Meal Planning Saves Our Wallets and Our Waistlines
Imagine buying four bags of groceries, bringing them home, and throwing one of the bags directly into the trash. It sounds crazy, but chances are pretty good that you do just that. The Natural Resource Defense Council has concluded that Americans end up throwing away 25% of their groceries on average, costing a family of four anywhere from $1400 to $2300 every year. How can you recoup some of that loss? Effective meal planning.
Not only is meal planning a smart financial move, but more importantly, it benefits your health. A recent study found that meal planning resulted in a healthier diet and lower obesity rate for those who participated. The study findings held true whether participants planned healthy meals, or just made a plan for meals in general. Having a plan ready for mealtimes, rather than deciding what to eat on the spot, reduces stress and results in an overall more nutritionally balanced diet. By deciding on ingredients and portion sizes ahead of time, meal planners can make healthier choices that can aid weight control.
Meal Planning in 4 Simple Steps
The problem is that meal planning can seem like a daunting task when your usual approach is to wander the aisles of the grocery store looking for meal ideas. But it doesn’t have to be! Following just four steps from the comfort of your own home will land you a grocery list and a meal plan to last for several days.
- First, take stock of what you already have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer. Write down a few things that you can incorporate as main or side dishes. Using what you already have will save money and reduce waste.
- Although I don’t plan lunches like I do dinners, I do jot down what I already have and could eat for lunches. It’s a quick reminder to myself when I complain that there’s “nothing to eat!” for lunch. Dinner leftovers are also fantastic lunch options!
- Spread out the ingredients you wrote down over several meals. I typically plan 5 meals at a time. If a few ingredients go together (say naan, marinara sauce, and pepperoni), group them together. You may not have enough existing ingredients to spread over 5 meals, in which case you’ll get to create a brand-new meal for the other days. But if you’re trying to be extra thrifty, incorporate at least one item that you already had into your new meal. I’m going to add some of my leftover jasmine rice to…something.
- Plan the rest of your meals around what you have. You can use your own ideas or search the internet. For one of the days, I wrote down frozen chicken and baked beans. That seems southern to me. If I throw one more side at it, say some corn on the cob, I’ve got myself a full meal! Run your ideas past your family members to make sure they’re up for eating those meals. My husband wasn’t feeling the penne and marinara, so I switched up the sauce to something less heartburn-y. Fill in the blanks with the foods that you’ll need to buy to bring your meals together. Write those items under or separate from what you already have, so that you can more easily see what you have and what you need to buy. No need to write down additional ingredients you’ll need if you already have them on hand.
- Keep meals simple. Unless you’re one of those people that love to spend hours cooking, try to choose meals with minimal ingredients and prep time. If one part of the dish will take a little more time (say, barbecue chicken), keep the other parts easy (like frozen corn that can steam in the microwave).
- If you’re making something that would freeze well, consider doubling the batch, freezing what you don’t eat, and unthawing it a few weeks later for a delicious meal with minimal effort. You can mix freezer dishes (like a casserole or pasta) with fresh ingredients (like a side salad or French loaf) so that they don’t feel like leftovers.
- Finally, consider your plans (and subsequent energy for cooking) for each day. I know that our Tuesdays are busy, and that by the time dinner rolls around, I’m either not going to have the time to cook, or just won’t be feeling it. So I’m going to choose the simplest meal and stick it on the menu for that day. Assign each meal to a day.
Meal Planning Will Sometimes Go Horribly Wrong and That’s Okay
And there you have it! You (yes, you!) have created a meal plan. Sometimes your meal plan will rock, and sometimes it will fail miserably.
When my husband and I were dating, I decided to impress him by making mind-blowing pork fajitas. The recipe (that I had never tried) required rehydrating dried peppers with boiling water. I had nooo idea that throwing dried peppers into boiling water would result in eye-stinging vapors engulfing my face. Also, did you know you’re supposed to cover the pot to avoid vapors spreading? Whoops!
My dog was choking, so I closed him in the bedroom with an open window. I ran back to the kitchen and threw open all of the windows and doors just in time to hear the fire alarm start. By the time my husband showed up, I was wearing a kitchen towel over my nose and mouth like a train robber, choking uncontrollably, and balancing on a barstool trying to fan the alarm off. Oh, baby! He was impressed!!
When you start a recipe that ends in train robbers (and you might!), don’t let it discourage you. Just don’t write fajitas into the meal plan for the next week, and keep at your meal plan!
Wrap It Up
Take stock of food that you already have, spread those ingredients over several meals/days, create a grocery list for the items you’ll need to complete your menu, and assign each meal to the most appropriate day, depending on your schedule. Meal planning provides a fantastic opportunity to work some healthy proteins, fruits, and vegetables into your diet. But even if your meals aren’t quite so healthy, you’ll still be the proud recipient of lots of great benefits! You’ll save money, improve your health, and add one more skill to your repertoire. Go, you!
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