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A meal plan is like a life preserver for your sanity. For me, it keeps me from drowning throughout the day because I don’t have to worry about dinner and whether or not I need to stop at the grocery store on the way home. In addition to keeping you and your sanity afloat, meal plans can also help you write a single shopping list, stay focused throughout the week when it comes to meals and, perhaps best of all, save money on groceries.
Meal planning is such an important part of saving money on groceries, and I’d argue that it is the most important part. Over the past eight years, I have coached thousands of frustrated shoppers to learn how to spend less money on groceries, and just about everyone agrees that the easiest and simplest way to save at the grocery store is to have a plan for meals.
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Based on estimations from my personal budget (as well as feedback from many others), you can shave 20–25% off your grocery bill each week just by having a solid meal plan in place. The caveat, of course, is that you must stick to the plan and your shopping list!
In order to get the most out of meal planning in terms of savings and value, there are a few things to keep in mind when making your menus and shopping. Here’s what to know when you’re just starting out.
STEP-BY-STEP MEAL PLANNING FOR BEGINNERS
- Get out your store’s ads or circular.
- Look at the main meats that are on sale, and pick one or two for the week’s menu.
- Write out a list of five dinner meals for the week that incorporate the meats that you have chosen.
- Make your shopping list of the other ingredients you need for the meals, plus your regular weekly purchased items.
- Head to the store and save!
The key is to keep it simple and focus on saving money on the meats, the most expensive part of many meals. If you can cut those costs down, you’re way ahead on the savings.
OTHER MEAL PLANNING BEST-PRACTICES
- Set up Theme Nights. Giving your weeknights a little bit of structure might be all that you need for your meal planning. Having a routine and rotation can give great peace of mind and help you serve meals your family will enjoy. Here’s a sample of what “Themed Nights” might look like for a weekly dinner plan:
- Mondays — Meatless Monday Dish
- Tuesdays — Taco Tuesday
- Wednesdays — Chicken & Rice Night
- Thursdays — Slow-Cooker Supper
- Fridays — Pasta and/or Pizza Night
- Saturdays — Out and/or Extended Family Dinner
- Sundays – Leftovers or Sandwiches
- Pantry Cleanout. Get creative with the ingredients you have in your pantry and freezer. See what kind of fun meals you can make with staple ingredients you already have on hand. Make it a goal to spend $20–$30 on fresh produce for the week and then use up the items that you have stashed away in the pantry.
- Mix in Breakfasts and Lunches. Once you have your dinner meal-planning routine in place, it’s time to add breakfasts and lunches into the mix. Again, simple is the goal with this. Make a list of your favorite “fast breakfasts” and/or “grab-and-go lunches” that you can add to your meal plan each week. Stick to your favorites, and add in some variety as your schedule and budget allow. I like to spend time on the weekends making up fun new breakfast dishes or lunches, to enjoy then or later. Which brings us to the next point…
- Make- or Prep-Ahead Meals. You can also save loads of time by making meals in bulk ahead of time. Whether you grill several packages of chicken breasts and dice them up or make a set of canning jar salads for your work lunches for the week, doing a little of the legwork before the busy week begins can save you both time and sanity. Just having part of the meal prep done can always answer the “what am I eating for the next meal?” question — and it will keep you from calling for takeout, too!
When it comes to your meal plan, start simple and change it up every once in awhile to incorporate new meals and ideas into your diet. With a solid meal plan written and shopping list in hand, you’re sure to save big on your groceries.
Written by Erin Chase, the founder of 5DollarDinners.com, The $5 Meal Plan & the popular Grocery Budget Makeover video course, and author of the $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook series.