Meal Planning Advice to Save Money and Reduce Waste

Tightening up shopping and cooking routines matters more than ever these days.

man prepping ingredients in kitchen

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I never tire of reading meal planning articles. Whenever one pops up in my news reader, I open it in a neighboring tab for immediate perusal or bookmark it for future enjoyment. Something about them feels thrillingly aspirational. The descriptions of perfectly orchestrated meal production appeal to a consistently highly organized version of myself that does not yet exist—but I continue to hope will someday.

Meal planning serves numerous purposes, the importance of which will differ from person to person. It can save time, reduce stress and confusion over what to make, minimize food waste, streamline grocery shopping, add variety and flavor, build skills, and save considerable amounts of money. Right now, with rising food costs, the latter may be the most pressing concern, but really, all of these benefits are linked. Saving time and reducing wasted ingredients help to save money, too, as does making shopping more efficient and learning easy new recipes. You can't go wrong with meal planning in any context.

I'd like to share some tips and tricks I've read or heard about, as well as some I've figured out myself in recent months. Think of this as lesser-known meal planning advice that can help you to fine-tune your approach after establishing the basics.

Why This Matters to Treehugger

In the United States, roughly one-third of the food intended for human consumption is lost before it hits the plate. When food is wasted, all of the resources used for producing, processing, packaging, transporting, preparing, and storing it are also wasted. Additionally, food production generates significant carbon dioxide emissions, and when food ends up in the landfill, it generates methane, an even more troubling greenhouse gas. Read more about the importance of reducing food waste

Start on Whichever Day of the Week Makes Sense

Enough with the Sunday-to-Saturday plan. Create your weekly meal plan based on when you get groceries. That might change throughout the year. For me, I pick up a CSA (community-supported agriculture) box of vegetables every Wednesday evening in the summer, so that's when I figure out what I'm going to make for the following week. During the school year, I plan the menu on Thursday afternoons, since I go to the grocery store that evening.

Shop in Person

This is the best way to determine freshness and quality and to scout out money-saving deals, such as buying in bulk or off the clearance rack. Often delivered ingredients are close to expiry, which allows the store to unload inventory, but it doesn't allow you the same flexibility that shopping in person does. If you hate the supermarket as much as I do, go in the early mornings on weekends when it's almost empty. You'll cut shopping time in half. Some experts advise writing your list in a rough date order "as a reminder to buy items with a longer sell-by date that you plan to use later in the week."

mature woman at grocery checkout

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Stay Within the Same Flavor Profile to Avoid Waste

If you're making Thai or Indian at the beginning of the week, plan to make more recipes that use similar ingredients so you can use up what you have. You don't want to end up with a half-can of expensive coconut milk that you're trying to work into a béchamel sauce later on. You could even select a type of cuisine as a theme for the entire week to keep it simple.

Freeze Prepared Ingredients for Slow Cooking

Most home cooks think of the freezer as a place to store prepared meals, but you can also use it as a spot to keep ingredients that are ready for the slow cooker or instant pot. "Defrost and dump" is a phrase used in this article in the Guardian to describe bags of ingredients and uncooked marinades that produce a delicious, hearty meal with minimal effort on a busy day. The article notes, "Fruits and veggies can be prepared and cooked from a frozen state, while raw meat should always be thoroughly defrosted before cooking."

glass containers with prepared meals

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Keep a Variety of Storage Options on Hand

This makes a big difference in cutting down on wasted ingredients and leftovers. Have a wide range of packaging available—Tupperware containers, mason jars and lids, reusable and resealable ziplock bags, old yogurt containers, etc.—that allow you to store, freeze, preserve, defrost, and apportion food easily. If something is going bad, this allows you to act fast and keep it for future use, even if you can't use it right away. For example, I have a surplus of strawberries that are starting to turn because we can't eat them fast enough. Because I have new sealing lids on hand, I will make a small batch of jam later today.

Work on Weekends

When you have spare time on weekends (or on other days, depending on your schedule), use it to prepare ingredients or meals for future consumption. Prep takes many forms. One commenter on a Treehugger article said she prefills mason jars with dry ingredients for homemade pizza dough and then dumps it into the bread machine along with oil for a quick weeknight dinner. You could do the same for spiced lentil or bean soups, cookies, biscuits, pancakes—mixing the dry ingredients ahead of time— or for longer-lasting items like salad dressings, marinades, homemade stir-fry sauces, pesto, and more.

jar of basil pesto

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If You Eat Meat, Go for the More Versatile Option

Not all meats are created equal from the standpoint of usefulness. Big-flavor meats like bacon, sausage, and chorizo are endlessly versatile, whereas something like a steak is limited in its ability to be worked into various recipes. (They're also much cheaper.) The same goes for repurposing leftovers; meat from a roasted chicken can be used in far more ways than leftover steak. 

Choose Recipes That Excite You

To quote Miguel Barclay, author of "One Pound Meals," "If cooking's not exciting, in six months you'll be back on takeaways." If the thought of your meal plan makes you salivate, you'll feel motivated to keep cooking and to build the skills that allow you to achieve it. It's far easier to stay on track if you like what's planned. If group buy-in matters, consult family members to see what they want to eat.