Meal planning mistakes that might be causing you to spend more money. Meal planning can be a money saving technique, but it can also be a budget buster if you fall into these traps.
Maybe you have heard that meal planning is supposed to save you money. You tried it and it didn't work for you. It can be discouraging. What went wrong? While I am an advocate for meal planning, just having a meal plan does not always save money. It can, but it can also cost you more money.
Let's break down why this would be. Here are ten common meal planning mistakes that I see people make.
10 Meal Planning Mistakes Costing You Money
1. Not using what you have first
Why buy more food when you already have some at home? The very first thing I do when making my weekly meal plan is to see what I already have in my pantry, freezer, and fridge that I can use to make meals. Do I have any vegetables that I need to use before they go bad? How about a soup or stir fry early in the week. Do I have potatoes, beans, lentils, rice, or quinoa? Those are perfect side dishes, bases for soups or casseroles, or skillet meals. Do I have any meat in the freezer that I can use before buying more? We almost always have at least something that can give us a head start to our meal planning. Not only does it jog our memory for coming up with meals, but it prevents food waste and saves money.
2. Not having a stocked pantry
This piggy backs off of number one. Having a stocked pantry saves money and makes meal planning so much easier. The bulk of your staples are already on hand and you simply have to re-stock items as needed as well as the fresh items needed that week. You aren't having to start over every single week buying all new foods. You know what your family likes to eat. Take a few minutes and write down a list of versatile ingredients that you often use in your meals and always keep them stocked. With a stocked pantry, you are never far away from a good home cooked meal. Read about what pantry staples I keep.
3. Using fancy ingredients that you will only use once
Trying new recipes is fun, but have you ever ended up with several ingredients that you only use one time? What a waste! If they aren't common ingredients in your cooking, you likely won't use it again. I think it's ok to do this every once in a while to experiment, but if you are planning a week's worth of food that uses several obscure ingredients, you have potentially wasted a lot of money and food. Stick mostly to meals that use simple ingredients that you know you will use again.
4. You aren't planning for your season of life
Do you ever feel like you are two different people during the week? The "planning" you is way out of touch with the "real" you during the week. One is a little more ambitious and may have unrealistic expectations of what can really happen during the week. The real you is busy juggling everyone's schedules, trying to keep up with the house, working, and trying to stay afloat. Most people realistically don't have the time and energy for complicated meals during the week. We need simple, tasty, and nutritious. One dish meals, slow cooker meats and soups, and simple skillet dishes make up the bulk of my meal plan every single week because of my season of life.
I can't tell you how many nights I say, "I don't feel like cooking tonight." If I had only complicated dinners planned, I would probably just throw in the towel and give up. There's nothing wrong with doing that every once in a while, but knowing that I only have a tiny bit of work ahead of me as opposed to a complicated dinner makes it easier to give myself a little pep talk and push my way through. Now when I'm no longer homeschooling and trying to run a business, maybe I will want to experiment with fancier foods that take more time, but right now that is not my season.
5. Choosing too many new recipes
Again it is fun to try new things, but not a week's worth of meals. That is way too complicated and will likely cost you a ton of extra money. Stick mostly to what you know your family already loves and branch out a couple times a month to try something new. It doesn't even have to be actual "recipes". In fact 90% of the time, I don't even use recipes. I simply cook using basic skills and simple food. You aren't trying to win awards. You're goal is to simply provide nourishment for your family. Try making a master list of your tried and true family favorites to base your weekly meal plan off of. This helps simplify the process and gives your brain a break from having to remember what your family enjoys.
6. Planning before looking at sales
If you aren't checking out the sales during the week, you aren't saving as much as you could. Basing part of your menu around what's on sale goes a long way when stretching your food dollars. Checking out the sales also gives me ideas for what I could potentially cook that week. When a certain meat is on sale, I will plan a meal using that meat. If pasta or sauce is on sale, I will be making pasta and potentially buying extra for another week. When avocados go on sale, I might plan a Mexican inspired meal. You get the idea. Trying using the Flipp app, store circulars, or store apps to identify sale prices, coupons, or special offers.
7. Sticking to a strict schedule
Life happens and not everything goes according to plan. Honestly most weeks don't go according to plan. Someone gets sick. You have to work overtime. The baby won't stop crying. You have a migraine or cramps and just don't feel like cooking what you had planned. If you are going into meal planning with an all or nothing mentality thinking you have to stick to a strict schedule to succeed, you are setting yourself up for an emotional battle and failure. Every week I have a plan for seven nights of the week, but it is rare that we eat exactly what I had planned every single night. I shuffle my plan quite a bit depending on what comes up. Maybe my energy is low and another dinner I had planned is easier to make. Possibly one of my kids can cook the easier meal that I had originally planned later in the week.
Learning to be flexible in your meal plan is freeing. To me, meal planning is simply deciding on some potential meals and having peace of mind knowing that I have all of the ingredients at home to cook them. I also always have back up meals on hand if everything goes haywire. Frozen gluten free nuggets, frozen vegetables, sandwiches, breakfast foods, smoothies, salmon patties, salad ingredients, tortilla pizzas, or snack nights are some of my go-to back up meals.
8. Not connecting ingredients
When meal planning I love to use a strategy I like to call connected meal planning. It's where ingredients used in one meal are used in another meal later in the week. This method saves time, money, and reduces food waste. For example a large pork roast can be a main dish one night and the leftover used in tacos or a soup on another night. Half of a large cabbage can be used for slaw one night, and the other half can be used in a skillet meal or soup another night. I use this method every single week and love it.
9. Planning all expensive meals
All meal plans are not created equal when it comes to saving money. If you are stuffing your meal plan with meals that consist of very expensive cuts of meat, expensive condiments, and pricey produce, you may find yourself discouraged when looking at your food bill. I thought meal planning was supposed to help me save money? Well it can if you are using my balance strategy. Being intentional and balancing more expensive meals in the same week with dirt cheap meals will be much easier on your wallet than just writing down any old meals that sound good. Try brainstorming another list of dirt cheap meals that you can make to balance out your pricier foods.
10. Not planning a flexible day
I always plan what I like to call a flex day. It's basically a slush day and can be used however I need it that week. When there are a lot of leftovers, everyone eats leftovers. If I'm tired, it's a fend for yourself night. When there is random stuff that needs to be used up, I might make a soup, stir fry or frittata using whatever odds and ends I have. Maybe we eat breakfast for dinner. We might eat with friends or extended family. Maybe we order takeout.
It doesn't have to be the last day of the week and it doesn't have to be planned. It is simply a flexible day that we use as needed. Giving it a name holds place for whatever may come up in the week. It saves money by not planning too much or not planning enough. Food is not wasted and you get a break.
Have you made any of these meal planning mistakes? Which one do you tend to fall into the most?