Meal planning is definitely a great tool for cutting expenses. But just planning your meals is not enough — you have to do it wisely. It's possible to meal plan and still spend MORE money than before (don't ask me how I know). This month on Fridays we're going to explore how to do meal planning RIGHT.
Though I've already written about meal planning (especifically about how much I hate it, lol), and even though I have my own exclusive two-week menu planner that I use often, I decided that it was time to revisit the idea. Doing meal planning more consistently is one of my 2016 goals, after all. So join me this month as we look at meal planning from the perspective of not just doing it, but doing it effectively.
Today I want to share some do's and don'ts of meal planning. It doesn't make sense to meal plan without a plan, lol. What I mean by that is that we want to avoid pitfalls that would cause wasted food, money, or time. It's silly to expend the effort it takes to meal plan and not be saving as much money as possible.
Do's of Meal Planning
1) Do plan for as long a period as is possible or practical. I used to plan in two-week increments because we got paid every two weeks. Now we get paid once a month, so I plan for the full month. This has been an eye opener. You save more money the longer you can plan for, y'all. One of the big reasons for this is because you make fewer trips to the store. But it also means you have to sit down and plan less often — so you're more likely to keep it up. Every two weeks got frustrating for me real fast… which is why I was inconsistent with it.
2) Do ALWAYS check what you have on hand first, before planning anything. This is easy — just go through your pantry, fridge and freezer(s) and write down everything you have and the quantity. The first meals you plan, then, will be ones using these items. This is a quick way to get started for the new month, which gives you the feeling that the act of meal planning won't be so bad after all — you've already got 4-5 (or more) meals planned without breaking a sweat! And it will also keep food from getting old and having to be discarded, as well as preventing your storage areas from becoming overcrowded.
3) Do trust your list. If you have been faithful to plan your meals carefully, then abide by your list when you go to the store. Don't buy anything that's not on the list. This is always a struggle for me… so I do give myself about $5-10 leeway to make an impulse purchase. BUT NO MORE THAN THAT.
4) Do supplement your meal plan by having ingredients for 4-5 quick and easy (and cheap) meals on hand at all times, so that you can punt on a given day. Let me be very clear here: these meals are NOT on the meal plan itself. They are only to be used in emergencies, y'all. I may or may not have been known to use all these meals up the first week of the month… so yea. One does have to be disciplined enough to actually follow the plan, lol. But having the ingredients in stock for a quick meal means that when you really can't cook the planned menu due to unforeseen circumstances, you will protect your budget by not having to go out to eat or run to the store for something else.
Don'ts for Meal Planning
1) Don't buy more than you need for the meal plan. This is related to #3 above, but I'm expanding it to say that it's not a good idea to “stock up” on a particular ingredient. I know this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but the fact is that stockpiling means you will actually be spending more money from your monthly budget that may not be worth it in the long run.
There is a possible exception to this, but it must meet BOTH of the following criteria: 1) it's a REALLY great price, and 2) it's something you use ALL THE TIME. Don't buy the bigger size because it's a better buy per ounce — unless it meets the above criteria. Don't buy two when you only need one for your meal plan — unless it meets the above criteria. Don't buy it at the warehouse store — unless it meets the above criteria.
Seriously, y'all — the goal is to stick to the budget. This becomes much more difficult if we are always “stocking up.” And then you're left with a bunch of stuff that is crowding up your storage areas and may or may not get used before it gets bugs or freezer burn. Following #2 in the Do's can lessen some of this problem, but suffice it to say that overbuying is not a good idea as a general rule — unless it meets the criteria. :-)
2) Don't buy too much fresh produce. This happens to me often, especially since I started shopping for the whole month. Even now I have a package of yellow squash that has little black spots reproducing all over it… Only buy enough to last a week or two, then make a SMALL trip to the store to get what you need for the rest of the month.
In the summer, this means you could just go to the local farmer's market without even having to step into the grocery store for that second trip. Because we all know that the more visits we make to the super center or grocery store, the more we'll be tempted to purchase other things, thus negating the benefit of #1 in the Do's. If you HAVE to make another trip to the store, take only the amount of money you will need to buy the produce you must have. Another solution is to use your fresh stuff in the beginning of the month and plan for canned or frozen later in the month.
3) Don't plan breakfast, lunch, or snacks. This is where you start looking at me funny — if you haven't been already, that is. :-) Y'all, I am all about MAKING THINGS EASIER. It's enough work for me to plan dinners; I prefer to just buy ingredients for breakfasts and lunches and then do those on the fly on a given day.
Besides which, there are often leftovers from the night before that we can have for lunch the next day. But that is not a predictable outcome for us, because some meals we eat more of because we like them so much, some nights we're more hungry than others, some recipes don't make as much, etc. etc.
Also, when we plan out all those other meals and snacks, we tend to get all hung up about variety — which means we spend more mula buying all sorts of different stuff. And then if we don't have a snack on a certain day, or we eat leftovers for lunch, we've got extra “planned” food lying around which may go to waste.
It's easier and CHEAPER for me to keep a stock of lunch meat and other lunch foods in the house, as well as eggs and sausage and other breakfast foods. It does mean you must be careful to study what your family likes for these meals and how much they will use over a given time period. But it's pretty quick and easy to determine the patterns here and plan accordingly.
4) Don't wait until the day of the meal to consult your plan. For meal planning to be effective, you need to know ahead of time what you have scheduled to make, so that you can thaw meat or do any pre-prep that is required. Always consult the meal plan the day before, maybe even while you are making dinner. Then you can pull meat out of the freezer and put it into the fridge — voila, no last minute battles with bricks of meat.
These tips will help you be successful with your meal planning. Cuz there's no point in doing all that work without reaping the benefits, right??
Next week I'm going to share all about my favorite meal planning tool. It has made meal planning much more enjoyable and quick for me. Since I hate doing it so much, anything that can simplify it is a winner!! Come back next Friday for the second installment of Meal Planning Month!
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