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It's no fun trying to decide what to make for dinner every night. Planning your meals ahead of time often saves you time as well as money.
There are many different ways to plan your meals. How you plan yours depends on how much time you want to spend now to save yourself time later.
I plan my meals once a week. Because I have limited refrigerator/freezer space and a small family to feed (3), this plan seems to work best for me. I only go to the grocery store once a week. When I'm getting ready to go to the store, I sit down and starting planning my menu for the next week.
This is a good time to go through this week's grocery ads to see what's on sale this week. I also take this time to clean out my refrigerator to see what needs thrown away and what can be re-used as leftovers in the next couple of days. Cleaning out your refrigerator weekly is crucial in avoiding wasting food that could still be used to make a perfectly good meal.
So after I've cleaned out the refrigerator and scanned the grocery store ads, I start my shopping list. I try to plan around what I already have in the freezer. For example, if I know I have a pound of hamburger in the freezer and I know I have spaghetti noodles on hand, then I just need to put spaghetti sauce on my list in order to have spaghetti for dinner one night.
I've also found that often we don't need as much meat in our meals as you might think. For our family of three, a pound of hamburger can be used for both spaghetti and tacos. If I cook the hamburger all at once, I can just put half of it in the refrigerator for the next meal (a big time savings!). If I already have taco shells on hand all I need is to make sure that the sour cream I have in the refrigerator is still good and put lettuce and tomatoes on my shopping list.
You should always stock up on meat when it's on sale. If you do you'll find that some weeks you'll end up buying almost no meat at all, if any. I also stock up on items like jars of spaghetti sauce when they're on sale. Then I'll always have a quick dinner ready on a moment's notice if I already have hamburger (also bought on sale) and spaghetti noodles on hand.
Some weeks I realize that I already have much of what I'm going to need for the week. Some of the staples I keep on hand: sour cream, cheese, taco shells, spaghetti noodles, egg noodles, cream of mushroom soup, onions, potatoes, garlic, tuna, spaghetti sauce, tomato sauce, black olives, canned clams, and rice. These ingredients make a lot of the meals we eat, like: hamburger and rice, beef stroganoff, tacos, spaghetti, clam chowder, and hamburger gravy and mashed potatoes.
I usually plan for only 5 meals a week. I know that sometime during the week we'll be eating leftovers or fending for ourselves due to time constraints. This system has worked really well for me and saved us lots of money. I plan once a week, shop once a week, and don't give a thought to meal planning for the rest of the week. And I don't hold myself to cooking a certain meal on a certain night. I usually decide that day what I'm going to cook for dinner to be a little flexible
There are many other ways you can plan your meals. Some people cook once a month and freeze their meals for later use (requires a lot of freezer space). A couple of books on this subject are Frozen Assets by Deborah Taylor Hough and The Freezer Cooking Manual by Tara Wohlenhaus. Meal planning doesn't have to be hard. Modify your plan to suit your family's needs. Just make sure you HAVE a plan. It will inevitably save you time as well as money.
Originally published at Suite 101. Rachel Paxton is a freelance writer and mom who is the author of What's for Dinner?, an e-cookbook containing more than 250 quick easy dinner ideas. For recipes, tips to organize your home, home decorating, crafts, holiday hints, and more, visit Creative Homemaking.