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A Little Food Planning Goes a Long Way





The key to better managing your food life is being organized. If you can make an effort to do this then you will save money and time.  As well, you’ll probably eat a little better, eat a wider variety of food, and you might even live a little longer. The down side is that it involves a little micromanaging, and is not the kind of subject to talk about at parties unless you want people to fall asleep in front of you.

Making a Dinner List

This might seem simple, but a dinner list is a key step in organizing the food you eat. We keep our list on the fridge and it normally goes two or three weeks into the future. The advantages of making such a list are:

  • Organizes grocery shopping, less trips to the store and less food waste.
  • More varied menu as you can ensure you don’t fall back on old staples, and can try a new recipe every week or two.
  • By putting healthy choices on the list you are more likely to eat them.

Example: Writing a dinner list for the next two weeks. Take stock of what you have in the fridge, freezer and pantry, make a note of any eating out arrangements and then fill in the blanks making sure you make use of what you have in stock. Now write your grocery list based around what you’ve decided to eat.

If you are not big on cooking at home and are thinking this doesn’t apply to you, then think again. Eating out is not only costly, it is generally not good for your health. Fast food, obviously, is bad for you, but even food in decent restaurants is not the best. Ever wonder why restaurant food tastes so good? It is because it isn’t good for you; you are certainly eating more sodium and fat than you would be with a home cooked meal. The key to eating well is to eat food that is tasty and relatively healthy. If you are interested in money then presumably you want to be around to spend it in the future, so think about the quality of the food that you feed your family.

If you throw in a few healthy choices then don’t feel guilty about your less healthy choices. Aware that we eat too much meat, we try and make one day a week vegetarian; similarly, we try and alternate fish and meat throughout the rest of each week.

For most people, dinner is the main meal of the day, but you can, of course, make lists of breakfasts and lunches depending on your lifestyle.

Setting a Grocery Budget

Setting a budget for groceries is a very effective way of saving money, and you won’t even notice a difference in what you eat.

If you don’t already have a grocery budget then spend at least two months tracking every penny spent on food for your household – if you’re really into it you can break it down into different categories; set up a spreadsheet and go wild. Once that is done you can decide upon a suitable figure for your monthly budget.

Combined with a dinner list, a budget is a powerful tool. No more last minute decisions about what you are going to have for dinner, decisions that involve a quick $40 run to the store.

Armed with your dinner list you can do a “big shop”, knowing that what you will buy is going to be eaten, thus eliminating waste. You also won’t mind when you see the total at the checkout because it is covered by your budget.

As you get towards the end of the month you might find that you’re running out of budget money. This is when you can get creative with the food you have left, or “eat the freezer” (see next item). Once you’ve got the hang of budgeting, you will make sure you save enough for perishables needed at the end of each month.

Some months are more expensive than others, and you can fine tune your budget to cater to this. We buy fruit in the summer which we freeze, so we try and save $10 a month from September to June to cover this expense. December is a big month for food so you might want to bump up the grocery budget a little for that month. Any leftover money can be carried forward to the next month, and if you build up a big surplus then you can give yourself an extravagant treat.

Use your Freezer

Most people use their freezer to store food that, more often than not, will end up getting thrown out; this is a really expensive way of wasting food and energy. Do not be one of these people; keep your freezer full and organized, and make it earn its keep.

Whether you have a separate freezer or one as part of your fridge, here are some tips on making it work for you.

  • Make an inventory of what’s in your freezer before making a dinner list.
  • Make sure you eat foods before they get old by adding them to your dinner list.
  • Do not let items get buried and forgotten.
  • Label and date items which aren’t obvious.
  • “Eat the Freezer” towards the end of the month when the budget is running low or the freezer is full of goodies.

Other Tips

  • Scan the flyers in your local paper, and if you’ve room then bulk buy items on sale. Only buy items that you need and you know will keep.
  • Use coupons wherever you can for items you regularly buy; coupons are free money.
  • Comparison shop for items you buy regularly. The prices of meat, fish and dry goods, for example, can vary wildly.
  • Buy in bulk and wrap items in meal-sized packs for freezing. This works well for meat and fish.

Combining a dinner list, a budget and efficient use of your freezer can simplify your life. You’ll know every morning what you’re having for dinner so take out what is necessary from the freezer and it will be thawed by the time you get home. A friend of mine found himself on the phone to his wife every day as he drove home, arguing about what they were to have for dinner. Each conversation inevitably led to a trip to the store; and such shopping trips are rarely money savers. My friend is now a little more organized, and finds the few minutes his family takes to prepare a dinner list is saving him time and money, and cutting down on arguments with his wife!

Remember not to be too hard on yourself. The aim of the above is to save a little money and time, and to eat a little better. Be flexible and change items on your dinner list according to your mood or what’s in the fridge. If you go over your budget don’t sweat it.

Being better organized with the way you eat and shop will mean less time spent grocery shopping, some light relief for your pocketbook, and maybe even a healthier lifestyle for you and your family. You’ll also be doing the planet a favour by driving less, wasting less, and making better use of your freezer. Remember that in North America we waste more food than anywhere else on the planet. Not only is this shameful, it is also a huge waste of money and resources.

Happily married and childless by choice, Rigbee lives in the Okanagan in BC. He enjoys gardening, cooking and learning about retirement and estate planning. When not thinking of ways to retire before 55, Rigbee works as a web site designer and can be found at Seahorse Solutions.





25 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. An excellent idea…one which my wife and I have tried in the past. Diligence, though, usually gives way to busyness.
    =\

  2. Can’t stress your freezer points above enough.

    Often I’ll see people load up on $2.99 chicken breast and wonder, do they want to eat this for the next month and half? Eat what’s in your freezer and then worry about the sale items next week.

  3. 3. Kathryn

    Great article!

    Two more tips I thought of:

    1) When trying out new recipes, try http://allrecipes.com/. It’s free and easy to use. I went from being a mediocre cook who was cautious to try out new recipes, to a pretty good cook. All because I only try recipes with over a hundred 5 star ratings! I know that way it’s ‘fool proof’. You can set up your own recipe book, save your favourites, rate recipes and for the times when you have little left, you can do a search with your remaining ingredients and it will suggest ideas.

    2) For December which tends to be more expensive, I try and use some of my PC points I’ve saved throughout the year and cash in my free groceries when I can use them the most.

  4. 4. Gerry

    Make sure your freezer is big enough and can be organized well. I struggled with a little apartment sized one for years. The biggest problem was that while digging for things at the bottom I’d sometime drop an item down the side or back of the freezer, or just put it on a shelf and forget to put it back. A few days later the smell would let me know that something was forgotten…

  5. Great points. I used to have roommates who didn’t keep track of the groceries they bought. I would always see them throwing food out because it had gone bad. That is such a waste of food. I always plan two to three weeks ahead (in my head) of the meals I plan to make. Of course, since I don’t have a family to feed, it’s a lot easier for me to remember these. I’ll probably write it all down when I have a family to cook for.

  6. 6. Amanda

    We do the dinner planning on a weekly basis, since it’s not possible to shop during the week with our schedules. I couldn’t do two weeks, though, since there aren’t a lot of fresh veggies that last that long. One thing that really helps with the menu planning/brainstorming is a “master list” of all the dinners we’ve made and liked. I think there’s about 80 ideas on there, and we add new ones if we’ve tried them a couple times and liked them. It’s great for when you’re drawing a blank or in a rut.

    We also plan to make enough for lunch leftovers during the week, as much as possible, and taking those to work cuts down on spending. Not much goes in the freezer that way, either, though your tips are reminding me that we really need to organize ours! Most of it is frozen veggies, jam, and bread… okay, and a leeeeetle ice cream. :)

  7. 7. Joe

    My monthly grocery bill is one of my family’s largest expenses. I took a look at my spending habits on food a few months ago and was able to easily shed 20% off the monthly grocery bill. There is still some more pruning that can be done. Some of the ways that I reduced the bill was to plan meals, reduce the amount of waste (i.e. frozen vegetables are sometimes more economical because there is no waste), stocking up on sale items. I am debating whether to purchase a deep-freeze. I am wondering if the increased electricity use will out-weigh the savings. I am leaning towards yes.

  8. 8. Joe

    My monthly grocery bill is one of my family’s largest expenses. I took a look at my spending habits on food a few months ago and was able to easily shed 20% off the monthly grocery bill. There is still some more pruning that can be done. Some of the ways that I reduced the bill was to plan meals, reduce the amount of waste (i.e. frozen vegetables are sometimes more economical because there is no waste), stocking up on sale items. I am debating whether to purchase a deep-freeze. I am wondering if the increased electricity use will out-weigh the savings. I am leaning towards yes.My monthly grocery bill is one of my family’s largest expenses. I took a look at my spending habits on food a few months ago and was able to easily shed 20% off the monthly grocery bill. There is still some more pruning that can be done. Some of the ways that I reduced the bill was to plan meals, reduce the amount of waste (i.e. frozen vegetables are sometimes more economical because there is no waste), stocking up on sale items. I am debating whether to purchase a deep-freeze. I am wondering if the increased electricity use will out-weigh the savings. I am leaning towards yes.

  9. 9. nobleea

    I’ll second Kathryn’s suggestion about Allrecipes.com. It’s a canadian site, free, and has thousands and thousands of great recipes, all user ranked and searchable.

    We always make more for dinner to leave extras for lunch. Sometimes we’ll make 3 times as much and then freeze in to individual plastic containers. Sometimes you use the next day, often we don’t and they pile up. Then one day when you don’t have time to make dinner, you have meals for dinner and lunch.

    We haven’t practiced any food planning yet. Our schedules are a little too unpredictable to be planning meals a couple weeks in advance.

  10. 10. Elbyron

    Joe, it may help you to know that a small chest freezer would cost about $19 – $35 per year in electricity (lower end is for Energy Star certified models), whereas a typical 16 or 17 cu.ft. freezer uses $43 – $68. You should also consider that modern freezers don’t last as long as they used to; expect some repairs every few years and replacement in 8 to 10 years. Once you’ve chosen your size you can divide its cost by it’s expected lifespan to get an annual cost.

    So those are the costs, but there are a lot of ways a freezer can pay for itself:
    1) No longer throwing away food that could have lasted longer with a freezer
    2) Buying freeze-able items (especially meat) in bulk can result in savings of 10 – 20% on those items.
    3) Storing garden produce. Things like stewed tomatoes, sliced carrots, beets, or many other garden products can be frozen for a long time. So grow extra in the summer and save money on produce through the winter.
    4) Less trips to the grocery store saves money on gas, not to mention saving you time!

    Sometimes a little extra work is required to protect things from freezer burn, or to split up warehouse packs of meat into meal sized portions before freezing (my local Sobey’s butcher does this for me for free). But there is also the convenience factor of having a wide selection of food available for dinner, which can give you more flexible meal options.
    Also, buying non-perishables in large quantities can save a lot too. If you don’t seem to have room in the pantry/cupboards, try re-organizing and finding a new home for those serving dishes you never seem to use.

  11. 11. Elbyron

    I like to use allrecipes.com as well, the user ratings is what makes it superior to any other recipe site. Just note that your search results are usually sorted by relevance to your search terms. After searching, look just below the search box for the SORT BY and click on “Rating”, and this will give you the highest rated ones first. Pay attention to how many reviews there are… a 5-star rating with 2 reviews is not going to be as certain as a 4.5-star rating with 299 reviews. And before you start on the recipe, read some of those reviews – they often contain some helpful tips. You can vote on the reviews too, and the most helpful ones are displayed first by default.

    Oh yeah, and if you’re trying to use up some veggies that are getting old, but don’t know what to make, try using the ingredients search!

  12. 12. Nilu

    I think labelling the items in the freezer with dates is a great idea. I always end up looking suspiciously at food in the freezer trying to guess if its a month old or a year old. I think i will take this idea to the next level by putting up a list on the freezer with the stuff inside and the date I put it in and trying to use the stuff on a first in/first out basis. That way I can ensure that the oldest food in the freezer is always used first.I will strike out items form the list as they get used. This will also fix the other problem I have which is I have no way of knowing the contents of the freezer without emptying most of it.

  13. 13. sco

    I agree with most suggestions in the article. However, I spend on food less than 10% of my after-tax income so I think some things take too much time to be useful (like single product coupons and storing food in the freezer).
    My main focus is on healthy eating, so I avoid eating out when possible. I think that the recipes with high star recommendations from allrecipes.com are mostly unhealthy so I can’t use those. I select recipes from a few healthy cookbooks.

    (Congrats on the great choice to be childless.)

  14. 14. Craig

    The more you prepare the more you can budget, this will take away from impulse buys at the store.

  15. With nearly all other things financial in my life well organized, this has been the one area I have struggled most, but not from a budget standpoint, from an eating properly standpoint. I like the idea of planning meals weeks ahead, now I just need to find a freezer that doesn’t burn the hack out of my food.

    Cheers,

    Nolan

  16. 16. saveING.ca - This is why I opened an ING account

    When I moved out to my first apartment, soscuisine.ca was a lifesaver! try it out.

    Also when you freeze stuff, be careful to wrap it well, so as to not get it “burnt” by the cold.

  17. 17. TheRat

    I think the freezer idea is great; a lot of people I know don’t use them enough for meat, etc.

    Another tip would be to hunt a wild animal (or get someone to get you some wild meat) such as moose or caribou and eat the wild meat throughout the winter. Take what you need from the freezer when needed. I grew up a lot eating wild meat and you can save a boat load of money!

    Nice thread!

  18. I know that I scan my local flyers for deals and discounts. I mean, if I was going to buy it anyway and now there’s a coupon for it, even better right? Thanks for the tips! It’s always useful.

  19. 19. valletta

    I think these are great tips but I actually do almost the opposite and it works for us :)
    I cook “from the pantry”. I keep a stocked pantry of staples/basics and shop a couple of times per week for fresh produce, and nightly dinner. I find I spend less money and time and enjoy cooking more.
    My husband is a chef and I’ve learned a lot from watching him.
    I might spend an hour or two on a Sat or Sun afternoon and prep the “mise en place”, pre-cut onions, celery, etc. Keep fresh herbs in pots or garden. Doesn’t work for everyone but I’ve tried the planning dinner out a week and it just work for me. But we also don’t have kids, that would make for a much different situation, I’m sure :)

  20. 20. Briefcases

    This sounds like something we definitely need to start doing. We are terrible at planning meals ahead of time. So we are often scrounging things together at home or making a quick run to the grocery store just before we cook. Each of those quick trips is wasted time. Sometimes we also end up wasting food as we don’t properly plan to finish up vegetables or other perishables.

  21. These are great tips – but it’s really hard to do grocery shopping for one.

    Anyone have any ideas? I’ve always had problems buying groceries since I live on my own.

  22. 22. Bill

    My family eats a lot of meat, but spend very little on it. I have a chest freezer and it is filled with wild game that I hunted for and only super deals, bought on sale, placed in freezer for later on. At least my favorite hobby, fills the freezer.

    Also, we have a garden, which we can veggies and fruit in the fall. All we normally by is side dished and canned goods.

  23. 23. sioux city used cars

    My freezer is so small that I can barely fit anything in there.

  24. 24. Me

    If you dont want to spend alot of time to save 10% on your groceries (probably 1% of total income). Follow my simple rules:
    1.) Goto superstore for the spend $250 get $25 gc deal (like getting 10% back), and load up on everything that is cheap that week, plus things that almost never go bad (ie Olive Oil, Flour, jello, vitamins, you get my drift).
    2.) Use PC MasterCard to get PC Points (=additional 1% back)
    3.) Eat significantly less meat, eat cheaper meats (i find chicken is cheaper than beef. Sandwhich meats are arround $1.50/100g, thats $6.80 a lb, just slice your own meat)
    4.) Eat cheaper foods, apples are cheaper than pineapples, bread is cheaper than focaccia, beans are cheaper than meat. etc etc.
    5.) Treat eating out not as necessity (ie “I need food”), but as luxury (“eating out is entertainment and convenience expense”). This means pack a lunch, keep a box of granola bars in the glove box and have some will power.

  25. 25. Gerard

    My strategies are closer to what Valletta and Me do. If you have a decently-stocked pantry (maybe rice, pasta, tea, sugar, a few types of dried legumes and grains, flours, vinegars, tomato paste, canned tomatoes, tuna, olives, oil, olive oil, and a lot of spices) and some long-lasting fruits or vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions, beets, apples), you’re most of the way to a whole lot of meals.

    Freezing and thawing raw meat doesn’t work for me. I’d rather make a whole bunch of something and then freeze that. For example, ham gets boring pretty fast, but if you bake a whole ham, dice it and flash-freeze it, you can have 4 or 5 big yogurt tubs full of diced cooked ham in the freezer and shake out just as much as you need to flavour up soups, beans, or fried rice.

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