Thursday, January 12, 2012

Best Laid Plan

If I had to choose my biggest and best saver – of money, time, and energy – I would, without hesitation, say meal-planning.  How dull, eh?  It doesn’t have the drama of saving dryer lint for felting, but it’s truth.

Each year end, I analyze our budget to see what we’ve actually been purchasing, where we can save in the months ahead, and where we can afford to spend more generously.  The financial software I have even provides a handy pie-chart of the results.  If the year-end numbers aren’t revealing enough, that pie-chart makes it vividly clear what our three greatest expenditures are:  namely housing, vehicle, and food.  Not a big surprise.  Most budgets reflect similarly.  What I’m most proud of is the sizeable reduction in the percentage of our yearly budget now spent on food.  At one time, when I was working outside the home, the percentage of our budget spent on groceries was 36.37% at its highest.  In 2011, that percentage shrunk to its smallest ever, at only 23.88% of our total household budget.  Despite the dramatic savings, we’ve eaten well.  Better, in fact, than we ever did when the grocery budgets were highest.  There are a few reasons for this, but the number one reason is meal-planning.

Admittedly, I wasn’t always a meal-planner.  Countless times in my young adult life I forgot to take meat out of the freezer in time to thaw for dinner.  Other times I’d slap together pre-packaged foods just to get a meal – anything! – on the table.  Or when fast food restaurants fed the family because the larder had nothing to offer.  It took some years of eating minimal, unhealthy, or just plain awful meals to finally discover a better way.

And all it took was a little planning.

Sick of awful meals and even more upset with their high cost, I began an overhaul of our eating and shopping habits.  To begin, I did as my mother had always done and spent a little time, each week, planning upcoming meals.   With the help of weekly sales flyers, I chose featured foods and built meal plans (tentatively) around these.  In-store, the product wasn’t always as good as pictured, so plans were flexible to allow for these alterations.  Just by doing this one small thing, though, I gleaned enormous savings that first year.  Not only had we spent less money, we’d also spent less time shopping and, best of all, the food we were eating was much tastier and healthier.

Another reason our grocery budget shrank was due,  partially, to the lack of impulse-buying.  When the larder is near empty, it’s quite easy (for me) to desire most everything in sight and I can, without difficulty, run amok in a well-stocked grocery store.  With a list, made during the meal-planning stage, there was no longer anything haphazard or impulsive about my shopping expeditions.  It also means that mid-week “emergency” trips to the corner store are rare now – though I love the convenience of a local grocer, their costs were often much higher than the supermarkets.  These may seem trifling amounts in the year’s budget, but the cumulative costs of higher food prices, wasted time, vehicle, and fuel for 52 (or more) additional trips for neglected grocery needs really add up!

When we made this shift to meal-planning, other savings were found.  By planning ahead, larger cut proteins appeared in our diet more often than once or twice a year.  It wasn’t long before we realized how much money, time and energy was saved with these meats.  Sure, the larger cuts cost less per pound, they also provide time and energy savings when you consider the ease with which they provide subsequent meals.  With pre-cooked roast or poultry, a stir-fry or casserole comes together in a flash.   Lunches became a no-brainer – and far tastier, too! – with real cold-cuts handy.

Still, there are days when we’re both too busy with our work to even think about dinner.  These are the days when meal-planning really pays off.  It’s not too hard, when looking ahead on our week, to decide which days will be busier than others, and plan on leftovers when simple and quick are best.  Other days, we use the slow-cooker.  What a genius machine that is!  Just load it with food, turn on the heat and, hours later, dinner is ready.  No muss and very little fuss.  A pressure-cooker  is another impressive kitchen tool that gets dinner on the table quicker while also tenderizing tougher cuts of meat (which are usually the less expensive cuts, as well.)  It can elevate an economical brisket from its shoe-leather propensity to tender succulence in short order -- something nearly impossible to achieve with any other quick-cooking method.

An unexpected dividend of meal-planning are the sauces, marinades, and other treats that result.  Simply by planning meals ahead, I know to make tartar sauce for the fish, or teriyaki sauce for upcoming stir-fries, and the extra day or two in the fridge only enhances their already fabulous flavours. Where I once struggled to have meat thawed in time for supper, I now have days to marinade (or brine) some ribs.  Add the convenience of cooking ahead certain foods, and our dinners were coming together swiftly, more deliciously, and with much better ingredients.

If you’re inspecting your own household budget, looking for ways to cut costs, or seeking ways to make life a little easier, consider the many benefits of meal-planning.  No last minute dinners that leave you wanting more.  This one change put, literally, thousands of dollars back in our budget and much better eats on our table!