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Meal Planning Ideas for Your Healthy (and Busy!) Lifestyle

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It’s 5:00 pm on a Tuesday…

You’re exhausted and hungry. You don’t know what’s in the fridge at home. And you don’t have the time or energy to conjure up a meal. So you pick up take-out for you and your family on the way home.

Does this sound familiar?

If so, you’re not alone. The number of meals eaten away from home has more than doubled in the last few decades. And unfortunately, our waistlines (and our pocketbooks) are paying the price. In fact, many families spend the cost of a new car on restaurants and take-out food each year.

A few more questions…

Do you ever buy things at the grocery store you don’t need… and forget to buy what you really do need?

Are you tired of eating the same old meals over and over again?

Are you tired of hearing, “What’s for dinner?”

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you could use a meal plan.

But here’s the thing… if you eat food, you’re already a “meal planner.” The average person spends more than five hours each week figuring out what to eat.

The question is whether your “meal plan” involves flying by the seat of your pants from one day to the next… or whether it creates order out of chaos, reduces stress, saves you time and money, and helps you and your family to enjoy better health.

If you’d prefer the latter, please keep reading…

Failing to (Meal) Plan is Planning to Fail

Forget for a moment, the undue stress caused by an overly busy, unorganized lifestyle. Not having a plan for what to buy and what to cook is costing you a LOT more than you think.

Just take a look in your fridge. There’s a good chance there are wilting vegetables in the crisper that will never make their debut on your dinner table. There are probably also some leftovers, well past their prime. Most of this food will be in the garbage bin or compost pile.

In fact, while most families make an average of two trips to the supermarket each week (or eight per month) … the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service estimates they end up throwing out 25 to 50 percent of the food they buy!1,2

What’s more, each added trip to the store costs an average of $30 in unplanned expenses. Given these figures, the average family of four could save $250-$350 every month just by making one weekly supermarket trip and having a plan for every food they purchase.

This will also reduce “impulse” buys and make your weekly grocery trip a breeze, saving you hours that can be spent on better things than running back and forth to the grocery store and roaming the aisles wondering what you’re going to cook for dinner.

Here are a few meal planning ideas that will save you time and money:

  • Think Big to Save Big – Buying in bulk is a great way to save on pantry staples, frozen foods, and meat (especially larger cuts). And with food prices going up just about every month, non-perishable food purchases are a form of investment. Not only do you save money, but you make a return on your savings to boot!
  • Shop Online to Help Your Bottom Line – There are many options to buy organic foods – literally from soup to nuts – at 10 to 50 percent less than local stores. Many retailers offer free or low-cost flat-rate shipping. In addition to the purchase savings, you’ll save time and fuel and make fewer unplanned purchases.
  • Make Your Freezer Your Friend – Invest in an extra freezer for bulk meats, poultry, and fish. The extra storage allows you to buy larger cuts and to buy in bulk for deeper discounts. It also allows you to cook larger meals and freeze the extra for later. A large, well-stocked freezer also means fewer trips to the store.
  • Love Your Leftovers – More often than not, we purchase or prepare too much food. Too often, those leftovers get pushed to the back of the fridge where they wither, wilt and rot. This can account for hundreds of dollars in waste every month. The solution: Only buy as much perishable food as you need for a week and make a plan for your leftovers. While fish and shellfish aren’t the best candidates for next-day meals, soups, chilis, and roasted meats taste just as good (if not better) the next day.
  • Make a List… and Stick to It! – For most shoppers, as much as 70 percent of grocery store purchases are unplanned! And this is no accident. Successful grocery stores have buying psychology down to a science. In fact, research shows that every extra minute you spend at the store equates to two dollars more on the receipt. So, go to the store with a well-prepared ingredient list from your meal plan and stern resolve: If it’s not on the list – don’t buy it!

Planning your meals – deciding what to cook, making a grocery list, and leftover planning – is where saving money starts. Without a meal plan, you’ll spend more at the store, make more trips and throw more food away, potentially costing you hundreds of extra dollars a month.

We’d love to hear from you. Does planning meals for your family cause you to stress? Or, do you have it down to a science? What tips do you have for planning better and saving precious time and money?

kelley herring

Kelley Herring

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  2. US Dept of Ag, Ag Economic Research Service