Minimalist Meal Planning

One of the first things everyone does when adopting a minimalist lifestyle is to declutter, and one of the first places we start this process is in the closet. We get rid of everything we can’t, won’t, or don’t wear and give all that stuff to someone who might. What we’re left with is a wardrobe that consists only of items we love (or at least like) and in most cases, each remaining piece can be mixed or matched rather easily. So why do we almost always start with the closet? Because having too many choices in clothing complicates our ability to…well, choose…and doing something as basic as getting dressed becomes an ordeal.

The same holds true in the kitchen. We all need to eat and we should be eating foods that are good for us, but with more than 42,000 items in the average grocery store, making the right food choices can be tricky. How many times have you been lured in by a “new” or “improved” product strategically placed right in your line of sight? And how many times has said product sat in your pantry uneaten because it really wasn’t all that great? It used to happen to us all the time, especially when we were clipping coupons, but now we have adopted what we like to call minimalist meal planning.

Step 1: Declutter the Pantry

Just as we decluttered our closet, we now need to declutter our pantry. Get rid of anything and everything that you know you are never going to eat. And by get rid of it, I mean donate it, give it to a friend, feed it to farm animals (if possible), or compost it. If you have to throw it away, at least recycle the packaging. Most importantly though, write down (or remember) what it was that you gave away because from this point forward, you’re never going to buy that item again.

Step 2: Make a Favorites List

Next, make a list of meals and snacks that you and your family enjoy eating. This is going to be a flexible list. As you try new foods or get tired of old ones, it will change. Angie and I made our list about a year ago and have since made several changes. Our dinner list now consists of 12 meals that we could eat all the time, including homemade pizza, steamed veggies with rice, black bean mini tacos, lentil sloppy joes, and soup or chili.

Step 3: Create a Staples List

After you have completed your Favorites List, look at each recipe and jot down what ingredients you need to have on hand to make it. Also look in your pantry to see what items you use regularly, though not necessarily in one of your favorite recipes. Oatmeal, non-diary yogurt, dried fruits, granola, rice, dry beans, bread, crackers, condiments, popcorn, coffee, tea, honey, flour, cornmeal, and spices are always on our Pantry Staples.

Once you finish your list, you may notice that many of your favorite meals are just a different combination of the same ingredients. This is great because it can save both time and money. We use a lot of ingredients for multiple purposes. For example, we use whole wheat spaghetti noodles our Asian meals as well as our pasta dishes. We use black beans in our mini tacos and in our chili. This enables us to buy a lot of items, like dry beans and rice, in bulk. We buy spaghetti noodles every time we see them on sale for less than 50 cents a box.

Step 4: Set up a Weekly Meal Calendar

A few years ago, we bought a magnetic chalkboard calendar for our refrigerator. One summer, I spent a week cutting pictures of food out of magazines and laminating them to make our meal planning more of a visual experience. Usually on Friday afternoon before we head to the grocery store, we plan our meals for the week with the help of a few dozen little food magnets. We try to utilize items we already have, especially foods in the freezer, to create the meal plan. We also try to leave one day as a “flex day” in case we’re invited to eat dinner elsewhere or are perhaps too tired to make that night’s meal. The flex day can move about the week as needed and in our house is usually denoted by a sandwich magnet.

Step 5: Go Shopping

If you’ve made your lists and planned your meals from them, shopping is now going to be a breeze since you only need to purchase the missing ingredients to make your selected meals for the week. Try not to stray from the list – you don’t want to clutter up the pantry again – but do leave room for substitutions. We generally write down generic names on our grocery list as a placeholder (like “salad” or “fruit”) so that we can choose specific items by what’s in season or on sale when we get there.

Simply having a game plan for meal planing has helped us understand ourselves, what we will or won’t eat, and even how we like to prepare our meals. It has also helped us maximize our grocery budget and minimize our food waste. When you only buy what you will actually eat, there’s very little reason to create waste.

Do you plan your meals each week? Has it helped to reduce expenses and food waste?

Cutting Food Costs to Fund Travel

I started browsing a new book over the weekend: How to Travel the World on a Budget by Agota Bialobzeskyte. I usually thumb through these types of books because they don’t often contain much new information; however, this one is an exception. It is fairly well thought out and has quite a few recommended websites that I’ve now added to my collection (like HelpX and Nomadic Matt). One part of the book that really resonates with me is the tips on how to save money for travel. Like the author recommends, last year I started a travel savings account and began reducing our expenses to fund it. We went to a pay-per-use cell phone plan, got rid of cable, and cancelled the newspaper; but the single biggest money saver for us has been preparing meals at home.

Source: Cheap Eats: How America Spends Money on Food (The Atlantic)
Source: Cheap Eats: How America Spends Money on Food (The Atlantic)

I found this chart and thought it was pretty interesting. Middle class Americans spend $177.08 per month dining out and lower income Americans (like us) average $91.58 per month. To me, that just seems like a lot, especially when you think in terms of opportunity costs. How many days of travel can you afford on that same amount of money? If you look at burgers as plane tickets, it’s much easier to see the inequity of the trade. Should we pay $60 for dinner for two or book a flight to Washington, DC for $57? Framed like this, I almost guarantee that travel wins the debate every time.

We’ve now become so accustomed to choosing travel over restaurants that we have to challenge ourselves in different ways when it comes to saving money on dining. Right now we’re focused on cutting grocery costs by using the same ingredients to make multiple meals. I’ve added a few pictures below of one of our recent experiments with flour tortillas. In June, we spent $160.24 on groceries and made 100% of our meals at home (including dinners that we took to our class and picnics for the beach). That’s about $.89 per meal per person, which is awesome; but I think we could do even better.

I’ve kept track of what we eat for a few months and it seems that the same items appear again and again – chicken, fish, deli ham, turkey, peanut butter, rice, all kinds of veggies and fruits, tortillas, bread, cereal, milk, pasta, chips, cheese, and popcorn. I can’t help but wonder how much our grocery bill would drop if we bought only those items. Would it be worth it? Or in the absence of variety, would we suddenly start to crave things we don’t have…like Oreos? I’m not sure but it’s definitely food for thought!

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