One of the first things that comes up when I talk to moms about my large family is “How do you feed everybody?” (I have 17 kids, but don’t be alarmed, I’m mostly sane. Mostly. If you want the story on the “why” business, click here.) Over the years I have honed menu planning and grocery shopping into a systematic science! It makes my life so much easier. Let me show you how I keep this crew fed:
Creating a Menu
I plan menus for two weeks at a time, simply because payday is every two weeks. If that seems overwhelming, try one week for starters!
- Step one: I look at our local grocery store ads to see what sales I can take advantage of. Especially on meat!
- Step two: I pull our calendar off the wall, (yes, I still use an actual paper calendar) and jot down on my menu planner what is happening on each day of the next two weeks. Some days, I need a slow cooker meal that I can throw together in the morning before I head out the door to whatever activity we have going on. Slow cooker meals can be a major budget saver for us. If I know there will be food ready when we get home, we are far less likely to go out to eat or pick up pizza on the way home. (As much as my family loves to go out to eat, the cost involved for my huge family is enough to financially ruin a small country, and we try to keep eating out to a minimum.) Other days, I need a quick easy meal that a teenager can make. Some days we have the time to do the whole cooking shebang, and we like to when we can!
- Step three: I take a look at my master list of meals. (For help with ideas to feed a large crew, see my Recipes for a Crowd.)
The Master Meal List
I keep a list of every single meal that we ever eat. How many times have you stood staring into the fridge trying to figure out what to cook and just drawn a total blank? Happened to me all the time, ergo the list! It is organized by types of meat: beef list, pork list, chicken list, etc. (Over time I have also added a list for breakfast meals, slow cooker meals and oven meals, side dishes, and desserts. But all that isn’t necessary right away, you can just start with main dishes.) I have the list saved on my computer, and I keep a paper copy on my desk for menu planning.
Anything that will automate the process and simplify the amount of decisions I have to make is a plus! Making this list takes a little time, (probably less than you think) but this is a one-time time-investment. Once its done, it will serve you for years. Whenever you find a new dish that you like, just add it to the list.
Simplify your life even more by having a rotating menu for breakfasts and lunches. For instance, every Monday morning is pancakes, Tuesday is scrambled eggs and toast, Wednesday is bran muffins, etc. (Don’t be afraid to have the same thing for breakfast two or three mornings per week. Builds character, lol.) Less decisions to make is a win! And you never have to stand there staring at the fridge with a migraine forming from the thought of it at 7 a.m. Because I homeschool, my kids are home for lunch too, and lunches can be done the same way. Monday: leftovers, (never underestimate the awesomeness of leftovers!) Tuesday: sandwiches. Wednesday: pigs in the blanket… You get the idea!
You can take it one step further if you want, and have the same meal for supper on one or two nights per week. By that I mean, every Wednesday night is burgers and every Friday night is spaghetti, or whatever floats your boat. If you get bored, try using a rotating menu for a month, and then change it up the next month with a different rotating menu.
When shopping on a budget, it is helpful to write down the ballpark cost of each meal on the master meals list. Grocery prices fluctuate all the time, but I can at least have an idea of which meals are more and less expensive. This helps a bunch in keeping me on track with my grocery budget. I have a max price that I will pay for a meal, and I have a max price that I will pay for the different cuts of meat. I don’t buy a cut of meat if it is over my max price. When it’s on sale at or below my max, I buy it. When it’s a really good deal, I stock up!
The Grocery List
Now that my meals are plotted out on my schedule, it is time to make a grocery list!
I also keep a master grocery list on my computer. On the list are the items that I usually buy each major shopping trip, (every two weeks.) Things that are staples at our house. Then I leave room for whatever else I may need for the meals on my menu, and whatever is on sale good enough to stock up on. Having a master grocery list is a great way to reduce the amount of items that I might not think of and/or forget. For example, I always buy tea bags, ketchup, peanut butter, flour, toilet paper, and shampoo to name a few. Since they are on my master list, I don’t have to remember them.
Master grocery lists can be divided into sections by store. I do most of my shopping at three stores. So for example, Store A: milk, eggs, fresh produce, and meat. Store B: canned goods and laundry detergent. Store C (for me this is Sam’s Club, and it’s monthly, not weekly): shredded cheese, pancake mix, and olive oil, or whatever.
On shopping day, I print off a copy of the master list. I do a quick inventory of items on the master list, and if I find that I already have two unopened jars of peanut butter (that almost never happens,) I can mark it off the list. Next I add all the other non-staple items that I need for the menu I just planned. I can’t even tell you how much those two master lists shorten and simplify this process.
If you have a tendency to leave your list at home or lose it in the store like I do, here is one of my favorite tips. Take a picture of the list with your phone as soon as you are done writing it! I still like to have a paper copy with me that I can cross off, but if I lose it, at least I have the picture on my phone! I do use the memo app on my phone for short shopping lists, but the major two week list is way too long for that. (Now, if I can just keep from losing my phone…)
If you are doing a major shopping trip with an entourage of kids, the last thing you are going to want to do when you get home is cook! I suggest throwing a meal in the slow cooker before you head out, so supper will be waiting when you get home. Of course, you have to still have food in the house to do that! If you don’t, bring home frozen pizza tonight and plan to have a slow cooker meal on the next menu for shopping day.
Of course, even better would be online ordering and store pickup! The local grocery store has just begun offering that here and its lifechanging! Just two days ago, I sat at my computer with list and menu in hand, clicking away and adding items to my cart. Later that afternoon, my teenagers headed to the store to pick up after basketball practice. It was awesome! I didn’t leave the house, my kids weren’t asking me to buy this or buy that, and I didn’t make thirteen trips back and forth across the store for items I forgot! Also, I could clearly see how much money I would be spending before I totaled my order and whipped out my debit card. (I wish so much that grocery pickup was a thing back when I had eight kids age 10 and under… sigh… But the upside of me dragging them absolutely everywhere I went is they learned how to behave in public, they learned a ton about bargain shopping for the best values, and they learned how to be helpful to mom with the shopping and the littles… read The Buddy System to hear how I survived that with most of my hair.)
My menu is taped to the side of my fridge in the kitchen, so that I don’t lose it, (are you noticing a theme here? I lose things. I think it’s a sign of genius… wink, wink.) Sometimes people ask me. “But what if on Wednesday you don’t feel like eating what is on the menu for Wednesday?” Simple answer, switch it with another night. Just make sure that the other night’s schedule works with the meal you switch.
It takes a little time to execute, but once you are done shopping there is a tremendous amount of freedom in knowing that you have all meals planned, and the groceries bought for them, for the next one to two weeks! Feeding a big family is challenging, but if I can do it, scatterbrained though I am, you definitely can!
Got questions? Or awesome meal planning/ shopping tips? Share below! Hugs, mama!