You may have noticed, after a trip to the grocery store, that the total on your receipt seems to be climbing higher. That’s not just your imagination– inflation is back, and food prices are higher. It is also frustrating when trying to adhere to a household budget. However, there is a way to combat higher prices, with a little planning: Meal prepping.
What Does Meal Prepping Mean?
Meal prepping, at its simplest, means preparing meals ahead for the upcoming week, month, or year. Some even take that to a longer-term plan, looking years into the future. This article will break meal planning down into a simpler plan that is geared towards saving money.
How Do You Begin?
Begin by conducting an inventory of all of the food that you have on hand. This may take a few days, as it is a huge project. Here is how we recommend that you do this.
Time to Get Organized. Sort Existing Items, and Inventory.
Empty out your cupboards. Any cupboard that has food in it needs to be emptied. This includes your spice cupboard. This is also going to be an excellent cleaning exercise, so once all of this hard work is done, you are going to enjoy opening those cupboards to see the rewards of your hard work.
Sort all of your similar items into piles, like this, for example:
- Canned beans
- Canned fish
- Canned meat
Fruits and vegies:
- Canned vegetables
- Canned fruits
Pasta of all types
- Baking Powder
- Baking Soda
Syrups and jellies
Ketchup, mustard, soy sauce
Sauces, gravies, etc.
We’re sure you get the gist. Just make sure that similar items are grouped together.
Now, clean your cupboards, re-lining with shelf paper if necessary.
Next, find the expiration date on the cans. We know this may not be easy! Some are really hard to find. Toss anything that may be unsafe.
With what is remaining, start an inventory. This doesn’t have to be fancy — an Excel spreadsheet will work, or even just a manual list. The goal is to know where you stand.
Now, put everything back into the cupboards and pantry, in order of expiration date. When you reach inside, you will want to be able to use the item that will expire first and leave the “newest” items toward the back.
It’s not all about pantry goods, though. You’ll need to repeat this process with the refrigerator (and also clean it) as well as the freezer. If you have a chest freezer, it needs to be included in this process. This is a great time to defrost and clean. Trust us — you will be happy that you did this, later.
Find family favorites
Something we have found really helpful in meal planning is to know what the family likes and will eat. We keep favorite recipes marked in cookbooks, magazines, and in a bookmarked folder on our computer. Even if, when shopping, you find an incredible buy on garbanzo beans, that’s a waste of money if no one will eat them. By having “tried and true” recipes at the ready, you know that your cleaning, inventorying, and planning time won’t have been a waste.
We know, for instance, that our family will always eat lasagna, spaghetti, tacos, and hamburgers. Those are also all dishes that can be made to suit vegan, vegetarian, and meat-eaters alike.
By having a big list of meals that are family-approved, you can speed through your weekly meal plan.
Planning meals – weekly
We like to plan on Thursdays, and shop on Fridays. There is a method to the madness: preserving the weekend for some rest and relaxation. This works for us, but you may find a different system that works for your household.
On Thursday evening, with your inventory of food handy, take a look at your family-favorite meals and pick out dinners that you plan to make for Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Wait, you say — where is Friday? Well, we use Friday as our “super-easy” night, because we’ve put in a forty-hour week and then went grocery shopping! Time for a little break, we think. So, Fridays are the night when we get a pizza or fried chicken from the store deli, or heat-and-eat meals. We think it’s a relaxing way to start the weekend.
At any rate, start your list, cross-checking to see what you have on hand versus what you will need to purchase. You may also wish to open your grocery store’s savings app or get out the newspaper ad to see what is on sale.
Here are some examples you may wish to borrow. For a Saturday in the fall, we might make a pot of chili that can simmer all day. We may be entertaining friends or having a family game night. To that meal, you might add budget-friendly cornbread, grated cheese, or tortilla chips. Leftover chili gets even tastier, as the flavors meld, so any leftovers can be put into the refrigerator or frozen. If you do that, make sure to mark the container and add it to your freezer inventory, for example, “Chili – Sept. 28 – four servings.”
On Sundays, we love to make a big pan of lasagna or a casserole. If you take your lunch to work, you’ll make the next several days a breeze by being able to microwave your lunch.
We tried “Meatless Mondays” and found that they were no hardship. An item like sauteed portobello mushrooms over rice, with broccoli and a side salad, was very satisfying. Taco Tuesdays are something the family looks forward to! Save the extra toppings left over for tossing into a quick taco salad during the week. Wednesdays could be a Hamburger night. We had fun switching up our burgers, making them either turkey burgers, black bean burgers, mushroom burgers or salmon burgers. You can make home fries or buy big bags of frozen french fries in bulk.
On Thursdays, we found we liked having a 50’s night, with Salisbury steaks, carrots, and mashed potatoes and salad, or meatloaf, or pork chops. As you use up ingredients, put them onto your list. Encourage your family to do the same. If you keep the list on the refrigerator, set a reminder to take a picture of it with your cell on Friday morning.
Budgeting for breakfast and lunch
We also need to plan for breakfast and lunches. Breakfasts are usually the easiest, as most people tend to eat cereal, bagels, or drink smoothies. At any rate, when preparing your grocery list, make sure to have those items on hand or purchase them if you don’t.
Even if you spend only $5 buying lunch at work, do the math! That’s $25 a week, or $100 a month. Odds are that your leftover lasagna or a taco salad will be just as tasty as anything you could buy.
How to avoid going over budget
Here are some common pitfalls of not planning or shopping well.
Who hasn’t had a kid who remembered they were supposed to bring cupcakes to school . . . at 7 p.m., the night before? Or maybe it was your turn to bring something, for a co-worker’s birthday? For this very reason, we include cake mixes and frostings in our pantry. You may be up late baking, but it’ll be so much less money than if you run to the store in the morning.
Snacks are another budget pitfall. We like to pack an extra snack in a child’s lunch or keep something in our own tote bag. This may prevent a trip for fast food.
Failing to prep will burst your budget. Weirdly, our family will eat apples, if sliced in baggies in the refrigerator. They will also eat baby carrots and hummus, but a whole apple or carrot will sit, uneaten. This means that sometimes on the weekend, you’ll need to find time to do some slicing and dicing. We have found that if we have “stew” on the menu for, say, Thursday, if we have carrots peeled and chopped, it’s a breeze to assemble and put into the crockpot or Instapot.
For kids, there is often the complaint of, “There is nothing to eat.” This, translated, usually means that you are out of their favorite chips, or cookies, etc. We have found that popping some popcorn usually takes the edge off or making some quick cereal bars will quell the, “I’m hungrys.” Bags of peanuts in the shell (inexpensive) are another family snack favorite.
Our frequent mistake is to forget to take meat out of the freezer for dinner. Don’t let that move defeat you! Check your inventory and look for something else that you can defrost quickly, like chili. Or check your pantry for shelf-stable foods that you can use.
It’s also helpful to arm yourself with everything you need, in one area of your kitchen, for prepping lunches. Do you have baggies, plastic containers, waters, etc., at the ready? If things are too difficult, you will slip back into buying fast food, and there goes your budget.
Try to stay out of the store on a non-shopping day. This is crucial! We have found that we just “grab” a few things that look good and before you know it, you’ve spent $50.
Watch for items that you use frequently to go on sale, and stock up. Add to your inventory list. If you have the room to store additional items, you may wish to look into food storage buckets or canned food racks. You must make sure that you can keep your purchases safe from bugs and rodents.
By keeping a food inventory, planning out your meals, and watching for sales, you can feed your family healthily, deliciously, and not be a victim of food inflation.