Shrewd Food: Tips to Save Time, Money & Energy on Meal Planning, Prep


My hubby recently got an email from the student loan office. They are compiling a med student cookbook with inexpensive recipes and money-saving tips for food budgets. It has gotten me thinking about the things I have done to better manage our food bill and waste. As a stay-at-home Mom, I most often contribute financially by saving money through efficient household management—and one of the biggies in that department is food!

Here are some tips to help you avoid waste, and save time, money and energy on meal preparation:

First off, don't be pregnant in your first trimester and plan on cutting back on your grocery bill! ;) Haha. I say that only half-joking . . . I know the first few months of being pregnant are really a struggle for me in the kitchen (the smells!) and with food. When something sounds good, that is what I eat—I don't care that it costs four times the cost of a home-cooked meal would cost for the whole family. I just buy it, and I eat it. It's terrible, I know. But the last few weeks, I've really gotten back on the saddle of meal preparation. :)

Cooking meals from scratch saves your family money and is healthier too. You should incorporate home cooked meals wherever and whenever possible. Cooking from scratch does cost time—so, doing it efficiently is important. This lady has a pretty impressive system. But, for now with a little one, I like mine—which I will explain more about below.

Make a meal plan and stick with it! I make our meal plans for 15-day periods, (because that is how we budget our money.) For every two weeks, I plan on preparing 8-10 meals. At least one night a week, we eat a meal from the freezer, and the other nights are either filled with leftovers, breakfast for dinner or on the rare occasion, dinner out on the town. Making the meal plan and the coordinating grocery list makes grocery shopping much more focused. I rarely buy something that isn’t on my list. And we waste very little food because every food item has a plan.

I do a major grocery shopping trip every two weeks and a much smaller one for filler ingredients on the off weeks:

  • My week #1 grocery shopping list includes all fresh produce necessary for the first week, everything else non-perishable, freezable, and/or shelf-stable for the next two weeks.
  • My week #2 grocery shopping list includes all fresh produce/ingredients necessary for the second week that would have spoiled if purchased earlier, and milk or eggs as needed for the following week.

This is going to sound counter-intuitive to saving money, but I'm going to say it anyway: if you can afford one and you can make some space for one, buy an extra freezer. Our chest freezer only costs us about $30 to power for the whole year, and saves us incalculable amounts of money (and time) by allowing us to buy more food items in bulk and/or on sale. It also allows us to freeze extra leftovers.

We love our chest freezer—especially when it is well-stocked. :)

Buying in bulk is a great way to save money on food—especially on meat. We have recently discovered Zaycon Foods for bulk meat purchases. They sell all-natural, high-quality, fresh never frozen meat and fish at great prices by the case. We just bought a case of chicken from them and couldn’t believe how many breasts we got for what we paid. We plan to do as many of our meat purchases with them in the future as possible.

If you purchase a chest freezer, I also recommend you purchase a couple Costco-sized boxes of Ziploc brand quart and gallon-sized freezer bags. I have found that by not skimping on the quality of the freezer bags we purchase, that my food is very rarely (if ever) freezer-burned.

Also, we buy very little snack food around our house—except for special occasions, like trips. The one exception: We buy a big $5 Costco bag of veggie straws for Lincoln to snack on during church, but otherwise, we hardly ever purchase snack foods. Most of our snacks are just extra fruit, veggies, or string cheese, etc. Highly processed foods are usually pretty expensive, but they are also costly for your health. Cutting extra snack food out of the food budget, frees it up to make more delicious and diverse meals.

Yum! Fruit. :)

Keep a running list on a paper pad on the side of your refrigerator of all the ingredients you are low on or out of completely. It takes some of the grunt work out of the grocery shopping list for you, and you’ll never (or rarely) be surprised by the lack of an ingredient that you assumed you already had.

I also keep a running list on the right-hand side
of household items we need to purchase.

Make an Excel spreadsheet with a list of all the dishes you regularly prepare for your family. Order them by category. (Breakfast, Italian, Asian, Middle-Eastern/Indian, Comfort Food, Soups and Stews, All-American, Fish, Vegetarian, Man Food, Dirt cheap Meals, Sides, etc.) You might also like to include a category with links to online recipes you want to try in the future, as a reminder to yourself when consulting your spreadsheet for meal-planning.

A snip from my Excel master meal list.

When making your meal plan/grocery list:

  • Look over that beautiful spreadsheet to get your mind cookin'. ;)
  • Have your recipe box handy so you can write down ingredients you need.
  • Check your fridge to see if there is any leftover produce (or soon-to-expire ingredients) from the previous meal period that can be used in a meal for the next week.
  • Check your local grocery store ads/coupons. What is a great deal right now? Can you incorporate that in to your meal plan for the week?
  • Consider planning a meatless dinner at least once or more a week. Meat is expensive.
  • Choose at least a couple pairs of meals with matching ingredients, to avoid waste and to save money. For example, if you put salsa in your chili, you may want to consider making a batch of Mexican chicken in the Crockpot that week also, to avoid wasting any salsa.
  • Try to incorporate a crock pot meal or two during a busy week.
  • If you plan to shop at several grocery stores in one trip, divide up your list as you make it so you don't waste time searching for what item to buy where:

A look into my grocery list and meal plan for one period. (This was for a week #1 shopping trip—it involved a lot of restocking our pantry too!)

Each time you cook and have a lot of leftovers, freeze a portion that would feed your whole family for at least one meal. Put it in a high quality freezer bag, and make sure to date and label it. This way you will not waste your leftovers or get bored eating them for a whole week. You can also incorporate more of your frozen meals into your meal plan for the week when things are tight or you simply don’t want to have to cook much. We usually consume one freezer meal, and add two to three to the stash each week. It is a beautiful and tasty thing. I’ve blogged about that topic before here: Frozen Food = Warm Home.

Date and label your leftovers with a Sharpie and piece of masking tape as you go to store them in the fridge for the week. This will give you confidence in eating your leftovers for the full week after making them, or be a red flag to you to avoid them if you didn’t.

Take the mystery out of leftovers—label them!

Incorporate some shelf-stable dairy products in to your food stash. I have recently discovered (and LOVE!) THRIVE products by Shelf Reliance. Pictured here are our cans of instant milk, powdered egg, sour cream powder and cheddar cheese. They last 1-2 years opened. They are more expensive than buying fresh, but they are nice to have for emergencies. In baking, you can't tell any difference whatsoever, and are pretty decent just as they are. They have saved us numerous shopping trips already, (The nearest grocery store is 20 min. away, so 40 min. of driving!) so they are a money saver in my book. They also carry us through tighter weeks.

My THRIVE can stash. Awesome stuff.

Along those same lines, a good stash of canned food is always a good idea. I make a point of buying extra canned food whenever I see a really good deal on something we will use, or if we are ever running low on something in general. Canned food is great for helping you through tight times as well.

Agree with your spouse on the amount you will spend on your groceries for the two-week period BEFORE you go shopping. Take that amount out in cash and put it in an envelope. Only buy groceries with the money from that envelope. When the money is gone, you don’t have more to spend, so don’t! Pull out another freezer meal if you have to, eat black bean and rice burritos, but whatever you do, don’t break that budget!

What are your favorite tips for saving money on food? How do you reduce your food waste? How do you make meal-planning and preparation more efficient? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jami is "rekindling old-fashioned values in a modern world" on her blog, A Bit Backward. . .


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