(Flickr – Kyla Roma)
This month, I’ve been focusing on how one would go about Eating Healthy on a Budget. Today I’d like to talk about what I consider to be THE most important element of how to stay on a budget while maintaining healthy eating: planning.
Why Menu Planning Matters
When tackling a problem, I prefer to look at the bigger picture first. If you were to attend one of my couponing classes, you would hear me spend a lot of time at the beginning of the class talking about stockpiling, planning a pantry, and understanding approaches to grocery shopping. Why? Because I believe it’s so important to start with the end goal in mind.
Here’s where I think a lot of people go wrong when they get on a new diet or resolve to eat better: they head to the store and start filling their cart with all the healthy foods they “should” be eating. To be clear, healthy food is not the enemy. Shopping without a plan, however, is.
Here’s what a good weekly meal plan should do for you:
- Keeps you from eating out. If you know what’s on the menu and have the ingredients to prepare it, you’ll be less likely to eat out, which is generally a budget-buster and often, challenging for your diet goals.
- Prevents “little” shopping trips. In my experience, those “little” middle-of-the-week grocery trips can be detrimental to your budget. Not only are you spending extra time and gas going to the store yet again, every time you visit the store you’re faced with temptation to over-spend (and possibly, blow your healthy eating plan). Some people think I like shopping at the store all the time – on the contrary, I’m always striving to reduce my time in the stores. I do best when I can stick to a once-weekly shopping trip.
- Reduces stress. Don’t you hate those days where the evening is starting to roll around and you’ve not even thought of dinner? Again, this is where you can get easily tempted into making a poor eating choice. Planning ahead helps reduce and even eliminate those opportunities to be tempted into making poor choices.
- Reduces waste. Consider my example above of shopping and just filling your cart with food. If that food item isn’t an ingredient in one of your meals or snacks that week, you run the real risk of having it go bad.
I think we can all pretty much agree a meal plan is a good idea. But are there better ways to go about doing this? And how can you best meal plan to keep to a budget?
Meal Planning for Budgeters
I wanted to give you several tips for making sure you make the most of your meal plan. Some of this will be trial and error, but don’t give up! Lovingly prepared homemade meals made of nourishing, healthful foods are worth the time and effort.
- Create a weekly time slot to plan your meals. Pick a day to do your meal planning and a day to do your shopping. I like to meal plan on Sundays when I see all the ads and coupons available.
- Use deals to plan meals. Save money by planning a meal or two highlighting something you find on sale that week.
- Vary your recipes. I try to limit the number of involved/many ingredient recipes to one maybe, two, per week. Try to include a couple meals where most of the ingredients can be pulled from your pantry/garden to offset your weekly cost.
- Include meatless meals. If you’re up for it, include one or two meatless meals on your menu this week. You would be surprised how hearty and filling vegetarian options can be! Try making chili using TVP bought in bulk versus ground beef, or making your own burgers using a can of black beans. As an added bonus, these meals are often very quick and easy to make and encourage your family to eat more plants.
- Plan recipes with overlapping ingredients. This may not always work for your plans, but when it does, it can be a real money saver! For instance: you might make a roast chicken one night and then plan on having chicken soup the next. Last week, I made a slow cooker beef with potatoes one night and the next night, turned the leftovers into a sandwich. Think about ways you can maximize what you buy at the store.
- Don’t over plan. I find that if I plan about 4 meals per week, it’s just about right for our family’s schedule. If I plan too much more than that, we tend to get a build-up of leftovers and then I have a waste situation. I also have found sometimes it’s OK to plan a few meals, but not assign a particular meal to each day of the week so there’s some flexibility.
- Keep your recipes handy. I have talked before about creating a family binder of family recipes – or even taking the time to list out 20-30 of your favorite “staples.” I pull this out when I go to make my list so I’m not there scratching my head about what to make. I might also check our fridge for about-to-expire ingredients or freezer for meals I could pull out to supplement my plan.
Finally, when planning your menu list and resulting grocery list for the week, make sure to think about breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and anything else you have coming up that week (for instance, if your preschooler has snack that week). I generally keep things pretty simple for these items, but do like to make sure they are accounted for.
I sincerely believe you would save a lot of money if the only thing you did was plan a menu for the week, turn that into a grocery list, and then stick with it. Couponing and sales shopping are tools you can use to help inform your planning, and most effective when used with a plan.
I would love to hear other tips that have worked for you in menu planning! Do you have some sort of schedule for how you plan your menu and grocery list each week?