Meal planning is the #1 way our family saves on groceries. There are a lot of things that we do to keep our grocery bill to around $60 per week (for a family of 3), but I'm convinced that without meal planning, this would be absolutely impossible.
So, I present you with your #1 money-saver:
7 tips for successful meal planning
1. Know your family, your routine/schedule and what will work best for you
Each time I start meal planning, I begin by looking at our schedule for the upcoming weeks (we do a bi-weekly shopping trip/meal plan). I like having a calendar that I can see numerous weeks at a time, so I use an erasable stick-on wall calendar which helps me easily get an idea of what our next two weeks will be like. What nights will we be out and not need a meal at home? What nights will we be rushing to get out the door for something, so would benefit from leftovers or something very quick and easy? What days am I super busy during the day, so would (again) benefit from leftovers or something easy so that I don't flake out on cooking? Knowing this information helps me create the bare bones of our meal planning schedule.
Also, do you like to eat fresh fruits and veggies every day? Or is your family more of a pasta family? For us, we try to eat healthy and use fresh ingredients as often as we can. While we have been able to make this work on a bi-weekly schedule, for some families it might be better to just to meal plan and grocery shop once a week so that they can always have the freshest ingredients on hand. For other families, this might not matter as much.
2. Plan for all 3 meals
Meal plan for more than just dinner! Food for dinner is only a fraction of your grocery bill. Know what you're eating for every meal so that you don't find yourself hungry with no options.
3. Plan around what you already have
Do you have a large bag of quinoa that is taking you forever to work through? Check out Pinterest for quinoa recipes. Do you have a garden with a surplus of zucchini? Again, hit up the internet. The internet (particularly Pinterest) is a beautiful place for recipes. You will always find options. Trust me.
4. Stretch ingredients for as many meals as you can
This way, not much goes to waste. Wasted food = wasted money. Going back to the quinoa example, maybe one night you make a quinoa casserole. Two days later you could make quinoa stuffed peppers. This is especially important with perishable items.
5. "Cook once, eat twice."
Make extra and freeze for later. This is one of my favorite things to do because it makes nights that are hectic for whatever reason SO much easier. It also provides us a nice back-up plan for when unpredictable circumstances come up. I'm not saying we never grab food from elsewhere when put in a pinch, but we are much less likely to do it when we have a stocked freezer. I actually can't remember the last time we did that. Honestly.
It's also great for actual meal planning because these are the nights that you can just plan to pull something out of the freezer and defrost/reheat.
So, our freezer is always full and I always keep a running list on our fridge of what's in the freezer so that I know what is accounted for in my meal plan and what is "extra" for "emergency."
6. Plan to cook with perishables earlier in the week
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but good to take into account. After planning around our schedules, I usually plan my meals chronologically by ingredients that may or may not last until the end of our two-week span.
7. As you meal plan, make your grocery list
Two birds, one stone. I often use Pinterest to look for new recipes. I pin the recipe I am going to use and simultaneously will look through the recipe and add the ingredients to my grocery list. This saves me a lot of time and also helps me plan better since I can see what ingredients I already will be purchasing for other meals. This reduces the chance that I will accidentally buy more than I need and also helps me plan strategically with "stretching the ingredients" (#4).
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Bacons on a Budget. It has been modified and republished here with permission.