If you're trying to save money, the first thing financial experts will tell you to do is stop eating out and start cooking your own meals.
But sometimes, that's easier said than done.
Not only does cooking require time, effort and creativity, but things come up and food often goes to waste, despite your best intentions. That's not great news for the planet or your budget.
My solution: Meal planning before I grocery shop so I'm only buying exactly what I need.
I previously wrote about my meal planning strategy for Business Insider. It became a crucial way to help me reduce costs while I completed a challenge to save half of my discretionary income for a month. Not only does this method help me save, it also helps reduce kitchen waste from unused produce or forgotten leftovers.
Whether you're looking to make your life greener in honor of Earth Week or just want to save a few bucks, here's how to employ the ridiculously simple meal planning strategy that's been working for me for years.
- Draw a two column template that leaves room for breakfast, lunch and dinner for every day of the week on the left and a grocery list on the right.
- Fill in any meals that have already been accounted for, such as going out for a friend's birthday dinner or free bagel breakfast at work.
- Take stock of your refrigerator and pantry. Fill in as many meals as possible that can be made from ingredients you already own, such as oatmeal for breakfast or pasta with marinara sauce for dinner. If you have leftovers from the previous week, include those as well.
- Now comes the fun part: Fill in as many meals as possible that can be created using staples you already own, plus one or two new ingredients. For example, if you have leftover chicken and a bag of rice, add vegetables to your list and plan to make a stir-fry. Don't forget to track any groceries you'll need in the right-hand column.
- Round out your plan with any all-new meals if you need to.
Here are a few tips to help make the process as efficient as possible:
Plan for leftovers
Be cognizant of how much a recipe yields and account for that on your plan. Because I only cook for myself, I know that if something makes four servings, I'll be eating it multiple times.
Purchase ingredients that can be used for more than one meal
Does your Monday night pasta call for a handful of fresh spinach? Don't let the rest of the bag go to waste; plan for a spinach salad or green smoothie later in the week.
Be honest about how much you plan to cook
If you know that after work drinks always segues into dinner, don't plan to bake a lasagna that night. If you know you'll only have time to slap together PB&Js for lunch, wait another week to buy the ingredients for tacos and instead restock your supplies of bread and peanut butter.
If you loaded up on veggies so you can bring kale salad to work for lunch this week, then you're eating kale salad for lunch this week — no exceptions. It's tempting in the moment to toss your packed lunch in favor of the aromatic Pad Thai courtesy of the food truck outside your building, but it's not worth wasting the food, money or time that went into preparing your lunch.
This story is part of NBCU's 10th Annual Green is Universal Earth Week where we're inviting our viewers and readers to "Green Up" by sharing steps you can take to help the planet. Follow Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more. #GreenUp