I hate thinking about what to eat for dinner. If left to my own devices, I eat out more than I eat in, I don't have a plan when I go to the grocery store, and I never know what I'm going to make for lunch. This usually results in me wasting money on groceries I don't eat, or on dinners out when cooking seems too overwhelming.
Now that I live with my partner who's good at meal planning, he's shown me that if I think ahead, I can make my week both cheaper and easier to manage. According to Gallup, the weekly median spending on food for an American family was $130 as of July 2017, and Americans waste 31 to 40 percent of their food, according to a 2015 study. But by looking at what you like to eat, how much it costs, and understanding that the most successful plan likely includes both eating out and eating in, you can stop wasting money on food you won't eat or expensive emergency takeout. Below are some tips on how to create a meal plan to help save money.
1. See what you're spending already
Food made up 12.6 percent of the average American household's expenditures in 2016, according to the Department of Agriculture. By keeping track of where you spend your money — through a budgeting app, or simply by going over your bank statement — you can put a stop to thoughtless spending. Consider what you want to accomplish with your meal plan — whether that's eating more meals out with your friends or saving as much money as you possibly can on food you make at home, and figure out where you could cut costs elsewhere.
2. Make an inventory of what you like to eat
One way to see what you're actually eating is to take an inventory of your food using your grocery receipts. Katy Franklin, program manager of ReFED, a nonprofit focused on reducing food waste in the U.S., told USA Today that if you keep your receipt after you go grocery shopping, you can track what you throw away or don't finish by highlighting it on the receipt. That way, you can get a clear picture of what you throw out and how much it costs. That receipt can then inform future shopping lists.
3. Make a shopping list
Shopping lists can help you budget at the grocery store — and keep you from making impulse buys. Past receipts can also show you how much each item costs so you won't be surprised by the total price tag at the register.
Meal planning can be especially helpful when making a shopping list. After planning what you're going to eat for each meal, you can buy just what you need to make those meals, instead of buying loads of food and figuring it out later. "I've followed a simple meal planning strategy for years that forces me to maximize the ingredients I already have on hand and only purchase a limited number of items each week," Emmie Martin wrote at Business Insider.
4. Include a mix of eating out and eating in
If eating in for every meal isn't realistic for you, you're not alone. Of the money we spend on food, about half of it goes toward eating out, according to the Department of Agriculture. By including eating out in your budget, you may be able to spend less money on groceries that week, and prevent food waste at the same time. When I was living alone, I found that a mix of eating out and eating in was the cheapest option for me. I often wasn't able to finish leftovers before they went bad, and I didn't want to buy a ton of ingredients I wouldn't use again to make one meal.
5. Consider a meal kit service
While meal kit services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh may be more expensive than meals you could create on your own, at around $10 per meal per person, they are often cheaper than going out to dinner. And in comparing several meal delivery services with what it would cost to buy ingredients for those same meals at a grocery store, kitchn found that the cost difference was generally quite small. If you hate meal planning but love to try new foods, this is a quick and easy option to help you plan and budget at once.
6. Have some easy go-to meal options
One thing that saves me the most from overspending on eating out is having a few easy meals at home that don't go bad. Frozen pizza, boxed macaroni and cheese, soups, and frozen vegetables have saved me on nights where I didn't feel like cooking but didn't want to spend money on ordering. I know that sometimes I'm going to have nights where I'm too busy to make myself a good meal, and factoring that into my meal plan helps me stay on track.