6 hacks for smarter meal planning

You'll never go hungry — or be "forced" to order takeout — if you keep these tips in mind

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Are you routinely bowled over by your grocery bill? Do you often find yourself tossing a garbage bag's worth of spoiled ingredients? Are you on a first-name basis with the pizza delivery guy?

All of these could be signs that your food-shopping — and meal-planning — habits could probably use an overhaul.

Since we're always on the prowl for ways to cut back on waste — both the food and money variety — we asked Jess Dang, founder of the popular meal-planning service Cook Smarts, to share her top tips for hitting the supermarket with a far better (read: non-budget-busting) meal-planning mind-set.

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Meal-planning hack #1: Shop your kitchen

You heard right. Before you even set foot in the supermarket, you should do a thorough inventory of your freezer and pantry.

"It's easy to forget that you bought two pounds of chicken breast when it was on sale," Dang says. And depending on what you find, you may need to pick up only a few fresh ingredients to make a tasty meal.

Stymied by what exactly to make with that value pack of frozen fish filets or that bottle of chimichurri sauce that seemed like such a good idea at the time? No problem — you can search for recipes that center on specific ingredients at yummly.com/recipes.

Meal-planning hack #2: Stock up on inexpensive staples

You'll never go hungry — or be "forced" to order takeout — if you always keep these four low-cost yet highly versatile ingredients on hand:

Beans: Not only are they a great source of protein, but you can use them in a variety of dishes, including salads, soups, and chili.

Grains: Dang recommends buying quinoa, barley, and brown rice in the bulk aisle for extra savings.

Frozen veggies: Contrary to what you might think, freezing vegetables retains their nutritional value — and you can use them to make a bevy of meals, from pasta dishes to tacos.

Diced tomatoes: "You can combine them with frozen veggies and beans for a soup, sauté them with onions, or purée them for a homemade pasta sauce," Dang says.

Meal-planning hack #3: Forgo the fancy stuff

Skip the pricey Himalayan salt and black truffle oil. Trendy ingredients might seem like they're worth splurging on, but unless you're a real foodie, says Dang, you'll probably never use them. Her advice: You're better off using that money to invest in some quality cookware, like a cast-iron skillet.

Meal-planning hack #4: Map out several dishes at once

If you want to make a recipe that calls for half a head of cabbage, for example, select a second recipe that incorporates cabbage, so you can use up the rest of it.

Dang is also a fan of planning for leftovers. "You might cook two pounds of salmon on Monday, serve half of it for dinner that night, and then use the rest in a salmon, spinach, and quinoa salad on Tuesday," she says. The goal is to cook once but eat twice, saving both time and money — especially if you buy your protein in larger "family" packages.

Meal-planning hack #5: Stick to your list

Shopping for groceries without a list practically guarantees that you'll buy a lot of unnecessary extras and rack up a bigger bill.

A little advance planning also helps you avoid wasting food later. "You might know that Brussels sprouts are good for you, but they're going to end up spoiling in your refrigerator unless you figure out which ingredients go with them before going to the store," says Dang, who points out that Americans throw away a whopping 40 percent of the food they buy.

Meal-planning hack #6: Don't be seduced by sales

Remember that nothing-special sweater you couldn't resist buying because it was so marked down? Chances are it's still sitting in the back of your closet — unworn. The same thing can happen to food you're not excited about eating.

Dang says shoppers often go over budget because they get tempted by two-for-one offers or select the jumbo container of something because they think it's a better value.

Her suggestion? "Ask yourself: Am I really going to use all of this, or am I just buying it because it's on sale?" says Dang. If the full-price item wouldn't make it into your cart, the "bargain" one probably shouldn't, either.

This story was originally published on Learnvest. Learnvest is a program for your money. Read their stories and use their tools at LearnVest.com.

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