How to Save Time and Money - and Stress Less - with Meal Planning
Each week I dedicate an hour to planning my household's meals and snacks for the coming week. This hour is a priority because it means peace of mind as the busy week unfolds. It has freed up precious time from scrambling and trying to figure out what to eat, kept us from ending up with the wrong balance of items of too many snacks and not enough staples, reduced forgotten items, and liberated us from needing to run to the store several times a week. With rising food costs, meal planning can help you stay focused on what you actually need and prevent food waste.
If you're yet to incorporate meal planning into your weekly routine and want to save yourself time, money, and stress, here are some tips to kick-start your planning:
Meals: 7, 14, or 21?
First decide on how many structured meals you want to plan. In my household breakfast foods are available but there isn't a structured meal planned for each of the 7 breakfasts. We don't have time, nor do we share the same morning schedule. However, all of our lunches and dinners are planned. Snacks are not structured but accounted for (ex. fruits, veggies, crackers, yogurt, granola bars, etc.).
Lists will be your primary tool in keeping organized. Although we live in a very digital age, I personally prefer paper lists over digital lists and apps. The biggest advantage being that a paper list is more accessible to your entire household allowing them to contribute. We keep two lists: one listing all of the specific lunches, dinners, and miscellaneous recipes for desserts or snacks and the other listing what we need to purchase from the grocery store.
If digital works best for you, many apps will allow you to sort your grocery list by category (ex. produce, meat, dairy, grains, frozen, sundry, etc.). If you're old school like me, highlighters can help you quickly sort your handwritten list. Do bring a pen on your shopping trip so you can cross items off of your list as you acquire them.
Check your pantry, fridge, and freezer
Aside from the lists, this step is really helping you to save money in preventing you from purchasing what you don't need and focusing on what you do need.
Save yourself a headache and do a run through of what you actually have on hand. What do you need to use up? Is something expiring? What extras do you have on hand that could round out a meal? What are your running low on and will need to replace within the week? Did you buy an ingredient for a meal last week that you could apply to a meal this week? This last question has saved me from the sometimes nebulous task of picking meals because you're forced to focus on building a meal around the ingredient. For example, leftover celery stalks from making Moroccan chicken wraps the previous week will now be added to lunch wraps and a Jambalaya dinner this week.
Also, if you notice that food is suddenly just sitting and not being consumed, it's time to shake up your eating habits because you are about to end up with food waste which is bad for your pocket book and the landfill.
Life happens and staples can be meal savers. Decide on what your household staples are and always make sure you have these items on hand when you do your check in the previous tip. To give you an idea, some of our staples are: garlic bulbs, onions, potatoes, rice, pasta, cans of Muir Glen* fire roasted tomatoes, olive oil, and canned beans.
*These canned tomatoes are so good and we cannot live without them. We've tried and it's simply not possible.
If you are not a singleton, ask your roommates or family members to contribute. It ensures everyone has something they enjoy on the meal plan and creates variety. It also prevents dissent - been there, done that!
Leftovers: meals and ingredients
When planning your meals, take leftovers into account. Some dinners provide larger portions that can be enjoyed for a lunch. Or perhaps you can cook an extra portion of something, say a grain or protein source, that can be used to create a lunch meal such as a salad or soup. As mentioned under 'Check your pantry, fridge, and freezer', leftover ingredients like celery can span several meals saving your time, money, and planning.
Cookbooks for variety
Let's face it, we all fall into ruts from time to time. If you are starting to get bored with your current meal rotation or are struggling to come up with meal ideas, invest in some fresh cookbooks. They are a great way to both shake things up and also help you figure out precisely what you need to pick up from the grocery store. The more you become versed in the recipes of your cookbooks, the more you'll be able to carry over and stretch ingredients.
Pro tip: check the weather
One final planning tip I like to take into consideration is the weather. I really do actually look at the week's forecast to decide on meals. If it's blazing hot outside I don't want to run the oven. Maybe you want to plan for a barbecue or a picnic. Perhaps the rainy day will be perfect for a canning or baking project. Cooler weather always calls for cozy meals.
I hope these tips help you find a measure of simplicity and freedom in your everyday as they have for me.
Melissa Menard is a certified aesthetician with over a decade of experience in the beauty industry. She enjoys all things French lifestyle, flowers, and a good lipstick (despite the mask mandate).