Grownup Dianna Sawyer took a hard look at her growing family’s food budget—and didn’t like what she saw. Here’s how meal planning helped.

There was a time in my life when I would buy a kitchen’s worth of groceries each week and simply follow the muse to come up with interesting, imaginative dinners. (Psst: There’s actually no great secret; you simply combine a grain, a vegetable, a protein, and spices.)

There was another period when I would comb through my favorite cookbooks, finding spectacular new recipes to try, and head to the store with a hundred items on my list (many only to be used for one recipe).

And finally, another era when I would spend leisurely afternoons at the farmers’ market, selecting seasonal foods and slow roasting everything, with all the time in the world.

Then I had a baby.

And then I went back to work.

And then I realized we were eating a lot of pasta, macaroni and cheese, and takeout. Between the baby, work, and commuting, cooking was never prioritized. I started feeling anxious about the hit our budget (and health) was taking. I also really missed cooking.

So, as with any Grownup goal, I decided we needed a plan. Specifically, a meal plan. Nothing rigid—this was not about losing weight or trying out a new diet—and nothing boring. After all, I wanted to enjoy cooking again. So I researched meal planning apps and found one that I could share with my husband. (Read: Send him to the grocery store with the list.) The app also allowed me to tap into each night’s meal and with one touch add the ingredients to a grocery list, automatically noting the amounts I needed based on the recipe. Smell ya later, old paper list with three ingredients missing!

I spent an entire afternoon making a meal plan for a month. I asked my husband to flip through a simple cookbook and find things he would eat, and things he could make (like his mean chicken cutlet). I imported recipes, added some of our old standbys (come on, we weren’t going to just stop eating pasta for no good reason), and factored in some nights out, some lunch leftovers, and some days ordering in. All in all, together we created a balanced plan that covered our wants (Thai food), our needs (healthy meals), and our goals (cooking real meals throughout the week, even after a long commute home).

The first week was the test. My husband went to the store, and it was actually fun to watch him cross off items in real time on my end of the app. He spent only $40 more than our usual weekly grocery bill. Since those prior bills were in addition to takeout and last-minute runs to the store, I had no real idea how much a grocery bill for a whole week’s worth of cooking should cost! With the help of the app, I’d soon have a better idea.

At first, of course, it took some adjusting. We’d forget to defrost something for that night’s dinner, have an unexpected meal at my in-laws’ house, or end up with too many leftovers. But we got through that first week, made some tweaks, and pressed on to week two: I reduced the amount of a certain recipe so we wouldn’t end up with so many leftovers (I’m looking at you, 10 servings of Greek pasta salad), got into the habit of checking the plan the night before so I could defrost anything for the next evening, and even had the power to say no to a few pleading requests for takeout. (Overheard that week: “I know you suddenly need a burrito right now, but we have a plan! The food’s already at home!”)

It got easier. By weeks three and four we’d found our groove. And we were happy with the results. With just a little planning, we took all the guesswork out of the week, which meant no more desperate stops at Panera (each of those $20 stops adds up), no more pasta three nights in a row because there was nothing else in the cabinet, no more wasting precious time at night wondering what to eat, only to have to wait 45 minutes for delivery.

In short, a plan made things easier. Yes, it took some upfront work. Yes, it took some learning, adjusting, and a few setbacks. (I hated throwing away that avocado.) And it took some discipline. (I’m telling you, that need for burritos is a real thing in our house.)

But it worked. By sticking with it, we saved time, money, and frustration. The question of what to make for dinner stopped being a distraction from us actually talking about our days or enjoying those last few moments with the baby before bedtime. And having a plan took the stress out of cooking for me, bringing me back to those times in my life when I loved spending time at a cutting board, stirring a pot, and watching a recipe take shape.

And by the numbers?

The month before the plan…

From May 2 through 26, we spent a whopping $968 on food. Seriously. This includes:

Groceries ($307)

Fast food/take out/coffee shops ($221)

Eating out at restaurants for lunch or dinner ($440—one of these was a special $100 Mother’s Day dinner out, but still).

That feels crazy. And also reflects life up to that point—on the go, too busy to cook or pack a lunch to take to work, and for my husband, working a lot at coffee shops where those iced coffees and muffins add up.

The first month of the plan…

The first shopping trip for the meal plan was May 27. So from May 27 through June 25, we spent $637 on food—that’s $331 less than the previous month. And it’s worth noting the new breakdown:

Groceries ($391)

Fast food/take out/coffee shops ($148)

Eating out for lunch or dinner ($98)

Again, this wasn’t being rigid. We didn’t pinch pennies at the grocery store. We didn’t stop going to our favorite coffee shops. We got takeout when we were exhausted or craving Pad See Ew. But we no longer made choices out of desperation, choices which had cost us more than $330 the previous month.

Whether it’s getting a handle on your grocery bill, getting back into shape, or paying off debt faster, a plan is often the first step in taking action on your goal. It might take a little time to get started, and it might not be easy at first, but in time, a plan becomes a habit. When you look back after a month and realize you didn’t have to make macaroni and cheese for dinner, not even once, well, that’s a real Grownup moment.

While working on the curriculum for Society of Grownups,
Dianna can usually be found listening to Motown
and taking up all the whiteboard space.

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