Will Meal Planning Save My Life (or at Least My Grocery Bill)?

Angela Colley

We spend a ton of money on food. According to the USDA, a two-person household needs to spend between $87.80 and $175 per week to eat a well-balanced diet at home. Add a couple of young children, and you’re looking at $128 to $250.40 a week. And that doesn’t account for lunches out at work, takeout, or your unshakeable desire to try Taco Bell’s Naked Chicken Chalupa at 2:00 a.m.

That’s just what the USDA thinks you need to spend. Some of us are spending more—sometimes a lot more if you (like me) stopped at Whole Foods to buy snacks and ended up dropping a day’s earnings on small-batch potato chips and vegan dark chocolate. Wanting to get those costs down makes perfect sense.

Enter meal planning. Basically, it goes like this: You plan every single meal from a cost-conscious mindset, cutting down on impulse buys and food waste. In theory, it makes sense. A joint study conducted by the University of California and University of Washington found almost 60 percent of grocery store purchases were unplanned. Personal finance writers from the Balance to the Huffington Post are singing the praises of meal planning as a way to curb both impulse buys and the inevitable wasted food.

Sounds simple, right? Since I like cooking, can handle planning on a small scale, and currently hold the title of “Biggest Whole Foods Impulse Buyer” in my household, I decided to take it on. One month of meal planning here we go.

Week one: Always read the instructions before attempting

I started the first week with some vague assumptions about meal planning, namely that it meant cherry-picking recipes that sounded tasty, buying all the ingredients, and then making the meals loosely based on a schedule I made up on the fly.

Day one did not start off well. I planned on finding recipes, making a grocery list, and hitting the store, but I overshot my ability to stay focused. I got overwhelmed looking for recipes, panicked, and cobbled together a list of dinners for the week. At the store, I realized my “plan” left off lunch, and breakfast, and snacks—and the impulse buys started flying into the cart.

Despite forgetting most of the week’s meals, I did stick to the schedule and avoided takeout and restaurants for an entire week, but at about $240 spent on food for my two-person household, I wasn’t getting any closer to the USDA’s estimate.

Week one verdict: I failed. I wasn’t actually planning meals with any particular cost-cutting strategies in mind. I was writing down things I’d like to eat and then buying them. Shockingly, planning effectively takes more thought. After getting some insight from the Kitchn, I learned some important rules. For one, meal planning is about using what you already have. If you want to save money, it also really helps to factor in grocery store promotions and weekly sales. And you really do have to plan every single meal.

Week two: A lesson in over-correcting

Armed with this new information, I embraced the planning part of meal planning.
Starting in my pantry, I jotted down a list of every staple food I could use as a base for a meal. I went over my grocery’s weekly circular ad in-depth, writing down every good sale. I dug through all the available digital coupons, painstakingly adding them to my grocery store rewards card one at a time. Finally, I scoured Smitten Kitchen and Epicurious to find recipes that matched the ingredients on sale.

It took almost two hours of work and by the time I headed to the store, I was fully expecting a huge reward for my effort. When the total came to $195.67, I felt a bit defeated. My bill was down, but I was tired.

At least I had all my meals planned out by Sunday night and I wouldn’t have to think about what to make for the whole week ahead. That was a big upside!

It was not. To keep from wasting food, you need to sequence meals so nothing goes bad—use the most perishable goods first, then heartier produce and meat, and so on. To make matters worse, the best sale of the week at my local grocer was a BOGO on chicken breasts so I bought four packages. Since my freezer is the size of a shoebox, I could only freeze two of the packages. That meant I had to eat chicken four nights in a row before I could have the veggie orzo I actually wanted. By the time I was down to the last of it, I started resenting the chicken just for existing in the fridge.

Week two verdict: Food is supposed to be enjoyable, even, I dare say, joyous. Buying great produce. Cooking new meals. Sitting down to something you’re excited about. It makes life better. Planning, buying stuff you don’t really like because it’s on sale, and then being forced not only to eat it, but to cook it and clean up afterward? Ugh.

Week three: Becoming a prepper

By week three I wasn’t just tired of force-feeding myself cut-rate chicken, I was getting tired of cooking from scratch every single night.

Since I was relying on leftovers for lunches and not “repurposing” last night’s dinner for tonight’s meal, I had been cooking from zero every night of the week. I needed another plan. The Kitchn once again came to my aid, recommending prepping meals ahead of time as a miracle cure for what ailed me. I had my doubts.

Sunday afternoon after planning and shopping, I spent another two hours cutting vegetables, cooking ahead, and making sauces to store in the fridge for the week. It felt awesome. Seeing rows of ready-to-go containers was beyond satisfying.

But, there is a huge downside to prepping all the meal-planning evangelists seem to be ignoring: Not all produce (or meat) wants to be prepared days in advance. Even using tightly sealed containers, some food started to go bad. The avocados went first, turning brown. The zucchini went next, all squishy and slightly slimy. And the sausage I cooked tasted distinctly reheated three days later.

Some stuff—like carrots, sliced grapes, and caramelized onions—held together fine. And the sauces I’d made in advance tasted fresh enough almost a week later.

On the plus side, I’d started to build up an excess of ingredients since I was cooking at home on the regular now. That meant I could buy less, and my grocery bill dropped to about $160.

Week three verdict: Prepping ahead did save some time, but it didn’t work for everything. I plan to keep it up, but only with things I’m pretty sure won’t morph into goo in the fridge. Figuring that out takes some trial and error, but I did get a leg up. The Lean Green Bean has a great starter guide to food prep.

Week four: Completely out of ideas

By the end of the month, I was drained of imagination. Trying to come up with three meals a day, seven days a week, that are cheap, healthy, and efficient with ingredients is exhausting.

Once I realized I’d really only saved around $120 after three weeks of intense food monitoring, I kind of snapped. I spent 20 minutes on a quick review of the weekly ads, slapped some recipes for dinners and a few other meals together, and went to the store with my shopping list half-planned.

It was liberating, but it was also expensive. Since I was too over it to care, I threw a ton of stuff I didn’t need in the cart (including a rack of ribs and crab legs). When I realized I forgot a day on the shopping list, I bought frozen junk food crap I hadn’t eaten in over a decade and a rotisserie chicken from the prepared food section. My bill was $325.

Week four verdict: I learned two valuable lessons: Throwing caution the wind is painful once you hit the checkout line. And you should never, ever eat junk food as an adult that you haven’t had since high school. I was way over my budget and sick to my stomach for two days.

Here’s the thing… If you’re going into meal planning expecting to magically become one of those people who spends $50 a week on groceries, you’re going to have to be willing to work very hard for it. Every step of this took up precious weekend hours I wanted to spend doing anything else. And while I did get better at planning and prepping as I went along, certain things—like finding and loading digital coupons onto my shopper reward card—never got easier. And it never saved me much money either considering all that effort.

Being frugal about your food means making a lot of sacrifices. Prepared foods, while cheaper to buy at the store than ordering takeout, are still going to push you over budget. Most fish, pricier cuts of meat, and decent cheese become practically off limits. That just isn’t very much fun. And when you take the fun out of cooking, having to do it every night starts to feel like just another chore you have to force yourself through at the end of a long day.

But, meal planning isn’t something to skip entirely, either. I did save money. And being hyper-aware of what I was buying helped me eat a lot healthier. I cut down on red meat, added more fish and vegetarian meals, and almost never ate junk food.

In the end, I’m going to keep checking the weekly ads and planning most of my meals, just not all of them. I probably won’t save as much as the most frugal of planners, but at least I can enjoy dinner again.