On a Budget: Meal Planning
To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, “If you fail to meal plan, you are planning to fail.” Although not his exact words, they still apply. With a bit of forethought, you can save money and improve your health by meal planning. The following tricks will put you on a path to cooking fresh meals that minimize waste and eliminate the question “What’s for dinner?”
1. Schedule prep time. Block out 30 to 60 minutes each week for meal planning at a time that is generally quiet, such as over your morning coffee or after you put the kids to bed. The more you do it, the faster and easier it will become.
If you don’t have a shopping routine already, make time for that, too. When you meal plan and shop from a list, you can generally get everything you need in one weekly trip. Planning and shopping should go hand in hand so you have all the ingredients for your first meal. You may even want to clean and chop some produce in advance to save time later.
2. File away recipes. File recipes on sites like Google Drive, Dropbox and Pinterest for easy access wherever and whenever. With a couple of quick taps, you can pull them up on your smartphone or tablet while shopping and cooking. You can also find recipes others have saved or “pinned,” on Pinterest. Type in “slow cooker pot roast,” and you’ll find dozens of options!
A good storage solution also needs strong organization. Create an easy-to-navigate filing system, sorting recipes by type, ingredient or category, such as “This Week,” “Family Favorites” or “Pinned There, Cooked That.” Don’t be afraid to switch things up if your initial system doesn’t work for you.
Save all the recipes you’ve made—whether you liked them or not—and jot down your thoughts and adaptations so you don’t have to re-invent the wheel each time.
3. Manage your inventory. Track what you have in your fridge, freezer and pantry on a dry-erase board in your kitchen or a checklist on your smartphone, and reference it while meal planning to use what you already have. When you run out of something, immediately move it from your “on hand” list to your shopping list to restock common ingredients.
4. Shop the sales. Watch sales and specials to save money on menu ingredients and stock up on staples. Warehouse clubs offer great values, too—as long as you use everything you buy! If the quantity is just too much, split bulk packages with friends to maximize savings and minimize waste.
5. Make the most of ingredients. When you need only a quarter of a cabbage or a tablespoon of tomato paste, you may throw out a lot of food, so find ways to use as much of each ingredient as possible. If you roast a chicken or pork loin, shred the leftovers for tacos, salads and soups later in the week. Use half a bell pepper for stir-fry and the rest for chili. Sites such as Yummly, MyFridgeFood and Supercook, as well as Google Drive, let you search for shared ingredients so you aren’t left with half an avocado.
6. Love your freezer. Instead of using leftovers right away, you can usually freeze them. Many raw ingredients and prepared meals keep well in the freezer, making for a quick and easy plan later in the month. If you’re feeling ambitious, freeze vegetable scraps and bones to make your own broth!
7. Stick to your list. Shopping from a list will lessen the temptation to spend money on things you don’t need. Unless you see something that will keep until you can work it into your plan and is a great deal that you just can’t pass up, keep walking and watch your savings add up.
If your meal plan centers around shared, minimally processed ingredients, it should cost less than buying a week’s worth of processed foods. Focus on fresh produce, meat, fish and dairy. Frozen or canned foods without added ingredients are great, too. Use oils, vinegars and seasonings to make your own salad dressing and flavor packets, like taco mix. By making only what you need, you will throw out less, thus saving money.
When in Doubt, Outsource
The Internet abounds with meal planning resources at a variety of price points. Some magazines and bloggers offer menus for free while other sites customize plans based on dietary preferences or seasonal produce.
With a little planning and dedication, you can cut down how often you throw away food or order takeout. However you decide to meal plan, your wallet and waistline will thank you.