Meal planning to save you money, food and time

Meal planning to save you money, food and time

Wasting food is wasting money

My meal planning calendar – we use a school calendar, as it has big squares to write in

Food waste is a big problem in many countries around the world. Just here in New Zealand, we waste an estimated $872 million worth of food a year, according to a government report. That represents 122,500 tonnes of food sent to landfills. This is pretty crazy, considering how much effort went into that food:

  • growing the food,
  • processing and packaging,
  • transporting in our country or importing from overseas,
  • stocking the food in supermarkets and other places we buy it,
  • shoppers buying the food and getting it home,
  • making the food into meals.

And if you grow food yourself and it doesn’t get used, then it wasted your time too! I have to admit that I have done this a few times. I grew brussel sprouts a number of times, before I finally accepted that we didn’t really eat them, they just stayed in the freezer getting freezer burn! The chickens loved them, but still, it wasn’t the best use of my time and resources.

One way to avoid wasting food is by planning what you are going to eat, buying food for those meals, and using up that food before it gets past its best. You can plan for meals that use up leftovers, and save yourself time too.

Meal planning – week by week

For many years now, I have worked out a meal plan for the week. Just for evening meals (which I call ‘dinner’ or ‘tea’, although my husband calls lunch ‘dinner’. We were brought up in different parts of the UK, with different words for the same things! It can be confusing in our house at times).

I started doing weekly meal plans for nutrition reasons, to make sure we ate a variety of food across the week. It also made life easier, as I knew what food we needed to buy, and never had that evening question of ‘what shall we have for tea?’, while staring into the cupboards for inspiration.

When we moved to a rural area, meal plans became even more useful, as it’s a 15 minutes drive to the nearest supermarket. It made even more sense to have enough food in stock at home, so we wouldn’t make extra trips into town.

This saves us from wasting:

  • time spent driving to the shops for missing ingredients,
  • money spent on impulse buys while you are at the shop picking up ingredients you needed, and
  • petrol on extra trips to town (we want to buy an electric vehicle one day, so we are not as reliant on petrol, but it’s not something we can afford right now).

Using a weekly meal plan, we reduced the amount of food we wasted, as the food we bought was used in the meals that were planned. And if there were vegetable and fruit scraps such as peelings and apple cores, they go into the compost bins.

When we had children, the amount of leftover food increased, as the kids can be fussy about some food. My kids don’t really like cooked vegetables, they prefer raw veges like cucumber and tomatoes (although they love roast potatoes, of course, as they are gorgeously salty and oily!). Luckily, the kind of food scraps from leftover cooked food can go to the chickens, so it doesn’t end up in landfill.

Meal planning – month by month

Before I quit my regular paid job in February this year, we reviewed our household budget carefully. Looking back over our spending for the previous year, we found we spent quite a lot on food each month.

The food spend averaged $1,200 a month, so around $300 a week, for a family of two adults, two primary school age children and two cats.

This higher than the ‘basic healthy food’ cost of $257 a week for a family of four, reported here in the 2018 NZ Food Cost Survey. Not sure if the Food Cost survey includes two hungry cats….

Not my actual cats!
Photo credit:

So, I set a goal to reduce our food costs to $800 a month, or around $200 a week. I read that creating a monthly meal plan can help you save money, as you can space out your more expensive meals over the month, and ‘fill in the gaps’ with cheaper meals.

Five months in to monthly meal planning – saving $400 a month!

Its been five months since I started this meal planning method. I have managed to get our grocery shopping down to $800 a month on average! Woo hoo!

My method for creating a monthly meal plan

  • Start with a list of meal ideas – meals everyone in the family likes, meals that are easy to make, meals that you want to try. See tips later on in this post.
  • Grab your calendar or a meal planner template, and write in the nights that you have something on, like sports practice, meetings, social events, special occasions. Add some easy go-to meals on those nights, or write down a meal on the day before that can be doubled up for leftovers the next day.
  • Put in any regular meals you like to have on a particular night (it might be roast dinner at the weekend, or a pizza night on Fridays).
  • Fill in the gaps with a range of meals from your list of ideas.
  • Space things out so you have a variety of proteins each week – I tend to write down one to two red meat, one chicken, one fish and one eggs based meal each week. We usually have two or three meat-free meals a week.
  • Write a shopping list using the meal plan and looking at what you have in stock in the cupboards, fridge and freezer. I buy groceries weekly, some people buy every two weeks or even monthly. I’m guessing they do a weekly shop for fresh produce, milk, etc.
  • Shopping online helps with budgeting, as I can see exactly how much the shopping bill comes to, as I shop. Plus, there aren’t so many impulse buys, and you can search through the mailers online for special offers.

For those who need more spontaneity in life…

The meal plan is not set in stone, you can switch meals around, as you have the ingredients to hand. As you can see from my meal planning calendar at the start of this post, by the end of the month it is full of crossing-out and new scribbles! But… I usually don’t end up buying extra food or takeaways, I just use what we have available.

I know that planning what you are having for tea in four weeks time might sound incredibly dull to some people! It’s not for everyone, I know. But it has helped me to save money and time, and stopped us wasting food that has been bought and not used.

Tips to help with meal planning

Here are some ideas that you might find helpful.

Keep meal ideas in a notebook or electronically

My ‘Food Ideas’ notebook

Write a list of meals that your family all enjoy

Budget friendly meals for us include:

  • Meat free meals, or meals with some meat bulked out with beans, lentils or chickpeas,
  • Meals made from scratch rather than using processed ingredients,
  • Meals that you can make in bulk and cook in the slow cooker, such as chilli, stew, curries, soups,
  • Recipes using cheap ingredients you often have in stock such as garlic, ginger, onion, carrots, potatoes, pasta, rice, and
  • Meals using homegrown fruit and veges.
The list of meal we all love – sometimes it feels like everyone is fussy, but when you write down a list of the meals that everyone enjoys, it’s actually pretty huge!

Write a list of meal ideas to try

I have lots of recipe books, and search for recipes online too. I add some ideas to the notebook when we need something new and interesting. We all know the boredom of making the same set of recipes over and over.

My daughter wrote out a list of recipes from a slow cooker recipe book, (see the left hand page in the photo below). Good handwriting practice for her! Although, look at the state of my handwriting, right hand page below, its awful.

Meal ideas to try in future – taken from cook books and a friend’s pile of ‘meal box’ recipes

Some good recipe websites

Here are some great NZ foodie websites:

I also like these sites:

  • BBC Food – a British site, a huge database of recipes
  • Taste – an Australian site, another massive range of recipes

I hope this gives you some encouragement to try meal planning, or to try some new ideas if you are already a meal planner. I’d love to hear how you get on, and your tips that you have for me.