Not Your Mom’s Meal Planning
My friend described her mother’s meal-planning approach: every day she’d browse through Bon Apetit, choose a recipe, and shop for the ingredients. My mom, who was feeding a family of seven, would scan the grocery circular and build meals around the sale items. Not everyone has the time or inclination peruse food magazines or even grocery ads, yet planning ahead for meals is one of the best ways to stay within your food budget.
When we were first married I planned meals a month in advance! Now I spend less than ten minutes per week meal-planning, and my family eats healthfully on half the USDA’s “low-cost” food plan. Check out these simple speed-strategies that may be quite different from your parent’s approach to meal planning.
- Create a rotation of familiar favorites.
What are your favorite meals to cook and eat? List five to seven ideas, or however often you make dinner at home. Next, write a “master” grocery list including all the items you need for these meals. Save it digitally and check which items you need to replenish before grocery shopping. If you’re a diehard creature of habit, you might like to assign each dish to a certain night of the week. It takes all the guesswork out and is a great way to get in the habit of cooking at home.
- Schedule themed days.
Maybe you can’t stand the thought of eating the same meals week after week. Instead, create a schedule of themed days that allow for more flexible. For example, Taco Tuesdays could involve different proteins or toppings, while still offering some structure to speed meal planning. Other themes ideas include main ingredients like Pasta Night, Meatness Monday; your favorite ethnic cuisine; or a go-to dish, such as pizza or curry. (My all-time favorite is Leftover Night)
- Batch cooking tailored to your schedule.
Is one part of your week busier than another? On less hectic days I like to cook larger, more involved meals that will provide leftovers later in the week. I also might cook a lot of one protein, to be used into two or more dishes. For example, shredded chicken or ground beef can be incorporated into a wide variety of recipes. Or grilled or baked proteins can later be served with different sauces. You can batch cook more than one meal at once, or simply prep a protein to streamline meal prep later in the week.
- Planning around protein sales.
If you want to shop sales but feel overwhelmed by grocery ads or remembering prices, focus on purchasing your proteins on sale, since this is often the most expensive ingredient in a recipe. See what’s on sale—ahead of time if possible—and brainstorm two or three meals using that same main ingredient as the basis for your recipe. Pinterest, Yumly, or other recipe curating web sites might help if you need ideas. But if you find those sites overwhelming, it’s better to stick with your favorite cookbook.
- Planning by cooking method.
For the busiest days, I plan ahead for quick recipes using the grill or pressure cooker. If I’ll have time at home but want a hands-off dish, the oven is my friend. Sometimes I want to unwind through culinary therapy and choose a hands-on, stove-top recipe. Of course the slow cooker is a stand-by for long busy days. Connecting these cooking methods to your scheduling needs can help set you up for meal planning success.
- Mix & match.
I use a combination of the ideas above to power meal planning. Practice has helped me become flexible and fast about making our menu, but I continue to think in categories: meatless dishes, 2 dishes from a large package of chicken, Thai, Indian, Mexican, etc. I enjoy trying one new recipe some weeks. This keeps things interesting and allows us to discover new favorite while keeping home cooking manageable throughout the week.
- Subscription services that plan meals for you.
If none of the ideas above appeal to you or meal-planning is just not your thing, you might try one of the subscription services that do the work for you. Many allow you to specify dietary restrictions, food preferences, and even tailor menus to weekly sales at various grocery chains. An affordable menu service could actually help you lower foods costs by reducing over-spending, food waste, and last minute dining out. I’ve never used one, but if you could recommend one, we’d appreciate your comments!
For more tips for cutting back your grocery budget without sacrificing nutrition, check out:
Do you find meal planning saves you money? How do you plan meals?