretzels, another of animal crackers, and a few boxes of cereal bars (making these homemade is another goal) will last us through the month. After that I go through my pantry and check my staples like flour, sugar, coffee, etc.

A note on pantry staples. We are very lucky to live right in Amish country and so we are never far from an Amish bulk foods store. They have all your dry goods, including spices, sold in bulk for super low prices. I try to go every other to every 3 months to stock the pantry. The only pantry staple I consistently buy at Wegmans and not the bulk food store is my white whole wheat flour. The bulk food store doesn't carry it and Wegmans has it for the lowest price I've found. I go through it very quickly, (and I'm about to go through it even quicker since I've made it a goal to start making most of our bread homemade), so a low price is very important to me.

 A bulk food store and farm stand haul from this past summer!

The last portion of my list includes things like plastic wrap, baggies, etc. I try not to get any cleaning supplies or toiletries during my big grocery trip.

The day I go, my kids are bribed heavily prepped beforehand. They eat something in the car on the way there because hungry kids are obnoxious kids and Kate (who sits in the cart) is allowed to bring a little toy in. Henry gets wrapped.

Getting so much food all at once does make our trip a little longer, but since I take the time to organize my list by aisle it's really not too bad. I do sometimes go before the kids have Awana at church, and I end up running through the store in order to finish in time, but it's worth  it since we're out that way anyway. Saves gas.

If I've gone shopping before Awana, I pack the cold stuff away into coolers in my trunk. Regardless of when we go shopping, I only put the cold stuff away when I get home. I just cannot face getting it all away at once. Cold stuff goes away and shelf stable stuff gets all set out on our island to be put away later. I've also been known to put away the cold stuff, leave the shelf stable stuff in the bags during the kids naps so I can unwind, and then put it away later while I'm making dinner.

Once I'm actually ready to get it put away, I take everything that can be taken out of boxes, out of boxes. I have all sorts of jars and bins that I keep things in. When you buy so much in bulk, it can get really hard to organize. Emptying boxes into jars and/or bins helps keep things in order. Keeps it all fresh too!

So what about produce? Milk? Eggs? That stuff I do have to buy weekly. But during the spring, summer, and early fall I can get all of my produce at farm stands and our town's grower's market. In the spring I run to the closest store for a quick trip. Half an hour tops. Next summer and fall we'll hopefully be eating a lot of produce we grew ourselves. Couldn't manage to do that this year since we moved in July.

I don't know if this post has made monthly menu planning and bulk shopping seem any less complicated and daunting, but I promise it really isn't. It does take more thought and planning, but it is just so worth it! Besides saving me a lot of time and stress, it's been saving us quite a lot of money! And who doesn't want to save money right? ;)

I'm sure all of this will grow and change as time goes on. I'm hoping to start making a lot more of our snacks from scratch (I know we can do better than the boxes of cereal bars), as well as our bread, and if we can manage a good garden next year that will make a big difference as well. Stay tuned for how all of that goes!