The regularity of the meals was so deeply ingrained in my mind, to this day, I can still recite what we ate each day of the week:
Tuesday: Shake ‘n Bake BBQ chicken
Friday: Libby Hill Seafood Platter (we all shared!)
Sunday: Chipped beef
Fortunately, when company came over my parents modified the regular menu and we had lasagne. And for the holidays, we had turkey and/or ham and all the fixins’ at my grandmother’s house.
While we always ate well, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I fully understood the reasoning behind my parents actions.
It's no secret that making your own meals instead of eating out will save you money. But with today’s busy schedules, it’s difficult to make it all happen -- despite your most frugal intentions. Kids (and adults) don’t want the same boring meals, but the convenience of eating out on a regular basis definitely increases expenses. So, what’s a person to do?
Don’t worry, Your Financial Mom is here to help! Taming the food budget is, by far, the most common budgeting question I get. Here are my foolproof methods for finding the time to fix a home cooked dinner and save some money in the process.
Make a Plan
How many times have you left work work, taken the kids to and from their activities, only to get home and realize that you don’t have anything prepared for dinner. It happens to me more times than I care to count (even as I am writing this!) and every time it has been due to poor planning.
Meal planning is important for a number of reasons. First, by knowing the meals you are buying for, you can prepare a list BEFORE you head to the grocery store. Having a list is proven to help you spend less money than if you went shopping with wide eyes and an empty stomach. In addition, by determining what meals you’re making and when, you can decide what to buy in bulk and figure out creative ways to use the leftovers in future meals. Win/Win!
Here’s my free Monthly Dinner Planner that can help get you started. Begin by filling in the dates for the month. Check your meal planning calendar against your regular calendar, and account for any planned activitie. You will want simple meals on these evenings. Next, work down each column listing the dinner for each night. In less than 10 minutes, you can map out a month worth of dinner meals!
Here’s how it works in my house: Monday night is a hamburger/beef meal. Tuesday is a chicken meal. Wednesday is leftovers. Thursday is pork dinner and Friday is seafood. I leave the weekends open since they are so unpredictable, but you can schedule them with anything you want. Working down each column allows you to come up with easy meals while giving you variety during the month, preventing you from serving spaghetti six times in two weeks.
Use your family’s easy, go-to recipes during the week and change it up to make the categories work for you. Consider having ‘breakfast for dinner’ one night a month, add in vegetarian meals, and be sure to note any evenings where you are pressed for time because of schedules. You can make a batch of chicken nuggets for a quick dinner on the go.
Make a List
Now that your Dinner Planner is complete, work across each week to prepare your shopping list and shop for one week at a time. That is, unless you are making freezer meals. In that case, you can make a lot at once.
Here’s my Shopping List template that I think you’ll really find helpful on your next grocery store trip - free for you! The thing I really like about this list is that it is categorized by departments so you don’t forget something and have to backtrack through the whole store so you save time.
Sidenote: If you are an avid couponer, be sure to consider them when preparing your shopping list. If they work for you, please do use them and consider how to incorporate the items into your meal plan!
Despite what you might see on the Food Network or while scrolling through Pinterest, putting together a decent meal doesn’t have to involve hours in the kitchen or the purchase of fancy ingredients that you’ll probably only use once. Instead, you can prepare simple dishes that your family will love by finding recipes that don’t require more than a handful of ingredients.
One of my all-time favorites is crock pot recipes. So simple, yet so filling!
A quick Google search of crock pot recipes will uncover endless possibilities. For bonus points, search based on what you have available in your fridge, freezer, or pantry. For example, if you have chicken breast in your freezer and cream of mushroom soup in the pantry, search for crock pot recipes with those items and see what options are available. Chance are, you won’t need to buy many additional ingredients and the result will produce one -- possibly two -- meals for that week.
Another one of my favorites is freezer meals. These are great for families that are constantly on the go and don’t have the option to fully cook meals in the evening. You simply prepare your fresh meal ingredients in advance and pop it in the freezer. Just be sure to defrost it in the morning by putting it in the refrigerator, and you can cook your family a healthy dinner in short order. If you can find several easy recipes with similar ingredients, you can save money by buying in bulk and save time by preparing them all at the same time.
When it comes to cooking at home, preparation is the name of the game. In the same way that we discussed meal planning in the previous section, planning ahead when it comes to the actual cooking of the meal is equally -- if not more -- important.
A good place to start is by preparing anything you can ahead of when you’re actually going to cook. I like to use Sunday afternoons to do this whe I can. That means if your weekly meal plan involves chopping vegetables, combining ingredients, or anything of the sort, you can do that all at one time. This will cut down on the amount of time you actually spend cooking and allow you the chance to sit and enjoy the meal with family.
Speaking of family, cooking is also a great time to involve the family. Teach your kids how to set the table, pour drinks, stir the pots, and do the dishes. Have them give you ideas for dinners as you prepare your Dinner Menu for the month. While a little help is always welcomed, perhaps the most important takeaway from all of this is that once you begin taking the time to plan your meals, menu and shopping, you will find that you spend less time at the store and more time with your family.
And there’s no doubt, you will be thankful for both.
Pamela J. Horack, CFP® of Pathfinder Planning LLC provides personal financial planning advice and asset management for a simple fee to young adults and working families in North and South Carolina through group classes, one-on-one planning, and ongoing advice.