With a recession rearing its ugly head in our grocery carts, it’s time for meal planning to make the leap from the frugal and the hyper-organized to the general population. Menu planning can save you money on food while also providing the health-promoting benefits of a nutritious diet and reduced stress, all without killing your creativity or love of food. And hey, that might save you money on medical bills, too!
To start meal planning, all you need is a blank slate, a general idea of what you have on hand, and the knowledge of what your family likes to eat. An empty notepad or calendar page can get you going, or you can employ a printed template, cookbook software, or a spreadsheet.
Sound intimidating still? Here’s a few tips to make the process easier.
Make some meals routine. You may already have Pizza Night or Taco Night established in your house. Other dishes can form the basis for both frugal and healthy weekly meals: Try Pasta Night (with whole-grain pastas and sauces based on lean meats and veggies), Beans Night (a complete protein with rice, cornbread, or another grain, plus you can top beans any way you’d top pasta or tacos), Baked Potato Night (choose either sweet or russet potatoes and go nuts on toppings), Breakfast Night (fun!), or Sandwich Night (which has the bonus of being good for the environment when you’re giving the oven the night off). Pick two or three days a week and assign themes, and then you’ll breeze through planning.
List some standbys. Everyone has go-to recipes they can make in half the time of anything else. Make a list of the recipes that are tried-and-true favorites around your house for when you can’t come up with something new and exciting for that empty Thursday on the planning calendar.
Keep the planner handy. Whenever your reading food blogs, paging through a cookbook, or watching cooking shows, you’re bound to come across some recipe you simply must try. Meal planning doesn’t mean you have to give up giving in to your cravings. When I see Martha Stewart making a mouth-watering chili, I whip out my meal-planning spreadsheet and make a note of said deliciousness. It takes the heat off my urge to eat the meal when I know it will come up soon. Then, when my meal-planning day rolls around, half my work is done: I just plug in a few of the recipes I noted along with the standards.
Meal planning is not just about saving money (or saving sanity, for that matter). Planning meals is a solid step toward making your diet healthier. Check out these perks:
You can rely less on restaurant food. With a plan in hand, you don’t waste time thinking about what to eat every night. Before I started planning, I would arrive home from work low on energy and already pretty hungry. Flopping on the couch sounded far more appealing than researching a recipe and evaluating the contents of the fridge, and with every minute that passed, I became hungrier. Eventually, I became so hungry that conserving my energy by staying as still as possible while I waited for the pizza to arrive became the only appealing option. With a plan, though, I can plunge straight into cooking without any extra research or shopping.
You can afford healthier foods. Planning lets you cut down on impulse buying at the grocery store and restaurant spending. That means more money in the budget for pricier reduced-fat cheeses, high-fiber breads, organic meats, and other premium healthy foods. Plus, you can plan meals around the wholesome items marked down in the weekly store circulars for even more nutritious bang for the buck.
Vegetables can gain a solid supporting role. Planning ahead means not forgetting to include that half a plate’s worth of veggies in your daily dinner. Make a commitment to including vegetables in two ways in every meal (I aim for a salad plus a side) and you will direct your food dollars and appetite in a healthier way. Eating more vegetables also means eating less meat, which is not only healthy and environmentally sound but will save you money. Veggies cost only a dollar or two a pound in season or in the freezer case, compared to $3 a pound or more for most quality lean meats.
Meal planning has made it a great deal easier for me to manage my kitchen. We eat dinner at home nearly every day now, which saves us lots of money and helps us avoid overeating (a problem that led to me packing on 20 pounds back when I got takeout all the time). Give it a try this week