Cash Smarter

January 5, 2015  by: Aaron Crowe

Saving Cash With a Dinner Plan

Saving Cash With a Dinner Plan

One of the biggest pulls on my time as a stay-at-home dad is cooking dinner. It includes weekly meal planning, grocery store shopping, farmer’s market shopping, and of course, cooking. Throw in the last-minute rush to the store because I forgot an ingredient, and I’ve spent a few hours a day working on dinner and a dinner plan.

My wife and I enjoy cooking, so that isn’t usually the problem. What becomes a problem, as I’ve come to realize over the years, is that a meal can get expensive if I don’t think ahead and plan it. Without it, we either go out to dinner or I go to the grocery store and buy things I shouldn’t buy. Or at the very least, I’m buying food that I could’ve bought cheaper in bulk at Costco if I had thought ahead.

My dinner plan solution

Two years ago, I found myself running out of ideas of what to cook for dinner, despite having about 100 cookbooks in our home. I was overwhelmed by recipe choices and trying to come up with meals that everyone really enjoyed. I was cooking the same meals again and again.

The meal planning was overwhelming me until I found a Groupon for half off a year’s worth of dinner recipes at The Fresh 20 that normally sold for $65. (I should state here that I’m not being paid by The Fresh 20 for this article.) It was one of a handful of sites I knew about that offered meal planning, and I eagerly awaited the Friday morning email so I could go grocery shopping with a list of items to get us through the week.

There was one major downfall of this dinner plan system, which I’ll get to in a bit, but overall I was thrilled to have this help.

After stocking our pantry with some basics that the Fresh 20 recommended — such as olive oil, spices and tomato paste in a tube — I was emailed a weekly recipe list and 20 fresh ingredients that would take me less than 20 minutes to shop for. No longer did I need to roam down and aisle and put something in the shopping basket that wasn’t planned for. Nothing was frozen.

Many of the same ingredients are used in different dishes throughout the week in the dinner plan, resulting in less food being wasted and less food being bought. The website recommended doing prep work at the beginning of the week to save time, but I didn’t do this much because I didn’t find it to take up much time on a weeknight.

When I was a member, the site only had three or four meal plans. It now has seven: classic, vegetarian, gluten free, dairy free, kosher, meals for one person, and lunch.

The dinner plan downside

A few problems with the dinner plan arose, some of which I worked around. One of the first was that fish was often a weekly meal, which isn’t a big hit at our house for everyone. I substituted chicken or vegetables, but the change didn’t always work well.

I also quickly discovered a pattern to the meals, which I understand saves time, but some weeks your family could easily get bored with the same sauce for a few nights in a row. That led to the bigger problem of too many meals tasting the same and using the same 20 ingredients for dinners. After a year of this, we decided it was enough, and didn’t renew the meal plan.

Cooking slow

Despite those misgivings, I still recommend trying such a dinner plan. I may even give The Fresh 20 or a similar plan another try. It saved my family money and at least an hour a week in meal planning.

That doesn’t sound like a lot of time. Maybe the hour of coming up with new, tasty dinners each week that we’ve since regained was more of a hassle a few years ago because I spent too much time worrying about that hour of coming up with a dinner plan.

Now, my wife and I plan meals together on a weekend morning, and share cooking duties during the week. It’s not as easy as paying someone to give me a dinner plan, shopping list and to have only 20 pantry items on hand for any meal, but it leads to a greater variety of meals. Some of the best family meals take hours to cook, and that can be more than worth the time and money.

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