My husband and I used to fight over meal planning all the time. I thought it was smart to make budget-friendly meals — especially for lunch — and he thought budget meal planning would lead to food boredom.
As someone who likes to experiment with food, my husband was afraid there would be no way to make budget-friendly meals and actually enjoy them.
Then I met Talia Koren, finance writer and Workweek Lunch blogger, and everything changed.
Meal planning doesn’t have to suck
My husband’s reasons for hating meal planning is one I hear a lot. The idea of brown-bagging it everyday conjures up images of sad sandwiches and bruised fruit for a snack.
That isn’t how budget-friendly meals have to be.
When I met Koren for the first time, it was through a mutual friend who introduced me as “my dear friend who eats like a kindergartner.” Given my love of basic foods like chili and cheeseburgers, I couldn’t really argue.
Koren, however, has mastered the art of budget meal planning. What started out as a need to save money turned into the realization that she can make almost any meal she normally would have ordered for lunch.
Now, Koren lives on a grocery budget of only $50 per week, considerably lower than the $151 average that Americans spend on food per week.
5 things that happen when you start budget meal planning
Even if the idea of preparing budget-friendly meals sounds intriguing, there are plenty of reasons to think that learning how to meal plan isn’t worth it. Koren, however, discovered great things have happened in her almost three years of this practice.
1. You’ll save money
Koren’s focus has been mainly on meal planning ideas for lunches, as they were eating up most of her money. It’s taken her a lot of trial and error to figure out how to make enjoyable lunches and save money.
Last year, she hit her mark. When comparing her spending from 2016 to 2015, she found that preparing budget-friendly meals saved her an average of $260 per month.
For some, that’s an entire student loan payment. And all the while, she’s feasting on things like salmon and vegetables.
2. You’ll save time — really!
When Koren started out, she was far from a master chef. But over time, she grew more comfortable in the kitchen and started to look closely at the meals she was ordering whenever she did go out to lunch.
It turned out, those meals weren’t all that complicated.
Koren’s goal isn’t to master flavoring and food combinations, but rather to have healthy, enjoyable lunches. And in learning how to meal plan this way, she’s managed to get her prep time down to 30 minutes every three days.
That would be an average of 10 minutes per day if she were to do one meal at a time (she makes three at a time now).
Think you don’t have 10 minutes a day? Consider your work day yesterday. How long did you spend thinking about what to get for lunch? Once you got there, how long did you stand in line or wait to be served? How much time was left to enjoy your food before rushing back to work?
Spending a few minutes meal-prepping each day doesn’t sound so bad. If you plan your meals like Koren, you can grab your ready-made lunch, head out to the park, and simply enjoy your meal.
3. You can create lunches you love
It can get boring to order out all the time. Maybe you have a few go-to meal places for lunch, but eventually, they all start to seem the same.
When you experiment with meal-planning ideas, you can take your pick. Feel like trying a new recipe? It’ll spice up a dull week. Craving comfort foods? Make them for lunch to get a dose of happiness during your day.
Koren’s favorite dish to make is her sweet potato skillet, something easy to make that brings her joy. Given how stressful work can be, a piece of joy in the middle of the day can be invaluable.
4. You get to practice in self-care
Self-care seems to be the first to go when we scramble between work and life obligations.
One thing Koren loves about meal planning is that she gets to also practice in self-care. She’s even come to look forward to her meal prep time. It’s a chance to “listen to a podcast while I cook and enjoy ‘me’ time — to take care of my body and to take care of my wallet,” she explains.
5. You become more mindful of your spending
In a country that wastes more than 30 percent of our post-harvest food supply, food waste is a real problem. We perpetuate it when we let food go bad or buy items only to realize we don’t want them after all.
Since her meal planning ideas began in an effort to stay on budget, Koren found that she got better at avoiding waste over time. It became easier for her to be mindful of the foods she was regularly eating and what was likely to go ignored.
“You know what’s coming in and out of your bank account, why wouldn’t you be just as aware when you’re buying groceries and either using them or throwing them away?” she asks.
With budgeting, one small turn leads to many more
Getting on track with a budget can be a frustrating ordeal. We’re programmed to see budgeting and money-saving efforts as restrictive, meant to stop all fun things.
But what if budgeting simply highlighted ways to spend money on the things you really want? You could look forward to what you’ll do with your money, instead of looking back and asking, “What did I do with it all?”
Budgeting can be this way. When you make one small change like budget meal planning, it gets easier to make another and another. Next thing you know, mindfulness in spending will be second nature.
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