Are you reading this story while eating a lunch you packed at home?
Good on you. You don’t need anyone to tell you how much money you can save by preparing meals at home and packing lunches for work or school.
But here’s a question:
How many more sandwiches can you make with the bread you currently have?
If you don’t know the answer, you’re going to wake up one day and realize you only have enough bread for one more sandwich.
So you’ll spend the next few days paying $12 on takeout or delivery — money you didn’t actually plan to spend.
In 2018, the average American consumer spent nearly $3,500 a year on “food away from home,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s money well-spent if you’re out on a date or celebrating a promotion or treating the family to a takeout splurge. The rest, though? Kind of a waste.
Meal planning can save you from spending extra cash on emergency lunches or late-night takeout. You’ll eat healthier, save money and enjoy your meals a lot more when they’re planned!
How to Start Meal Planning So That It Works
The first thing you need to do is figure out how many meals you’re responsible for making every week.
If it’s just you, your answer might be 21: seven breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Or it might be 20: seven breakfasts, seven dinners and six lunches because your manager buys pizza for everyone on Fridays.
If you have a family, count meals per person — a dinner for three people counts as three dinners, even if you all eat the same thing.
Now start thinking about the meals you make most often: the sandwiches, canned soups, salads and taco nights that make up an average week.
How many meals can you get out of a single loaf of bread? Does a bagged salad usually last for several meals? Or, does your family eat the entire bag in one night?
Once you start getting an idea of how long your food lasts, you can start planning ahead. You can look at a packet of sliced ham and think, “That’s four lunches.”
Once you start translating food into “number of meals,” you’re on your way to meal planning.
At this point, there are two ways to go.
Some people like to plan out every meal in advance: You’ll eat a ham sandwich on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Then you’ll run out of ham and have a peanut butter sandwich on Thursday — and then your boss will bring in pizza on Friday.
Other people like to think, “Well, I’ve got ham and I’ve got peanut butter, and I know I can make it to the end of the week.”
That’s the point of meal planning, after all: Figuring out how much food you need to buy to make it until your next grocery trip. Once you can do that, you’ll find yourself ordering emergency takeout much less often.
Try a Meal Planning App or Calendar
How can you keep track of your meal plan?
Maybe you can remember it, generally, in my head, but some people use a meal planning app or tool.
Here are a few apps to consider:
- $5 Meal Plan sends you a weekly menu of meals that includes five dinner entrees with sides, as well as one lunch and one breakfast. It will also include a “goodie,” which could be a dessert, a beverage or a snack. There are options for paleo, vegetarian and gluten-free diets.
- Plan To Eat features recipes and a drag-and-drop meal planning interface that auto-generates a grocery list.
- Pepperplate includes recipes and meal planning, as well as a “cook now” function to set up multiple cooking timers for a complex meal.
- Emeals lets you input your family size and the number of meals you need. It comes up with the meals for you, so all you have to do is go shopping.
Or, go old school with pen and paper or a simple wall calendar.
Taking Your Meal Plan to the Grocery Store
Once you get to the grocery store, it’s time to put your meal plan in action.
Make a list through a meal plan app or with pen and paper — and buy only what’s on the list.
When you start buying the same items repeatedly, you’ll know which ones to stock up on when they go on sale.
Stocking up on sale items also helps you plan ahead and freeze meals for the future. If there’s a way to buy in bulk and prep the foods you eat the most often, do it!
What about coupons? If you see a great deal on something you buy repeatedly, go for it. If you see a great deal on something you consider a treat, like a slightly more expensive brand of cereal, why not?
But when you see coupons for items that don’t fit in your meal plan at all — like for frozen egg rolls, which you probably aren’t going to include in taco night — you should move on.
Eating What You Buy (This is Key)
Americans throw away a lot of food.
American households waste nearly 32% of the food they buy, according to a study released in early 2020. That amounts to about $240 billion of wasted food.
You don’t want to waste money tossing your groceries into the trash. This means the last step in meal planning is making sure you eat what you buy.
How do you do this? It comes down to not just making a meal plan but sticking to it.
Here are some tips:
- Pack lunches the night before, so you won’t be “too tired” in the mornings.
- Make sure you always eat something different for lunch and dinner. If you make a lasagna, don’t eat it for dinner, then lunch, then dinner again. Break up the lasagna dinners and add variety with sandwiches or soup lunches.
- Give yourself options. When you prepare your meal plan, tell yourself, “This week, I will eat either a sandwich or a homemade frozen burrito for lunch.” Then, you won’t feel locked down to any specific entree.
- Prepare the same favorite entrees over and over to help you stick to your plan. You know everyone likes them, how to make them quickly and how long they last.
- Have dedicated snack food, like almonds and string cheese, so you don’t get hungry and eat one of the entrees you’re saving for later in the week.
And be sure to commit to eating foods before they go bad.
This means if you’ve said, “I will eat either a salad or a sliced orange with dinner,” and the lettuce is starting to look a little wilted, commit to eating it first. The oranges will still be there when the lettuce is gone.
Figuring out a meal plan that works for you will probably take a bit of trial and error. So don’t get discouraged if you thought a casserole that would last all week gets eaten in two days and you’re stuck ordering takeout again!
The more you learn about your household’s eating habits, the better you’ll be able to shape your meal plans and prepare for a full refrigerator stocked with all the food you need.
Nicole Dieker is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.