I’m back again, one week later than intended (best laid plans…) to follow up on my meal planning mindset post. Hopefully you’ve had the chance to gauge your meal planning readiness and have come back fired up and ready for some tips on how to save some serious coin by meal planning. My goal with these tips is to help you save money through meal planning. Of course, you may have other meal planning goals (healthy eating, etc.) and these tips may help with those goals too, but they’re mostly aimed at keeping cash in your pocket. Let’s do this!
1. Map out your week
Meal planning starts with knowing what’s on the horizon for the week ahead. Map out every meal and snack that you need to plan for, including days when you may be cooking for extra people, and removing any days when you’ll be dining out. You need to how many meals and people you’re planning for. Once you are armed with that info, you’re ready to select what you’ll make for each of those meals.
2. Pick your recipes/meals
There are some cardinal rules here that will save your sanity and your pocket book, some of which rely on having the mindset I wrote about last week. If you’re an avid cook, this process will be easier as you’ll have a large repertoire of recipes and food combinations to draw upon. If you’re not comfortable in the kitchen, my suggestion is to make note of a few of your favourite ingredients and literally Google “[insert favourite food] + recipe” and see what comes up. As you start to read and try recipes, pay attention to food combinations that you enjoy (and don’t enjoy!) and build up from there. In addition:
- Consider meals that can take advantage of larger packages of proteins: buying protein in larger quantities is usually considerably cheaper. If you’re willing to eat chicken a couple different ways during the same week, you can buy in bulk and save more. Remember last week when I said get used to repetition? This is where you have to put that mindset into action.
- Keep it simple with breakfasts and lunches: Honestly, we eat maybe 2 variations of breakfasts and lunches week after week. Sometimes it’s boring, but the simplicity and ease of preparation and shopping makes it worthwhile. Plus, it allows us to buy certain staples in bulk. The fewer different ingredients you need to buy, the less you’ll spend. If that sounds awful to you, ask yourself if you’re really going to make seven different breakfasts and lunches every week.
- Avoid recipes with ingredients you’ll rarely use again: I had a bottle of pomegranate molasses in my fridge for six years. Six years. I bought it to make a salad dressing for a frisee, grapefruit and olive salad, a salad that doesn’t scream ‘every day salad’. I follow at least 30 food blogs so I’m constantly confronted by recipes I want to make but that often include ingredients I’d use rarely, if ever. When I’m in money-saving meal planning mode, I have to skip past those recipes and move on to simpler things.
- Remember to account for leftovers: Closely look at the yield for recipes and make sure you work leftovers into your meal plan. This way you’ll avoid over-purchasing groceries and having a ton of food left over at the end of the week.
- If you’re proactive, take a look at what’s on sale at your local stores before deciding on your meals for the week: It’s best to build your meal plan around what’s on sale (although you can also adjust your game plan in real time, as you’ll see later in this post). No matter when you check out prices, you’ll save more if you plan recipes around the best deals.
- Select vegetables wisely: If you’re planning on including vegetables in your meal plan, you want to think about which vegetables will last in your fridge for the whole week without wilting or rotting. For instance, we buy a lot of kale for our lunch salads. It’s not because kale is trendy or a superfood, either. It’s because kale lasts forever, even when it’s dressed. I can prep kale on Sunday afternoon and it’s just as fresh come Friday. The same won’t be true of pre-bagged lettuce mixes. You’ll also save more if you buy fruits and veggies that are in season. Importing adds costs to products, and that all comes out of your pocket.
- I cannot repeat enough: select recipes and meals that you will be willing and able to prepare!!!!
3. Make your shopping list
Once you have your meals selected for the week, it’s time to build a detailed shopping list. This seems easy on the surface, but here’s a few tips to optimize your opportunities to save coin:
- Pay attention to quantities required in your recipes: If you know exactly how much you need, you can do the math on whether it makes sense to buy packaged goods or to buy in bulk. Recently I needed 1 tablespoon of corn starch for a recipe, and I never, ever, ever use corn starch. Even though it’s cheap in large packages, it still didn’t make sense. I was able to score a tiny amount in bulk that I’m fairly certain cost about 6 cents.
- Always, always, always check your fridge, freezer and pantry before finalizing your list: Make sure you know what you have already. You don’t want to end up with three bottles of dijon mustard (not that it’s happened to me, of course) or no rice because “we always have rice” (again, not that it’s happened to me). Do an inventory before you put pen to paper.
4. Hit the store(s)!
- Be prepared to swap out proteins and sides if you see a better deal: I’m not always the most proactive when it comes to looking at deals up front. When we’re in the store, we keep an eye out for great deals. If lamb is on for a great price, we’ll either buy it to freeze or swap it out for one of our other planned meals.
- Stick to your list…unless you see a great deal on items that you can freeze or store for use at a later date: Sometimes you don’t need another 2 pound bag of oats but it’s on for such a great price that it makes sense to buy it and store it. If something easily freezes or stores for long periods, it’s always wise to stock up at a great price. What you want to avoid is buying a whole bunch of extra stuff that you really don’t need just because it’s tempting. My own personal weaknesses are things like ice cream or candy. I either work these treats into my meal plan (dessert is a totally legit part of my meal plans, of course) or keep on walking.
- Get to know pricing at various stores: Sure it’s a pain in the ass to go to more than one store every week, but you’ll quickly see that it can be worth it. Organic lacinato kale is $2.50/bunch at our local vegetable market compared to $3.99/bunch at our main grocery store. However, lettuce at the local vegetable market is 40 cents more per head than the grocery store. I’ve gotten obsessive about paying attention to where the prices are good for certain items. It’s not always where you would think, and the small amounts of savings really do add up.
- Think beyond the week: Buy family sized packs or larger quantities if you are likely to use ingredients again and again (as long as it’s food that can be stored or frozen). Rice, pasta, flour, oats, and other pantry staples fall into this category, but so do proteins that you use on the regular.
5. Prep, prep, prep
This doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with saving money. However, some of your veggies will last longer in the fridge if you take the time to wash, dry and store them properly right away. I spend 45 minutes every weekend washing, drying, chopping and storing various greens. I loathe it. But trust me, if you leave greens all damp and crushed together in that slimy grocery store plastic bag, they will rot before you know it. When it comes to proteins that you’re planning to freeze, do it right away. If you don’t, you may forget and end up throwing money down the drain. Any prep you do over the weekends will also make it far more likely that you’ll actually stick to your meal plan during the week. If all your big prep is done, cooking will be much more appealing and you’ll be less likely to opt for dining out. Sticking to your meal plan = saving money.
6. Keep track of what works and what doesn’t
You’re going to have some big winners in your meal plan, either things that are super easy or super delicious (maybe even both!). You’ll want to remember those recipes for future meal plans. You’ll also have some big fails, some recipes that are either downright unpleasant or a ton of work (also sometimes both!). Unfortunately, it’s the failures that are more likely to make you disillusioned with meal planning in general. Make note of ingredients you don’t enjoy, things that you don’t actually end up eating during the week, or styles of cooking that made you want to pull your hair out. Remember for meal planning to stick, it’s got to work for you.
So there you have it, a very long and not-so-specific guide to help you save money by meal planning. Go forth and save some coin!