Meal planning can look very different from one household to another. For example some families have a monthly meal plan lined out, while others plan a few days in advance. Whatever style you may have, meal planning is a resourceful tool to use in the kitchen to eat better for less money.
There are many benefits of meal planning, I’m sure you can think of a few. A couple of the more well-known benefits include saved time and money. Planning your meals saves time as it allows you to make fewer trips to the store, and frees up time that you could be spending with your family or friends. Meal planning can help individuals and families save money by making fewer unplanned purchases while shopping, provides the ability to utilize sales to your advantage, and you can plan your meals based on what’s in season for a better price and higher quality product.
Meal planning improves organization as you will already have the ingredients at home, so you won’t have to make a run to the store. Family members can also help prepare the meals when the food is on hand and everyone knows what the meal plan is. Some enjoy meal planning for the peace of mind that it provides. It can help eliminate that stress that is often felt when 6 pm rolls around, everyone is hungry and there is no food in sight. Meal planning can also improve food safety as you can safely thaw food out in the fridge a few days before its needed, rather than on the counter. It can also reduce food waste as you can plan to use perishable food items before they expire.
One of the great benefits of meal planning is the improved nutrition that comes with it. When you plan meals, you have control over the ingredients and the portion you serve yourself. You can plan healthy options that include a variety of different food groups, colors, textures, and flavors which might not happen when you’re in a hurry. Often times when we don’t have planned out meals, we miss out on food groups such as fruits and vegetables as we turn to fast food. Our fast food options rarely contain adequate fruits and vegetables, and are higher in sodium, solid fats and added sugars, which if consumed on a regular basis can increase your risk for chronic diseases.
Creating a meal plan can be tough sometimes, so I hope to provide you with some helpful tips as you are creating yours. One of the great things about creating meal plans is that there is an abundance of resources you can use to help you. One important resource to keep in mind is your food budget, as this will help you stretch your food dollar so it lasts the entire month. Most grocery stores now have apps and store websites where you can find what items are on sale, so that may help you utilize those to your advantage.
When you are having a hard time coming up with meal ideas, pull from your resources such as your favorite cookbooks, collect input from family members, look at school or senior lunch menus to give you some ideas. Getting family input can also improve meal acceptance at home and even better they can help in the kitchen. Don’t forget to check your fridge, pantry, and freezer for items that you already have on hand to prevent food waste.
Planned-overs are one of my favorite things! Using planned-overs reduces food waste, saves money, and requires less clean up. If you’re not interested in having the same meal multiple times, you can freeze the extra food for later when it sounds appetizing again. Don’t be afraid to create new meals with your leftovers. For example, if you have a turkey dinner the first night, make this into turkey sandwiches, a turkey casserole, turkey soup, or other turkey recipes throughout the week. This creates variety, while still utilizing what you’ve already cooked. Snacks and vegetables for meals can also be prepared in advance when you have extra time, so they are ready and convenient to eat all week long. For example, you can prepare a bag of fresh vegetables with a tasty dip that can be munched on for a few days.
Don’t forget to create your meal plan with the family calendar in mind, as you don’t want to plan a meal that takes 2 hours to cook on a night that you have to be done with dinner by a certain time. Everyone is going to have a different style of meal planning, so choose a method that works for you. Don’t forget to be flexible as plans may change in a blink of an eye.
University of Wyoming Extension- Nutrition and Food Safety Educator Shelley Balls, MDA, RD, LD