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How to Meal Plan Effectively to Save Money

Eating at home is a simple way to stretch your monthly budget, but cooking every day can be daunting. From coming up with versatile dishes to grocery shopping and prepping ingredients, planning meals at home that are quick and satisfying can be a challenge. And with so many nutritious takeout and delivery options available, ordering out can seem like the easier alternative for busy families with tight schedules. However, it can also be costly, especially if you tend to go out to eat or pick up takeout often. Fortunately, adopting an effective meal plan can alleviate the stress of cooking -- and help you save time and money.

What Is Meal Planning?

Meal planning takes the legwork out of figuring out what to make for lunch and dinner on a daily basis by helping you to organize your meals in advance. By planning out recipes for the entire week, you can strategically shop for groceries in advance to reduce the number of trips you make to the grocery store and prep ingredients ahead of time, so everything is ready to go when you want to cook.

Given that the average American household spent $3,365 on meals away from home in 2017, according to the 2017 Consumer Expenditures study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, implementing a meal plan is a smart way for families to optimize savings.

[See: 10 Expenses Destroying Your Budget.]

"Food is typically the top area where people overspend and it is usually the largest expense that people have other than their mortgage," says Lauren Greutman, a consumer savings expert at LaurenGreutman.com, a personal finance blog. "If you can change your food bills, you can easily make a huge impact on your monthly budget."

Meal planning is a rather simple task. Here's a primer on how to meal plan in three concrete steps:

1. Review recipes online and plot out daily menus.

2. Identify which ingredients you need to buy.

3. Prep ingredients in advance.

While planning your weekly dishes can help you trim costs, there are additional steps you can take to maximize savings. Check out these expert-backed tips to ensure your meal plan is cost-effective.

Choose Items Strategically

Before you begin researching recipes and drawing out a meal plan for the week, take a peek at your local grocery store sales and then decide what to cook based on these deals, Greutman advises. "For example, if pork chops are on sale, eat pork chops," she says.

You can review local grocery store circulars online through their websites or use a free app like Flipp (available on both iOS and Android devices), which aggregates store circulars on your phone so you can review deals all in one place. Meanwhile, The Krazy Coupon Lady app tracks prices at all the big-name stores, posting the deals in real time. You can build your recipes around the sales and enjoy the savings. If you come across an especially good deal on meat, stock up. "You can freeze it and use as needed," says Joanie Demer, co-founder of the deal and coupon site TheKrazyCouponLady.com.

Make a Schedule

Planning a meal for a night you won't be home is a common mistake people make when beginning to meal plan and an easy way to waste food. To combat this, check your calendar before deciding which days you need to plan for lunch and dinner. For nights you're busy but still need something to eat, Greutman suggests preparing easy meals that you can grab on the go, like sandwiches.

[See: 9 Secrets to Save Money on a Shoestring Budget.]

Keep It Simple

Coming up with new and creative dishes adds excitement to cooking, but beware of overly complicated recipes that require special ingredients like an expensive cut of meat or pricey cheese. Such ingredients are often costly, especially if you don't use them for other meals. If you need a specific item for one of your dishes, limit how much you buy and make sure it's a good deal, Demer says. Otherwise, look for recipes that use these same items or freeze them for later use, she adds.

Consider Using a Meal Planning Service

Meal planning services do all the work of scheduling different dishes for the week for you, so coming up with what to cook doesn't feel like such a chore. Subscription meal planning services like eMeals cost $59.99 per year or $29.99 every three months, and you will pay extra for lunch, breakfast, dessert and special occasion plans. Meanwhile, PlateJoy meal planning subscriptions cost $69 for a six-month package or $99 for a 12-month package.

Teresa Britton, founder of the family lifestyle blog MomsWhoSave.com, recommends using the free Mealime menu planning app, compatible with both iOS and Android devices, which offers healthy recipes you can cook in 30 minutes or less. The app allows you to create a personalized meal plan and provides an optimized grocery list meant to limit food waste, she says.

Create a Pantry List

Before you shop for your weekly ingredients, don't forget to check your refrigerator and pantry first. The last thing you want to do is double up on ingredients you already have at home, which is a waste of money and food. Demer suggests keeping a running list of the nonperishables you have, either on your phone or a piece of paper in your pantry that you can quickly review when plotting out your meals. Just make sure to check off items you use in full, so you don't end up missing an important ingredient.

If you're not sure what to cook with the items you already have at home, check out Supercook.com, a free online resource that curates a list of meals based on the ingredients you input into the site.

Cook in Bulk

For busy families, preparing meals each day is just not an option. Between work, school and extracurricular activities, there may not be enough time to cook. However, cooking several meals at once and doubling up on recipes to ensure you have leftovers can help you save time and ensure there's always something to eat at home. Meals that are freezer-friendly make it easy to reheat in a pinch when you don't have much time to cook.

"By making five meals on a Sunday, I can guarantee that we will not be eating out," Greutman says.

[See: 10 Ways to Save More in 2019.]

Order Groceries Online

If you fall into the trap of buying grocery items that aren't on your shopping list, you can easily blow your budget and end up throwing away food that you don't get a chance to eat before it goes bad. To avoid this, do all your grocery shopping online. Many grocery and big-box stores like Target and Walmart now offer free grocery pick-up options, which saves you time from searching aisles for ingredients and prevents impulse purchases.

"If you do your weekly grocery shopping online and pick up your order, you not only save time, but gas money driving back and forth to the store, and (prevent) the impulse to pick up junk food or other things you don't need," Britton says.

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