Financial Resource Center

Money Management


Meal Planning Saves You Time and Money

by Jennifer Garrett / November 4th, 2014

Imagine bringing home eight bags of groceries and immediately throwing two entire bags straight in the trash. The apples never make it to the lunch boxes. The milk never hits the cereal bowl. It sounds a bit crazy—because it is. No one would spend hundreds of dollars on groceries and promptly throw a quarter of them away. But as Americans, we do just that all the time. The Natural Resource Defense Council, New York, gathered statistics and data from a host of sources and concluded that Americans routinely throw away 25% of their groceries, costing a family of four somewhere in the ballpark of $1,400 to $2,300 per year. That's not, well, peanuts.

A healthy plan

Food waste is a big, multifaceted problem that no one is going to solve overnight, but there are tactics you can employ to cut down on your own food waste and squandered dollars. One of those is relatively simple: Menu planning. It's certainly not a new idea. Dieticians and consumer economists have long recommended planning meals before shopping as a means to avoid the impulse buys that wreak havoc on our waists and our wallets. The reason is that food choices can be emotionally driven, and we tend to make better decisions when we aren't making them at the grocery store when we are 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 DiabetesEveryDay.com. "People make healthier choices when they plan instead of relying on impulsive choosing."
Some expiration dates signify points at which taste or quality start to diminish although the food remains safe for consumption

A month at a time

As smart as that sounds, it can seem daunting to plan for an entire month at once. Predicting what your family wants to eat, 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 monthly food-planning advocate and blogger at goodcheapeats.com. 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 that 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. Fisher, who has been planning menus a month at a time for nearly 10 years, recommends starting with a paper or electronic calendar (and she provides one on her site). She first fills in any special occasions, such as birthdays or cookouts with friends. Then she fills in the regulars, like weekly taco or pasta nights and pizza on Fridays.Then she adds in the favorites that are in the rotation every week or so. By the time she fills in the standards, she is often halfway done. Isabel Maples, a registered dietician nutritionist and another spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, also suggests surveying the pantry and freezer to see what is on hand and then scanning circulars to see what is on sale.
Meal planning is healthier because it prevents you from relying on fast food or convenience foods.
Maples always recommends consulting your personal or family calendar as you plan so that you can slot in easier meals for busy nights with a lot of activities or work obligations. There is no sense setting out to try a new recipe midweek when you have a board meeting, soccer practice, and piano recital to squeeze in around the meal.

Cut calories, trim waste, save time

Fisher says planning month to month saves her time in the long run because she can buy some things in bulk and cut down on her trips to the store. It saves money, too, because it prevents the "what's-for-dinner" quandaries that might otherwise spur her family to eat out. It also helps keep their diet healthy because she doesn't rely on convenience or fast foods in a pinch, and the shopping lists that her planning generates cut down on the unhealthy or costly impulse buys at the grocery store. "Some people do not realize that menu planning is a time saver," Smithson says. "It takes longer to try and figure out what to serve your family if you haven't planned ahead and had the forethought to shop for the ingredients, so they are readily available in your house. When you plan a menu, you have a grocery list completed, too." Lindsie Lizotte, who writes the blog Mom's Bistro from her home in Littleton, Colo., has found that to be true. Before she routinely mapped out her monthly menus, she would find herself wandering the aisles at the grocery store without a plan and without a shopping list. Later at home she would scramble to prepare meals, struggling without key ingredients or little money left in her food budget. Frustrated, she would head back to the store multiple times to fetch a critical ingredient at the last minute and blow her budget in the process.
You tend to make better decisions at the grocery store when you're not tired, hungry, or stressed out.
Things are different now. "I always know what is for dinner, I know what is in my fridge, and I know how much money I have to spend each week," Lizotte says.

Take control

If plotting things out 31 days at a time seems like too much, Maples suggests shifting your perspective and adjusting your expectations. You can build in nights for dining out. You can leave some nights open for leftovers, sandwiches, or whatever sounds good that day. You can change the schedule midmonth if you would rather have your meat loaf on Wednesday instead of Sunday. Ultimately, menu planning is about taking control of your eating and your food spending, she says. You never should feel like a slave to your calendar. Maples encourages families to start with a weekly plan. Doubling recipes as you go and stashing them in the freezer will give you options for later on. She also recommends beginning with time-tested, family approved dinners rather than a wholesale makeover of your eating habits, refrigerator stock, and shopping patterns. You could end up spending more money on foods that you think you should eat, have no real idea how to prepare, and eventually toss out. Last, don't overlook food storage as a meal planning and waste-reducing strategy. Maples recommends scanning expiration dates and planning around the most perishable items—particularly those that cannot be frozen or preserved. Also, note that "sell-by" dates allow for some storage time at home, and some expiration dates signify points at which taste or quality start to diminish although the food remains safe for consumption. In other words, textures may change as items grow stale but consuming them won't make you sick.
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