Meal planning is one of those things that we all know that we should do, but often try to avoid. The benefits of meal planning are well-known–healthier meals, less time spent in the kitchen, savings at the grocery store–but it can be time-consuming. The trick to meal planning is to have a system in place that makes it simple to plan healthy, frugal, real food meals for your family while keeping your stress levels low and reducing your food waste.
Food waste is a significant issue–over 40 percent of the food purchased in the United States is never eaten. When you consider the environmental and financial impact of this figure, as well as the implications for those who are food-insecure, it’s sobering. Meal planning is one big step that you can take to reducing your household food waste today.
When I plan my family’s meals, we tend to save a lot of money–at one point, we were spending over $1000 a month on eating out, and it wasn’t all fine dining. Not only was this incredibly unhealthy, but it was ridiculous given our modest budget. In addition, we were still spending a big chunk of our paycheck on groceries. When I overhauled my meal planning process, we were able to reduce our restaurant spending to a reasonable and intentional level, as well as purchase higher quality groceries for less.
Disclosure: Some of the links below may be affiliate links, which means that I receive a small commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase.
1. Check your calendar
One thing that I always do prior to meal planning is check our family calendar to see if we have any evening events or work lunches that will alter the plan. I also want to leave myself enough time to cook, so I won’t plan a more labor intensive recipe on a day where we have a late afternoon appointment or a moms night out. I also build in at least one flex night per week in case we have leftovers to use up or decide to go out to eat.
2. Make a list of what you already have
Using what you already have is the best way to save money on your grocery bill and reduce food waste. Every time you toss a forgotten can of expired beans or a handful of slimy spinach, you’re throwing away your money. Before you start planning your meals, write down everything that needs to be used up—from the half of a pepper in the produce drawer to the open can of tomato paste, you can incorporate the grocery orphans into your meals that week and avoid waste.
It also helps to keep a stocked pantry with staples like grains, beans, baking supplies, and canned goods, as well as a few essentials like chicken stock and frozen veggies in the freezer.
3. Know what produce is in season
Have you ever purchased fresh berries in January? They’re usually double the price of summer berries and half as tasty. Sticking to seasonal, local produce will ensure that your meals are delicious and frugal year round.
It’s easy to find out what’s in season in your area by running a simple Google search, or you can refer to a handy guide like this one. Another way to make sure that you’re eating the best of the season is to shop at your local farmers market, where produce is often fresher and cheaper than at the grocery store.
4. Find recipes that stretch meat purchases
Once you know what you need to use up and what produce is available to you, start thinking about how to incorporate meat into your meals [if you choose to consume it]. By using meat within a recipe instead of making it the star of the plate, you can use purchase higher quality meat in lesser quantities. Think chicken enchiladas instead of roast chicken, steak salad instead of steak and potatoes, or chicken pot pie instead of chicken parmesan.
Another great way to stretch meat purchases is to use less meat in a recipe and replace it with other items, like veggies or beans. This can easily be done using veggies in a stir fry, or you can use half the meat you would normally use in chili and add more beans instead.
5. Make the plan
The most time-consuming part of meal planning is determining which recipes to make. There are lots of different options here, depending on your schedule and interest in cooking as a hobby.
One option is to create a rotating list of family favorites and simply select from that list based on what needs to be used up in your fridge. This approach is quick and easy, but meals can become monotonous.
Another option is to search for seasonal recipes that will use up the leftovers in your fridge. If you love to cook, this can be a great way to explore new recipes and keep meals exciting, but it will be more time consuming up front.
Personally, I follow a hybrid approach. I love to cook new recipes and I don’t limit myself to a rotating list of favorites. While searching for new recipes makes meal planning a longer process, I find that making what I’m craving that particular week is a great way to get excited about preparing each meal and eating at home. I also incorporate 2-3 family favorites each week that are easy to prepare so I’m not spending hours in the kitchen every night.
How often you choose to meal plan is a matter of personal preference. I tend to plan weekly, but have experimented with monthly and seasonal meal planning as well. If you have a very consistent schedule, you can use long-range planning to your advantage and stock up on items at the beginning of the month, reducing your expenses and trips to the grocery store. If your season of life doesn’t allow for strict planning, you may wish to shop weekly in order to ensure that you’re using up all of the food you bought the week before.
A note about sales:
I don’t spend time comparing weekly sale flyers because I find that making multiple stops is just too inconvenient with a toddler in tow. Typically, I look for deals at my favorite store in broader categories like fruit and nuts, knowing that I can buy whatever is on special while I’m shopping.
6. Purchase items in bulk
Bulk shopping can save you quite a bit of money and time if you plan in advance. Shopping in bulk can have two meanings–many of us tend to think of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam’s Club, but there is also the option to buy loose items from the bulk bins at the grocery store. Both can help you save.
Warehouse stores, if you have the pantry space, can be a great option for real food items like dried beans and grains, canned vegetables [if the lining is BPA free], frozen organic veggies, giant blocks of cheese, and my personal favorite, huge tubs of Kerrygold butter. Since you’re purchasing large quantities, there is less packaging as well–eco-win.
Shopping from the bulk bins can also be more economical than purchasing a packaged alternative. Bulk spices tend to be much cheaper than packaged ones, and you can also buy a large quantity of staple items like oats and beans for less. On the flip side, if you only need a small amount of an item, the bulk bins are your friend.
7. Consider alternatives to the grocery store
Purchasing food and household items in alternative ways can result in huge cost savings, as well as increased quality and convenience. Consider joining a community supported agriculture (CSA) program through a local farm, and pick up a variety of produce each week at the farmer’s market.
There are also CSA programs for meat, dairy, and eggs, or you could purchase meat in bulk if you have a chest freezer. Online buying clubs like Zaycon Fresh have also become popular, though they don’t have an organic option at this time.
Co-ops have great deals on pantry items, or you could try buying them online through sites like Thrive Market or Amazon. You’ll also be able to save money over time if you purchase household goods like laundry soap in large quantities through a buying club like Azure Standard.
Meal planning can seem like a chore, but it truly makes your life much less stressful. If you want to take the next step and get organized about meal planning this new year [or if you need new healthy recipes to get you started], one resource I like is The Ultimate Healthy Meal Planning Bundle.
This collection of over 100 digital resources contains 3,800 recipes and ready-made meal plans to help you de-stress mealtime, put more healthy meals on the table, and save money. Several of my favorite cooking bloggers and authors are featured [Wardee Harmon, Wellness Mama, Melissa Joulwan]–you get a lot of great information for the price of a single cookbook, and avoid surfing Pinterest for hours looking for new recipes.
You can choose from several mini-bundles that fits your dietary needs, like paleo, real food, or vegan, or for $20 more, get all 10 mini-bundles with every recipe, eCookbook, and meal plan.
Here’s a sample of what’s included in the Real Food/Clean Eating Bundle:
- Clean Eating: A 28-Day Meal Plan to Reset Your Body, Fight Inflammation, Eliminate Toxins, & Lose Weight Naturally by Kayla Chandler
- Conquer Dinner: Your Step-By-Step Guide For Getting Healthy, Homemade Dinners on the Table, Fast! by Maryea Flaherty
- Everyday Sourdough: Recipes for the Everyday Baker by Kelsey Steffen
- It’s That Easy by Jessica Hylton-Leckie
- Love Your Veggies by Kelsey Preciado
- Seasonal Meal Plans by Keri Houchin
- Simple Clean and Whole Breakfast Recipes by Jennifer Meister
- Superfood Green Smoothies: 30 Delicious + Easy Recipes to Reduce Inflammation, Balance Hormones, Improve Digestion + Help You Feel Great by Kate Kordsmeier
- The Breakfast Revolution by Beth Ricci
- The Taste of Eating Clean by Paula Miller
- The Tired & Hungry Cook’s Companion: Healthy New Year’s Kickoff 3-Month Mealplan Bundle by Kresha Faber
- Wellness Mama’s Snack Favorites by Katie Wells
This is a great way to help kickstart your meal planning this year. The sale ends on January 5th! Go get yours here: https://us154.isrefer.com/go/HMPB2018/a12840/
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