Saturday, October 18, 2008

Plan Meals

#15 Saving Money Tip - The Key to Saving Money on Meals is Planning. Very simple. The more you plan what you will eat, the less you spend. When you don't plan what you will eat, it is easy to find the most convenient food purchase and therefore spend more than necessary. Let's look at what I'm talking about.

We've talked about the cost of eating at home versus eating out and the cost of convenience foods versus making things yourself. Well, the key to eating at home and eating fewer convenience foods is meal planning. Let's assume you go to the supermarket once a week. When you go to the food store to buy your groceries, plan what you will be having for the week. Plan your breakfasts - cereal, toast, waffles, eggs, etc. Have those foods on hand for the week. If everyone helps themselves to breakfast, then all of the food is there for them. If you generally make sandwiches for lunch, then buy the bread and the lunchmeat or peanut butter and jelly. Then when it's lunchtime, you will have all of your ingredients on hand.

Plan out the 6 or 7 dinners you will be eating at home (you're not eating out dinners more than once a week if you're trying to save money, are ya? :)) So come up with a dinner plan - hamburgers, spaghetti, quesadillas, homemade pizza, chicken, stir fry, and lasagne, for example. There your overall meal plan is done. Very simple. Think of what sides you might serve with them - potatoes, vegetables, bread and then buy your ingredients. You don't have to know which day you are eating what, just the 6 or 7 meals you will be eating. On a particular day, think about it early what you and your family would like to eat that night. Unless you are a gourmet chef making 4-course meals, most meals really don't take that long to make. When you come up with what you will be eating that night, make the necessary preparations - take out the spaghetti, pull the sauce out of the freezer early in the day to defrost. Prepare the garlic bread and salad when you have some free time so you're not doing it at 5 PM. If you work outside the home, try to think about meals the night before. Garlic bread can be made in advance and put in the freezer to be taken out right before it's needed. Sauce can too. You can also rinse and dry the lettuce and have it in a container in your fridge. The more you do in advance, the more likely you will be to eat dinners at home. As you start doing meal planning, you will find yourself eating out less and buying convenience foods less.

As you get comfortable with meal planning, you can also start doing more preparations by freezing foods in advance that you have made. Make a double batch of your dinner - one for your dinner that evening and one for the freezer for another night. This works well with macaroni and cheese, waffles, lasagne, and many other foods. Some people make a whole month's worth of meals and put them in the freezer. You don't have to do that, but with a little bit of planning and doubling some recipes you can have prepared foods in your freezer for nights you don't feel like starting at the beginning.

Even with preparing meals in advance and putting them in the freezer, there are even days that we aren't feeling well or haven't defrosted our prepared foods. On those days it is tempting to order in food or go out to eat. I think it's wise to have some easy meals in the freezer that you have bought for these types of days. Heating up a tray of lasagne that is frozen will take quite awhile if you haven't defrosted it in the freezer first. So why not look in the frozen food section of your supermarket or a warehouse store for food items that you can store in your freezer for those days when you just can't cook.

In Real Life (IRL) - In real life I do pseudo meal planning. I don't write down what we are having for the week. But I do think about what we will be eating for the week when I go to the supermarket and buy food for that week. Since I am a stay-at-home mom I have time throughout the day to defrost food or prepare side dishes. Usually, however, I just think about what we are going to eat and then about an hour before my husband gets home, I start preparing it. The key to having dinner on the table is truly just having the meal planned in my head. As long as I know what I am preparing for dinner, it gets done. It's when I wait until my husband gets home and then we ask each other what we're in the mood for that we end up ordering out.

I don't do once-a-month cooking. The idea behind that is to cook one weekend a month all of the meals that you will be eating for the month. But I do take the concept of that and try to prepare meals and put them in the freezer for when we're out all day or I'm sick or too tired to cook. What I usually do is make a double batch of certain foods. I love making homemade macaroni and cheese. My kids like it, too. I usually make a large batch once a month. We eat it one night and the rest gets frozen for another night later in the month. I often make double batches of waffles, too. Most of them get put in the freezer to be taken out as needed. They become easy breakfasts for my oldest daughter to heat up in the toaster oven or even a quick dinner when we have things to do. Lastly, we put pre-formed hamburger patties in the freezer. I just take them out as needed throughout the month and heat them up on our George Foreman Grill. All of these become like convenience foods for us even though they were made by me at an earlier time.

Lastly, there are frozen foods bought at the supermarket or warehouse chain like Costco or Sams Club. We belong to Costco through my husband's work. While not all items are great deals there, we find several items that are. One such item is their Kirkland brand four-cheese ravioli. It is delicious and rivals homemade ravioli I have bought at gourmet Italian supermarkets. A large bag (about 4 pounds) is $8 or $9. It serves my family of 5 for two meals. Put them in a pot of boiling water and voila, there is a delicious meal in five minutes that it takes for the ravioli to get soft. Add a little bit of sauce or parmesian cheese and some frozen green peas in the microwave and there's a delicious meal in 10 or 15 minutes. I try to buy only frozen food that I don't make anyway. I would never attempt to make ravioli so I don't feel bad buying the frozen. Another frozen item we buy is Chinese dumplings. Costco sells a big bag of those as well. Again, this is not something I would ever attempt to make.

Overall, with just a bit of planning once a week, you should be able to have meals for your family nearly every day of the week. Try it. You will notice the money you will save from not eating out.

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