Grocery prices continue to rise, making the family dinner a larger financial drain on the family budget. In addition, the busier our lives get, the more we are likely to resort to takeout and pre-packaged meals to quickly satisfy our hunger. If the question, “What’s for dinner?” makes you shudder a little, read on.
No other single organizational tool has brought me the amount of financial payback as meal planning. Having meals planned out in advance saves money on eating out when you don’t know what to make (or don’t feel like it); buying pre-made meals or takeout when you forget to thaw something for dinner; and buying expensive ingredients for a single meal and then discarding what isn’t eaten or used.
For the small amount of time you invest in making the meal plan (this is greatly reduced after you have been planning for a couple months), you will find that on a daily basis, you have freed up the time previously spent trying to figure out what to buy or prepare.
Eco Tip! Another important aspect of meal planning is reducing waste. You can plan to use up all of the ingredients you purchase before they go bad, and use the leftovers from as part of your plan.
Your family members will also enjoy more satisfying meals as you incorporate a rotating list of favorites, aren’t obligated to eat the same meal over and over until it is gone, and enjoy new recipes.
Here are the top three excuses I used to give for why I couldn’t do a Meal Plan:
“We don’t eat the same things”
Throwing together our little family a little over a year ago, it was soon obvious that the mere act of trying to cook meals was going to be a trial. My son has always been an extremely picky eater. Autism has made him sensitive to food tastes and textures, and he would gag if given anything a little different. I had been used to making just the things that he would eat, to avoid battles and digestive distress.
Thanks to a number of food allergies (corn, soy, egg, potato, rye, legumes, and their associated friends) I cannot eat anything that is prepackaged or processed, anything containing those ingredients or derivatives of them. My husband has always eaten one large meal a day, which must be hearty enough to get him through the next day of work. He prefers a meat and potatoes, home style diet. I love all types of spices and foods from other countries, while my son and husband like more typical American (or Americanized) food.
“We rarely even have time to sit down for a meal together once a week”
Then came the next challenge. We eat at very different times. Furthermore, my husband’s one meal is when he is done working. Depending on the day, he can eat anywhere between 2 and 8 PM. He is extremely hungry when he is ready to eat, so the meal needs to be something that won’t take much time or effort to have ready for him.
My son, like most teenagers, is hungry when he gets home from school and will snack until dinnertime, which I try to discourage by having his diner ready early. I am always hungry and will snack or eat small meals throughout the day.
“I don’t know how to make that many recipes”
I didn’t start cooking until a few years ago, and felt ill-equipped to make enough different types of meals to satisfy all our tastes. I wanted my family to look forward to mealtime and have a healthy and varied supply of food.
Power of the Pen
After reading about the importance of meal planning for both making a household run smoothly, and the financial benefits, I finally decided to give it a try. I began by jotting down a simple plan for dinners for the week ahead. It wasn’t based on what we had on hand or what was on sale. It was just 7 meals I could think of at the time.
Consulting with my family, such as asking my son what he has tried and liked at school or his dad’s house, yielded a few more meal ideas. I scoured magazines, cookbooks and online recipes to get ideas, even looking through the grocery store at the frozen meals for inspiration.
Merely having something written down helped a lot. Especially if I also remembered to thaw whatever meat was needed for that meal. I began to make and save these lists on my smart phone so they would be handy when I needed to think about dinner.
After months of seeing benefits to efficiency, I was still struggling with the fact that I was usually making multiple meals. Also, I was determined to try to cook for my husband, and having him come home at 2 pm, famished, on a day I was preparing a large meal for 6 PM, made us all miserable.
I made a chart listing foods down the left, and family members across the top. I then put an “X” in the column for each food the person would eat. This helped me see where we had overlap of 2 (or even 3) of us able to eat the same food.
Next, I printed out a blank calendar page and using pencil (not pen, trust me on this one), started to fill in the days with meals. I found I had enough meal ideas off the top of my head to cover nearly 2 weeks. Then I repeated the meals for the next couple weeks. By making enough for 2 meals and then reusing the leftovers on a date 2 weeks later, the work would already be done and we wouldn’t tire of eating something. I could also plan for days when I needed to make different meals. For those days, either the meals could incorporate some similar ingredients and save on time, or one could be taken from what had been saved previously and frozen.
To help deal with the timing factor, I have the ingredients thawed and prepped early in the day, so I am able to prepare the meal quickly when my husband gets home. Even easier, I can set the slow cooker or have dinner simmering in a Dutch oven, so it is ready when he arrives.
Many dishes use the same basic ingredients. By planning this way, I have been able to make the most use of my time and energy, while increasing the number of meals we can all share. Leftovers can be frozen and brought out at a later date, or used in entirely different dishes. For instance, we all like simple Mexican foods, like tacos, quesadillas and enchiladas. Instead of making the meal using store-bought taco dinner kits that I cannot eat, I make my own tortillas and spice mixtures. This way the food is safe for me, healthier and less expensive as well. Rice and meats leftover from one meal are saved to use as ingredients on “taco” nights, so there is variety of filling.
Next time you get asked, “What’s for dinner?” you can have a ready answer. Even better, you can post the meal plan calendar where family members can see it themselves. They will be less apt to argue about what you are having for dinner if it is set down on paper.
First appeared on Letters from Sunnybrook
About the Author: Ever since she was a child, Rebecca has been fascinated by numbers and how to work with money. She started her first ‘envelope system’ using plastic containers and change found on the ground. As a teen, she asked for subscriptions to financial reports instead of fashion magazines. Today, she likes to share ideas on saving money, budgeting, making healthy meals, pet care and parenting, and living a joyfully frugal lifestyle on her Blog www.LettersFromSunnybrook.com