Monthly Money Challenge: Meal Planning

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Did you know next to housing and transportation, food is the largest expense for most families?

This month’s money challenge is all about reducing your food expenses by experimenting with how meal planning can save money.

How Much Are You Spending on Food?

Have you looked at your food spending lately?

When our family first got serious about our debt and started tracking our spending we discovered groceries and take-out cost us almost as much as our rent each month!

It took several months of tracking and tweaking our habits, but gradually, we weaned ourselves off take-out (mostly) and started shopping according to our grocery list and not our stomachs.

While we’ve made a lot of progress in reducing our food budget, I’m curious if consistent menu planning can save us even more.

What Is Meal Planning?

Meal planning at its most basic is just deciding what’s for dinner with enough advanced notice that you have the ingredients and time available to make it.

But saving money with meal planning is going to require a bit more forethought than that.

In order to make sure we’re avoiding temptation both at the drive-thru and the grocery store, we’re going to need to plan out our meals well in advance.

How Do You Make a Meal Plan?

Meal planning can be as simple or complex as you make it.

The cheapest method is to just jot down your plan for the week on a sheet of paper. You can download a free meal planner printable here.

I’m usually a digital gal, but I found a refrigerator magnet to use for our menu planning that’s been really helpful. I love that it’s reusable and in-your-face every time you walk by the fridge.

Meal planning magnetic menu

Meal Planning Apps and Services

Depending on your personality, time, and the amount of effort you want to put in, there are a number of apps and services that can simplify your meal planning.

Plan to Eat (app)

Plan to Eat app for meal planning

Plan to Eat is a meal planning app that lets you simply drag and drop recipes into your calendar to make your plan.

You can add recipes in manually, but if you install their Recipe Clipper for your browser, you can import any recipe you find online.

You also have the option of planning out all your meals, not just dinner, but I prefer a more condensed view.

The app also creates a grocery list based on your menu and you can even add ingredients directly from the planner.

For example, if you’re grilling steak one night you may not have a recipe for that, but you can still type it in and add it as an ingredient so not only will it appear in your plan, but also on your shopping list. Super cool!

The Dinner Daily (service)

The Dinner Daily meal planning service

If you’re just looking for a convenient way to find recipes to fill your menu, The Dinner Daily is a menu planning service that creates your menu based around your local store’s sales.

I really like that they suggest recipes that use similar ingredients (usually the ones on sale) so you can make sure you’re actually using what you just bought.

Like Plan to Eat, The Dinner Daily will create a shopping list for you based on your recipes.

It also has the added benefit of letting you tailor your meals according to your diet (or allergies in our case) and how many servings you need.

This can be helpful if you want to scale back for a smaller family or if you want to scale up for leftovers.

Meal Kit Delivery (services)

Full disclosure – I haven’t tried any of these meal delivery services because of our various food allergies. We just can’t take the risk of cross-contact occurring during processing and packaging.

You’ve probably gotten a flyer or two in the mail for Hello Fresh or Blue Apron. These are meal kit delivery services that send you fresh ingredients along with the recipes for the week so you don’t have to do anything but actually cook the food.

If your food budget is out of control, this may be a surprisingly effective method to bring your costs down.

The per meal cost is actually less than eating out and because groceries are included it may also reduce your grocery bill by preventing impulse spending.

It’s also a great way to simplify your meal planning since they literally send the recipes with the food to you. You just have to cook it.

Since we haven’t actually tried these I can’t attest to the quality, ease, or value of this method. But if it’s something you’d like to try, here are a couple of comprehensive reviews you can check out to help you decide:

So How Should You Go About Meal Planning?

It really depends on your personality as to what method works best for you.

  • Done-For-You: a meal kit delivery service makes meal planning effortless
  • Pinterest Junkie: Instead of pinning endless recipes, add them to Plan to Eat and actually try a few
  • Sales Shopper: Use The Dinner Daily to take advantage of weekly sales
  • Do-It-Yourself: Print out the Meal Planner pdf above and stick it to your fridge

For this challenge, I plan to use a mix of Plan to Eat, The Dinner Daily, and my fridge menu magnet.

They each have their strengths and having failed to be consistent with each of them in the past, I’m hoping I can combine them to reach my goal this time around.

I’ve already filled out the entire month in Plan to Eat with recipe ideas. I’ll tweak each week as I get new menu plans from The Dinner Daily.

Then, once the week is set, I’ll write it on my magnetic menu so we know the plan for that week.

Can Meal Planning Save Us Money?

My ultimate goal with this challenge is to find out if meal planning can really save money.

I know in theory it should, but I’m putting it to the test to determine if the savings is worth the effort.

We’ve managed to get our grocery budget down to around $400 a month, but I’d like to slash that by another $100. Hopefully, being more intentional in my planning will get us there.

Want to Join the Meal Planning Challenge?

Getting a grip on your food budget goes a long way toward taking control of your spending.

Avoiding take-out and sticking to the grocery list has made a tremendous impact on our budget already so I’m excited to test out meal planning to see how much of an impact it can have.

If you’re struggling with your food spending I encourage you to join me!

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