7 Tips for Making the Most of Your Meal Dollars

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When looking at ways to save money in your budget, one of the biggest expenses after housing and transportation is usually food costs. Gratefully, it’s also a very flexible expense with lots of room to save.  There are dozens of websites and blogs out there that give ideas – some much more realistic and doable than others. Here are seven tips that I’ve found are easy enough to be incorporated into your routine that will help you save big:

    • Have a game plan. Once a week I sit down to create a menu for the upcoming days. If I don’t, I will walk out of work wondering what on earth we should have for supper and we’ll end up at a restaurant (or picking up at a drive through) and thus spending more than twice what it would have cost me to cook those hamburgers or pizza at home.
    • Be realistic. As you plan for the week, think about how many nights will you cook from scratch? Heat-and-eat? Leftovers? Eat out? There’s no one right answer. For my family, I cook a couple of meals on each my days off, so we have “from scratch” meals four times a week, eat out once, and leftovers or a frozen dinner twice.
    • Take inventory. Start with what you have already on hand. If you’ve had that pack of ground beef in the freezer for a couple months, it’s time to have burgers on the grill this weekend. Overflowing with rice? Make a quick stir-fry one weeknight. If you don’t know how to use up what you have, online resources such as myfridgefood.com or supercook.com can get the creative juices going (or just google the ingredients you have and the word “recipe” – it’s amazing what you can find!).
    • Decide on meals for the week. And write it down where you can see it: Chicken casserole with salad on Sunday, quesadillas with rice and beans on Monday, leftovers Tuesday, frozen pizza on Wednesday, etc. Cookbooks are great, but I use online resources at least as often for creating meals. Also, get cozy with recipes that flex with the food you have. Stir-fries, omelets, and pasta salad are great ways to use up veggies or meat that would otherwise be a partial serving.
    • Create a grocery list. For the meals you plan to cook, create a list of items you need. That way (1) you don’t forget the soy sauce for the lo mein on Saturday and have to spend money on a second trip to the store and (2) you don’t wind up buying a dozen items you don’t need. For the “heat-and-eat” meals like freezer dinners, you may want to just say “heat-and-eat” on your list and then buy what’s on sale when you get there.
    • Comparison shop as you have time and download/print coupons. If you’re a couponer, more power to you! I’ve never been one myself (I do good to check out the one or two sites for the brands I love most), but I love shopping sales.  Maybe I thought I really wanted broccoli for a veggie with our baked chicken on Sunday, but the asparagus is on sale and looks great – so be flexible! I also know which stores generally have the best prices for non-perishables vs meat vs produce. In my case, I love Aldi’s for non-perishables and dairy, Kroger for meat (especially on Tuesdays when they seem to have the most items marked down for clearance), Dollar General for cleaning supplies, our local co-op for bulk bin purchases, etc.
    • Modify as needed. As you get the hang of planning a meal, like planning your budget, you need to re-evaluate on occasion. What worked well for you? What didn’t?

All new skills take some time to develop and make your own. You may find you don’t have time to cook as often as you thought. Or you may find that you have to plan only a half-week at a time. But the benefits to your budget (both financial and time) are invaluable. Not to mention that the feeling of accomplishment when you look at the farmer’s market leftovers in the fridge and realize it’s basically a free pasta primavera waiting to happen.

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