How To

How to Plan Meals (And Save Over $5,000 a Year!)

grocery list

Spontaneity isn’t such a desirable a trait when dinner is on the line.

Being ill-prepared adds to your food bills. Without a plan, you’re more likely to dine out. Or you’ll buy more groceries than you need (“Do we have X ingredient at home?”) and at full price rather than on sale.

“It’s overwhelming to meal plan while you’re in the store,” says Cherie Lowe of QueenofFree.net. “There are simply too many options.” All the while, forgotten-about foods in the fridge are ticking closer to their expiration dates, contributing to food waste.

A glance in the fridge and a few minutes of meal planning is all it takes to get back on track. Jeannette Pavini of Coupons.com says with just 45
minutes, a computer and a weekly circular, $146 can buy an average shopper 
$260 worth of groceries.

Over the course of a year, planning out meals could save more than $5,000. Here’s how to make it work:

Plan around what you have.

“Begin making a meal plan with what you can use to prepare a meal without buying anything,” says Lowe. You probably have enough in your pantry, fridge and freezer to pull together two or three meals.

“In particular, plan around any fresh produce you already have on hand,” says Los Angeles-based private chef Chris Brugler. Left uneaten, that’s unlikely to stay good past the week.

Keep it fresh.

“Practice ‘first in, first out’ with foods in your fridge, freezer, and pantry,” says Jackie Newgent, a registered dietician and the author of Big Green Cookbook. That will help you avoid discovering that the sour cream or frozen chicken you need for a recipe has expired or gotten freezer burn.

Check your calendar.

Factor in commitments and general busy-factor into what gets made and when. “Don’t try 
to plan an elaborate meal on a night when everyone is coming and going,” says Kristl Story of TheBudgetDiet.com. That plan is likely to fall by the wayside (and to the pizza delivery guy’s advantage).

Shop around sales.

“Match the main dishes to the proteins that are on special at your supermarket,” says Pavini. Then build out the rest of 
the menu (and your shopping list) based on sales and coupons you have.

Write it down.

“Write out your meal plan over the weekend and plan your grocery list 
based on the plan,” says Jessica Fishman Levinson, a registered dietician and the founder of
Nutritioulicious.com. “This way, you’re organized when you get to the
 supermarket and won’t buy items you don’t need.”

Double up.

“Get in the habit 
of doubling recipes — one for tonight and one for the freezer,” says Story. That ensures you have something to eat on a night when plans go awry, or you’re unexpectedly busy.

Pull from meal-planning sites.

Plenty of sites, apps and bloggers have smart meal-planning tools, showing a week (or more) of meals using sale items, or repurposing Night One’s leftovers for subsequent dinners.

Lowe posts her planned dinners on QueenofFree.net and also suggests sites like eMeals.com, OnceaMonthMom.com and 5DollarDinners.com.

Pre-prepare meals.

You’re more likely to stay on plan when you’ve done most of the work before you get home. Fran Davis, a New Jersey-based personal chef, recommends preparing marinades for meat and seafood as soon as you buy them and then placing them flat in the freezer.

“This gives the protein plenty of time to absorb the flavors 
of the marinade, allowing you to enjoy a delicious, flavorful meal in 
minutes,” she says. “It’s also smart to peel and chop veggies ahead for the week,” says Brugler.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.