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The Best Benefits of Meal Planning

menu plant, cash, and pen on the counter

Have you ever wondered, “Why menu plan?” Someone recently found their way to this blog searching that exact thing and we all know if one person asks a question, someone else out there has the same one! So today we are going to talk about the benefits of meal planning!

People talk about menu planning all the time but does it really make a difference? What exactly are those benefits?

Strangely enough, this subject is something I actually get excited about simply because I strongly believe it has made a huge difference in my life. Meal planning is something that has been a part of how I run our home for 13 years now.

The time that I set aside to plan the menu and shopping list are a must do on my list for several reasons. Sure, if you are single or there’s just you and a spouse in the mix, you might be able to pull off not planning. However once you throw kids into the mix, which not only meals extra mouths to feed (and trust me, they never forget about eating) but also additional activities in your days, it just doesn’t work not to.

Let’s get to the benefits of meal planning and just why you should bother to take time out of your busy life to get it done!

close up of a meal plan, cash and pen

3 Benefits of Meal Planning

Menu Planning Saves Money

Budgeting is something else that’s been so important in our house – it has enabled us to live within our means and save money. One great way to save money, is watching what you spend on groceries.

There is no way I’d be able to keep my grocery budget so low if I didn’t plan!

When making a menu plan, I primarily do 3 things:

  • Check the fridge and pantry for ingredients that are going to need to be used.
  • Check the grocery ads to see what’s on sale.
  • Try and plan for the ingredients I purchase to be used in more than one meal to get the most bang for my buck.

Having a grocery list also means you spend less when you are at the store.

A menu plan means you avoid the 5pm “what’s for dinner” stress that causes a last minute grocery or restaurant run.

Menu Planning Saves Time

Let’s take this a step further. Meal planning saves me time (and stress). I’m not spending time every day (or every meal) trying to figure out what I’m going to make. Instead, I do all that thinking in an hour or so and then know exactly what is going to be happening for food each day.

Not only does planning once a week (or every other week if you prefer) save me time over having to come up with a plan daily, but I also spend less time on trips to the grocery store.

The third way menu planning saves time is because it allows me to use the tips in this post on how to spend less time in the kitchen! I can do the kitchen prep work in bulk over the weekend when I have a little extra time and can have leftovers built into my week.

Menu Planning Helps Me Eat Better

Without a meal plan, I would be much more likely to grab some pre-packaged freezer or convenience food. The chances for that unplanned run for take-out or fast food also increases! Neither of which are great on the budget or your health!

Obviously, we have nothing against restaurants. We indulge in a take out pizza on occasion and my husband enjoys Chick-Fil-A. But the majority of the time, I try to cook from scratch and avoid heavily processed foods when I feed my family. Isn’t it better to save those “cheat” meals for a real emergency or purposely plan them into your menu?

Throughout the year, I try to incorporate plenty of seasonal produce and the produce sales! When you plan your meals, you can see when you need to up your fruits and veggies! Planning also allows me to buy the basic, unprocessed ingredients in bulk and know that we will actually use the items up.

Feeding you family more nutrient dense food, saving money, and saving time and stress are 3 huge benefits of meal planning! Over the years I’m sure I’ve saved thousands of dollars by meal planning and many, many hours of time. Not only that, I don’t have the energy or creativity to pull off making an impromptu menu each day. 🙂

Has menu planning made a difference in your life? What other benefits of meal planning can you think of?

If you have yet to menu plan, I highly recommend you give it a try! Let me know if you have any questions!

recipe box, meal plan, and pen on a counter

Originally published March 26, 2015. Rewritten and updated graphics April 2020.

Must Have Kitchen Tools

Stainless steel skillet on a cutting board with a cooked egg

Don’t we all have those favorite things in our kitchen? Those must have kitchen tools that we always want to use? Sometimes, using them even makes you happy! Typically they make your life easier or work so much better than most.

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In my last post I shared my list of kitchen essentials. These are the things that are pretty much a necessity, even if you kitchen is tiny. I also tackled my favorite kitchen appliances here.

Today I’m filling you in on my favorite must have kitchen tools! Most of them are all essentials and some of them are brand dependent. I use these items week in and week out and often times day in and day out. (Be sure to check out the list of small kitchen appliances to know what else I use often!)

Good Pots and Pans

Several years ago we upgraded our pans to a stainless steel Calphalon set from Bed Bath and Beyond. I love them. They can also go in the oven (with the lids) up to 450 degrees. My set has 8 pans and pots plus lids. So much better than the really old, falling apart set we were using. 🙂

If you don’t cook a lot or are limited on space, I’d recommend an 8 and 10 inch skillet, 1.5 quart sauce pan, 3 quart sauté pan, and a 6 or 8 quart stockpot depending on your family size or if you’ll be cooking for groups. You can always add more later, but if you have limited cabinet space, these are the essentials. If you get a non stick pan, get an 8 or 10 inch skillet.

I recommend buying good quality cookware. You are going to have these things for a long time so you want to love them. Cheaper pans tend to warp and not cook evenly. When we were shopping, our top brands we considered were the higher tiered Calphalon products and All Clad. They are expensive so that did mean it took us a few years to purchase them.

Rubber Spatula

I have the classic scraper from Pampered Chef and love them. Would recommend having two. (Don’t tell anyone, but I actually have three and there are times when they are all dirty at once!) Don’t buy the cheap ones. They will fall apart way easier and not work nearly as well. I use them for cooking, baking, and scraping.

Kitchen Tongs

Buy the ones that lock (by pulling up the head not with the sliding ring)! These are great for flipping meat on the skillet, serving salad, removing corn on the cob from hot water and so much more. I have this one from OXO.

Kitchen Shears

I love using kitchen shears. They are perfect for snipping fresh herbs, green onions, or chives. They are also used weekly to cut my daughter’s pizza into bite sized pieces. You can use a pair for cutting meat into chunks and another for slicing your homemade cinnamon rolls to put in a pan.

Mini Cutting Board

This gets used all the time in our home. It’s perfect for a small job – cutting an apple or grapefruit in half, rough chopping a small amount of veggies, mincing just a clove or two of garlic. I love how little space it takes up. Great size to put in the cooler or slide under a car seat to take on a road trip.

wooden spoon and whisks on a counter

Cheese Plane

The cheese planes for hard and semi hard cheeses are awesome! You can slice cheese in a perfect thickness. No more overly thick slices of cheese for sandwiches, grilled cheese, or crackers. A block of cheese will go much further. This gadget might just save you money.

Flat Risotto Spoon/Saute Paddle

This wooden spoon is perfect for sauteing, browning meat,  and stirring anything you are cooking. The flat edge helps scrape the bottom of the pan much more effectively than a spoon.

Good Knives

You don’t need a block of knives. Instead get fewer but better quality knives. This is something I’d do over again if I could. We registered for a knife block when we got married and they are all very dull. We started replacing our knives with the Wusthof brand. Next I need to get a good sharpener. I would buy 2 Chef’s knives, a paring knife, and a bread knife to start. Do you have a favorite knife brand to share?

Mini Serving Spatula

These are the perfect size to serve any dessert made in a pan. We use it all the time for sweets and main dishes. When mine broke a few years ago it was something that I immediately replaced.

Pancake Turner Spatula

This gets used for pancakes, quesadillas, grilled cheese and other such items in our house. Whether you get stainless steel or silicone or nylon will depend on if you use non stick surfaces to cook your pancakes on.

Pizza Stone

If you make homemade pizza, this is a must have! I have two and they make the best pizza crusts. Well worth the investment. I have the large round stone from Pampered Chef but you can find them many places.

Salad Spinner

This in an item I’d say depends on your salad eating habits. If you make large quantities of salad, you are going to want this. Getting your lettuce dry is so much simpler and it lasts longer. I prepare a large quantity of lettuce for us to use for salads during the week every Sunday and this makes it a breeze. My spinner is one of the push knob kinds.

Microplane

Use this to add garlic, ginger, or nutmeg to a dish. It’s also perfect for zesting citrus fruit. If you don’t do a lot of cooking with fresh garlic or nutmeg you can skip tool and simply mince it with a knife and cutting board, but the microplane is amazing. 😉

USA Pans

I only discovered these a few years ago but I am obsessed! They use a silicone coating and are nonstick. I first made egg muffins in these and was amazed when the eggs popped right and I hadn’t treated the pan at all. They are more expensive that your basics pans, so I have been building my stash slowly. I have the mini muffin tin, regular muffin pan, mini loaf pan set, and one larger loaf pan.

What are your go to, must have kitchen tools? I have one I’m wanting to try and honestly, I hope I get to update this list with it.

Between this list, the kitchen essentials and favorite kitchen appliances, you’ll have a pretty stocked kitchen that you’ll want to spend time in!

Sharp knife on a wooden cutting board

My Favorite Kitchen Tools! You will want to make sure you have these in your kitchen: cheese plane, rubber spatula, good pots and pans and more! Great ideas for my kitchen or a wedding registry.

Originally published April 3, 2014. Updated August 29, 2019.

Aldi Finds

We are back again with another meal plan that uses the produce and meat sales in this week’s Aldi ad. I love shopping at Aldi – the bulk of my purchases come from there and then a will pick up a few items that are on sale at other stores. So an Aldi meal plan is the best!

aldi meal plan

If you struggle with coming up with ideas for what to eat this week, I hope this post gives you some inspiration.

I’m a huge fan of using menu planning as a way to keep grocery costs down (my first point in this post on drastically reducing your grocery budget). No matter how many of these recipes you use, I highly recommend you get your downloadable menu plan template and put it to use. It has saved me so much money over the years:

This week, I’m not only going to include the sample Aldi menu, but I will also share what I’m feeding my family for the next week on my $170 a month grocery budget. This means twice as many ideas.

Aldi Produce and Meat Sales to Check Out (10/17-10/23):

These prices are in my local ad – your prices might vary.

  • Bartlett Pears – 1.79 for 3 pounds
  • Grape tomatoes – .99 per pint
  • Raspberries – 1.49 for 6 ounces
  • 12 ounces chopped organic kale – 2.19
  • Honeycrisp apples – 2.19 for 2 pounds
  • Ground beef – 9.95 for 5 pounds
  • Pork chops – 2.19 a pound
  • Ricotta cheese – 1.49
  • Tortillas – .99

Aldi Meal Plan

Suppers:

Taco Tuesday (using the ground beef and tortillas that are on sale – or make your own)
Skillet Lasagna
Baked Garlic Pork Chops (I’ve never made pork chops, these sound like an amazing first try)
Cheese Pizza (these are the dough and sauce recipes I use)
Pancakes and scrambled eggs (add some bacon or sausage if your budget allows)
Protuguese Chourico and Kale Soup 
Fend for yourself/leftovers/freezer meal

Snack and Side Ideas:

Apples and pears
Carrot and celery sticks
Roasted Kale
Kale Salad

Frugal Lunch Ideas:

Kale Salad (same recipe as above – also uses the grape tomatoes that are on sale)
Pancakes
Sandwiches
Rice Cakes (with peanut butter or meat)
Leftovers
Beans and Rice
Roasted Vegetables
Salad

Frugal Breakfast Ideas:

Oatmeal
Cinnamon apple toast
Southwestern Oven Omelet

$170 per month Menu Plan for this Week:

Okay, and now for my family’s menu for the week. I plan using the method I outline in my menu planning template:

Saturday
Pancakes for lunch
Steak Salad

Sunday
Eggs and hashbrowns for lunch
Small groups for supper (bring sides and desserts)

Monday: Chili

Tuesday: Leftover Chili

Wednesday: Kids eat at church

Thursday: Chili Baked Potatoes

Friday: Pizza night

Breakfasts: Oatmeal, leftover pancakes, eggs

Lunches: Soups from the freezer, PB sandwiches on homemade sourdough, veggies, fruit, salad, deli meat

Snacks: Cuties, pretzels, homemade orange juice Popsicles (my oldest’s request)

What’s on your menu this week?

Experience Gifts for Kids that They Will Love

Christmas and birthdays. They always lead to more presents and more stuff for the kids that you don’t have room for in your house. What’s another alternative? Experience gifts for kids!

wrapped presents for experience gifts for kids

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Experience gifts mean not only no clutter but your child gets to make memories and do something they normally wouldn’t.

Sounds like a win-win!

Coming up with the perfect experience gifts for kids can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Here is a great list to get you brainstorming. You will find something perfect for your child.

Not only are experience gifts great for parents to give a child, they would also be a lot of fun to receive from a grandparent.

Wrapping the Experience Gift:

If you are worried about how this idea will work not having a gift under the tree or at a birthday dinner for them to open, there are a couple of easy options.

  1. Make up a certificate/letter with all of the details (use pictures for younger kids) and print in color. Place that in a box or gift bag and wrap like you would a present.
  2. Come up with a small gift that goes along with your experience gift and wrap it along with a note. Or wrap the small gift and note separately, having them open the physical gift first.

 

Experience Gifts for Kids:

Movie Theater

If your home is anything like ours, a trip to the movie theater only happens once every couple years. How fun would it be for your child to receive a ticket to a movie they would love. You can also do a bundle with tickets to a few other movies coming out the next year.

Small Gift Idea: Popcorn or movie theater candy.

Museum

The science museum and children’s museum are always a hit! Consider a day pass or even a season membership to a local museum.

Small Gift Idea: A book about science.

Zoo

Once again, you could do a gift of a day trip to the zoo or a year membership.

Small Gift Idea: A book about animals

Trip to a Ballet

My aunt and uncle took my sisters and me to see the Nutcracker when we were kids. Such a special trip. Dress up fancy and take your child out for dinner before hand and they will feel like royalty.

Small Gift Idea: Book, movie, picture of the ballet or a dress to wear.

ballet slippers

Broadway Show

Maybe you have some musical lovers in your house. Getting to see a favorite Broadway show  live in your nearby big city could even be a favorite gift for a teen.

Small Gift Idea: Book, movie, poster of the show or a dress to wear.

Baseball/Sporting Event

Maybe sports are more down your kids’ alley. Whether it’s a college basketball or football game or going to a minor (or major) league ballpark, this would be a memorable outing with your child.

Small Gift Idea: Peanuts, cracker jacks, ball, baseball cap

Tea Party

The little girls in your family would love this. How fun would it be for them to dress up and experience a tea room and scones and other pastries?!

Monthly Mom or Dad Dates

Put together a bundle of monthly (or you could just do quarterly) dates with mom or dad. Come up with a fun selection and write them down on separate cards with all the details and have each redeemable in a specific month.

Rock Climbing

Adventurous kids? They would probably love a certificate to the local climbing gym!

Small Gift Idea: Rock climbing chalk 

Horseback Riding

Horses are expensive. If you have a horse lover in your house they will probably think this is the coolest gift ever.

Small Gift Idea: A book about horses, an apple, horse brush, appropriate footware

Ice Cream Vouchers

What child doesn’t like ice cream? Again, if this isn’t something you normally spend your money on, trips to the ice cream shop when your child wants would be very enjoyed.

Small Gift Idea: Ice cream scoop

Train Ride

My son loves trains. He’d be over the moon knowing that his presents was going to be riding on a legit train.

Small Gift Idea: Book on trains or a toy train.

Classes:

The options here are countless. Look to see what is offered in your community and compare that list to the interests your kids have.

Here are some ideas to look for:

Cooking Class
Art Class
Pottery Class
Sports
Gymstastics
Archery
Music
Any of interests

Small Gift Ideas: Any little gadget or accessory that would go along with your class of choice.

Zipline

Another great idea for the adventurer in your house.

American Girl

If you have a child that loves dolls, a trip to the American Girl Cafe and store could be a special experience.

Small Gift Idea: New accessory for their doll

Salon/Spa

Again, if this isn’t something you normally do your girls will feel pampered. Whether it’s a special hair cut or getting her nails done, she’s sure to feel special.

Small Gift Idea: Hair accessory or nail polish

What are your favorite experience gifts for kids? Have you seen unique ideas for gifting them before?

Be sure to check out these other gift guides for more ideas:

Best Experience Gifts for Kids
Educational Gifts Kids Will be Excited About
The Best Craft and Art Gifts for Kids
Gifts for Kids Who Have Everything
Gifts for Teen Girls
Gifts for Teen Boys
Gifts for Preschool Boy
Gifts for a 2 Year Old
Gifts for Preschoolers
Gifts for a Home Cook
Gifts for a Fitness Lover

rock climbing and list of experience gifts for kids ballet slippers and list of experience gifts for kids

Easy Ways to Save Money On A Tight Budget

I’m sure there are a lot of us wanting easy ways to save money on a tight budget. Whether we are trying to save money up for a big savings goal or because of the lack of money coming in.

picture of small plant surrounded by coins and words easy ways to save money on a tight budget

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When we were in the middle of paying off our house early we were always looking for easy ways to save money on a tight budget. Every little thing added up.

Now that our house is paid off, we are still trying to save money where we can. Retirement needs more put towards it, taking a vacation, and saving some money up for kids’ college funds are all on the list of goals. Watching what we spend, budgeting, and making our money work for us is a part of life.

Some of them we are doing for a season and others are a pretty permanent part of our lives but together they are allowing us to live on less so that we can put more toward whatever our savings goals might be.

10 Easy Ways to Save Money on a Tight Budget

1. Lower Your Grocery Budget

This is one of the first things to look at when you are trying to save and my personal favorite of the easy ways to save money on a tight budget. It’s easy to gradually start spending more and more on groceries over time. If you don’t want to keep it super low forever, that’s fine but do it to help out while you income is lower or your are trying to reach a savings goal.

This is a big one in our house. In fact, our most popular post is on how I keep my grocery budget at $150 a month. Over the next year, these tips are especially important  for us as our extra money that sometimes went toward grocery splurges is now all going to the house.

Some favorite ways to lower your grocery budget: cook from scratch, menu plan, and using meat as a condiment.

I have my favorite menu planning template available for all of my newsletter subscribers. A lot of money has been saved using this method.

2. Simplify Birthdays, Christmas, and Holidays

It is super easy to go overboard. How often do we keep on finding one more present for our child or want to give them the newest and best gadget. Even the Easter basket has to be piled high.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, but you might want to consider scaling back. Set a smaller budget and stick to it. Spend time with your kids and make memories with them instead of spending.

You or your spouse can consider doing without gifts altogether. As an adult, it’s easy to understand why and see the big pictures. Shaun and I aren’t giving each other birthday or Christmas presents and we keep things simple with the kids.

If you minimize your gift spending try using the next tip and you might be able to cover a good portion of your gifts without spending anything out of pocket! Here I have some tips on Christmas Presents on a budget and taking the emphasis off of gifts at Christmas!

pictures of clock and stacks of coins

3. Earn Gift Cards with Swagbucks for Presents

I love Swagbucks. It’s an easy way to earn points you can redeem for gift cards. If you follow tip number two and cut your birthday and Christmas spending down, the gift cards you earn will pay for a good chunk of the presents.

If you work at using Swagbucks (and have a smart phone) you could earn over $300 in a year. This post has some of my favorite easy ways to earn Swagbucks on your computer and this one is about earning them on your smart phone!

4. Drink Water

Forget the pops, juices, coffees, and teas for a while and just stick to water! Not only is it good for you, it’s also the most affordable! The costs of all those other beverages really add up. I promise your kids won’t die without milk at every meal and juice for breakfast.

Milk for drinking and juice are super rare purchases in our house and it really helps save money. Over three years later, this is still true at my house.

5. Skip the Vacation

Our vacations consists of trips to see family and a season tickets to a theme park 5 hours away. This year, since we knew we were going to be pinching pennies, we decided to forgo the season tickets.

We aren’t saving a ton on money because as far as vacations go, it really is quite affordable but the ticket purchase and gas costs for driving there several times still will save us hundreds of dollars. If you take bigger vacations, this could equal thousands of dollars.

I know it doesn’t mean skipping out on the vacation is easy, but remember the big picture and make it a goal to save up for a fun little trip down the road.

In the meantime, find ways to have fun and memories locally.

6. Shop Your Closet

Avoid the mall and all the clothing deal sites for a while and just wear what you have. I’m already a big fan of buying used clothes and shopping clearance racks but sometimes you just need to take a break from even that.

A perk of this, is after wearing all your clothes (instead of having the stash you never touch) you’ll know what items you want to keep and which you should pass on. A more organized closet is never a bad thing. 🙂

7. Eat at Home

It’s nice to get a break from cooking, but restaurants aren’t cheap. You have the cost of a meal and then add the tip in and you could cook a lot of meals at home with what you just spent. Even at a fast food or fast casual restaurant things add up when you are buying for a family.

If eating out is something you love, put gift cards on your birthday and Christmas list (and use coupons when you go out to make them go even further). Otherwise, think about your big financial goal or view it as something you are giving up until your finances increase.

8. Cut the Cable

Get rid of your paid television service. No more cable or dish.

It’s okay. I promise you’ll survive. I know these might be ones that don’t seem like an easy ways to save money on a tight budget. 😉

When we got rid of it several years ago I think my husband was pretty skeptical. It really hasn’t been that bad. Then take it a step further and don’t replace it with Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, or Netflix. How much TV do we really need to watch anyway? Utilize your library, free Hulu, and free streaming on network sites so you can keep up with your favorite shows.

dollar bills with easy ways to save money on a tight budget on top.

9. Cheaper Cell Phone Rates

Cell phones are straight up expensive but there are a few things we’ve found to do to save money.

  • Save money by negotiating lower rates with your cell phone provider. We saved an additional $15 a month by talking to the retention department.
  • My husband has a smart phone and uses Google Voice instead of paying for a texting plan. It has its quirks, but it is fine for his needs.
  • Use a dumb phone. I’ve occasionally thought about getting a smart phone over the years but it’s something I can’t justify doing right now. An extra $15 to $30 a month might not seem like a lot, but all those things add up so I keep my basic talk only phone. (Yes, I even have texting turned off). Maybe after we get our house paid off or our income increases I’ll reconsider, but right now it works.
  • 3 years later and I now have a smart phone. It wouldn’t have happened except that I was needing a new phone and we found a great deal and a new affordable plan.

10. DIY Lawn Care and Pest Control

Okay, so honestly weeds in the yard are something that doesn’t really bother me. Let them grow. (Bonus: it would  mean no toxic chemicals I have to worry about.) My husband, on the other hand, can’t stand them. Plus it makes all your the people in your neighborhood upset if you don’t take care of your yard. Instead of paying a lawn care company to come take care of it, he went to the local lawn and garden store and got their recommendation on what to use and when. It takes a couple hours a few times a year but it saves a lot of money and we can put the money saved toward something else.

The same goes for spiders and insects. I’m not a lover of toxic chemicals being sprayed around the house, but I’m also really not a fan of venomous spiders (or actually any kind-of creepy crawly insect) in my house. You can pay someone or once again you can go to the local store and get recommendations for your area and do the spraying yourself.

11. Read Good Books!

Go to your local library and find some books with inspiration to help you come up with easy ways to save money each month. Try The Tightwad Gazette, More Than Just Making It, You Can Stay Home with Your Kids!: 100 Tips, Tricks, and Ways to Make It Work on a Budget or even Dave Ramsey. If your library doesn’t have any, don’t forget you can ask them to purchase or interlibrary loan them.

This is just the start of the easy ways to save money on a tight budget that we’ve used in our house. I think a part two might be coming.

Those little things that you don’t think make a difference really do add up. Put them together and you’ll find you are saving a decent amount!

What are some of your favorite easy ways to save money on a tight budget? 

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plant and stack of coins with words easy ways to save money on a tight budget square stack of dollar bills saying easy ways to save money on a tight budget