Okay folks. I tried. And it worked for a while. But ultimately, I think of meal planning like I think of fad diets. They work for a bit, but in the end they’re not a perfect solution.
I take back those words. If you have an unlimited grocery budget and don’t care about pitching the saffron threads or now-rancid buttermilk that’s been hanging around for far longer than it should have, then yes – meal planning may be a good option. My grocery budget each week is $90 for the three of us who eat solid food. I have six months to step up my budget game before that $90 has to feed four mouths. That being said, I have scoured high and low for ways to save money on groceries. Clip coupons, shop sales, buy bulk – I do this to a point, but I find I can’t count on them to save me a TON of money. Here are my issues with most money-saving tips:
- I buy mostly non-processed food. This means that coupons don’t go super far for me. And, I hate that nowadays a lot of coupons need to be printed so I’m not saving much after the cost of printer ink. If I loaded my cupboards up with Doritos and Cheerios this tactic may work better, but coupons only go about as far as my grains and dairy (once in a while).
- I shop for organic/low ingredient whenever possible. Which also means that a ton of what I buy is fresh food. I cook scratch-made meals almost exclusively (and yes, I even do this while working full time. It is possible, but there are nights when grilled cheese is what’s on the menu). I do buy some things in bulk (flour, rice, baking soda, vinegar, toilet paper, etc.), but I don’t always have the funds to shell out $600 for a bulk buy of pasture-raised meat.
- Sales. Sometime’s they’re a trap. I will indulge in a killer sale now and then to stock up on certain items, but I will never be the chick with 30 packages of paper towel threatening to overtake a room in my home. Not happening (plus, I’d love to consume less of that stuff).
Meal planning always left me with A. leftover ingredients that just didn’t go well with other things, or B. after buying my ingredients, I didn’t have enough to really carry me through each week. Plus, as a working mom, I found that I would get down to the one meal I hadn’t made yet on what turned into the craziest night of the week and it happened to be lasagna or some amazing Indian dish that was only getting made that evening if someone else offered to cook. Since that never happens, I usually go to my standby – egg scramble with a side of toast and fruit salad.
Here’s what I now do that seems to work wonders (and saves me money without all that coupon clipping).
My (Non-Meal Plan) Meal Plan:
- Divvy your grocery budget into food categories rather than listing all the items you think you want to buy that week. For instance, my grocery list is usually broken down like this:
- Fruit + Veg
- Allocate dollar amounts to each category like so:
- Fruit + Veg = $30
- Grains = $15
- Dairy = $13
- Meat = $12
- Other = $20
- Go ahead and drop in the items you know you need to pick up:
- Fruit + Veg = $30
- Grains = $15
- Dairy = $15
- Meat = $12
- Chicken Thighs
- Other = $18
- Dill Relish
- Celery Salt
- Fruit + Veg = $30
- Now here’s the fun part. The rest of the money you haven’t used up from your categories you can spend on whatever you think will work for meals that week, but you have to buy according to your categories and dollar amounts. I make sure I stay on budget in the store by counting up the price of the items I buy while shopping. If I toss the relish in my basket and it costs $.98, I simply add a dollar to the amount I know I’ve already spent. TIP: I round my dollars up when shopping so I’m left with a few dollars at the end of my grocery trip. Those extra dollars are tucked away in case I need to run out mid-week for something I’ve forgotten.
This may seem confusing, but once you get the hand of it, it’s not. I have found that I’m way better at shopping this way rather than sticking to a rigid meal plan, and I use up the food I buy more efficiently than ever. Below are some tips that make this non-meal plan work.
- Buy In Season. Seasonal foods are always going to be a better (and most often healthier) buy. When you don’t have a list dictating exactly what you need to grab, you’re free to use the $28 you have left over to grab whatever looks freshest and is priced the best.
- Pick One or Two. I love trying new recipes, so I allow myself one or two new recipes per week. I find that this helps stock my pantry with some ingredients I’ll use later, but doesn’t overwhelm me with pricy items that I just can’t mash together to make other meals.
- Shop Around. Each week I hit up my local ALDI for items I know I can nab at better prices than I can at other stores in town. After I’m done at ALDI, I finish up at another local grocery store, the farmers market, or local co-op. This helps my budget go way further than it normally would.
- Have at Least Two Go-Tos. I know I will end up in a pinch at some point with the food I have on hand so I’m always sure to have the ingredients for two easy, low ingredient meals. My go-tos send to be tuna melts, french onion soup, salmon burgers, or breakfast. I always make sure to have ingredients to good one or two of these meals each week if I need to whip up something with virtually nothing.
- Bulk Buys. I buy some items in bulk because it makes more sense, but just because it’s on the shelf at Coscto doesn’t mean it’s always a better buy. For instance, the grass fed ground beef at ALDI is cheaper than the grass fed ground beef at Costco. Don’t buy something in bulk unless you’ve done the price per pound or ounce comparison first.
- Improvise. Don’t be afraid to swap out ingredients in a recipe for other items. For instance, if you’ve got everything to make your usual lasagna, but don’t have any ground meat to go in it, swap it out for diced mushrooms. Swap out meat on your nachos with black beans sautéed with taco seasoning. Speaking of meat. . .
- Cut Back on Meat. I can hear my husband complaining as I type this. Meat is expensive, y’all. Especially when you’re committed to buying pasture-rasied, sustainable meat. I make my minimal meat budget work by being savvy about how I use my dollars. I’ll use a package of bacon to make three meals: a few slices crumbled on chopped salad, six or eight slices to go with breakfast (often for dinner), and another few slices crumbled in pasta with cannellini beans and sautéed broccoli (sautéed in the bacon grease – yum). I’ll buy one nice top sirloin steak and cut it up, marinate it, and use it to make kabobs. Doing this allows us to eat really flavorful meat dishes without overdoing it.
- Grow Something. You don’t have to overhaul an entire yard to benefit from growing your own food. A pot with a tomato plant will yield enough produce to keep you from having to buy tomatoes for two months (or more!). During summer and fall months I’m able to allocate more of my budget to other food categories because so much of our fresh produce comes from our garden out back. I’m also able to swap some items I grow or make (spiced blackcap and mulberry jam, anyone?) for goats milk from a family friend.
Give this strategy a shot before you knock it. After a couple of years of being unsatisfied with the usual meal plan model, this is what my tweaking turned into. It works great for our family, and I find I’m much more mindful about what I need to use up before it goes bad each week.
If you give it a whirl, let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear how you make this plan your own, or why it doesn’t work for you.