Not long after my husband and I got married, we decided to make getting out of debt a priority. We were both fortunate to have avoided student loans, but like many young people, had been a little reckless with our consumer debt. We knew that our first step had to be to create a budget for ourselves. Enter: meal planning.
A budget is telling your money where to go instead of wondering where it went.”
– Dave Ramsey
In our experience, no single line in our budget saved us more than the food line. Living in New York City, it’s not unheard of to spend upwards of $20 on lunch every single day. Do that math. It comes to $100 for just lunch, Monday through Friday. What?!
By menu planning, my husband and I are able to plan for three meals a day, seven days a week and spend about $150 each week on groceries. That breaks down to just over $7 per meal (including our son). So, $100 for five meals or $150 for 21 meals? Seems like a pretty easy choice.
Don’t get me wrong; my hubby and I love a fancy dinner out once in a while…and a pizza ordered in more often than I care to admit. But the general idea still stands: if you take the time to plan out your meals, you will save time, money, and probably more than a few calories.
Start with your calendar.
The most important first step when meal planning is being clear on what’s coming in the week ahead. There’s no sense in planning five full dinners when you have a date night planned for one night and business dinner planned for another. It’s more important to be realistic and avoid spending money on food that will go uneaten.
Check the fridge.
…and freezer and pantry. You should always try to build your menu around things you already have. Remember that time your favorite pasta was on sale and you bought four boxes? (No? Just me?) Take advantage of things like as much as you can. It stinks to spend money on things you forgot you already had.
Be an extreme couponer.
Okay, maybe not extreme, but do check circulars when you have the time and see how you can incorporate sale items or coupons into your planning. I know this may not be realistic for everyone, especially if you prefer to have your groceries delivered using services like AmazonFresh and FreshDirect (which PS do also accept some coupons). But if it is an option, why not take advantage?
This is probably the most challenging part of the whole deal. I’m lucky in that my husband considered cooking a fun pastime, but I know not everyone is that fortunate. The key is to start simple. Don’t plan anything over elaborate for your first spin in the kitchen. Simple staples like oven-baked chicken, rice, and sauteed veggies are staples for a reason. You can step up your game and turn to Pinterest for recipes once you’re feeling a little more comfortable.
I know the idea of thinking about Thursday’s dinner the previous Friday can seem crazy at first, but there are few opportunities to save so much and take care of yourself!
BONUS: Try to keep your shopping list limited to the perimeter of the supermarket as much as possible. That’s where you’ll find produce, meats, and dairy – the healthiest/most affordable food options.