As a money coach, one of the most common complaints I hear is how expensive food is. It’s no surprise that dining out or getting takeout can tmake a major toll on your wallet, but trips to the grocery store can add up quickly too. It can feel like there’s no way to buy food affordably, especially if you’re trying to cook with healthy ingredients, which often cost even more. You’re not alone in feeling this way, which is why I teamed up with health and wellness coach Andrea Wien to provide our best tips for meal planning. Meal planning is a total game-changer, and it can make the process of shopping and cooking for yourself fun, manageable, and refreshingly easy. You can also get our free Fab Frugal Meal Planning Guide here!
Just as we have to create the time for our money parties, we also have to create the time for meal planning. Setting up a recurring calendar reminder is the easiest way to make sure we don’t forget about it. While it’s tempting to try to improvise in the grocery store, this method all but guarantees that we’ll leave with too many snacks, not enough ingredients for meals, or too much perishable food that we’ll end up throwing away (and feeling guilty about wasting). If we set aside 30 minutes for meal planning at an assigned time each week, we’re more likely to commit to following through. These thirty minutes will save you both money and time over the course of the week, and as time goes by, meal planning can even become fun and enjoyable.
You don’t have to be a master chef to get excited about cooking at home. First, think about your personal preferences. Do you hate doing the dishes or does just the thought of a messy kitchen make you reach for the takeout menus? Plan your week around one-pot or sheet pan meals, both of which require minimal dishes and cleanup. Do you want more variety in what you eat? Choose a different theme for every night of the week. There’s Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Pasta Sunday; the list is endless and you’re free to be as creative as you want. If you need inspiration, turn to your favorite food bloggers or friends or family who make dishes you love. If something seems too complicated, skip it! At the end of the day, it’s your meal plan, so think about what types of meals and cooking experiences bring you the most joy.
The best rule of thumb when we start meal planning is to keep it simple. Sure, our stomachs may be grumbling just looking at photos of a delicious recipe on our favorite blog, but does it have an ingredient list a mile long? When we plan complicated meals that require us to buy lots of ingredients, it can be easy to get discouraged about how much money we’re spending and about how much time the meals take to prepare. Simple recipes often offer the best of all worlds: they make use of ingredients we have on hand, they don’t require a lot of time in the kitchen, and the techniques we learn making simpler meals can act as the building blocks for more complicated recipes. (For instance, if you’re dying to try your hand at making your own pasta and sauce from scratch, save the pasta making for a fun weekend project and try your hand at making the sauce as part of a weekday meal.) When making your grocery list, don’t be afraid to leave out ingredients you don’t need or won’t use very often. Even spices go bad, so don’t spend a lot of money on something that won’t get a lot of mileage in your kitchen.
With almost any recipe, you’ll need a combination of pantry staples and fresh ingredients at your fingertips. As you start planning your meals, keep a running list of which pantry ingredients you use most often. Items like olive oil, vinegars, salt and pepper, and spices are common. In some cases, it’s cheaper to buy non-perishable foods from online vendors, so do some quick price comparisons before you head to the store. (Andrea recommends Thrive Market for discounted natural and organic foods, and Amazon Pantry also has coupons and deals on selected items.) When it comes to buying meat, venturing out of your comfort zone can save you lots of money.
Buying lesser known cuts of meat from the store means that you’re spending less per pound, and if you’re not sure how to prepare the cut, your butcher (or a YouTube tutorial!) can help you out. Or, check out community supported agriculture (CSA) programs in your area, which put you in direct contact with local farms and farmers, giving you access to the freshest produce and meat at discounted prices. If you’re interested in sustaining your local growers and knowing more about where your food comes from, buying a share in a CSA is a great way to do that.
After your first few weeks of meal planning, take stock of the entire experience and think about what worked and what didn’t. What aspects did you find most enjoyable? What parts were the least fun? Think about the meals you made. Which ones did you like best? Which ones were the most fun to cook? If there were some meals that took too long to prepare that didn’t wow you, don’t be afraid to replace them and find meals you love. Finally, take a look at your grocery store spending. How did you do? If you spent more than you wanted to, what are some ways you can cut down? If it felt like you didn’t have enough variety in your meals, how can you incorporate new ingredients? There are no wrong answers, and all of these questions are meant to guide your meal planning in future weeks, making the process even easier and fabulously frugal.
Ready to get meal planning? Download our free Fabulously Frugal Meal Planning Guide here.