Financial Resource Center

Money Management

Meal Planning Saves You Time and Money

by Jennifer Garrett / December 11th, 2019

Imagine bringing home eight bags of groceries and immediately throwing two entire bags straight in the trash. It sounds a bit crazy—because it is. But as Americans, we do just that all the time. The Natural Resource Defense Council, reports that Americans routinely throw away 200 pounds of food annually, costing a family of four about $1,500 per year. That's not, well, peanuts.

A Healthy Plan

Food waste is a big problem, but there are ways to cut down on your own food waste and squandered dollars. One of those is relatively simple: Menu planning. Dieticians and consumer economists have long recommended planning meals before shopping to avoid the impulse buys that wreak havoc on our wallets. The reason is that food choices can be emotionally driven, and we tend to make better decisions when we aren't tired, hungry, or stressed. "Planning can make a huge positive difference," says Toby Smithson, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Chicago, and the founder of "People make healthier choices when they plan instead of relying on impulsive choosing."

A Month at a Time

Predicting what your family wants to eat in a month, how much time you'll have to cook, and whether you'll have what you need weeks ahead of time can seem impractical if not impossible. It only seems that way until you try it, says Jessica Fisher, a blogger at The mother of six from San Diego, and author of Not Your Mother's Make-Ahead and Freeze Cookbook, says planning a month at a time is far simpler than it seems and it definitely gets easier as you go. "I found that our family was enjoying similar meals each week and that I could easily shop and plan for several weeks at one time," she says. Start with a paper calendar or a menu planning app. Fill in any special occasions, such as birthdays or cookouts with friends. Then fill in the regulars, like weekly taco or pizza nights. Finally, add in the favorites that are in the rotation every week or so.

Planning month to month can save you time because you can buy some things in bulk and cut down on trips to the store. It also helps keep your diet healthy because you won't rely on convenience or fast foods in a pinch.

Menu-Planning Hacks

If plotting things out 30 days at a time seems like too much, you can certainly build in nights for dining out, and leave some nights open for leftovers and sandwiches.

Start with a weekly plan. Double up recipes as you go and stash them in the freezer to give you options for later on. Begin with family-approved dinners rather than a wholesale makeover of your eating habits. Last, scan expiration dates and plan around the most perishable items. 

You don't have to do all the planning yourself — make it a family activity to get everyone's input. If certain family members have a specialty, they can be the chef on the day their specialty is scheduled.

Ultimately, menu planning can be a time saver, a way to insure your family eats healthy meals, and an excellent way to avoid waste and keep your grocery bills manageable.

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