"What's for dinner, daddy?" My daughter howled at my husband these dreaded words every parent hates to hear. Sure, we could have dialed for pizza or ordered take-out, but with bills to pay and savings to save, I thanked my lucky Loonies that dinner was done thanks to a little thing called meal planning. Also, my cranky kid got fed fast. Phew.
Whether you're dining as one or raising a hungry herd of teens, planning a few meals a week can save you big time and money. Heck, take these simple meal planning tips for a spin and you may even eat healthier too.
Step One: Go shopping, at home?
What's hiding in your freezer? Go ahead and brave the ice age to save a little, or a lot of money in your personal frozen food aisle. If your pantry is stocked and your fridge is almost full, chances are dinner is already paid for. Using up all your forgotten food is an essential step to cutting grocery costs and preventing food waste.
Before you go grocery shopping, list what you have at home and turn those ingredients into a meal.
Step Two: Write a weekly meal plan.
You're less likely to order take-out if you have a firm meal plan in place. Use your phone's calendar, a planner, a kitchen whiteboard, or download my Free Meal Planner to map out which meals you're going to eat on what days. I often prepare bigger meals on the weekend and freeze the leftovers for weekday lunches.
If you're stuck for ideas, borrow a recipe book from the library or find food inspiration from a site like All Recipes, where you can search for recipe ideas by ingredient.
Big batches of simple meals (such as chilis or vegetarian stews) are cheap and easy to make. Plus, you'll save time by cooking once and reheating for the rest of the week.
Step Three: Shop the sales.
With a meal plan in place it's easy to use Flipp to build a Shopping List and save money with the weekly grocery sales. I first use Flipp to find the ingredients I need at the local stores where I shop, and then stock up on the sale items I use often. Rice, chicken, bread, cheese, yogurt, and frozen broccoli (yes, I'm weird) are just few of the basics I regularly save money on thanks to Flipp. Overall, I cut my grocery bill by around 25% by making lists, matching coupons, and browsing flyers with Flipp.
Step Four: Beans over beef. Frozen veggies over fresh.
Where's the beef? To cut the biggest costs, try to substitute beans and legumes for meat in a few weekly dishes. Chick peas, lentils, and kidney beans are big hits in my home -- I'll stock up on canned beans when on sale and switch to soaking dried beans when I'm feeling creative. I generally eat meat only once or twice a week and budget those savings for seasonal produce.
During the 'Great Cauliflower Crisis' last year I laughed (and then cried) when the coveted vegetable hit $8 a head. Rather then pay the price for fresh cauliflower, I saved 80% by going frozen. Out of season frozen produce is generally 30% less than fresh during the winter months, which cuts the cost of eating healthy year-round. Because frozen produce is flash frozen at its peak, you're getting all the nutrients without risking spoilage.
Step Five: Simmer with a slow cooker.
Slow cookers are inexpensive gadgets that can save you hundreds of dollars a year. Using a slow cooker, you can buy inexpensive cuts of meat and tenderize them into tasty soups, stews, or even pot roasts. Vegetarians can also cut food costs with a slow cooker by simmering dried beans, saving around 60% over canned beans. Besides, coming home from work to a hot and healthy meal is priceless.
Kerry K. Taylor is a consumer expert at Squawkfox.com.