For the past several months I have developed my own system for resolving the age old question “What’s for dinner?” and I’ve also saved myself money on every grocery bill. Here are some steps that you can follow to plan your meals for the week.
1. Keep breakfast simple. Planning every dinner that you eat for a whole week is a difficult enough task by itself. But when you bring breakfast and lunch into it? That may seem impossible, but it’s actually fairly easy, and chances are you already have the groundwork done. I started only planning dinners, but once I realized that I was eating pretty much the same thing for breakfast every day, I started planning for that as well. The trick with planning every breakfast for the week is the word “or.” So if you’re like me and you either have a hard boiled egg, or some yogurt, or peanut butter toast, then all you have to do is write that into your schedule and make sure that you shop accordingly. You can even give yourself a slot on Sunday where you make a big yummy pancake breakfast. But think about what ingredients are cheaper, and what ingredients last. You might be able to buy enough for breakfast for a whole two weeks.
2. Keep lunch simple too. Apply the same methodology for lunch. But, if you’re meal planning to save money, there is a simple trick. Make chicken, tuna, or egg (or sometimes I do chickpea) salad in a big batch. Then eat it for lunch every day for a week. With the handy use of the word “or” you can start your week with tuna salad, and then write “tuna salad or peanut butter sandwich” on your schedule. Then if you run out, or are really tired of your salad, you can change it up. Keep in money, for your health, you can replace the mayo in these salads with plain yogurt with little to no change in flavor (depending on the salad). So think protein and think again about what will last or whether or not you mind eating peanut butter sandwiches towards the tail end of the week.
3. Base your list around one or two ingredients. When formulating your meal plan, and your grocery list, a good place to start is with an ingredient. Say you want to make sweet potato soup. Ok, now can you find or think of two or three more recipes that involve sweet potatoes? When you think about it this way, you can think of what types of produce you can get a lot of for fairly little money. And you can justify the purchase of a produce item that goes into something you want to try if you include it again instead of using one or two of those sweet potatoes, and then letting the rest of the bag go to waste.
4. Make a lot. Depending on the recipe, you can usually save money by making a large amount of dinner, and then saving some to freeze and reheat. If freezing it is too complicated or if your freezer is full, then you can still make something big. Simply write “or leftover sweet potato soup” in your lunch slots, or plan it for a meal later in the week when you’re more tired and want to enjoy your weekend.
5. Allow for your moods. So you’ve planned your meals, and you’re excited. But then, it’s time to make dinner and you look at your plan and you think “Oh no! I don’t want sweet potato soup tonight!” That happens a lot. You can’t always know what you’re going to be in the mood for a week in advance. Just look later on the list. Can you switch sweet potato soup out for tuna noodle casserole? You probably can, so go for it.
6. Include some comfort food. When I plan my meals for the week I try to include at least one night of the week (usually friday) where I can enjoy some of my favorite comfort food. While that doesn’t always have to be unhealthy, some of the best comfort foods are. This is usually when I make mac and cheese, or homemade pizza. But for someone who loves those foods as much as I do, it’s a really great way to get excited about cooking on those nights when you’re thinking “but I cooked every. single. day.”
7. Think about alternatives to ingredients. When I shop for produce, I shop at a market that only has ingredients some of the time. If you’re in a similar situation, make sure that you think about what the alternatives might be if your market doesn’t have the sweet potatoes for the sweet potato soup. Maybe they have yams? Or butternut squash? A little brainstorming about what to do in case the grocery is out of something will save you from a panicked decision down the line.
8. Include some recipes that you want to try. The only way you’re going to survive meal planning is if you get excited about it. If starting with an ingredient doesn’t help you, start with a recipe that you’ve been dying to try. Plan the rest of the week around the ingredients that you bought so that you could make sweet potato soup.
9. Develop some “go-tos.” Over time, you will get a feel for certain recipes that are easy and cheap and healthy and quick. Don’t feel the need to change it up every single week. If you made something so yummy that you could easily eat it again, then start your week with that recipe. The other plus to developing some go-to recipes is that if you do fall out of the habit of planning, or have a really busy week where you can’t, you will know the recipe well enough to stave off a good amount of grocery store panic.
10. Think about your schedule. This may seem like a no-brainer, but don’t put the complicated recipes on your busiest days of the week. Really think about what days are your most stressful? Or what days do you have evening obligations? What days do you want to chill out?
Keep in mind that this isn’t an exact science, and there will be weeks where you don’t do it. And there will be nights where you just throw your hands up and say “I’m ordering Chinese!” Just go with the flow. You’ll save money even if you do this only six nights a week. You’ll save money if you don’t plan breakfast and lunch. You’ll just save money!