Meal Planning: Tips for Success and How to Start

by The Glowing Gazelle on September 4, 2013

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When it comes to saving money throughout the year, by far the simplest thing I can recommend is to create a weekly (or monthly!) meal plan. I fall in and out of meal planning, typically losing ground with it during the holiday season and struggling to get back on track soon after. But when I do, I wonder why I ever quit!

I find that when I have a meal plan in place – even if it’s just a high-level outline for the week – that not only do I save money from avoiding carry-out meals or over-shopping at the grocery store but I also limit the amount of food waste that happens throughout the week. It is heart-breaking for me when I clean out the fridge and have to throw something away because I forgot I bought it or forgot I had those leftovers sitting there that should have been worked into a second meal or frozen for a future meal. And now that I am caring for my own garden and making friends with several farmers, that wastefulness is even more heart-breaking because I don’t just see a zucchini gone bad – I see the hard work that went into growing it and getting it into my hands in the first place.

I’ve heard of so many that choose not to meal-plan because they don’t have time or they never stick to what they have designated for each day during the week. But what if I could convince you otherwise? Here’s my reasoning for each:

~ ‘Not enough time’ – Think about the time you waste standing in front of the fridge asking yourself each night, “What should I cook for dinner?” Or the time driving around picking up that unhealthy fast food. Or the time walking up and down the grocery store aisles scratching your head about what to fix. All that time added up could have been your meal-planning time. And savings!

~ ‘Don’t stick to plan’ – Meal-planning can be whatever you make it to be. Perhaps rather than detailing out every breakfast, lunch and dinner, you just have 5-7 meals/ideas¬† chosen with no days designated for them. (You’d of course have to be careful to choose a meal first that you designated a leftover for later!) Or what if you just had an ingredient meal plan such as hamburger, chicken, turkey, etc. and cooked up those meats in advance and then left yourself some freedom to what meals you wanted. Hamburger = Tacos, Chili or Goulash. Chicken = Fajitas, Chicken n’ Dumplins’, Stir Fry, etc. You don’t need to limit yourself to this exact meal on this exact day. It might give you a little more freedom to eat what you like.

So how to begin meal-planning? How do we take what may seem like such a daunting task to some and simplify it? Here’s a way to start:

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1) To limit food waste, before you start your planning, take a look in your fridge/freezer/pantry and find items that need to be used first. You might find some hidden green peppers that you forgot about that could turn into a delicious stir-fry.

2) If you want to maximize your savings, take a quick look at sales ads and/or your coupons to see what might bring you a hot deal and a great meal.

3) On a piece of paper, could even be the back of your kid’s old homework – reuse! – jot down the days of the week. Next take a look at your calendar and see what upcoming events you have for that week. Off to the side of each day; make a note for them, such as: soccer practice, church function, birthday party, date night, etc. These notes will help you determine if you need a quick meal that night or no meal at all. You’ll see how the days might quickly fill-in. Instead of 7 days of meals, you may might need only 4 or 5.

4) I always recommend that you plan one day for leftovers. I usually plan mine for a day when we need a fast meal since leftovers can usually be quickly heated in the microwave.

5) It’s at this point when your brain may go blank to the meals you know how to make. Trust me; it’s happened several times to me. lol. So what I did to help with that is to make a one-time Master Meal Plan. All you do is write down every meal that you know how to make – and that your family enjoys – and divide them into categories. I hang mine right by the fridge and update it when a new meal should be included. Now, pull out your Master Meal Plan and put together the puzzle of: what events I need to work around for meals, what I have on hand to use, meals I want to make and sale items I can buy that week to pull it all together. Paper-clip any recipes you need to the final plan. (Saves you time searching for them later!)

6) Before you set your plan in motion, take one last look at it. The meals you have planned – do they require too many extra items? That will only lead to more expense at the store. The meals you have selected – do you have enough time to make them on the selected days?

When you are finished, make sure you hang it somewhere that you won’t lose it and will use it–such as a magnetic calendar on the side of your fridge:

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And here are some additional tips for making the most of your meal plan and money:

A) When you create your meals, include what I call “multi-tasking foods” or “twofers”; such as Chili one night and Chili dogs or Chili Potatoes another. This will help you use up some leftovers.

B) Plan a meatless meal to maximize savings. Pancakes with fruit. Or the old stand-by of grilled cheese and tomato soup.

C) Every good plan has a Plan B. So I highly recommend that you have one or two back-up meals on hand for the month. Choose something that, should an emergency arrive, you can toss in that meal and not feel like you need to abandon your meal plan for the week. It should be something simply like spaghetti with a side of steamed veggies or quickly thrown together scrambled eggs with toast and a side of fruit. Something simple yet quick.

D) Cut down on your prep time by cooking and freezing meats ahead of time. Whenever I cook up some hamburger for our tacos, I make a few pounds instead of one. Whatever is left gets cooled and frozen for quick meal later. Cook once, eat twice or thrice!

E) Let your family pick a meal each week. Or rotate one person to choose a meal each week. They’ll be more likely to eat what you have planned when they get the chance to plan one of their own.

F) Create theme nights. Fishy Fridays or Taco Tuesdays. Those will help you need to plan less than the full 7 days, too.

G) Consider adding some crockpot meals to your plan. These are great on the days you have little time later in the day. Some crockpot recipes are simple enough to toss together in the morning and then let cook until dinnertime. Even something as simple as making a whole chicken to pair with some veggies and fruit – with the potential to make broth and/or soup afterwards!

H) Don’t forget to check what’s in-season to possibly rotate some of those items in for extra savings and freshness!

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In the end, meal-planning should not be something that we dread but something that we look upon as a tool for saving us time and money each month. And, as with everything in life, don’t let yourself get down if you drift from your plan or fall out of the habit of creating them. Just pick back up the next week and try again.

Hoping you find some great savings with these tips! I’d love to hear any tips that you have, as well!

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