If you’re going to eat on a budget, then you definitely need to plan ahead. Leaving food decisions until the last minute is a sure-fire guarantee that something will come up and you’ll end up reaching for the telephone to call a takeaway. And that isn’t cheap. Instead, you need to have a plan in place for what you’re going to do and when, and it should involve all aspects from the shopping to the eating – and everything else in between. So here’s 7 easy ideas that you can implement right away to make your money go further.
#1 Use recipes that share common ingredients and make sure they can be used again
This is a useful tip for when you’re actually writing your meal plan: make sure you choose meals with common ingredients so that you a) don’t get left with half of something that you can’t use and b) do cut down on the overall number of different things you need to buy.
If your recipe calls for something unusual, then ask yourself if it’s something you can justify buying by using it again. If the answer is no, then is it possible to swap it for something similar? For example, hummus usually features tahini paste but it’s not something I would get a lot of use out of (I don’t make hummus that regularly) and so when I make hummus, I just leave it out and put in more garlic and lemon instead!
There are various ways you can approach choosing recipes with common ingredients, the simplest is by playing Supper Sudoku! Just like the popular game, you start with a piece of paper with a grid, say 4×4 squares, and you fill in each row, column and diagonal with a protein, veg, carb and sauce, making sure not to repeat yourself. You should end up with 10 different meals.
Secondly, try writing down the ingredients of the first recipe you want to cook, and then choose another meal that uses one or two of the same things. Then choose a new meal that uses one or two of that meal’s ingredients, and so on, until you have enough to fill your meal plan. This is called a Pantry Pool and it aims to give you a flexible group (pool) of ingredient that you can use for many different meals.
#2 Don’t try something new every night
Similarly, the meals you do cook should not all be new to you; unless you can guarantee a 100% success rate then there’s bound to be waste, mistakes and incorrect servings – until you perfect it. If you want to save money on you food, then you definitely shouldn’t start by throwing good food away.
#3 Inventorise, inventorise, inventorise!
Ever been to the supermarket and spotted that particular brand of coffee that you love – which is rather expensive but you just couldn’t leave there – only to get home and find three other packets in the pantry? Ever bought a large pack of fresh pasta, cooked with half of it and then thrown the rest away a fortnight layer when you found it at the back of your fridge unused? Yup, me too. Oops.
Inventories are wonderful things and all good meal planners should start with one. When you get to the shopping-list stage, you should be referring to your inventory to see what you’ve already got that you could make use of. It will take you just a couple of hours to do your very first inventory ‘stock take’ of your cupboards, fridge and freezer and then you just need to keep it up to date.
Planning like this can save you a great deal of money in duplicates and unwanted/unused food so as a priority, learn to INVENTORISE!
#4 Embrace the freezer: batch cook for later
It’s becoming more and more common for people to spend one big ‘chunk’ of their time cooking meals in advance, in order to save time later. The most popular time to do it seems to be a Sunday, when the pace of life is generally slower and we’re already thinking about the week ahead. Of course, that’s not to say you would need to batch cook every Sunday; that all depends on how many meals you require and how much other time you have to devote to it.
The benefit of batch cooking to the frugal chef is that you can take advantage of that family-sized bag of chicken breasts because you’re going to use them all at once. You also know you’re covered for any unexpected visitors/late nights/changes of plan because you’ve got dinner there already.
Batch cooking is easiest if you choose meals that share commonalities, for example, common ingredients, common cooking methods or common cooking times. It’s all about making your life easier, not harder. So, if you want to give it a go, think about how many meals you want to batch cook and then try to prepare a few at once (i.e. chop all the onions in one go). Cook your meals at the same time, if you can and don’t forget to divide up into portions before freezing.
#5 Cook simple recipes with very few ingredients
This should be fairly obvious, but the simpler the recipe, the fewer ingredients you need and the lower the cost to buy those ingredients.
But that doesn’t mean your food has to be boring, oh no. Pretty much all of my day-to-day cooking relies on easy food and yet it’s anything but dull. If you choose your recipes carefully and utilise ingredients that do double purpose (e.g. tins of tomatoes with basil in – hey presto, one ingredient, two flavours!), then your meals can be quick, easy, delicious AND cheap.
#6 Consider leftovers/repurposing/using up
I looooove leftovers. Just this week I made ratatouille and then used the left-over veg in quesadillas the next night. I only had to do the chopping once and I got two meals out of it! Brilliant! Of course, leftovers/repurposing/using up could be as simple as taking what’s left of the pasta bake to lunch the next day, rather than buying an expensive fresh sandwich. It could also mean buying a big packet of mince (ground beef) and using it for both cottage pie and chilli in the same week. Think outside the box.
#7 Cook from scratch
Let’s be honest, when you buy a ready meal or a premium par-cooked/prepared product, you’re basically paying for someone else to do the work for you. Sure, it saves you time, but if you’re on a budget then DIY is the way to go.
Take a look at your schedule and see where you could build in time to do some meal prep; chop and wash veg, batch cook a few extra portions and make a note of what you should be defrosting or using up. Then, when you come in late exhausted, all the thinking part of the job is done already and, usually, half the actual cooking is too!
So there you have it: seven easy ideas for Meal Planning on a Budget.
But wait, there’s more!
Ready to save some serious money?
November is Money Month over in our Facebook group SMART Meals for Busy Cooks. A SMART Meal is one that Saves Money And Reduces Time and this November we’ll be talking about how to be a frugal foodie, ways to make savings on your food shop and how to plan and get ahead for Christmas, to make the most of your finances.