Menu Planning and Shopping

Mother and baby grocery shopping

Do you ever arrive home with hungry kids and no idea what you are going to feed them? Or, you have a great idea for a quick meal, but you end up missing ingredients you could have bought on your way home. This is how we end up eating boxed dinners and other foods we want to avoid.

If you have been building your Home HQ with your family binder, you have the ideal place to organize meals and shopping lists so you won’t get caught without a quick, nutritious meal to make.

Having a system for menu planning and shopping will also help you avoid wasting food that you don’t quite have a plan for. According to the UN Environment Programme, “[i]n the USA, 30-40% of the food supply is wasted, equaling more than 20 pounds [~9kg] of food per person per month.” Before you start thinking that’s just the U.S., Canadian researchers estimate that the average Canadian household wastes 15-23kg of food per month. Not all of the waste happens at home. Food leaves the system at every point in the chain. That’s wasted capacity in the food system and wasted money for us all as prices cover food that doesn’t even make it to us. For us as families, though, the food wasted at home costs us about $1,500 per year. Every day we are wasting about $4 of food.

We can stop wasting food and wasting money with better planning.

A Menu & Shopping System

Start by asking whether you will be better off jumping into a whole, new system or gradually adopting new methods into your current system. We’re all different, so choose your own path.

If you want a complete system, start with Plan to Eat. This software is a small, family business. You’ll love their eating philosophy and their business philosophy. You might blink at the price ($4/mo or $39/yr), but that cost will be worth it if you need a whole recipe-to-menu-to-list system.

If you want a system that involves paper or that you can customize, start by looking at what you are using now. What is working and what isn’t working? Change one thing at a time.

One of my favorite places to look for home organization ideas is Pinterest. So many parents are sharing their home organization systems as downloadable printouts that you will be able to find just the right structure, just the right design, and just the right size for your family. Start with “menu planning” and you will find yourself on a half-day adventure with a lot of new pins.

Menu Planning

My family has been using a post-it meal planner for the past year, Menu Planner from Homemade by Carmona, and I love it. My husband, the primary meal planner and shopper in our family, sat down and gave me a full review of this system. He loves it, too.

There are two parts to our menu system: WHEN is on a printed grid in our family binder and WHAT (the foods) is written on Post-it Page Markers, which are rectangular rather than square.

My husband likes that he can see at a glance one page with the family’s list of favorite foods. Once he pulls sticky notes from the master list to place them on the calendar, he can also find gaps in order to balance the overall eating. We color coded the sticky notes. For example, blue for Thai and red for Mexican. I added another layer by making dark blue “long prep time Thai” and light blue “quick Thai.” We can look at the weekly menu quickly and say, “Oh, no! No Thai this week. We’d better add Thai” or “Let’s switch out long-prep Thai for quick Thai on the night we get home late.” (Thai is an important food group in our household.)


  • Easy to plan for one week, several weeks, or any period of time, as long as you have enough week sheets printed.
  • Easy to get input from other people, since they can write ideas on sticky notes and add them.
  • Two-page view means you can plan for two weeks and see if you are cooking the same meal too often.
  • Reusable. No printed pages to throw away at the end of the week.
  • Easy to add multiple dishes for one meal.


  • Post-its lose their stick after they are used week after week.

I like the Menu Planner because it simplifies the process so much that you just think about it ahead of time and don’t have to OVERthink or REthink a common process.

What this method doesn’t do is connect to our shopping list. If you want a simple grid that gives you space to write needed ingredients for your shopping list, this downloadable shopping list template from The Joy Cottage is nice looking.

Shopping Lists

To determine the best kind of shopping list for you, ask what you are optimizing for:

  • highest priority items, if you have limited cash and might have to leave low-priority items off them list
  • most efficient walk through the store, if you have limited time.

We optimize for the walk through the store. Change your list order or shape to fit the store you go to. Otherwise, you might end up walking back and forth. I even found (Pinterest again!) a multi-store shopping list template you can download from Ask Anna Moseley.

The shopping list that my husband uses is lifted directly from his Franklin-Covey Planner with nine zones, which he uses for nine categories of shopping: produce, meat, dairy, bottles & cans, frozen, dry goods, cleaning, bakery, and miscellaneous. He’s written out his list on a 3×3 grid for at least a decade.

Multiple stores can be difficult when you are working with one list. My husband crosses out as he goes then circles what he doesn’t have yet before he arrives at the next store. If you are shopping at a big-box store, like Costco, that is probably a once-a-month trip with a separate list. If it makes sense to include a second store on your list, you can add a code or color to mark stores.

If you have a random element in your shopping, such as an unpredictable CSA delivery or a trip to a grocery liquidation store when you don’t know what will be available until you get there, you will need to adjust your shopping list. If you watch the television show “Chopped” (3 random ingredients must be used in a meal), you can get inspiration to think outside of your usual categories of food. If you adopt the mindset of improvisation, you might find new and wonderful favorites.

Even Better, Let’s Combine

As I was planning this post, I asked my husband how we could improve our own system. We imagined a drag-and-drop app starting with a menu that looks like post-it notes (because we really do like what we already use). Once an item is dragging onto the menu for the week, a shopping list is populated. When the week’s list is complete, we check the pantry and the fridge and mark anything off that we already have. Then, we shop.

That might seem like a lot to ask, but we just found an app that does enough that we’re about to add it to our system: Our Groceries.

We read about Out of Milk as well, but we saw most comparison reviews between them came down on the side of Our Groceries. I love two things about this app to start: syncing across devices, so more than one person can shop at the same time, and recipes you can create so one tap populates the shopping list with all of the needed ingredients. Plus, if you have an Android and your spouse has an iPhone, you’re still safe with this app. My plan is to use the web interface to create “on your way home” shopping lists for my husband. If you are more likely to want to sync with your pantry, you might want to start with Out of Milk.

After a month with Our Groceries, I might just give in and try the 30-day trial of Plan to Eat. If I do, I’ll give you a review.

Image © Joshhhab | - Mother With Girl Shopping In Supermarket Photo

Breastfeeding Without Stuff

Breastfeeding mother

If your focus is natural parenting, you might be trying to figure out how to navigate all of the stuff of parenting without letting the material stuff become the focus. How much stuff do you really need to breastfeed successfully? Not much. Really.

The key to keeping your stuff simple is an honest assessment of your needs. Don’t let others tell you what you need. Don’t buy a double electric breast pump, for example, if you are staying home with your baby most of the time.

Last week I was exploring a baby store, and I was just astonished by the breastfeeding aisle in particular. First of all, I want to say that I’m really glad to see so much support for breastfeeding. It should be the norm, and seems to be a realistic choice for most families. That is excellent. Along with widespread practice and publicity come the products. Yes, most of these products were created to support breastfeeding, but most breastfeeding mothers don’t need most of the products. Do you see the twist?

The person I want to hear this is the first-time mother who isn’t sure yet what she needs. The person I really want to reach is me when I was pregnant with my first child. I was so excited, and I let that excitement lead me to the baby store—a lot. I didn’t really know what I would need, so I bought a lot of extras just in case. Then, I left a lot of those extras on shelves, in closets, and in boxes. I wanted to jump into everything babies, and so much of what was available was commercial. I hope just one pre-spree parent reads this and says, “Maybe I’ll wait and see if I need those baby things.” You might need them, but they will probably still be available when you do. If you don’t end up needing them, you’ve saved yourself money and simplified your parenting.

What Do You Really Need for Breastfeeding?

When it comes to any breastfeeding products, make sure you start with a clear understanding of the need you are trying to meet so you don’t get caught up in buying for someone else’s needs. What is the rub? What would fix it? Is the need long term? Could you borrow anything that would fix it? Could you make anything that would fix it? Do you have something already around the house that could be re-purposed to fix it? Don’t go shopping until you are sure that is the only way to meet your need.

Start with good nutrition, and you could be all set. If you are going to stay home with your baby and feed on demand, you don’t really need any extras at all.

Breastfeeding book? Actually, I think this is a really good idea for the first-time parent (not just for mothers), but it isn’t essential if you already have a lot of support to get your questions answered. If you want extra information, how about reading Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding or the LLLI guide The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding? If you have a local parenting group, both of these are the kind of books that could be passed around among group members.

Nursing tea? Some kind of nutritious tea, like nettle, is always a good idea. Whether you need tea that will boost your milk production depends on your milk production. Don’t buy it unless you need it. Then, ask yourself again whether you really need it. If your milk production exceeds your baby’s need, you might find yourself engorged and needing breast comfort supplies. Find the balance and be aware of whether your baby is getting the milk needed for normal growth.

Nipple cream? You probably will need to use some kind of nipple cream at some point, but you may not need it much. Start with a very tiny (sample) size if you can find it. If you find that you get cracked nipples often, it is time to invest in a larger size. Also, ask how you might prevent irritation. Perhaps softer breast pads or nursing bra? Don’t just treat the symptoms, but look for a cure.

Nursing bra? Whether you need a nursing bra depends what you are wearing already and how you will be nursing. Support your breasts. They will be bigger and heavier, so you will probably need a new bra. A nursing bra can make things easier, but it isn’t an absolute necessity. A stretchy bra like Bravado can adjust as your breast size changes. Add at least one to your list unless you really need to keep your budget down.

Nursing shirts? This is one place I over-thought and over-bought. I thought I needed a whole new wardrobe. I didn’t; you don’t. Lifting your shirt works. If you will be breastfeeding in public, and you are modest (remember, not everyone is), having nursing tank tops to wear under your regular clothes can be enough. Start without and see if you need a nursing top. If you do, start simple with a tank.

Absorbent breast pads? You probably will need nursing pads at some point, especially if you are going out. They can be simple, though. If you sew, you can easily make them yourself. What kind of pads you need depends on when and how you need them. Are you away from your baby for 9 hours a day? You need pads—and perhaps a small wet/dry bag to keep them in as you switch during the day. Do you have tight or thin shirts? Look for pads that don’t create a giant boob target look. Thicker isn’t always better. Fiber matters, too. Pads with two different layers of fabric—cotton/wool nursing pads, for example—could be used either way, so they give you more flexibility. Start with a couple of pairs of simple pads and only get more if you find that what you have isn’t working for you.

Soothing breast pads? If you are at home, a nice, cold cabbage leaf will soothe hot, sore breasts. A multi-use rice bag could provide warm comfort. You probably don’t need breast pads that are specifically made for hot and cold relief. Try the simple solutions first to see if they do the job.

Nursing necklace? As they find their hands, babies use nursing time to explore. A nursing necklace can keep the exploration focused—keep their hands from your hair quite so often. Nursing necklaces can be very beautiful, but this isn’t a necessity.

Nursing bracelet or tracker? If you track feeding, you might want to put a small notebook at your main nursing station (where you keep a glass of water and a book). If you move around a lot and nurse on the go, you still might not need a specific tracker. I just remembered which side I was on. Swollen breasts have a way of letting you know which is next. If you find that you just forget and you don’t always sit in the same place, you might want a simple tracker. Does it need to be a bracelet? Probably not.

Nursing pillow? I had one. I didn’t use it for breastfeeding. I used it to prop up the baby when I left her sitting on her own. I had a great chair with cushy arms. You probably will need something to prop up your tired arms while you sit with your baby, but you might already have a pillow or furniture that will do the job. Start with the pillows you have and see if they work. If they don’t, ask yourself not just which nursing pillow is cute or which one your friends like but what you need the pillow to do and which will work best for your specific need.

Nursing covers? This is one thing I’ve never really understood the need for. There are a lot of nursing covers available, though, so this tells me that there are mothers who wanted and even needed these enough that they created covers for themselves and then for others. Try breastfeeding in public and ask yourself if you feel the need to cover up. If you don’t, skip it. If you do, start with a simple cover, like a blanket. Multi-purpose stuff will serve you better in the long run that single-purpose stuff. If you find yourself frustrated with the blanket, maybe you do need a cover. It’s worth waiting to figure it out first with this one.

Breast pumps? Most mothers will leave their babies for at least short periods of time, and some mothers still breastfeed full-time even if they are away from their babies for long periods. Simple hand expression works for some. I didn’t get much milk that way, so I used a hand breast pump for the time I was away from my babies. If you do get a breast pump, make sure it matches your needs.

Storage and bottles? If you are pumping, you need a storage system and bottles to feed your baby with the pumped milk. If you won’t be pumping, you don’t need to worry about this at all. But, consider this: even if you don’t think you will be away at all, it might be a good idea to have an emergency supply of milk in the freezer. Most breastfeeding mothers will want at least a simple, safe system for breastmilk storage.

Hands-free Pumping Bra? If you are pumping a lot—because you work full-time, for example—you might find that you lose a lot of time stuck to your pump. A hands-free pumping bra can free up that time for you. If you aren’t in this situation, you don’t need a special pumping bra.

You want to succeed in breastfeeding your child, giving her or him the needed nutrition and comfort while keeping yourself healthy and happy. You don’t need much in order to do that. You might be able to make do with simple solutions, but don’t keep yourself from finding solutions when you need them. If what you have isn’t working, fill the need, even if it means buying stuff. This caution isn’t meant to tell you never to buy anything but to clarify your needs before you buy—or perhaps to make or borrow before you buy new.

Support this beautiful relationship between you and your baby. If you run into problems, you will almost certainly find that someone else had the same problem, and some clever mother probably created a product to solve it.

Image © Elena Vishnevskaya |