4 Steps to Finding Your Perfect Meal Planning Service

Meal planning isn't always fun, but it can save you a lot of time and money.

My family’s recent subscription to a meal planning service has been a godsend. With my husband and I both working full time while raising our two children, cooking has been put on the back burner. We found ourselves eating out too much and when we did cook at home, we used the same recipes over and over.

Plus, I really hated trying to meal plan. I never had new, creative recipes unless I spent too much time on Pinterest. Then I would inevitably forget something on the grocery list, forcing us to reconsider our plan or shop again later in the week.

So far, we’ve had a great experience with a meal planning service that puts together our weekly menu and shopping list for us. The meals have been creative and really tasty and we’ve spent way less money on food.

Jumping into a meal planning service took some time. For one thing, it’s another item to add to our budget. And for another, there are loads of options out there to choose from.

If you’re looking for a way to change up, simplify, or declutter your meal planning, a service might be a great investment. But don’t just go muddle around on the internet for hours trying to figure out what will work best for you. Instead, take these steps to find your perfect meal planning service.

1. Figure out Your Priorities

First, know that meal plans cater to all sorts of priorities. Maybe yours is to save as much money as possible. Or maybe your goal is to be as healthy as possible or to follow a certain type of diet. Or maybe your goal is to get dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less every night.

There’s a meal plan for all of those priorities.

You can often balance two competing priorities fairly well, too. For instance, I wanted to both have healthy, veggie-packed dinner options and save money on groceries. Our meal plan isn’t the most budget-friendly. But it does keep our spending pretty low while providing healthy meal options.

So, before you even start shopping around, know your top two or three meal-time priorities.

2. Decide if a Delivery Box Is an Option

Next, you need to figure out if a meal planning service that actually delivers ingredients is an option.

If you have a liberal food budget these options could make your life super easy. But if your goal is to restrict your spending as much as possible, they’re probably not a wise option.

Ingredient delivery services aren’t all super expensive. But since someone is shopping for, measuring, and packaging your ingredients, it’s usually more expensive than going to the grocery store. With that said, if you wind up eating out a lot because you can’t make it to the grocery store, a delivery box might be right up your alley.

3. Get a Sample of Your Top Three Options

Once you’ve narrowed down your field of choices, get a sample of your options. Most online meal planning services will give you a week’s menu or more for free. Plus, many of the delivery boxes on the market have free — or almost free — trial periods.

Sampling will help you see which menu you like best, and which one will consistently work best for you. You’ll have to use a few different systems over the course of a month or so. It can be frustrating but through trial and error, you’ll be more likely to find the perfect meal planning service for you.

4. Use it for at Least a Few Weeks

Once you figure out which of the services you like best, I’d recommend sticking with that service for at least a month before you decide to switch to something else.

For my family, it’s taken some time to figure out how many of the meals we make each week. Our plan comes with seven, which is too many for us because we often eat with friends once a week and use leftovers over the weekend. It’s taken a couple of weeks to figure out that I need to trim the menu down to about five meals before I send my husband to the grocery store.

For extra savings, you can charge your meal plan and groceries on a cash back credit card. There are plenty of great cash back credit cards but before applying it’s wise to check if you qualify. You can check two of your credit scores for free with Credit.com.

That’s it! Finding the perfect meal plan for your family is all about prioritizing and then checking out what’s out there.

Image: franckreporter

The post 4 Steps to Finding Your Perfect Meal Planning Service appeared first on Credit.com.

4 Steps to Finding Your Perfect Meal Planning Service

Meal planning isn't always fun, but it can save you a lot of time and money.

My family’s recent subscription to a meal planning service has been a godsend. With my husband and I both working full time while raising our two children, cooking has been put on the back burner. We found ourselves eating out too much and when we did cook at home, we used the same recipes over and over.

Plus, I really hated trying to meal plan. I never had new, creative recipes unless I spent too much time on Pinterest. Then I would inevitably forget something on the grocery list, forcing us to reconsider our plan or shop again later in the week.

So far, we’ve had a great experience with a meal planning service that puts together our weekly menu and shopping list for us. The meals have been creative and really tasty and we’ve spent way less money on food.

Jumping into a meal planning service took some time. For one thing, it’s another item to add to our budget. And for another, there are loads of options out there to choose from.

If you’re looking for a way to change up, simplify, or declutter your meal planning, a service might be a great investment. But don’t just go muddle around on the internet for hours trying to figure out what will work best for you. Instead, take these steps to find your perfect meal planning service.

1. Figure out Your Priorities

First, know that meal plans cater to all sorts of priorities. Maybe yours is to save as much money as possible. Or maybe your goal is to be as healthy as possible or to follow a certain type of diet. Or maybe your goal is to get dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less every night.

There’s a meal plan for all of those priorities.

You can often balance two competing priorities fairly well, too. For instance, I wanted to both have healthy, veggie-packed dinner options and save money on groceries. Our meal plan isn’t the most budget-friendly. But it does keep our spending pretty low while providing healthy meal options.

So, before you even start shopping around, know your top two or three meal-time priorities.

2. Decide if a Delivery Box Is an Option

Next, you need to figure out if a meal planning service that actually delivers ingredients is an option.

If you have a liberal food budget these options could make your life super easy. But if your goal is to restrict your spending as much as possible, they’re probably not a wise option.

Ingredient delivery services aren’t all super expensive. But since someone is shopping for, measuring, and packaging your ingredients, it’s usually more expensive than going to the grocery store. With that said, if you wind up eating out a lot because you can’t make it to the grocery store, a delivery box might be right up your alley.

3. Get a Sample of Your Top Three Options

Once you’ve narrowed down your field of choices, get a sample of your options. Most online meal planning services will give you a week’s menu or more for free. Plus, many of the delivery boxes on the market have free — or almost free — trial periods.

Sampling will help you see which menu you like best, and which one will consistently work best for you. You’ll have to use a few different systems over the course of a month or so. It can be frustrating but through trial and error, you’ll be more likely to find the perfect meal planning service for you.

4. Use it for at Least a Few Weeks

Once you figure out which of the services you like best, I’d recommend sticking with that service for at least a month before you decide to switch to something else.

For my family, it’s taken some time to figure out how many of the meals we make each week. Our plan comes with seven, which is too many for us because we often eat with friends once a week and use leftovers over the weekend. It’s taken a couple of weeks to figure out that I need to trim the menu down to about five meals before I send my husband to the grocery store.

For extra savings, you can charge your meal plan and groceries on a cash back credit card. There are plenty of great cash back credit cards but before applying it’s wise to check if you qualify. You can check two of your credit scores for free with Credit.com.

That’s it! Finding the perfect meal plan for your family is all about prioritizing and then checking out what’s out there.

Image: franckreporter

The post 4 Steps to Finding Your Perfect Meal Planning Service appeared first on Credit.com.

How to Save Money on Food When You Live Alone

No more wasting food or money! A few smart strategies can make meals for one affordable and simple.

If you’re cooking for one, you probably know the feeling of disappointment and frustration that comes with throwing away a lot of food before you’ve had the chance to finish it. You’ve probably also thrown items in your cart, knowing fully well that half of it will end up in the trash. Often food isn’t packaged in smaller portions and, when it is, the price might be too high. But have no fear. You can save money on food when you live alone.

1. Shop With a Friend or Family Member.

This works especially well in wholesale stores, because chances are you don’t have the space to store 20 cans of soup or a large box of granola bars. Shop with someone else to utilize savings that come with buying in bulk without hoarding excess food that will go to waste. Split the cost of items and then split the items themselves. This works well for multi-packs, large variety packs or non-perishable staples.

2. Meal Plan

This is one of the best ways to save money on food when you live alone. Having a meal plan helps ensure all the groceries you purchase are used. Center your meal plan around using items on sale at your grocery store and items that can be used in multiple recipes. For example, I’ll find two dinner recipes that require half of an onion each, ensuring the onion I purchase is totally used. Or, I’ll buy a package of chicken, divide it, freeze it and plan for three meals based around chicken for the week.

Making a meal plan can be simple, too — craft it while waiting for the bus or drinking your morning coffee. Having a meal plan and grocery shopping list to go with it will save you time at the grocery store. It also helps you save on groceries by preventing you from aimlessly and mindlessly spending.

3. Utilize Your Freezer

When it comes to food, cook what you want and freeze the rest. Wrap meats, chopped veggies and other foods in easy to thaw individual portions. If you can’t use something before it’s about to go bad, freeze it. When you cook, make several servings at a time and freeze what you don’t eat for future meals. Your freezer will quickly become your best friend.

4. Create a Budget

Setting a limit for spending on food each week can prevent overspending on groceries and food. Saving doesn’t always mean depriving yourself of all luxuries — adding a small budget for ordering in and eating out is also an option.

5. Learn From Past Purchases

After your next grocery shopping trip, stick your receipt on the fridge. Each time you finish something you bought, highlight it on the receipt. Before your next trip to the grocery store, check your list and reassess. Whatever ended up going in the trash, barely being touched or never being opened may not be worth repurchasing or should be bought in smaller quantities. This is a simple way to learn what’s a necessity and what’s a waste.

6. Host a Monthly Potluck

Don’t feel like halving or quartering another recipe? Have a potluck meal. This is a great way to try new foods and spend time with family and friends. Have each person bring a dish, side dish or dessert and enjoy a meal that doesn’t involve eating it leftover for lunch all week.

7. Revamp Leftovers

When trying to save, leftovers become a staple. Leftovers can easily be turned into sandwiches, quesadillas or even salad toppings. Toss the leftover grilled chicken from your salad with frozen veggies and teriyaki sauce for a last minute stir fry. Last night’s chicken parm? Make it into a sandwich. Leftovers don’t need to be boring or overly repetitive — all you need is creativity.

8. Double Check Deals

I learned this lesson in the cereal aisle, where I was grabbing two boxes of cereal when I only wanted one because the cereal was two for $4. “You know you can buy one and still get the sale price, right?” said older woman, who shared this wisdom as she threw one box in her cart and walked away. She was right. The originally $3 box of cereal was still $2, even when I only bought one.

Don’t let tempting deals that require buying multiple products to get the discount cajole you into buying more than you need. Many grocery stores honor the deal price if you purchase just one. Check your store’s policy or scan the item yourself to see if qualifies. If you’re buying more than you’ll actually use to save money, you’re not actually saving. If you do buy extras of a food to earn savings, freeze or figure out how to utilize the excess.

9. Buy Versatile Foods

Foods that can be used in many ways can prevent your meals from getting boring and repetitive, lowering the chances of ordering takeout. These foods can also be added to many recipes to make them more hearty and filling. An egg can be cooked in so many ways and used in so many dishes from fried rice to chocolate chip cookies. Some other affordable versatile options are pasta, poultry, rice, potatoes, and lentils.

10. Go Meatless

Meat is often one of the priciest parts of grocery shopping budgets. Plan for a few meatless meals per week. Pasta, quinoa and potatoes are some great focal points for meatless meals. (However, when you must use meat, utilize these butcher’s secrets for saving money on meat!)

11. Keep Track of Expiration Dates

This is the method I’ve found to be most effective when it comes to using groceries before they expire. Keep a dry erase board or notepad on your fridge with perishable items purchased that week (eggs, milk, cheese, sausage, etc.) and list them in order of which expires the soonest. Also track of when certain things are opened, like bags of shredded cheese, so you knew to use them as they could potentially expire sooner. Also list fresh fruits and veggies purchased that week as a reminder to use them before they rot.

This method adds incentive to cook certain meals before others and creates awareness of which foods are nearing their expiration date. This is also helpful for those of us who constantly ask ourselves, “What should I make for dinner?” When you you have an opened bag of shredded cheddar, half of a bell pepper and some chicken that’s set to expire tomorrow, you might be inspired to cook up some chicken fajitas. It’s almost like a game — can you use all of your groceries before they expire? The prize is getting the most bang for your buck and not wasting money on food.

12. Always Have Condiments & Spices

These have a long shelf life and can transform any dish. I always keep hot sauce, Dijon mustard, Teriyaki sauce, pasta sauce, soy sauce and pesto on hand for last-minute dishes.

13. Limit Ordering Takeout

This option is more tempting when you live alone. There’s no one to stop you from order pizza, sushi and Chinese at all hours. Learn what tempts you to order out. Do you tend to order out after a long day of work when you’re too tired to cook? Throw ingredients in your slow cooker in the morning so you have a meal waiting when you get home or store already made meals in your freezer. While not the healthiest option, keeping an emergency can of soup or frozen pizza on hand can be a quick fix that’s cheaper than ordering in.

If you do order food, try to maximize your savings. On websites like Seamless and Grubhub, check off “Coupons Available” or “Free Delivery” when searching for restaurants. You can also order for pick up versus paying a delivery fee and tip. You can save when you eat out at restaurants, too.

14. Buy Frozen or Canned 

While buying fresh is often the tastiest option, fresh fruits and vegetables expire quickly and can get expensive. If you’re looking to cut costs at the grocery store, opt for some frozen and canned foods. They have a long shelf life — no need to worry about them going bad before you can eat them.

15. Use Cash Back Credit Cards

If you typically charge your grocery store purchases, this is a great option. Many credit cards offer cash back on purchases, including the ones you make at the grocery store. To see if you qualify for these types of cards, you can check two free credit scores every month on Credit.com.

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The post How to Save Money on Food When You Live Alone appeared first on Credit.com.

6 Ways to Stop Blowing Your Grocery Budget

Saving money on groceries doesn't need to be difficult and it doesn't always mean cutting back.

If you’re like many Americans, a large chunk of your budget is spent on food — maybe 10% or more. Percentagewise, we spend less on food than we did in the ‘60s, but 10% is not an insignificant portion of your income.That’s why so many money-saving articles focus on groceries as a great place to cut back on spending.

And the truth is that grocery spending is so variable. You could spend $200 per month to feed your family of four, or you could easily spend more than $1,000. With all that variability, it can be easy to blow your budget for groceries. If you find that you’re consistently spending more than you’ve budgeted for groceries, following these tips can help with saving money:

1. Figure out If Your Budget Is Even Reasonable

One issue might be that you have an unreasonably small grocery budget. Maybe your budget is inspired by a few articles from Pinterest about feeding a family of seven for a mere $250 per month. Let’s get real, though. Those families (often the moms!) spend hours meal planning, cooking from scratch, clipping coupons and driving to various grocery stores to snag the best deal.

Their results are amazing but that amount of effort isn’t feasible for everyone. As a working mom in a two-income family, there’s no way I can spend that much time saving money on food.

So if you’ve budgeted $150 per month to spend on groceries, maybe that’s not enough. Here’s how to find out:

a. Break Down Your Spending by Category

First, dig out your grocery store receipts from the past several weeks. If you don’t usually keep receipts, make a point to save them from your next few shopping trips. Shop as you normally would for those trips.

Then, break down your grocery spending by category. For instance, you might divide it into meat, dairy, breads and grains, premade items, veggies and fruits, etc. If you purchase items like cleaning products, cosmetics or toilet paper during your grocery shopping trips, divide those into a separate category as well. Remove everything that’s not actually grocery store spending from this category. Fast food and restaurant spending should be dealt with separately.

Once you’ve got your categories, add up what you spent in each category over the course of a month. This may not be a true average, but it’s a starting place.

b. Set a Reasonable Budget

Finally, you can see what you actually spend on food groceries. Now it’s time to see if that budget is reasonable. A good place to start is with the USDA Food Plans, which average the cost of cooking at home each month. In May 2017, the USDA thrifty plan for a family of four was $561 per month. The liberal plan for a family of four was $1,097 per month.

If your food spending is close to the thrifty end of things, maybe you’re actually not spending too much on food. Maybe you’re just setting your budget too low. But if you’re coming out on the high end of food spending — or if you want to outdo the USDA — use the following steps to trim your spending.

2. Look for Savings in Your Highest Spending Categories

Since you’ve got your spending categorized, you can easily find out where you spent the most money. For instance, if you’re consistently spending half your food budget on meat, it’s time to start cutting back there — perhaps by eating meatless meals a few times a week. Or maybe you’re spending a bunch of money on prepared meals that you could make much more cheaply at home.

Once you know where you spend the most, you can target that category for reducing spending. Some options include clipping coupons for items in that category, shopping manager’s specials, or simply cutting back on eating those types of foods.

3. Look Into Different Local Grocery Stores

There’s a reason Whole Foods is nicknamed “Whole Paycheck.” It’s a great place to find certain specialty items. But if you’re doing all your grocery shopping at high-end stores like these, you will spend more.

Our family saves a fortune just by shopping at Aldi, a discount grocery store that’s becoming more common across the nation. We used to do most of our shopping at a local chain but realized we saved a couple hundred bucks a month just by buying what we can at Aldi.

Chances are you’ve got some cheaper grocery options local to you. For instance, ethnic stores can be a fabulous place to pick up exotic spices and basics like rice and pasta on the cheap. Or you may find that a wholesale store membership saves your family a ton on food staples. Plus, you can use reward credit cards while shopping to earn even more deals. (Before applying, remember that most reward cards require a decent credit score — you can check two of yours for free with Credit.com.)

4. Create a Bank of Easy-Fix Meals

If your family is anything like mine, quick to prepare weeknight meals are a necessity. Without them, you fall back on going out to eat. Pinterest is a great place to find recipes for quick and easy meals that rely on whole, healthy ingredients.

Start trying out these types of meals. If you find a hit, keep the recipe close by. Try to find at least a few of these recipes that use ingredients you tend to keep around.

5. Do Some Freezer Cooking

When you find a great sale on expensive ingredients, pick up extra. Then, double up on your recipe, and put half in the freezer. This is a win-win. You get to save on groceries, and you have a meal ready to go for a busy evening!

For instance, if you find a great deal on ground beef, buy enough to make two lasagnas. Make them both at the same time, and pop one in the freezer. If you get into this habit, you could suddenly find yourself spending less on expensive ingredients, and you’ll have a freezer full of delicious meals to choose from.

6. Cut Back on Waste

How much of your grocery budget goes down the drain the form of wasted food? If you’re like most Americans, it’s a lot!

Start keeping a tally of the foods you throw away after they go bad. Keeping track for a month or two could reveal some interesting information. Maybe you’re over-ambitious when you buy fruits and veggies. You think your family will eat them, but you never get through them all. Or maybe you consistently throw away leftovers. It’s time to freeze those leftovers, pack them for lunch or make smaller servings of your recipes.

Cutting back on waste is an amazing way to save on groceries. Make a point to wait to grocery shop until the fridge is nearly empty. You’ll get more specific with your grocery shopping and more creative with your meal plans.

Even if you’re already saving on groceries, there’s usually room to save more. These tips will help you do just that.

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The post 6 Ways to Stop Blowing Your Grocery Budget appeared first on Credit.com.