Start by planning a week or so's worth of meals - be sure to include breakfast, lunch if you pack your own, dinner and snacks (I've got this balanced meal plan to get you started).You can save time by building up a recipe file with your favorite dishes. You can use cookbooks, print out recipes you find online or keep copies of recipes in a special folder on your computer. Grab the advertisements for your local grocery store to see what's on sale -- you can save even more money by planning some of your meals around those sale items.
Keep Meals HealthyAn inexpensive breakfast might include one serving of oatmeal with some raisins, a glass of orange juice or low-fat milk and a slice of 100 percent whole wheat toast with a little peanut butter. For dinner, plan for one serving of your protein source, like chicken or meat, to take up one-quarter of each person's plate, one serving of starch like pasta or potatoes taking up another quarter, and fill the remaining half with green and colorful vegetables or fresh salads. Choose recipes with use healthy cooking methods -- baking, broiling, steaming, roasting and stir-frying your meats, poultry and fish are good, deep-frying is bad.
When you plan your meals, choose several recipes that use the same perishable ingredients. For example, if you are want to make basil and tomato chicken breasts on the grill, plan to serve a simple salad made with basil leaves, tomato slices, mozzarella cheese slices -- drizzled with olive oil, a day or two later. If you don't need large meals, here are tips for meals for one or two people. If you like to cook outdoors, I've got help with how to cook healthy foods on a grill.
Plan for LeftoversRoast a whole chicken for dinner and use the extra meat for sandwiches or for a chicken stir-fry. You can also prepare your foods in larger quantities for do-it-yourself frozen meals that you can add to any weekly menu. Freeze your foods in microwave-safe containers, or make foil pouches that can be popped into the oven for re-heating (keep the foil pouches protected in freezer bags until you are ready to use them).
Once you have your meals planned, go through the kitchen to see which ingredients you will need for the week so you can make a shopping list. Also check to see if any bulk items like flour, rice, and dry beans are running low and make a note to see if any of these items are on sale when you go shopping.
Before You Go ShoppingDon't give in to checkout-aisle temptation. Make a grocery list before you go shopping. Remember that premade meals and other prepared foods tend to be the most expensive. And don't add junk foods like greasy chips, cheap hot dogs and poor quality lunch meats to your list. They may be cheap, but they're bad for your health and that may cost you more in the long run.
When you are ready to go shopping, be sure to eat a little something first. If you are hungry, everything in the store looks and smells so good that you could blow your whole food budget on prepared foods or in the snack aisle. Stick with your list of healthy affordable foods and get home. Be careful in the check out aisle. Don't grab the extra candy bars and that 20-ounce bottle of cold soda probably costs as much as a 2-liter bottle.
Planning your meals and menus takes time, but you will save lots of money and serve your family some healthy and tasty foods. Here are a few more tips:
- Buy a water-filter pitcher instead of expensive individual bottles of water.
- Buy bulk items when they are on sale. Same with canned goods, frozen vegetables, fish and seafood.
- It costs a lot more to buy the parts of a chicken, so buy a whole chicken and cut it up yourself.
- When meats are on sale, you can buy larger quantities and freeze individual cuts in freezer paper or freezer bags to take advantage of the savings.
- Look for coupons online, and in newspapers and magazines.
- Use dry beans as a protein source -- they are much cheaper than meats (think black beans in your burritos instead of beef).
- Fresh produce is often a good buy, especially when in season, but choose carefully and don't buy more than what you will eat in a few days so you don't waste any due to spoilage.
- Look for different ways to prepare the same foods so your meals don't get dull. Potatoes can be baked, boiled, roasted or mashed. Vary the fresh raw vegetables in your salads.
- Skip the convenience foods. Choose regular rice and oats instead of the quick cook varieties. It really doesn't take that much longer to prepare and the savings are valuable.
- Choose cheaper, leaner cuts of beef. You will reduce the amount of saturated fat in your meals (which is better for your health). The cheaper cuts of beef need to be cooked at lower temperatures and longer periods of time so they're good for soups and stews.
- Make your own snacks - with mixed nuts, dry cereals, raisins and other ingredients. Divide the snacks into individual portions and keep them in bags to control calorie intake.
- Explore Once a Month Cooking. With this method, you prepare a month's worth of meals in one weekend. Perfect if you have a larger freezer.
- You can also go to meal preparation stores that offer high quality ingredients at a reasonable cost.