The meal planning schedule that will save you hundreds

The Meal Planning Schedule That Will Save You Hundreds
Meal planning -- we all have a general ideal of how it works, though a lot of us never bother to do it. But if you're looking to eat healthier and save money, it's one of the easiest things you can do.

The most intimidating part of starting a meal plan can be planning it all out. So to keep things simple, plan just one meal a day in the beginning, like dinner.

Next, look at your calendar for the week and take note of any events that may affect your mealtimes, like friends coming to town on Monday or a trip to the beach on Saturday. Put it all down in your schedule, because this will help determine how many meals you need and how much time you'll have for prep.

The next step is to create a master recipe list with all ingredients listed. Be sure to note the serving sizes so you'll know how many meals to expect. Once you have a few ideas down, take a look at what ingredients you already have in your kitchen and cross those off the list. Whatever's left, you go shopping for.

The final step is grocery shopping and meal prep. Since you'll be preparing your meals in batch, pick a day where you'll have the most time. Have all your containers ready to go and once you're done cooking, fill them up and put them in the fridge.

Give these basic tips a try, and you'll see that the more meals you plan, the more money you'll save.

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Keep your shelves organized so you can see everything you have. Clearly mark any perishable items with their expiration dates and label leftovers with the date you packaged them. If that sounds like too much work, try this: Only buy enough perishables to last for one week of consumption, and label your pantry shelves based on expiration dates (one month, six months, etc.)
Keep newer items in the back of the fridge so that when you reach in to grab a snack or peruse the shelf for meal ideas, you're more likely to use the items that will expire the soonest. Do the same with your pantry (especially canned goods) and items in the freezer.
Keep those leftovers fresher for longer by making sure you package them the right way. Items that can go stale (like chips and cereal) should be stored in airtight containers. Don't pack your fridge too full, as this reduces cool air flow. Know the best way to freeze different items. For some handy food storage charts, check out FoodSafety.gov.
You won't get sick of leftovers if you find different ways of preparing them. Create salads, soups, wraps and omelets when you're looking for ways to make use of ingredients that seem somewhat random. Experiment, and throw different ingredients together while you're cooking. You may just come up with your next favorite recipe.
Sit down on Sunday and draw up a plan for your meals throughout the week, making sure to use any ingredients that are due to expire soon. Planning out your meals helps you make the best use of the items you have -- and cuts back on that "What on earth am I going to make tonight?" panic.
You can freeze a lot more than you probably think you can. Milk, bread, cheese and other items can be safely and successfully frozen if you don't think you'll be able to finish them before they expire. (Or if you buy multiples on sale.) Leftovers can be frozen for instant microwavable meals when you're busy.
Some expired food can still be used as ingredients. Overripe bananas can be made into banana bread; stale bread is great for homemade croutons; slightly mushy produce can always be tossed into a smoothie.
The "use by" date on most items doesn't mean they're unsafe to eat after that time; it simply means that's the date the USDA recommends you consume them by to enjoy peak quality and freshness. Most foods will still be fresh and safe to consume for several days after this date. When in doubt, use your senses -- if it looks alright, smells and tastes OK, it's probably OK.
Make use of small scraps, spoiled foods and unusable bits by turning them into compost. If you use this to fertilize your own kitchen garden, you'll be able to save even more on groceries by growing your own fresh produce.
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