Meal plan with a calendar, so you know what you're going to prepare each dayMeal plan with a calendar, so you know what you're going to prepare each day
List out what you already have on hand and build your menu around those items firstList out what you already have on hand and build your menu around those items first
Balance food sources (especially protein)Balance food sources (especially protein)
  • Meal plan with a calendar, so you know what you're going to prepare each day
  • List out what you already have on hand and build your menu around those items first
  • Balance food sources (especially protein)

Meal planning has changed my life.

I know it sounds overdramatic, but I really think it’s true.

A couple years ago I took a long, hard look at our monthly expenses. We had been going out to eat and buying lunch more than I knew was a good idea, and I wanted to put a dollar sign on the gut feeling I had that we were spending too much.

What I found was astounding. Not only were our grocery expenses moderately high (which I am mostly okay with, because I have high standards for good food), but our expenses for restaurant foods were 2 to 3 times our total grocery bill. This was completely unacceptable and unsustainable.

On top of the financial drain, I often found myself stressed at the end of the day because I didn’t know what to make for dinner. The cycle was:

  1. Arrive home
  2. Procrastinate because I didn’t know what to make
  3. Scour cookbooks and recipe sites for meal ideas for 30-45 minutes
  4. Decide what I would make
  5. Start cooking and get to the middle of the recipe and realize I didn’t some major ingredient
  6. Frantically try to either a) make the recipe work without the ingredient (generally a bad idea) or b) send Charlie out on an emergency grocery store run to buy the missing item
  7. Eat a very late, anxiety-ridden meal
None of this was especially conducive to a relaxing evening at home after a long day at work.

I had heard of this thing called “meal planning” but had never attempted to do it. I called up my friend Amanda whom I knew was religious about meal planning to keep costs down. I also gathered suggestions from family on how to minimize food costs while still maintaining a high quality diet. With their tips and encouragement, and the motivation that I could save the equivalent of $15-20/day just by taking 15 minutes to make our lunches in the morning ($60-80/hour ain’t a bad wage), I determined to start meal planning.

Two years later, I think I’ve got this meal planning thing down. I don’t do anything fancy for lunches (mostly sandwiches and easy salads that we can bring to work), so I primarily meal plan for dinners. I use a Moleskine calendar to record everything by date.

Here’s my strategy:

  1. Assess and make a list of what I already have on hand. This includes what’s ready to be harvested in the garden, leftovers from the previous week, anything that needs to be used up soon, foods in the freezer and in storage. I organize the items primarily into groups of vegetables and proteins.
  2. Write down any events or commitments we have that week. This helps me know when I will have more time to cook, and when I should plan to have something easy on hand.
  3. Find recipes that mostly match what foods I already have on hand. (We do usually have quite a bit of food on hand, so this helps us make the most use of it and prevents waste. If we didn’t have much, though, I would move to the next step.) I cook out of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone about 90% of the time, so I always start here. But if I’ve found a recipe online that looks good, I will save it for a week when we have most of the ingredients or I think it would work well in the week’s overall menu. I occasionally do Google cooking as well, but not surprisingly the recipes aren’t usually as good.
  4. Balance meal selections by their protein content. We don’t eat much meat, so I try to have a variety of protein sources over the course of the week. Each day would ideally have a different protein. I allow myself about one non-protein heavy meal (like a vegetarian pasta or rice dish) a week. This could look like:
    • Meat (beef, chicken, fish)
    • Eggs
    • Quinoa
    • Beans/lentils
    • Nuts
    • Pasta/rice
  5. Choose which day to prepare each meal based on our schedule and write it in the calendar. If we have something going on, I don’t try to do something fancy. Instead I’ll plan on easy meals or using leftovers. I plan to cook meals on 4 weeknights, with one night designated as leftovers night. We often make pizza on Saturday night, and I try to plan something easy for Sunday night because I’m usually worn out from working in the garden all day.
  6. Make notes in the calendar on days that I need to take something out of the freezer to let it thaw for the next night, or pre-cook something, like beans or rice.
  7. Make a list of what foods I need to buy for the week.

I usually meal plan on Saturday nights. It takes me 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how complicated I want to make the meals and how long it takes me to find what I want. I usually buy groceries right afterwards (the stores are totally dead on Saturday nights), so our meal cycle begins on Sunday.

Now that I meal plan, there’s no stress at the end of the day. I know exactly what I’m going to make, and I know that I have all the ingredients. We don’t eat as late in the night because I can get started on cooking as soon as I get home. Our food waste has gone to basically zero, because each week I reassess what needs to be used up.

Having lived this method for the past two years, now I can’t imagine not meal planning. What, you just go to the grocery store, buy a bunch of random stuff and hope it all works out? No wonder I never had everything that I needed.

Do you meal plan? What’s your strategy?

8 Responses to “Save money and decrease stress by meal planning”

  1. pattyskypants
    19 November 2012 at 10:00 pm #

    I do it in my head rather than writing it down and I often cook lots of meals on Sunday or Saturday, storing them in the fridge for use throughout the week. It all started when I realized I was spending no less than $7 every day on lunch in restaurants downtown and mostly getting sick every day afterward. Looking at the big picture, I realized I could save $25 if I brought my own and limited it to $2 or less. Over a period of five years I saved a LOT of money (over $7,000) and learned how to cook really well. I lost weight, BP and cholesterol went down and I wasn’t getting sick. Now when I cook dinners I also plan to have leftovers for lunches.

    Also, I buy what’s on sale, which means I don’t stick to a calendar that starts on Sunday. I start on Wednesday, when the prices change. I shop for fresh meat and produce. I rarely buy canned or boxed items, except rice and pasta. I am eating very, very well.

  2. CoMo Homestead
    20 November 2012 at 10:13 am #

    Good suggestions, pattyskypants! Thanks!

  3. Eric Reuter
    22 November 2012 at 3:59 pm #

    Your approach would also be very useful for members of CSAs as they learn to use what’s available in a given week.

    Our own approach is almost 180 opposite; we rarely plan meals ahead but have developed a set of cooking skills and known recipes that allow us to instinctively make use of whatever’s around. I can’t remember the last time I sat down with a cookbook and planned ahead; we’re just very comfortable putting together interesting meals on the fly and/or going to known recipes that we can use as adaptable templates. For example, knowing how to make a basic cream sauce opens up a wide range of vegetable pasta ideas throughout the year without needing a specific pasta recipe. Pizza is another obvious example.

    Either way, it’s very useful to have an understanding of how to use, substitute, and interchange ingredients. I think many people get bogged down in trying to find recipes that use exactly what they have, or going shopping for exactly what’s in their recipes. Having both the knowledge and confidence to adapt recipes to circumstances is a very powerful tool for avoiding food and/or money waste.

    Something we’ve wanted to do on our website for years is to develop and publish a set of “master” recipes that can serve as cooking frameworks for customers/CSA members. For example, a master soup/stew recipe that calls for ~X cups of mixed chopped vegetables, ~Y cups of liquid (meat/veggie/mushroom/tomato broth) is far more useful to home cooks than So-and-So’s Favorite Soup that might or might not have parsnips, leeks, or sweet potatoes in it.

    Having the confidence to adapt recipes or methods benefits either of our approaches, and I think is one of the best skills a home cook can develop.

  4. CoMo Homestead
    22 November 2012 at 7:24 pm #

    Thanks for sharing! I really admire your ability to whip up meals on the fly. That’s an approach that I’d really like to work towards, although I think I will always benefit from at least a loose plan for the week so I don’t flounder at dinner time with trying to figure out what approach to take.

    Along the lines of your approach, one book on my list to eventually buy is How to Cook Without a Book (which ironically is a book). It teaches master recipe-style cooking like you’re talking about, so it might be helpful to you in pulling your suggestions together for members.

  5. Joanna Reuter
    24 November 2012 at 8:32 pm #

    Another meal planning tool that I think could be really useful is Eat Your Books:

    The site has a vast database of indexed cookbooks (including many of the obscure ones on our shelf). You tell it which cookbooks you have, and it will search within those for ingredients, keywords, etc. It doesn’t give the full recipe, but directs you to the page in the cookbook on your shelf that has what you’re looking for. Cooking magazines and reputable food blogs are also indexed.

    We’re not subscribers, mainly because Eric is the alpha cook in the house. But I think it is very intriguing, and I can think of a number of times when it could have helped me get a meal on the table faster, either by helping me find a known recipe sooner or by saving me from scouring the index of each cookbook looking for something new and inspiring based on a particular ingredient or two. A friend recommended the site to us, and she certainly seems happy with the way it works.

  6. Christine Faith
    26 November 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    Your post is inspiring – I may have to try meal plannning again. I tried an on-line service and the ingredients just never lined up with how we eat (Paleo). I know we spend WAY too much eating out and such, and the food we get at restaurants is lower quality than what we prepare at home. I put “meal planning” on my calendar for next weeekend and pasted in this link – wish me luck! :)

  7. CoMo Homestead
    28 November 2012 at 10:00 am #

    Thanks, Joanna! I’d never heard of that site.

  8. CoMo Homestead
    28 November 2012 at 10:02 am #

    Christine – Great! I’m glad to hear that this was helpful to you. Let me know how your meal planning goes!