Meal planning is the key to eating healthy and cheaply. But it takes a little work and motivation that can be hard to come by when you’re busy or infected with brain cooties. Sometimes it’s just easier to run through Starbucks on the way to work and pick up a tea and sandwich to last the rest of the day.
Eating out every day isn’t good for your budget or your health, but it’s so convenient when you’re in a rush.
Planning and preparing your meals ahead of time can help curb impulsive restaurant trips when you don’t have time to make food on your way to class or work. And incorporating grocery store ad cycles into your meal plan is a great way to try new recipes and keep your spending down if you’re on a limited budget or food stamps.
I know firsthand how hard it can be to motivate myself to cook and plan for the week. After many failed attempts at meal planning, I’ve learned to stop being so ambitious about it and start being honest with myself.
Consider Your Eating Habits
I’m a social eater, so I end up going out with friends more than once or twice a week. I try to hit cheap restaurants or go places where the portions are big enough to warrant to-go boxes. I’ve stopped planning my meals for specific days and started freezing more leftovers for weeks where I am not so great at planning.
Take stock of what you actually eat and drink, versus what you tell yourself you’re going to eat. Be honest with yourself when you’re meal planning, otherwise you’re bound to fail.
Take a couple of weeks to track what you eat and buy, and think about all the food that goes to waste and what you really eat every day.
Am I really gonna make those triple-berry whole wheat vegan pancakes I saw on Pinterest, or am I gonna default to chicken tenders and broccoli with ranch as soon as I get home? I find that I eat the same 10 or so meals all the time (I’m not a super creative cook) so it’s not really worth it for me to buy things I might cook later on.
The key to quick and easy meal planning is having a list of recipes and meals that:
- are fairly healthy
- are pretty cheap
- you know you will eat
- you know you can and will cook
Don’t Forget Your Drinks
Beverages make up more of your food budget and intake than you think–and if they don’t, they should. Most people are at least somewhat dehydrated. A lot of times, if you think you’re hungry, you actually just need more water.
I drink a lot of water and tea–and apple juice if it’s on sale. I didn’t have a lot of caffeinated drinks growing up, so I am not a caffeine junkie as an adult. I only ever have soda if I’m out with friends, and I don’t drink coffee at all. About 90% of my liquid intake is water and tea.
But I know a lot of people who are addicted to caffeine and end up going through the Starbucks drive through way too often. I got this Black & Decker coffee maker on Amazon for $10 last summer in my quest to find the perfect dairy-free mocha ice cream. It’s super fast and super cheap. If you put the filter and grounds in at night, and turn it on as soon as you wake up, you’ll have cups of coffee waiting for you when you’re done showering.
Be honest: are you really saving time waiting in line at Starbucks or are you just using that as an excuse to get overpriced PSLs?
Meal Planning Around Sales and Coupons
A couple of years ago I binge-watched all of Extreme Couponers and decided to start couponing. I got a newspaper subscription just for the coupon inserts, and I started printing all the coupons I could find at at work. I got a little coupon binder to bring with me to the grocery store, and once a month I would clean out all the coupons I didn’t use.
Turns out, there are thousands of coupons out there at any given time and I don’t use most of them. Most coupons are for things I don’t need, and the generic store-brand cereal was still cheaper even after I had a Cheerios coupon. None of the stores near me double the value of coupons (which is how those extreme couponers manage to get so much free stuff) so the deals weren’t usually worth it.
When I started being honest with myself about how I used coupons, I stopped clipping every one I could find. Now I follow the grocery store ads and compare prices and coupons to stock-up prices from couponing groups.
It will take a few months of monitoring sales cycles, but creating a stock-up price list can help you decide whether and when to buy certain types of items. Shopping by the seasons saves big bucks!
Free Meal Planning Printables
I wrote before about how I used meal planning as a commuter student bringing a lunch bag to class and work every day. I still apply a lot of that advice to my meal planning now. But I’m not as dedicated as I once was.
I’ve created two free printable meal planners to help you get started. I started by not assigning meals to specific days and by being realistic about the number of meals I would likely prepare or eat through the week (versus throwing chicken tenders in the oven or going out to eat).
One is for more ambitious chefs who think they’ll make 6 meals a week. The other is for those of us who graze throughout the day and know that we’re probably going to make a max of 3 new dinners.
The Honest Meal Planner
The Simple Meal Planner