The Art of Meal Planning: What’s the Payoff?

The Meal Planning Payoff: Save Money While Eating Well

Meal planning can sound tricky, leaving you wondering: Does it really save money? Will I actually eat better? The answer: Yes, if you do it right. Here's how.

Consider Julia Child: “I was 32 when I started cooking. Up until then, I just ate.”

Sometimes adulting activities — like planning meals for the week or creating a food spending plan (a.k.a. a budget with a sexier name) — can seem like a lame way to spend your limited free time. But the truth is, even a little planning pays off pretty quickly. The odds are in your favor that you’ll end up saving money, being freed from time spent staring into the fridge in confusion and dismay, spared from after-work fits of hangry that end with you eating old celery sticks, smoked almonds, and ice cream pops for dinner (true story) ... and you’ll probably end up reducing food waste and helping the environment without realizing it.

But the act of planning a few simple meals goes beyond simply embracing your newfound identity as a boring, responsible adult: It’s an exercise in self-care. Just a little planning will make your life a friendlier, easier place to be because you’re meeting fundamental needs in a satisfying and pleasurable way. And saving money! But don’t take my word for it. You already have the proof in your pocket:

The Numbers Don’t Lie

Meal planning starts with food, yes, but it’s also about what you’re spending. The good news is that tackling the money part is simple: Just start by tracking what you’re already shelling out for everything you eat and drink. There are plenty of apps that will automatically do it for you (I use Mint), many of which will let you customize categories to fit your life. Or you could go more analog and save up food receipts to put into an Excel spreadsheet ... or really travel back in time and carry a notebook like reporters of old and write it down as you go! The system doesn’t matter, the important thing is to find a method you can stick to.

Consider your categories

Where do your food dollars end up? I suggest breaking it down into categories and tallying them at the end of the month to find out. Try it for three months — spending habits can fluctuate, so an average over time is the best barometer for seeing your habits clearly. Then, as you plan more meals, you’ll see the numbers change in very tangible ways. Here’s an example:

Clarity may surprise you

The first time I did this, I was shocked to learn I spent more on lattes at coffee shops than actual groceries! In the end, I did the math and figured out it was actually cheaper to get a nice espresso machine and use it at home in the morning. Even with my fancy-pants coffee bean habit, it still costs me less. Now I pull espresso shots like a boss — err, barista — and I’m no longer throwing 200+ paper cups into the landfill every year. (Want to get super fancy? Check out The Yummly Guide to the Starbuck's Secret Menu).

Meal Planning, One Bite At A Time

If you’re not cooking much at home, start small. It can be tempting to try to plan 15 meals a week — and if you’re dying for that challenge, dive on in — but I’ve found the changes I actually stick with over time are ones that start small and build momentum on their own. Try tackling breakfast and three dinners a week to start.

1). Find Your Recipes

Consider your schedule as you choose your recipes: If you’re cooking on weeknights after work, a dish that takes over an hour in the oven might leave you hangry and resentful by the time you sit down to eat. Keep it simple when your time is limited by choosing fast and easy meals. However, if you plan to make a nice meal for yourself on Sunday night before the week starts, consider a big dish like this Slow-Cooker White Chicken Chili that gives you leftovers you can heat up for a few more meals, or even freeze once you get tired of eating it (learn more about freezing food here).

For breakfast, especially if you brunch with friends or go hiking early on weekends, your meal prep can be as simple as picking up your favorite yogurt, making a batch of granola you love (try this one), and grabbing a box of fresh berries to make easy breakfast parfaits for Monday through Friday. Or make a big batch of these egg casserole bites to keep in the fridge for a protein-packed breakfast on the go.

And note: Healthy eating is good for your wallet, too! If you plan a couple of vegetarian or vegan meals each week, you may spend a little more time on prep, but it’ll be cost-effective and help the earth.

For more inspiration, check out Yummly's Meal Planner — we'll give you new recommendations every week that are tailored to the taste preferences you set up in your profile.

2). Make a List

Got your recipes picked out? Kick it grandma-style and make a shopping list including all the ingredients you’ll need for the week's recipes, then (this is important) take it to the store with you. It can be frustrating to get to the dramatic finish of a stir-fry and then realize you forgot the fragrant toasted sesame oil.

(Better yet, if you've made your meal plan with Yummly, we'll make a shopping list for you! From the meal planner, you can update your shopping list with a click to include all of the ingredients in your chosen recipes, and forget worries about leaving the list at home — as long as you have the app on your phone, your list will come with you wherever you go.)

3). Enjoy the Shopping

Determine what day of the week you want to do your grocery shopping — if possible, choose a time when you’re not tired and grumpy, but can be thoughtful and open to inspiration. When you’re in the store, take time to smell the strawberries! And the tomatoes, and the mint… Have a chat with a friendly clerk about ingredients. If going to the grocery store is a drag and you resent being there, try rewarding yourself like a small child: Get yourself a nice piece of chocolate for making the trip or a bunch of pretty flowers for your kitchen table. You earned it.

Kitchen Note: When you begin planning meals, you may have to invest in some staples at the grocery store to get your pantry set up (a bottle of olive oil, some spices); Your grocery bill may spike at first, but it will drop dramatically in the months to come. Stick with it! The payoff is coming, for your wallet and your health.

4). Finally: Make It Nice. You Deserve It.

When it’s time to start cooking, put on music that lifts you up. Sip a glass of wine or sparkling water with a squeeze of lime while you sauté. Serve the food on your prettiest plate, especially if you’re dining solo. If you’re having dinner with a show on, take a second to savor your first bite before you hit play. And if it comes out looking great, snap a photo and post it (and tag us in it!). A little food brag is fun, but ultimately a delicious meal is its own reward.

And remember: Life happens. The best-laid plans sometimes get turned upside down, and it’s OK if there are some hiccups along the way. As Julia Child, the goddess of cooking imperfectly, once said: "The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude." If you try some meal planning and do it totally imperfectly, you’ll still eat well, save time and money, and end up tossing fewer wilting vegetables into the garbage can. Bon appétit!

Ready to get started? Take a look at these quick and easy meal ideas on Yummly and add a few new recipes to your plan. Let us know how it goes ... and happy cooking!

Note: The Yummly Meal Planner is available to paid subscribers.