Sometimes it's a wonder that we manage to eat up even half of our groceries that we buy with the best intentions to go through them all. Fast forward to a week or two later and our healthy greens that were going to go into green salads have turned brown and mushy, not to mention that telltale smell that lingers even after you've scrubbed the fridge down. We've all been there.
Chances are, you're throwing away more food than you wanted to which results in money lost that you could've saved. This fact is especially hard when you're trying to live on a budget or a diet and getting the motivation to cook and prepare meals is daunting.
Why Monthly Meal Planning?
The national average for food waste in the United States sits around 133 billion pounds of food, which is a lot of wasted resources and money. So what can you do? How can you take your food waste to a pound per person to as minimal as possible? Food planning.
Monthly food planning is a great way to reduce stress, reduce costs on wasted food, and allows you an opportunity to pre-plan and pre-make food that you will be more likely to eat. If you're dieting, and you're looking for ways to incorporate more vegetables or healthier alternatives into your food, monthly meal planning can also keep you on track with that in mind.
It sounds simple now, but many people struggle to maintain a food plan, especially when lazy nights call for take-out or something along those lines. We're here to make it easy for you, and what's better is you'll still have those evenings where all you have to do is microwave a meal for a couple of minutes and enjoy.
That's right, having a solid meal plan in place will reduce impulse buys and push you only to buy foods that you know you'll eat. Not to mention, monthly food planning allows you to incorporate different meals that you've never thought to try before. It's a great way to experiment, and if you realize you don't like it, then it's as simple as not buying the ingredients needed for it again.
And you don't have to be married to the idea of what sounded good when you initially planned it. If tacos do not seem appealing, then switch it up with something else that you might have designed. If it makes you feel better, write out your initial plans and pencil so that they can be quickly erased and substituted for something that does sound good that evening.
How To Get Started
Ok, before you start getting fired up about this, let's ask a few essential questions that are necessary to maximize your grocery potential. It's critical to have a good idea I've had to answer these questions just because every single person who sets up a meal plan is different, and therefore their needs are mixed as to what they eat.
What Foods Do You Like to Eat?
This question seems so simple, but many people struggle to list out what they like entirely. If your main concern is sticking to a diet, list of things that you know you can eat to maintain your diet first and then go on from there. These are going to be ingredients that you either use in recipes or that always run out because you go through them frequently such as:
The list goes on, it's mainly dependant on your individual needs, but you get the picture. These are things that you'll use frequently and you with have to worry about them going bad because let's face it if you're not crazy about it, you're not going to eat it. On the opposite side of the picture, you have things like:
These are the foods that many households grab to add into their meals to make them healthier or to add flavor Unfortunately they're also the foods that get more commonly tossed because their shelf life is limited and they can't incorporate easily in daily meal preparations.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't pick up these ingredients. Finding creative ways to incorporate foods with a limited shelf life will help maximize your meal planning and allow you to try new recipes that you hadn't considered before. This topic of shelf life brings us into our next section.
Know Your Shelf Life
Even if you're not going to go out of your comfort zone when it comes to your preferences with food, you should be familiar with the shelf life of a product. Thankfully if your diet comes packaged, there's usually an indicator as you when food spoils versus when labeled as “best by.”
When a package has “best by” on it, it doesn't mean it's terrible if you eat it after the date that's listed. Typically it just says that the company cannot guarantee that it will taste as good as it would from a fresher batch. Usually, these products eat fine a couple of days after but that could serve as a reminder that it should be eastern sooner rather than later.
Fresh foods are a different story. Eggs are the easiest to work with as far as their shelf life is concerned. You'll be able to enjoy them for a full five weeks from the date of purchase, and if you have older eggs that are getting closer to that expropriation date, then they are perfect if you want hard boiled eggs which make for a great snack or a salad topping.
On the flip side, if you purchase liquid egg product, you will only have three days from the date you open it to use that entire carton. Vegetables last at the least three to five days, and that's if stored properly. You'll want to incorporate at least one vegetable dish a meal to use up what you purchase before it goes bad.
Meats aren't nearly so forgiving. You'll have about two or three days to cook and serve your ground beef after you purchase it before they go bad. Steaks and other cuts can survive up to five days before they go bad, same with pork sausages and pork chops. Chicken and other poultry are only good for a couple of days as well before discarded.
Even fish has a short shelf life of only two days unless smoked in which case you can have that in your fridge for two weeks.
It seems like a waste to bother buying meats especially if you're going to be going to the store all the time to pick them up. However, there are great ways to extend the life of your meats, so you're not shopping all of the time.
Freezing or cooking your ingredients will make them last much longer and provide a prepared solution for those nights that you're too tired to cook. Freezing your meats will extend their shelf life up to three months for beef, four months pork for poultry, and even six months for thicker cuts of fish.
Cooking these items and then freezing them gives you around the same amount of shelf life without the need for prep, so if there are specific recipes you know you'll eat frequently, then it's a good idea to pre-make a lot of the cooked meats that you can for them.
Make a Meal Calender
You don't have to go out of your way to buy a separate calendar to manage this unless you write on yours a lot and there isn't any space. Take time to figure out how often you go to the grocery store every month and then revolve your meals based on that schedule. Any significant events should be considered as well and written down on the calendar.
If you know that you go to the grocery store every other Friday or so, plan to make salads and smoothies that use up perishable ingredients reasonably quickly. These trips would also provide a chance to pick up items that you can make into stews which can be bagged and frozen for later if not eaten completely in that night that you prepare them.
Also. plan for at least two nights a week where leftovers get used up, even if they have to be eaten as a lunch or added into a new recipe where they can recycle. Leftovers are an easy way out of cooking, but many times they get stuffed towards the back of the fridge and forgotten about until they're a green fuzzy blob that bears no resemblance to what they used to be.
Learning to love your leftovers not only saves money, but it provides an easy way to get out of cooking if you've had an especially rough day at work. They also serve as an excellent way to get something quick in your stomach when there’s a sports practice event that your kids are involved.
When you have an idea of what you'd like to eat throughout a month, you will then have a comprehensive approach as to what you need to work with, and it helps you cut out food that will rot away instead of being used.
Another good tip to kickstart your monthly meal plan into gear is to take a look at what you already have in your pantry and fridge. Get a good inventory of what you have on hand and then start planning meals around the foods and ingredients that are getting close to expiring first Once you've used up a good portion of what you had in hand, it's time to start a shopping list.
Put Together A Weekly Shopping List
Doing this comes across as being too tedious but before you dismiss the idea, let's go over why you should be doing this. In countries like Japan, it’s not unusual to go to the store and pick up what’s needed for only a few days at a time to have the ingredients that they need for the meals that they want to prep for that span.
Putting together a weekly shopping list for what you’re planning to make for that specific week will help keep you on track and reduce impulse spending that derails your budget; Not to mention, you can keep track of what you’re eating regularly.
You’ll know that you’ll have more consistent access to fruits and vegetables versus when you shop bi-monthly or even monthly which allows you to incorporate them regularly if you’re trying to keep your meals healthier.
Shopping weekly, especially during the middle of the week, allows you to take advantage of discounted food products that need to be sold off quickly or are placed on sale to drag in more customers to keep their sales up.
Sometimes you can find ground beef, fish and pork discounted to amazing rates, and if you know that you have meals that require these items, you can freeze them until later and then you’re saving yourself a good deal of money in the future.
Shopping weekly also helps you make changes that are cheaper and different for your families meal plan. It’s ok not to be married to what you planned out last month, and if you find a deal on something else that sounds much better than what previously got scheduled for, go for it. You’re able to be flexible with these plans and if it saves money then more power to you.
Monthly food planning is not a process that you can typically jump into, and sometimes it takes a lot of time to get into the rhythm of it. Ultimately, monthly food prep saves time and money in ways that we didn't realize before, and once you successfully managed to stick to a food calendar for the month, you'll realize just how much we were wasting back.
There are many tools and guides online on how to create a monthly food calendar successfully, and they cater to all forms of diets and restrictions depending on what your needs are. Overall, once you get into the habit of monthly food planning, you'll realize how easy and time-saving this process is.