Monday, February 14, 2011

Meal Planning: Time Waster or Money Saver?

Following the scores of home economists out there that proclaim meal planning as the surefire way to keep your grocery bill in check, I've tried to pick up the habit to save money. Unchecked, our grocery bill has at times ballooned into $800 or even $900 a month at the worst. This would include just food and sundries like paper products, toiletries, and diapers/wipes. Our eating out is budgeted separately. We would often do weekly trips to the club store and a specialty fresh food store each week. I dare someone to leave a club store without spending at least a $100. You can see how things got out of hand quite easily.

As I said previously, this isn't my first attempt at meal planning. I've done it before with great success on my food bill but it is so time intensive that I usually give it up when life hits bumps in the road-a sick kid, a stressful week at work, a weekend away-these were all legitimate reasons to forgo the planning and wing it at the grocery store. My last attempt I tried to combine meal planning with couponing. I highly recommend that you attempt one or the other first and not try both at one go. It felt like one great circular loop as I tried to match coupons with sales with recipes that my family would eat. I'm sure that there are very practiced couponers out there who do both with ease. It probably took some practice to get that good. Let's just say at this point, I'm a dilettante-couponer and a hard-core-meal-planner.

My problem with meal planning, perhaps why it is so time intensive, is that I haven't built up a great repetoire of easy, quick, and healthy recipes. The trifecta of recipe perfection that one of my favorite food bloggers wrote about on her blog cheap, healthy, good recently. So a great deal of my menu planning time is spent perusing the web for recipes that use ingredients that are on sale. Primarily, I focus on recipes using produce that is on sale. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, there was a great deal on winter squash at my grocery store. My primary experience cooking with winter squash has been making baby food or simply roasting it as a side dish. I wanted to find ways to use it as more of a main dish since I try to limit the amount of meat that we eat both for health and money reasons. All told it took me about an hour yesterday to plan our meals and put together a list. This entailed looking through the grocery circular, pouring over recipes, and figuring out what to have on what day (this is important because my husband cooks two days a week and he needs simple things to make or we end up with takeout pizza), and then finally compiling the list.

Was it worth it then? Was an hour of my day worth the meal plan and shopping list preparation? Let's use the opportunity cost of my hourly pay, which is between $30-$40 per hour as a comparison. I wouldn't have been working at this time anyway but it's an easy measure of the worth of my time.

$5 saved by using a coupon in the circular

$35 saved from my average shopping trip without a list (I realize that this isn't apples to apples but whatever)

$20 saved by buying everything I need up front for the week and avoiding a mid-week grocery run

$20 saved by having foods to take for lunch to work and avoiding buying out

I'm already up to $80. This is just a generalization but it's a good example of how menu planning can really save over and above just the number at the bottom of the receipt. There is also the added bonus that my family is eating healthy with plenty of fresh produce, and I never waste time wondering what to make for dinner. I don't think its a time waster even if it sometimes hard to use a whole hour during the weekend planning a menu. I have been using AllRecipes to help me plan. You can sign up for free and save all of your favorite recipes. You can even generate a shopping list.

My verdict: menu planning is a great way to save money. Like all good habits, it takes time to stick and practice to get good.

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