Figuring out what to cook for dinner every night can add stress to an already long day. But going out to eat or picking something up on the way home adds up to a pretty penny.
What if there was a way to avoid the hassle of what’s for dinner and save money in the process? Enter meal planning.
This one switch — from deciding what to eat on the fly to planning out your meals — can save you hundreds every month. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that American households spend about $3,526 dining out each year — which is 43% of their total food spending.
Here’s a quick overview of the basic steps of the meal planning process:
Let’s take a closer look at each of these three steps and how to make them work for you.
Step 1: Pick out your recipes
This simple step is the most critical to your success. The recipes you choose make or break your meal planning.
First, consider the number of nights for which you need dinners. Most people plan for five nights per week and leave two nights for leftovers or dining out.
Next, figure out how much time you have to make dinner each night. If your child has soccer practice on Monday night, plan a slow-cooker meal you can set and forget until you get home. Or, do something easy like sandwiches.
If you are new to meal planning, it helps to start with your family’s favorite dinners, ones that don’t take long to cook. Don’t pick complicated recipes with hard-to-find ingredients.
And if your family will eat leftovers, consider cooking a double batch of a meal so you can make two nights of dinner at once — which means you can have a night off from cooking.
Need inspiration? Plan to Eat, Once a Month Meals and Pepperplate are a few of the many websites offering help with meal planning.
Step 2: Shop for ingredients
Now, make your shopping list. Grab a sheet of paper or your phone and write every ingredient in each recipe you plan to make.
Go through your refrigerator, freezer and pantry and cross off the ingredients you already have. Once you’ve gone through the whole list, use this as the basis for your grocery shopping list.
As for breakfast and lunch, it’s best to put those meals on autopilot for now: Plan for something easy like oatmeal or sandwiches and add those ingredients to your list.
Make sure you buy everything on your shopping list so the ingredients are on hand when it’s time to prepare your meals.
If you’re worried about buying too much and wasting food, read “13 Easy Ways to Cut Food Waste and Save Money.”
Step 3: Make the recipes
Now that you have your meal plan and your ingredients, it’s time to cook dinner.
And remember, your meal plan is not set in stone. It’s OK to be flexible.
Even if you planned for chicken on Monday and chili on Wednesday, it’s OK to move things around. Doing some advance preparation will also help. For instance, dice up onions and garlic, wash and prep vegetables and even cook up meat ahead of time.
The most important part of meal planning is getting started. It won’t be perfect, and you’ll have setbacks, such as forgetting to buy an ingredient. Give yourself grace and remember that meal planning is meant to help you and not add stress.
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