How to meal plan and save some cash

Few questions are as unwelcome or unanswerable (at least in my house) as "What's for dinner?" Every few months, I make futile attempts to meal plan or grocery shop smarter. I spread out cookbooks, I write down recipes, I make shopping lists, and then everything disappears (it seems) and I am back to my usual chaotic "It's 4:45 and what are we going to eat again?!"

In these moments, I am much more likely to order pizza or stop by for a supermarket rotisserie chicken. Not only are these choices probably not as healthy as what we could make at home, but they are also more expensive. And at the moment, we need to cut our eating out/convenience food spending as much as possible.

I am no domestic diva, as you have already discovered. But there are plenty of people of who are. And some of them don't even require googling. Take my mother-in-law, for example. She raised eight children on a tight budget, and I think she came up with a genius idea. Listen to this: She served the same seven meals every week. For instance, Monday was always spaghetti night, Tuesday was always chicken potpie, and so on. It meant her shopping list was the same every single week. Of course, it also means that my husband was burned out on repetition, so we definitely can't adopt the same policy in our house. But I do think it's a great idea.

Meal planning options

1. Emergency meals. This is the only kind of meal planning I have done successfully. And it's not really meal planning at all, but more of a quick, one-time fix to prevent ordering pizza. Basically, post 5-10 meals inside a cupboard door that can be prepared in 30 minutes or less (I say 30 minutes because that's how long a round trip to pick up prepared food would take in my neck of the woods). These meals should be simple and be composed of items that are shelf-stable or produce that lasts longer like carrots, onions, or frozen vegetables. In addition, always make sure you have that certain list of shelf-stable items present in your pantry. When you feel rushed or overwhelmed, check out the list.

Since we buy half a beef at a time, we always have plenty of ground beef in our freezer. I can quickly thaw ground beef, so it can be part of several of our staple meals. My kids actually prefer casseroles, one-dish skillets, and soups to slabs of meat (which is what my farmer husband prefers), so those meals make up most of our emergency meals. Never underestimate what you can create with a can of beans, diced tomatoes, pasta, or spaghetti sauce.

One of my favorite emergency meals relies on the same basic ingredients. However, by switching up the spices, cheese, and bean type, you can make the meal Mexican- or Italian-style. It's different enough that it satisfies my husband's need for variety.