For average Americans, roughly 15% of their income is spent exclusively on food. And, with the average household income sitting around $60,000, the typical family spends $9000 to keep everyone fed.
That’s no small chunk of change.
But what if you could slash your food expenses? What a massive difference that would make with your money!
After all, what could you do with the extra cash if you could whittle your food costs down to 12% every single month? To 10% month after month???
That’s precisely where meal planning comes in — a simple exercise that takes just minutes a week. And doing nothing more than sticking with a meal plan can keep your food budget small while freeing up your cash for other financial goals!
And it’s great for everyone — supermoms, busy retirees, cash-strapped students, kitchen-loving dads, and anyone looking to save money and save time.
If you’re new to the scene, you may not even know how to meal plan. No worries! This guide will take you from beginner to meal planning expert in no time.
Take stock of what you have.
The food you already have is bought and paid for with your hard-earned money.
So when that food gathers dust past its expiration date or grows mold in the back of the fridge, it’s pretty frustrating! After all, you’re essentially forced to throw good money away in the trash.
When you make your meal plan, start by evaluating the foods you already have on hand. No extra spending needed!
See which items you’ve got in your pantry — especially those products that are nearing their “best by” dates. Then proactively design your meals around those ingredients.
Plan to use canned tomatoes for a weeknight pasta sauce, cheese slices for sandwiches, fruit for smoothies or muffins, you name it.
Obsess over the sales.
Your supermarket’s weekly circular is your meal planning Bible!
Make sure you have one of those ads in your hands every single week. If a physical copy isn’t readily available, check your store’s website. There’s probably a digital version you can view on your computer or phone.
Take note in particular of items featured on the first page of the ad — the most likely place to find loss leaders. Those are items the store is selling at crazy low prices in order to get you in the door . . . where you’ll likely also buy food that’s more profitably priced. Plan to stock up on the basement-priced stuff you use and build your meal plan around the killer sales you see.
Cashing in on sale-priced items is a quick and easy way to choose low-priced ingredients to use in the coming week’s menu. And don’t rule out the prospect of buying food items in bulk. If it’s non-perishable or freezable, buy now and enjoy the savings when you eat it later!
Make a realistic meal plan.
Scheduling your meals is a lot like scheduling your time. You want your plan to be consistently achievable! Otherwise, really, what’s the point???
Before assigning specific meals to each day of the week, consider both your schedule and your expected energy levels each evening. Identify days that require extra-quick meals on account of late hours at the office or evening sports practices. And keep in mind any days that you’ll be eating away from home — maybe for a party or date night.
Stretch every meal you make.
It’s simple math — if you make enough food to last you two nights instead of one, you’ll cut your food prep time nearly in half!
For many meals, the application of this principle is simple. Cook two meals at once. Eat the first one fresh and serve the second a day or two later as reheated leftovers.
Some foods (like burgers, for instance) are really best when prepared the day of. But you can still save time by scheduling two burger nights this week and handling the lion’s share of prep work in a single session. Slice your onions and pickles, mix up your secret burger sauce, and shape your patties. (You can stack them on a plate in the fridge and separate them with pieces of wax paper. Then pull them out for Burger Night #2.)
Alternatively, plan to repurpose some of the food you make. Cook up some chicken breasts to serve with rice and a veggie on Monday. Then turn those leftovers into chicken and cheese quesadillas on Tuesday. Get creative!
Make your freezer your best friend.
Oh, how I love freezer cooking! Ready-to-go meals in the freezer have saved me from overspending on takeout on super busy days, sick days, and those craaaaazy weeks right after my son was born.
And filling your freezer with heat-and-go (or even ready-to-eat) meals couldn’t be simpler. Just whip up extra servings of your family’s favorite meals or snacks when you’re already making at least one serving. Then pop the extras into the freezer.
Take a look in your freezer whenever you plan your meals for the week — especially if your upcoming week or one particular day is looking particularly hectic. Include a freezer meal in your meal plan, and you’ll save yourself time and money on that night’s dinner!
Don’t forget breakfast, lunch, and snacks.
Meal planning isn’t just for dinner! It’s easy to overspend or eat out when it comes to breakfast, lunch, and snack time.
Plan for all of your family’s typical eating times. For you, that might mean writing down precisely what to serve when, but it may be as simple as double-checking your supply of cereals, kid snacks, etc.
Again, take full advantage of your existing food supplies and weekly sales. And look for food prep shortcuts and freezer meals and snacks to keep everything inexpensive and simple!
Make a shopping list.
Shopping more than once a week is a huge timesuck. Plus, if you’re dashing to the store for one ingredient on the way home from work, you may find yourself scooping up some items you didn’t really plan to buy! That gets pricey fast.
Try making a single shopping list for the week based on your meal plan. Jot down must-get items from the food ad, and review the ingredients you’ll need for the recipes you plan to make.
If you really want to optimize your shopping and save time at the store, organize your list by supermarket aisle. (You’ll be able to run through the items on your list in order as you zip around the grocery store.)
Or use a service that does your shopping for you! (In many cases, you can save the cost of the fee associated with a grocery pick-up service!)
I know I don’t have to tell you that life doesn’t always go according to plan!
Invariably, a wrench will get thrown into your perfectly-planned week of meals. Everyone in your family will come down with a bug. A last-minute event will be added to your schedule. Or you just won’t be feeling whatever you’d planned to make for dinner.
For days like those, have a handful of back-ups ready to go:
- Boxes of dried pasta or rice
- Jarred or frozen sauces
- Frozen portions of cooked and shredded chicken
- Bags of frozen vegetables
- Fresh or frozen breads (sandwich breads, rolls, or tortillas)
- Deli meats and cheeses
- Cans of soup
- Frozen meals that you can pop into the oven or microwave
Items like these are all great options for whipping up a quick, last-minute dinner.
And hey, even if you’re not the world’s best — or more consistent — meal planner, remember . . . the steps you’re taking to plan your family’s food are making a difference in your finances!
What would meal planning mean for your family?
This post was originally published in May 2016 and has since been updated.