Food generally makes up a large chunk of the household budget, so it is a good target when looking to save money. I have found that I am able to feed my family for a lot less when I create a weekly meal plan.
When I know what I’m going to be making for dinner it is so much easier for me to get something healthy on the table at a reasonable hour. Takeout is far less tempting and I avoid a rushed trip to the grocery store at its busiest time of day with a young, tired and hungry child in tow.
There is no one “right way” to make a meal plan – some people find once a month is easier than once a week, some find it’s helpful to do a lot of the prep for weekday dinners on the weekend, but I will tell you what I have found (through much trial and lots of error!) works best for me.
At some point during the weekend I sit down and make a list of four to five dinners to have during the week from Sunday to Saturday. This leaves room for a few nights of leftovers or eating out. If I plan seven big dinners inevitably something goes to waste as there will always be a night when we won’t eat at home due to an event, an invitation from a friend or just because we’re all craving pizza.
To make the meal plan, I start by looking in the freezer, fridge and pantry for items we already have and create dishes around as many of them as possible. Then I pull out the binder where I keep all my favorite old recipes and new ones I have clipped from magazines or found online. I might also browse through my unreasonably large cookbook collection for some new things to try.
I feel like I have to mention that this part is really fun for me. I love to cook, test out new recipes and experiment with different ingredients and cuisines. I get way too many cooking magazines and read cookbooks like novels. If this isn’t your thing, there is no reason that your meal plan has to be filled with complicated multi-course dinners. Most online recipe collections have a “quick and easy” section. Seek out meals you can make in a slow cooker with just a few minutes of preparation the morning. Use convenience items from the grocery store such as frozen veggies, side dishes that steam right in the bag they come in, cooked rotisserie chicken, pre-washed lettuce and frozen entrees.
Once I have my list of dinners for the week (which goes up on the fridge) I make the list of ingredients I’ll need to make them (along with what we’ll need for breakfasts, lunches, and snacks) and head to the store. I try to find ingredients that will do double duty so nothing goes to waste. If I know I’ll need half an onion for one dish I’ll plan to toss the rest in the tacos I’m making a few days later. Other good ways to use bits of produce, meats, and cheeses: mix them into scrambled eggs, top a salad with them or make a wrap in a tortilla for lunch.
Each day when I get home from work I know I have a few options of things to cook with all the ingredients ready and waiting for me. I tend not to assign specific meals to each day and instead just choose from the list based on what everyone feels like having and how much time we have. I try to plan a couple of quick meals for crazy days and a few that are more involved for those evenings when I have a little time to breathe.
So – what do you think? Could this work for you? Do you have your own meal plan routine that helps you save time and money? And what’s your favorite thing to cook when you need to get dinner on the table in a hurry?
Anna Platz writes for the popular personal finance blog, Good Cents Savings, which focuses on helping you save money, stick to a budget, and live well on less. She is also the mother of a four year old daughter who is worth every penny!