A few years ago, this was an almost daily conversation in my home:
My husband (sometime around 5 pm): “What should we have for dinner?”
Me: “I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.”
My husband: “What do we have?”
Me: “I don’t know. Let me check.”
What followed was a rummage through the fridge and the freezer. Inevitably, everything took too long to make for dinner at that point. And there are only so many times you can make quesadillas from stale tortillas or cook breakfast for dinner. (The good news is that we usually have fresh produce on hand, so a salad and fruit often accompanied impromptu meals.)
Often, we just gave up and went out to eat, or called ahead for take out. In some cases, we used “emergency” pre-made frozen meals. Of course, that meant replenishing some of the expensive meals each trip to the grocery store. Our food bill was starting to get out of hand.
The Solution: Meal Planning
That’s when we decide that we should consider engaging in meal planning. Instead of a last minute scramble for dinner each night, meal planning allows us to have a pretty good idea of what we’re going to eat most days. It also helps us save money. Meal times are no longer money leaks draining our budget.
Meal planning can help you save money in the following ways:
Shop with a List
Prior to meal planning, we just sort of wandered through the store (often hungry), and just grabbed items that we thought looked good. We’d check out with a full cart. And, sometimes, a good portion of the food we bought went bad because we didn’t use it, since there wasn’t a plan.
Menu planning using a list reduces these issues. First of all, you can cut impulse shopping (which contributes to spending more than you had planned) when you stick to a list. Additionally, if you plan out meals to eat, you only buy the items you need, so you waste less money through food spoilage.
Reduce Instances of Eating Out
When you know what you are going to eat for the week, you can better prepare. I know that on days that I make soup in the slow-cooker, I need to get things prepped earlier in the day. On days that my son has activities, I either plan a meal for the slow cooker, or I look up a 30-minute recipe. Sometimes, I plan to make extra on a day I know we’ll be less busy; we can eat the leftovers on a day that is more hectic.
Planning ahead allows you to avoid the situations that lead to hand wringing and deciding to just head to a restaurant. When you have a schedule, and you know what’s coming, it’s easier to save money.
Many times, meals made at home are healthier than what you will get from a restaurant, or from a box. Pre-made meals are often in high in sodium and high fructose corn syrup. It’s an indirect savings, but it’s possible to save money on health care costs when you make healthier eating choices. Good health can mean less illness, as well as help you avoid many chronic conditions. While healthy eating won’t guarantee that you will never have health costs, you can reduce some of what you end up paying when you make healthy foods at home.
Plan Your Meals
Meal planning doesn’t necessarily mean that you script dinner for each and every day. Indeed, it makes sense to leave a hole or two each week so that you can move meals around as necessary, and be prepared to deal with unexpected occurrences. However, it does make sense to look at your family activity schedule, and look at what you might eat on different days of the week.
Another popular method of meal planning is to make your own meals and freeze them. I often freeze extra soup, and that makes for a convenient meal when needed. It’s also a good idea to keep some “emergency” meals on hand. You can prepare them ahead of time, on your own, or you can choose a few standbys from the store to keep in the freezer for meal emergencies.
Finally, keep your pantry stocked with the basics of meal preparation. If we had a well-stocked pantry a few years ago, our conversations might have gone differently. Now, we grow and dry our own herbs and make our own applesauce, so we have these things accessible whenever we need them. We also have a produce basket delivered by a local farmer each week. That way, if we don’t get to the store, we still have fresh ingredients we can use. Keep essentials on hand, and you will be able to create a meal in a pinch, rather than needing to head to the store.
Do you have any meal planning tips?
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.