I realize that I’ve been talking a lot about food lately. Like, a lot, a lot. But you know what? Food is important! It is delicious and necessary to keep us alive and also one of the most controllable line items in any budget. It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years and I hope you’ve been enjoying my little bits of wisdom.
Today, I thought I would share one of the best ways I’ve found to save money on groceries: meal planning. Meal planning sometimes sounds scary – I think it conjures images of hours spent clipping coupons, searching for deals, meticulously planning recipes and driving to five different grocery stores each weekend – but over the years I’ve honed a relatively simple meal planning system. All in all, I probably spend less than 30 minutes meal planning each week. Add in an hour door to door for my once weekly grocery trip, and I’m pretty happy with the savings payoff from the minimal time investment.
Here are the 8 steps to my super simple meal planning strategy:
- Check your calendar. Before I start my weekly meal plan, I take a quick look at my calendar for the upcoming week and see what plans I have. I also check in with BF to see if he has any plans. I only cook for dinner, so I make note of any nights that one or both of us will not be home for dinner. This way, I know how many meals I should cook, and I can plan appropriately so that I don’t wind up with food that will be wasted. I make a calendar of the week ahead in an Evernote that BF and I share so we both know what the dinner schedule for the week will be.
- Choose your store. I’ve talked about this before, but it is important to be strategic in selecting the store you shop at. In my opinion, shopping at more than one store per week is just a hassle. I don’t have the time or desire to drive to one grocery store for produce and another for dry goods. I need a one stop shop where I know that I can get everything on my list and get great deals in the process. For me, that store is Market Basket, a local grocery store than consistently has great prices and quality.
- Check the weekly flyer. The weekly sales flyer is your friend. How much time do you spend debating which of your many recipes you want to cook this week? The number of choices out there can be nearly paralyzing. I find that limiting myself based on what is on sale is a great way to provide a little direction. Call me crazy, but I’m a firm believer that a few constraints actually make life better. Each week, I look at the Market Basket sales flyer and make a list of the sales that are of interest to me. I then try to build meals around the proteins that are on sale that week or other great deals that are available.
- Have a pool of recipes to choose from. I keep a binder of recipes I’ve tried in the past and love. I also LOVE using Pinterest as a way to find new recipes. Once I’ve perused the sales flyer and know what my meal bases will be, I look at my binder and Pinterest boards to find recipes that sound appealing. Sometimes I’ll search for a recipe based on a specific ingredient that is on sale. Other times I know that I’ve got a recipe in mind and I’ve just been waiting for a key ingredient to go on sale. Either way, having a bunch of options that I’m excited to cook makes the selection process much easier and faster.
- List your ingredients. Once I’ve selected my recipes for the week, I make a list of all of the ingredients required to make these recipes. Sometimes, I know right away that I’ll need to buy certain ingredients, such as fresh produce or meat. Other times, I suspect that I have the ingredients at home already, such as spices, rice, and pasta. At this point, I make two lists: one for things I need to buy and one for things I need to check if I already have.
- Schedule your recipes. After I know what I’ll be cooking for the week, I add the recipes to the calendar I share with BF so that we both know what the dinner plan will be each night. I find that assigning recipes to specific nights, instead of just planning to cook those recipes at some point during the week, makes me more likely to actually cook those items. If I know on Tuesday morning that dinner Tuesday night is supposed to be blackened tilapia, I can set my expectations ahead of time and prepare to cook when I get home. If I don’t have a specific plan, I find that I’m often tired when I get home and don’t want to bother even to make a decision about what recipe to cook that night, let alone actually cook it.
- Shop at home. Next, I take my list of items that I might have on hand and verify that I actually have them. If I find that I’m out of something or running low, I’ll add that item to the list of things to buy. I also check to see what we have on hand for items that we use every week, particularly breakfast and lunch items. As I mentioned, I only cook for dinner, but I make sure that we have breakfast and lunch items in the house such as cereal, milk, oatmeal, yogurt, lunchmeats, fruits, etc. I look through the fridge and cabinets to see what we have, and add anything we’re running low on to the grocery list.
- Shop at the store. The culmination of my meal planning strategy is a trip to the grocery store. I go in armed with my list and almost always stick to it. I will occasionally deviate from my list if there is an unadvertised sale for items we often use, in which case I will either stock up for the future or change my meal plan around for the week. Much the same way that my menu calendar makes cooking easier, I find that having a list to guide my shopping makes it much less tiresome since all of the thinking has been done ahead of time. I don’t have to think through “will I use this?” or “do I have this at home?” because I already know what I need and what I have at home.
So that’s it! 8 simple steps that can all be completed in less than an hour and a half per week. I haven’t looked specifically at the savings I’ve seen since I started meal planning, but I’m sure it is substantial. When I have a meal plan going into the week, I’m far less tempted to order takeout on a random Tuesday night just because I don’t know what else to make. I also buy far less convenience and frozen food, which is both better for our budget and our health.
Do you meal plan? What tips would you add to this list?