Five Frugal Meal-Planning Tips for Busy People

October 28, 2008

My friend (and super-smart writer) Jen Singer is featured in a CBS News segment about how the economy has affected her, and everything she and her family of four do in their daily lives. From serving her boys water to drink after school (as opposed to pricey soft drinks or juice) to making their own Halloween costumes, she is nervous about the economy.

One change that Jen’s made, like many of us have, is reading the supermarket flier religiously. Most experts will tell you that the best way to eat on the cheap is to plan your meals based on what’s on sale at the supermarket that week. For example, this week my supermarket has taken a page from ShopRite’s can-can deals with its “gicantic” sale on canned goods. That means I’ll be stocking up on anything canned that can add to my meals without costing too much-things like beans, corn and tomatoes. (And like I suggested in yesterday’s post, I’ll be buying a few extra cans to donate to a food bank.) We’ll also be having chicken a couple of times this week, since chicken leg quarters are on sale for $.99/pound.

Meal planning based on what’s on sale at the grocery store is a tip that most people have heard of before and one that’s worth repeating. Here are five more frugal meal-planning tips that should help busy people stay on budget:

1. Meal plan based on what you already own.
Not only should you meal plan based on supermarket sales but also based on what’s already in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer. Here’s another reason this saves you money: it helps to ensure that you use what you own and things don’t go to waste. How many times have you discovered mystery mush in the produce bin, because you’d forgotten that you’d picked up cucumbers at a farm stand, or mold-covered strawberries in the back of the fridge? You need to figure out ways to use things up so that your money doesn’t end up in the trash–or the compost pile. This line of thinking is also green, because it will save you from unnecessary driving to the store.

2. Christen your Crock-Pot by using it regularly.
Another cost- and time-saver: using your Crock-Pot or slow cooker. While this, too, requires some planning, it can help you to avoid that five-o’clock-frenzy of not knowing what to serve for dinner. This is the kind of frenzy that resulted in our spending hundreds of dollars in our pre-frugal days on take out–or rather, take-in. If you haven’t already done so, check out The CrockPot Lady’s blog for family-oriented recipes that you can make in your slow cooker. On days when I’ll be using the Crock-Pot to make dinner, I lay out everything for dinner at the same time in the morning when we’re laying out what the kids are going to pack for lunch. Then, once they’re off to school and I’ve completed my morning exercise, I get dinner cooking–literally.

3. Make takeout-like meals at home.
This past week our bounty from our CSA resembled all of the kinds of things you might see on top of pizza–green peppers, onions and broccoli. Because I was traveling on business, my husband needed to do some of our meal planning, and he knew he wanted to make the kids pizza without actually going out and spending $20 on a pie or two. At the same time, with two left hands in the kitchen, he knew that his trying to make pizza dough from scratch would end up in disaster. So what did he do? He bought two lumps of pizza dough from our local pizzeria ($6) and came home to create DIY pizza. (We had sauce and cheese already.) That dough was so cheap and plentiful that he ended up with two pies (one light on sauce for our daughters), one deep dish loaded with the aforementioned veggies for me when I arrived home, and a homemade calzone for him.

4. Realize that you don’t have to serve dinner foods only at dinner.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever thought about serving your kids a bowl of cereal instead of a “proper” dinner. I know it’s crossed my mind and to be honest, I’ve actually done this on occasion when I hadn’t followed my own advice and planned out that night’s meal. But don’t despair–serving breakfast for dinner is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s something that well-known cooks like Rachael Ray promote, and even magazines like Southern Living have approved breakfast for dinner with recipes to help you out. The key is figuring out how to balance nutrition with a cheap-and-easy meal. So if I decide to do breakfast for dinner, I’ll probably make French toast using a loaf of bread that’s about to go stale, and I’ll serve it with a fruit smoothie. This way I’m using up food that I might have tossed the next day (over-ripe bananas are awesome in a smoothie), and I’m ensuring that my family is getting food from at least a couple of the food groups.

5. Overcook to create leftovers.
Just as there’s nothing wrong with serving your family breakfast for dinner, I say you shouldn’t be ashamed to serve up leftovers either. The best way to ensure you’ll have at least one night’s worth of leftovers for a full meal one night is to overcook a few nights in a row. That way on a night when you know you’ll be arriving home late from sports or other commitments, you’ll have what you need for reheating in the fridge. This should prevent you from stopping on the way home for McFood. (Another benefit of overcooking: you have staples for an entirely separate meal you might cook one night. Case in point: whenever I grill chicken, I cook a few extra breasts. Then the next night, I’ll cut up those breasts and use them in chicken quesadillas.)

Do you have additional ideas for frugal meal planning? If so, I’d love to hear them.

6 Responses to Five Frugal Meal-Planning Tips for Busy People

  1. Good Reads - Hello, November on February 19, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    […] Five Frugal Meal-Planning Tips for Busy People by Suddenly Frugal […]

  2. KarenK on October 29, 2008 at 5:39 am

    A couple of frugal comments to go along with your tips… we do “Breakfast for Dinner” once every couple of weeks or so– a Pizza Frittata last night using a dozen eggs that were on sale. Sometimes hearty waffles with bacon and eggs. Also, trying to do a meatless dish at least once a week– dubbed Meatless Mondays.

  3. Theresa in Mèrida on October 28, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    Bread recipes usually make two loaves, I freeze one after the first rise. Also when I make homemade pizza dough, I make an extra for the freezer. Frozen bananas are really good in smoothies, so when bananas get too ripe they get plopped into the freezer. Any left over vegetable can become “cream” soup, which is a great starter, you can use left over cooked rice to thicken it instead of milk or cream too, just blend it with either chicken or vegetable broth and the cooked veggies.

  4. Lisa on October 28, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    I work 1.5 jobs, and my husband works full time as well. We’ll often purchase a grocery store (or Costco) roasted chicken for $5 for the two of us, eating half for the first night with a side dish or two and making a casserole or soup that will last two more nights out of the other half. These chickens are tasty, quick, easy, and inexpensive.

    I also make my own baking mix “a la Bisquick” that works fabulously for biscuits, pancakes, waffles, and casserole toppings.

  5. keri m. on October 28, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    I use to coordinate local store sales with newspaper coupons. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it works for us. And I always plan the week’s meals and stick to a shopping list.

  6. jenontheedge on October 28, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    We have always eaten a lot of pasta, which we all love, but is also inexpensive. We eat it with tomato sauce, with veggies mixed in, and sometimes just with a little cheese on top.

    When I make sauce, I make a large batch and then freeze it in smaller amounts.

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