10 Meal Planning Tips to Save Time and Money
Do you want to save money on groceries but don’t know where to start?
The best way to save time and money is to create a meal plan that takes your schedule, your family’s preferences, and the food that’s available to account.
A “done for you” meal plan seems like an easy solution when you don’t know where to start. But, trying to fit someone else’s meal plan into your life sets you up for burnout and overwhelm. And, you can quickly go over budget when shopping off of a meal plan.
Meal planning isn’t as time-consuming or as rigid as you might think.
Whether you want to eat healthier, save money or save time, these meal planning tips will help you get started today.
Keep reading to learn more!
10 Meal Planning Tips
A grocery budget and eating at home can save you money.
It can be tough to get started when it comes to meal planning, but if you follow these tips and don’t give up, you’ll quickly find that creating a plan will become second nature.
Tip 1: Plan Around Your Schedule
The first step is to look at your schedule and identify any obstacles that might get in the way of your meal planning.
Do you get home too late to cook?
What days are you shuttling the kids around after school?
How much free time do you have on your days off?
Once you know your schedule, plan to cook on the days you have time. For example, if you have a busy day planned on Wednesday, try planning an easy meal or planning for leftovers. That way, you don’t feel overwhelmed trying to prepare dinner after a long workday.
Look at your schedule and identify the days you can cook and shop. Then, use a whiteboard calendar, chalkboard, or paper and pencil (no pens!) to plan your meals for the coming week.
Next, block out the days you know you don’t have time to cook. Write “leftovers,” “prepped ahead,” or “?” in the box for now. The days leftover are the days you’ll plan to cook.
Tip 2: Get Organized
Having a system in place makes planning more manageable and less time-consuming.
Hang a whiteboard calendar and use different dry erase colors for daily meals, cook ahead meals, and meal prep.
Keep a running shopping list so you can add food you’re out of. I hang my grocery list on the whiteboard calendar for the weekly menu.
Designate a time of the week when you can go through the grocery store flyers and make the final list for the week.
Find a place to keep all the supplies needed for meal planning, such as grocery store flyers, coupons, and recipes.
Tip 3: Buy Low and Stock Up
One goal of meal planning on a budget is to stock up when the food your family eats most goes on sale.
Start by going through the weekly grocery flyers and making a list of the food and household products you use that are on sale.
Buy the maximum amount of each product the promotion allows, and start stocking your pantry. Use caution when stocking up on perishables. Buying more than you can use before it goes bad is a waste of food and money.
This strategy works best when you know the lowest prices for your favorite foods.
A price notebook is a great way to track the cost of food at different stores. Over time, you’ll know which stores have the best price for your regular food and paper goods products.
Start a price notebook to compare the prices of your family’s favorite foods at different local stores. Then, use the store’s website to look up prices.
Can you plan meals from the sale items and food you already have?
Tip 4: Take Inventory of Your Pantry
Before you stock your pantry with sale items, take an inventory of what you already have in the house.
When you know the food you already have, you can start thinking about what ingredients you need to make a whole meal. This also helps you avoid buying food you don’t need, which wastes food and money.
If you have a lot of ingredients on hand, try planning meals that include them. This will help reduce food waste and save you money. You can also use this tip to get creative with your cooking by coming up with new recipes that use ingredients you already have.
Take an inventory of what’s in your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Discard expired and rotten foods. And donate pantry items that your family will not eat.
Can you make any meals using just the foods in your pantry?
Tip 5: Make Time for Meal Prep
By preparing your meals ahead of time, you’ll avoid the temptation to order takeout or eat out at restaurants.
Some people prepare their meals for the week or even the month on one day, while others like to “piggyback” their meal prep by doing a little each day to prepare for the next meal.
There are many ways to meal prep in advance. For example, you can chop vegetables and fruits, pre-cook grains and proteins, and wash and dry greens when you have extra time.
Try a meal prep method that’s doable with your schedule and cooking ability. Once-a-week prep is a good place to start if your workweek is hectic.
What can you wash, chop or cook to prep for this week’s meals?
Tip 6: Get the Tools
Having the right tools in your kitchen can make cooking a lot easier.
You’ll need essential kitchen tools such as a good knife, a cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, and storage containers. A food processor and slow cooker are also handy when you do a lot of cooking.
Clean out your gadget drawer and cabinets and make a list of items you need to help meal prep easier.
Tip 7: Be Flexible and Realistic
Meal planning is not a diet.
You don’t have to stick to your weekly menu exactly as you planned it, especially if other things are going on in your life that week. If something comes up and you can’t make the meals on one particular day, just switch them around with others so that everything still gets eaten before it goes bad.
If you’re short on time or don’t feel like cooking, make something simple or switch “leftover night” with that night.
Make a list of easy meals you don’t mind cooking even after a long day. Breakfast for dinner counts!
Tip 8: Keep Meals Simple
Another obstacle could be that you don’t know what to cook.
You don’t need to be an experienced cook or make fancy meals. If you can cook eggs, meat, and vegetables, then you’re already well on your way!
Don’t feel you have to make gourmet dishes every night of the week or that everything has to be homemade from scratch. Instead, start with easy recipes and get more advanced as you go along.
All you really need in the kitchen is a little confidence and a willingness to try new flavors.
Plan to make one of your simplest family favorite meals this week instead of making a trip to the store or ordering takeout.
Tip 9: Use Leftovers
Repurposing leftovers as new meals is another time and money saver. Using leftovers also reduces food waste!
Don’t like leftovers? That’s a common complaint.
Try using leftovers from one night’s dinner to make another dinner later in the week. For example, use leftover chicken to make chicken salad, tacos, or top a salad later on during the week. You could also double a recipe so that there’re plenty of leftovers for lunch another day.
Come up with different meals using leftovers in the refrigerator. Omelets, stir-fries, and tacos are a few simple meals you can create from leftovers.
Tip 10: Be Creative
Many people are afraid of not following a recipe exactly as it’s written.
While sticking to a recipe is a great way to learn how to cook and add new ingredients to your pantry, buying every ingredient a recipe calls for gets expensive.
One of the best things about meal planning is that it allows you to be creative with your cooking. You can create your own meals by substituting ingredients you don’t have with something else (or leaving it out).
By being creative with your cooking, you can make delicious and unique meals. This can help keep your meals interesting and prevent you from getting bored with your food!
If you see a recipe you’d like to try but have all the ingredients you need, try improvising and using what you have on hand.
To Wrap Up
Meal planning is a great way to save both time and money.
When you take the time to plan out your meals for the week, you can avoid multiple trips to the grocery store or unwanted last-minute takeout. Not only that, but you can save money on food by planning your meals around what’s on sale.
And remember—you’re not alone! I’m here to help you with cooking basics, grocery shopping hacks, and meal planning.
Which tips resonate with you? Let me know by commenting below, and I’ll help out where I can!
About Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD
I’m a food loving Registered Dietitian. I help families plan meals, reduce food waste and save money on food!