Planning your meals can be very rewarding for both your health and finances. When you plan your meals ahead of time for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, you save yourself from emergency vending machine trips and last minute fast food runs. You enjoy your meals so much more when you plan ahead. For me good meal planning is a combination of knowing my meal didn’t cost a lot, as well as knowing how healthy it is for me as I’m eating it. Instead of dinners born out of emotion – “I feel like shrimp and asparagus tonight with carrot cake for dessert” – create dinners based on a plan, using your head instead of your rumbling stomach. Here are a few easy ways to get started meal planning on a regular basis.
Start the meal planning process by taking stock of what you already have and what needs to be used up. Look in the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. This not only prevents food waste, but more importantly saves you money by making sure you don’t buy something you already have. Create a habit of keeping your refrigerator, freezer and pantry cleaned up and reviewing what you have on hand each week. If you find it easier, putting in some type of organizer, can make it easier to see what you have quickly, and keep your fridge and pantry clean.
Grocery Shopping – The Weekly Ads
Look at the grocery stores ads every week. If you are a frugal consumer, you can’t be loyal to any particular store, so review them all and go to the one that has the most items you need and are on sale that week. For me, Phoenix grocery stores are in such close proximity to each other, I often go to 3 different stores in one shopping trip.
Always make a list before you go to the store. This prevents emotional buying, so you buy only what you need. Making a list before you shop really does result in less impulse buying. However, if I notice there is a great deal on a pantry item I missed on my list, I may stock up! That’s not necessarily impulse buying, but knowing you can save money on something you will definitely use.
Grocery store ads are the best resource for planning your meals. The lowest priced items for the week generally govern how my meals take shape. If you are like me and love fruits and vegetables, always buy what’s in season, which is usually on the front page of each ad. And if you’re a meat eater, there’s always some special on chicken, beef, pork or seafood each week, so plan your meal around those items.
It saves you money by keeping basic items stocked in your pantry. Some of the best pantry items: pasta, rice, beans, oats, canned tomatoes and corn, pasta sauce, and chicken stock. Additionally, don’t forget the herbs and spices (when on sale) to add flavor to your meals.
Fresh fruits and vegetables should also be stocked up on, but the list is ever changing depending on the season and what’s on sale in the grocery stores ads every week (see above). Some of the basics that can be used in almost anything and are often on my list each week: potatoes, onions, broccoli, and tomatoes. Frozen veggies are also great to have on hand since they can be used in a pinch when you run out of the fresh stuff.
Healthy Meal Options
So now that you’ve got lots of grocery shopping ideas, you’re probably wondering what are some easy, budget friendly meals you can make. You can utilize multiple different methods of cooking – grill, roast, microwave, saute, and of course, the crock-pot. Here are a few of my favorite go-to options that are quick to prepare, and also super budget friendly:
- Pasta. The easiest meal to make has to be pasta. Just boil some noodles and add practically any vegetables and protein and your done. Pasta sauce is easy if you have tomato sauce on hand, just add some garlic powder and oregano, heat and pour over your pasta.
- Stir-fry. Saute some broccoli, cabbage, carrots, green beans, and eggplant with a healthy protein. Add healthy brown rice or noodles and you’ve got a quick meal.
- Tacos. Corn tortillas are a great staple to have in your pantry and/or freezer. You can grill or saute any protein or veggies with some garlic and chili powder, add some condiments (tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, avocado), fill the tortilla and eat. I’ve used eggplant, zucchini, and beans as a vegetarian substitute for the filling.
- Soup, Stew, and Chili. If you have a crock-pot, use it to make soups, stews, and chili. It’s a great way to use leftovers or produce that is about to spoil. I like to cook in the crock-pot on the weekend and freeze the leftovers in individual portions for quick weeknight dinners or lunches to take to work.
- Salad. Another great option, especially on warm summer nights, is a salad. You can add practically any veggies you want. You don’t even necessarily need lettuce to make a salad, you can use broccoli, cauliflower, or green beans as your base and then add anything else you want. Make sure you add some healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocado) and protein (meat, beans, eggs) to round out a healthy full-meal salad.
Meal planning can be a creative and fun process. If you use your imagination and you aren’t super picky, you can come up with lots of different meal options that are great for a budget. My best piece of advice is to watch the grocery stores ads to identify what’s on sale every week. Once you’ve seen them enough you start to see a pattern of when certain items are on sale, how much they are on sale for, and therefore know when to stock up on the things you love.
Another tip is to make a large quantity (yes, even if you’re single) so that you can have leftovers to freeze for those dinner emergencies when you have absolutely no time. Meal planning can be simple and fun. You can even make a game out of it and see how inexpensive you can make your meals.