Health on the cheap: Have a plan!

Compass_rose_CantinoChanging the way you eat to include more vegetables, whole grains, good fats, and pasture-raised meat and meat products can be expensive. This is especially noticeable if you compare whole foods diets to diets based mainly on processed food or fast food. As I discussed last week, making the dietary shift may require you to change your perspective on food and money. However, while you may find you have to shift more of your funds to food, a diet with more whole foods does not mean you have to break the bank. In fact, there are several small, basic things you can do to keep the cost down, such as having a plan before you go to the store.

Meal planning (for all your meals) is an important part of keeping cost down and reducing waste. I bet I’m not the only person that has bought a bunch of greens with good intentions and no plan only to pull the almost liquid remains out of the crisper a few weeks later. Luckily, adopting a practice of meal planning has pretty much stopped all that, which makes cleaning out the fridge a much more pleasant experience. Here are some habits I’ve picked up along the way that make meal planning work for me.

  1. Take the time to create a menu. I’ve been meal planning for a while now, so I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Last Saturday I timed myself and found that it took me 30 minutes from start to finish. That includes creating a menu and turning that menu into a grocery list, with a few stops to google things here and there. While half an hour might seem like a long time, it saves me time later in the week; and, of course, it saves me money. When I know what I’m going to make, I won’t just throw in the towel and order takeout.
  2. Find inspiration. Vegetables inspire me! I build my menu around vegetables since vegetables change from season to season while most proteins and grains stay the same throughout the year.  I do this by either going to the farmer’s market (I set a budget for myself and only buy a vegetable if I can think of several ways to use it) or by looking online to see what vegetables are in season. In Texas we have this really cool chart from the Texas Depart of Agriculture to help with that. I bet you have something like this in your area. In the US you can also visit the website of your local Community-Supported Agriculture to get a sense of what’s available. If veggies don’t inspire you, find a different source of inspiration. For example, you might choose a theme for each night, like taco night, soup night, and breakfast-at-dinner night.
  3. Make a menu that reflects your week. When creating my menu, I think about our schedule and what nights are busy, like those nights I see a client or my husband has an event or I just know I’ll be tired from a long day. These busy night are the ones I start with.  I pick quick and easy meals for those nights, like a crockpot chili or make-your-own stuffed sweet potato. Once I get those nights sorted, I can add meals that will take a little more time, such as meals that require a sauce or that just have a little more going on.
  4. Don’t recreate the wheel. I like to cook and create new recipes, but I temper that with the amount of time and energy I have during the week. I have several meals that I come back to over and over that use the same grains or proteins but allow me to use whatever vegetable is in season, like stir fries and curries. I also save copies of my menu each week so I can go back and get ideas when I find myself with “menu block.”  I have about 10 meals that I cycle through every few weeks with a new recipe thrown in here and there to satisfy my creativity.

Meal planning is the foundation of a diet made up of nutritious food. Without a plan we spend more money and time than we want; we eat less of what we should and more of what we shouldn’t; and we stress about food far too much. I hope you find these tips helpful and that they make your next excursion to the store a bit less strained.  Share your tips for menu planning in the comments!

Next week: how to eat more vegetables without going into debt.

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