When I was younger, I had the same problem. I knew we had to have meats, veggies, and starches…. when my children were very young I kept it very simple. Back then we used to even eat boxed mashed potatoes. As they got older, having enough money for food when all the food is easy, got complicated. At that point I discovered that buying refrigerated foods meant things constantly went bad before they were eaten, because I forgot they were in there and had tunnel vision when I opened the fridge. I went to freezer foods, but by then I was already refusing to eat vegetables that weren’t frozen or fresh, and we had to buy frozen or they went bad if it was a busy week. Then I tried a menu…for months I made everything from books, prepared specific meals. BUT during the week, I would forget what day it was… mostly my knowledge of days was based on if it was school or work that day. So, the only day I always knew was Friday and Monday and whichever day of the week I had off of work (I won’t lie, at least a few times my husband had to say… “You don’t work today” and there were days that I got up on Saturday and tried to send the children to school).
So, then I started using recipes to use things up in the house. That wasn’t too successful, but improved my knowledge of cooking extremely.
Then I tried teaching my children to cook…. that was seriously not organized but I did manage to get one interested in cooking, two can make boxed foods, and one pretty much only eats fast food. Mine are all adults now.
At some point in their teen years the cost of food became far too high for what was available in the budget/assistance/etc.
Then I learned to make bread, I tried making pasta (I don’t like making pasta), I made quick breads and desserts regularly… but I don’t like making cookies, they are time consuming.
From there, the shopping part of eating got easier. I would pick meats on sale — in the end I discovered what meats were typically cheaper and where, which meant I didn’t have to remember to check the adds. I also learned to cook everything up and freeze it. Then, I have meals that are easy to remember…. Here is my cheat sheet.
Every month I buy at least five pounds of chicken breasts (they go for everything), 10 pounds of hamburger, a box of eggs, and one other meat – pork usually, sometimes a roast. IF there is spare money I buy salmon, I love salmon. When I get home I boil the chicken, fry the hamburger, and bake the pork. I divide it all into meals and freeze it. If I buy salmon I don’t cook it or any other fish ahead of time. At the beginning of the month I check for flour, quick oats, baking powder, sugar, and stuff like peanut butter or chocolate chips or nuts in the cupboard. Anything low gets stocked up on. I buy a big bag of cheese (usually mozarella), a big thing of sliced cheese, a bag of rice (if we are out), 10 to 15 lbs of pasta (if we are out), parmesan cheese (if we are out) and two cans of spaghetti sauce (we have a Gordon Foods here, so this stuff is all bulk, and if there are adult children in the house that need food, it is easy for me to have food for them – sometimes some of my children don’t make enough money or have bad times during bad seasons).
Then I randomly buy different big bags of vegetables for the freezer, the cheapest is always the mixed veggies or peas or carrots. I randomly buy things like tuna, jelly, etc.
Bread seems like a pain in the neck, but if you have a mixer with a bread hook you don’t have to knead the dough, a bag of yeast lasts some time.
Then it is easy, there is plenty to choice from, there is a little Save-a-lot near my house. If I want to make pizza, I just grab some pepperoni, or make it with hamburger, or chicken. I can make bread every day, or not. I can grab fruits when out for other reasons, and we can buy quick foods (fast food is rare, but swinging buy and grabbing a bag of frozen french fries and chicken strips is sadly not uncommon). Rice takes like 20 minutes in the microwave, it’s a forget me food (and trust me, I forgot stuff a LOT). Running out of veggies is a quick stop to the nearby store or run in between other errands. Trust me, a stocked cupboard makes life easier. Everything this way is a “casserole” it’s toss whatever you want into a bowl and stir. Especially with the rice. Even pasta though, if you buy other noodles than just spaghetti. Make it and toss in whatever you feel like that day. Or in some cases, whatever is left. 🙂
IF this stuff isn’t easier, and you can afford the cost, I have a friend who wanted to solve the kids not eating what she cooked, and wanted to stop cooking. She would find can deals and stock up on everything from canned pasta through soups…. she was so frustrated with her children she didn’t cook anymore, at all. Her cupboards are FILLED with canned and boxed foods…. everything, Ramen, mac and cheese, etc. She rarely buys food for meals unless she intends that day as a family get-together.
Personally, I never found that weekly menus worked, or planning meals weekly/monthly. I found this system worked best for me and still kept costs down. The down side is that we rely heavily on carbs because they are cheap. I do have a garden now, so we do get to substitute during the summer months, but I rarely manage to grow enough to make it through winter with it. Also, a lot of people don’t like to make bread…. I will be starting my sour dough again here soon, which I do buy taking it out every day, dividing it in half, mixing each with new, and putting one half back in the fridge. So, for many days, to keep my sour dough growing, I will make at least something with bread every day.