What's For Dinner?

by Nancy Steinkoenig


I've received numerous e-mails from readers asking for details about how I plan my menus. I don't plan the exact meals we eat as I shop. I figure out what to prepare from what we have on hand in the pantry, refrigerator and freezer. I am lucky to have a husband who will eat almost anything (including leftovers) and is appreciative of my culinary talents. Nevertheless, I do have a strategy to share with you.

All of our dinners can be categorized by the main ingredient (or star attraction!). Think about all the different kinds of foods you prepare for your family. I can separate dishes into categories: meat, pasta, rice, beans, potatoes, soup, and food with crusts. These categories are very loosely defined, but by meat I mean meat as a separate dish. Like meatloaf, baked chicken, or a slice of ham. The potato, rice, and pasta categories include mixtures that may or may not include meat. That could be casseroles, skillet dinners, stir-fry. Beans are beans by themselves (black-eyed peas, pinto beans, lentils, refried beans) or in a dish (burritos, beanie-weenie). Soups are those homemade soups that I make on a semi-regular basis: chicken noodle, vegetable, tortilla, potato, lentil & couscous, beef & barley. Foods with crusts include pizza, quiche, and pot pie.

After you have made your lists, see if you can come up with a 7-or 14-day plan that concentrates on the lower-cost meals. Obviously, a casserole made with one chicken breast cut up into small chunks is going to be more economical than a meal in which each person eats one or more pieces of chicken, a salad, and a vegetable. I rotate through a variety of main dishes and have a "meat" meal perhaps one night a week. Usually on Saturday, I cook a pot of beans or homemade soup when I'm home busy doing other things, because they don't require much watching.

Try to vary the casseroles. The way I see it, all casseroles follow the same formula. There is some kind of protein, some sauce, a starch, complementary flavor-enhancing vegetables, and sometimes a topping. Even the boring tuna casserole we knew in the sixties falls into this formula. It had a can of tuna, a can of cream of mushroom soup, egg noodles, some peas (maybe if your Mom was creative!), and a topping of crushed potato chips. I take the idea a bit further on the tightwad scale by creating a substitute sauce with milk and cornstarch--cream of mushroom soup costs about 85 cents a can!

Think of other casseroles:

  • Chicken & rice = chicken, rice, celery, cream sauce & rosemary.

  • Scalloped potatoes = ham, potatoes, cream sauce, dill & cheese on top.

  • Tetrazzini = turkey, spaghetti, cream sauce, mushrooms, Parmesan cheese.

  • Shepherd's pie = ground beef, tomato sauce, green beans, onions, mashed potatoes on top.

  • Lasagna = cheeses, tomato sauce, noodles, basil & oregano.

  • Chicken Alfredo = chicken, cream sauce, Parmesan cheese, noodles, broccoli & garlic.

  • Enchilada casserole = chicken, onions, salsa, cream sauce, corn tortillas, & cheese.

If your family thinks that a bowl of beans or soup feels a little too much like deprivation, change that attitude by making bean or soup night also dessert night. There is really no reason to have dessert with your heavy protein meals; you are already getting more than enough fat and calories. Dessert can make a nutritional contribution to a bean-based meal. If you make a milk pudding, you have increased the available protein. Dessert night can also be an opportunity to add fruit to your diet. Fruit salad, apple crisp, banana pudding, fruit and yogurt, or applesauce helps round out the meal.

Here are ten more ways to cut costs when planning meals:

  1. If you are trying to feed ravenous teenagers, make extra helpings of potatoes, rice, pasta, or bread, rather than extra helpings of meat!

  2. When you use ground beef in a casserole or skillet dinner, don't automatically use the entire package. Reduce the amount and save part of the package in a freezer bag. Even if you only made an extra hamburger patty to put in the freezer, repeating the exercise would result in an extra meal in a couple of weeks. I do the same thing with a ham. Cut up 1/2 inch cubes and save in freezer bags to add to soup, beans, or casseroles.

  3. Buy food close to its original condition. Stay away from mixes or boxes with seasonings added. Learn some cooking techniques and create from scratch.

  4. Serve dinner already divvied up on plates. If you put everything out in big bowls and platters for diners to serve themselves, it will usually all disappear. Create an extra dinner for the freezer (I have a couple of sectioned plates with lids for this purpose). Set it aside first, then serve the rest to the family.

  5. Save leftover vegetables in a container in the freezer, layering until you have a quart or so. Add stock, rice or pasta, and you can have soup. You may want to save broccoli and cauliflower in a separate container for broccoli cheese soup. (The strong flavors will overpower other vegetables in a mixed-vegetable soup.)

  6. Add hot bread to your meals. Fresh hot bread is filling and a welcome addition. Muffins, cornbread, and biscuits are quick to fix and bake - no kneading, and no rising time.

  7. Have "breakfast" for dinner sometimes. We don't always have time for pancakes, French toast, sausage gravy & biscuits, or eggs and ham in the morning on our way out the door.

  8. Use up all the stale bread. Don't waste bread by throwing it out. Use it in meatloaf, bread pudding, stuffing, cheese strata. Make toast, cinnamon toast, French toast, salad croutons, or bread crumbs for casserole toppings.

  9. Make your oven do double duty. It costs money to heat it up. Bake potatoes along with the meatloaf, or apple crisp with the beanie-weenie. Add biscuits or muffins just before you take out the casserole.

  10. Cook a double batch of rice to have on hand for casseroles, salads, pudding, and to warm up in a bowl in the microwave to serve with sugar, cinnamon and milk for a hot breakfast.

I hope this helps you develop your own menu strategy. I am still working on my tightwad cookbook if anyone wants to send me favorite recipes!

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