How often do you stand in front of your fridge or pantry and wonder what you’re going to make for dinner? Even when we have a decent supply of staples in our home, it’s still easy to feel uninspired when dinnertime is looming over us. With reverse meal planning, you can save money and time by planning your menu and grocery shopping list based on what’s already in your kitchen.
It was 5 p.m. I opened the pantry and stared listlessly at the rows of cans, boxes, and bags. I quickly came to the same conclusion that I did nearly every week. There was ‘nothing’ in the house to eat. Grabbing the phone, I begged my husband to stop by Dominos on the way home and grab a couple of $5 pizzas. I sighed, feeling guilty.
If this describes your life, you are not alone. It was my life for a long time. Then, several years ago, I became ‘fed up’. (Yes, that was a pun!) I decided it was time to get my life, cooking, and menu planning in order. However, we were on a really tight budget. So I also needed to figure out how to feed my family healthy food—without breaking the bank.
That’s when I developed the strategy I now use every single week to save both time and money: Reverse meal planning.
WHAT IS REVERSE MEAL PLANNING?
I use this term to refer to the process by which I create a weekly menu plan using ingredients I already have in the house supplemented by supermarket sales items. By using this method, I am able to feed my family more nutritious food, avoid throwing out rotten produce, and maximize the value of store sales flyers.
The entire process takes me no more than 60 minutes each week. And it helps me to feed my family of four a whole foods diet for under $300 each month.
1. Begin With What You Have on Hand
Meal planning shouldn’t begin with you browsing through a stack of cookbooks, magazines, or your favorite internet cooking sites. Instead, you need to start by knowing exactly what ingredients you have on hand. The easiest way to do this is to have an up-to-date list of the contents of your pantry, freezer, and fridge. This will allow you to more effectively use what you already have and avoid pitching rotten food into the garbage can.
2. Make Sure Your Perishables Are Prioritized
We all know that produce has a finite life. Generally, we head to the store, determined to purchase healthy items. We fill our carts with an edible rainbow and then promptly wind up throwing much of it out seven days later.
That’s why prioritizing your list of perishables—and ensuring the items you need to use first are listed at the top—is an important step in the process. Organizing your list in this way will help you become aware of the ingredients you already have, and also the order in which each item needs to be used.
For example, leaf lettuce may last for six days, but a head of cabbage will easily stay fresh for at least two weeks. Therefore, on my perishable food list, I write lettuce at the top. This helps to remind me using up those greens is a top priority. The fruits and vegetables further down the list are the ones which will last the longest. This simple strategy will help you use up precious produce before it rots.
3. Create a Rough Cut Menu
I worked in broadcasting for a long time. A ‘rough cut’ is an industry term for a project on which you have made initial cuts. It isn’t the finished product, but it still gives the manager a really good idea of the overall concept and direction.
In this case, a rough cut menu involves looking at your list of available ingredients and using recipes to pre-fill as many spaces as you can on a weekly menu plan. I look for recipes which allow me to pair my perishables with ingredients already in my pantry and freezer. Although many of us believe we don’t have any food in the house, this is not really true. Most of us could feed our family for a week or more by simply using what we currently have on hand.
So, rather than filling your grocery list with a long list of ingredients you need for five brand new recipes, begin by finding recipes which allow you to utilize what you already have on your shelves. Then, write these down on your menu planning sheet. Now, you should have just a few open meal slots to finish filling out your menu.
4. Look at the Flyers (and Use Them Correctly)
After you have created your preliminary weekly food plan, now is the time to look at the weekly flyers. Sales flyers are designed to do one thing: Get you into the store. However, when you learn to see them through the lens of frugality, these weekly ads can be your ticket to lower food costs.
Look carefully at the front and the back. For the most part, ignore the rest. The front or back of the flyer will generally feature what are called ‘loss leader items’. The grocer is literally taking a loss on these products in the hope you will come in for the $.25 bananas and leave with an entire cart full of food. Don’t fall into that trap!
Do yourself a favor and circle those extra special deals. Then, make a prioritized shopping list with items you absolutely need to purchase at the top. When you buy only what’s on the list, you’ll be saving both time and money. You will not only be cherry picking the best deals, you’ll also be avoiding the tendency to stroll slowly through the store aisles silently praying for meal-time inspiration.
5. Focus on Single Ingredient Foods
When shopping, focus on single ingredient foods instead of high-priced prepared products. Not only will it cost you less, but the nutritional value of your meals will skyrocket.
For example, if you set a large bag of chips and 10 pounds of russet potatoes side by side, you can easily see that although these items may cost about the same amount of money, there is no comparison in how they will feed your children.
My boys would inhale that bag of chips in about 20 minutes flat and then be ‘starving’ half an hour later. However, you can create four distinctly different recipes with those potatoes, and the fiber will keep them full for hours. That’s the incredible power of single ingredient foods.
6. Put It into Practice
Now that you have effectively utilized items you already had on your shelves to create a rough cut menu, and made a shopping list of the least expensive, most nutritious weekly sale items—it’s time to put it into practice.
The key to this final step in the meal planning process is those weekly loss leader items. To show you how this works, I’ll give you a real life example. Just this week, a local store offered huge heads of cauliflower and bunches of broccoli for just $1.49 each. I walked into the store, grabbed three of each, paid just under $9.00, and walked back out.
I used this produce to complete my weekly menu plan. In approximately 15 minutes, I found recipes for creating a soup, two salads, and four main dishes, each featuring cauliflower or broccoli. (I’ll even use the leaves, stem, and cores so nothing will rot or be thrown out.) Believe me, buying featured sale items at a tremendous discount and then having a plan to use them will save you an astronomical amount of money on your monthly grocery bills.
I am a child of the sixties. Wonder Bread sandwiches, filled with lunchmeat and cheese and slathered with a thick layer of Miracle Whip, were my standard lunch fare. I topped them off with a stack of Ritz crackers sandwiched with peanut butter. There was no fiber in sight!
As an adult, I initially focused on just getting food on the table—any food. In my late thirties, I began to take a hard look at what I was feeding my own children. When it comes to food, quality does count. Yes, you can buy pre-made, processed, and prepared foods, but often that choice comes with a lack of nutrition and leads to detrimental effects on our health.
I’ve come to understand that cooking is an act of service and love. Food is more than just calories in and energy out—it’s relational, communal, and spiritual. It is a gift to our families to create a weekly plan to nurture their bodies and souls with the nutrients available to us in whole foods.
It can be surprising to find that with a little planning and a few pointers, making that happen doesn’t need to take a lot of time or money. And, for those of us staring into the pantry with our phone in hand ready to order pizza, reverse meal planning could make all the difference.
What part of Hope’s Reverse meal planning strategy appeals to you the most? Why not give it a try and share with us how you get on!
HOW TO SAVE TIME AND MONEY WITH REVERSE MEAL PLANNING
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Thank you so much for the education and inspiration your videos and resources are providing me. I am semi-retired, working part time from home. I am re- prioritizing and restructuring my budget to fit my smaller income and priorities for health and happiness on a shoestring budget. I find that your tips and tricks are just as doable for me for me as a one person household as they would have been for when I was raising my kids. I love your videos with Larry- you guys are so fun to watch together! – and love that you share the history of your frugal journey. It makes it real and inspirational. You have a new and loyal fan!