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  • Mary Beth George

Saving Dinner, One Meal at a Time

Updated: Sep 20, 2020

"Do you plan out your weekly menu, make a list and then do your grocery shoping buying only the items on your list? Or do you go to the grocery store and browse through the aisles, planning your meals as you shop?"

This was an actual question I had to answer at a job interview that didn't have anything to do with saving money or food prep. I'm sure the optimal answer to demonstrate great organizational skills would have been the part about making a list before going to the store. But an answer showing flexibility and thinking on the spot is also seen in the part about planning meals in the store.

When it comes to managing the grocery bill, planning ahead is usually recommended as a way to save money, especially for those who are disciplined enough to stick to the list.

Unfortunately for me, when it comes to menu planning, I don't! I usually start thinking about dinner at about 6pm each day.

But we can't eat out every night, and I really dislike wasting food. So I have learned to shop and cook in a way that compensates for my lack of planning. We try to eat a balanced diet filled with a variety of fruits, vegetables and proteins but each of these food items have a short lifespan in the refrigerator. I try to only visit the grocery store once per week for non-perishables, so it's necessary to be strategic in how I use the food I buy to not be wasteful. Through the years I've developed some tricks for using food without waste.

The first think I do when I walk into the grocery store is to check out the weekly ad for what's on sale. Those are the first things that go in my cart. Shopping the ads is not only economical, but ensures that we get variety in our menu. Asparagus is usally one of the more pricey vegetables, so we only have it when there's a good sale. Chicken tenders are easy to use but also more expensive so I only buy them when they're a featured item.

I also always throw in staple items that have versatility in the ways they can be used. Ground beef and ground turkey are the basis of so many quick meals. Potatoes, pasta, rice, canned beans and tomatoes have both a long shelf life and can be used in a variety of different and easy ways. Onions, garlic, carrots, celery and peppers are also staple items that I keep on hand, along with a variety of fruits and vegetables that my family enjoys.

Storing food after shopping is another way I've found to be helpful for last-minute dinners. Any ground meat is either made into meatballs and frozen, or browned up and stored in meal-sized packages to be easily grabbed and thrown into sauce for pasta, tacos, or a quick bulgogi meal. Chicken breasts are trimmed and packaged individually in the freezer so I can grab what I need for a quick thaw in the microwave. Fruits and vegetables are stored properly in the fridge and the pantry items are placed neatly into categories on the shelves. (Disclamier -- the pantry part is done by my organized, Type A husband!)

So, it's 6:00 and what do I do? I open the refrigerator and see if anything needs to be used up. Any fruit or veggies on their way out? They'll be used first. If there's a bunch of vegetables that need to be used up, stir-fry is the menu for the evening. Leftover rice can be used in a burrito bowl (along with some already browned ground meat,) pasta can be made into a salad (along with some of the veggies in the fridge,) and leftover chicken, steak or roasted veggies can be thrown on top of a lettuce salad.

Need some help creatively putting leftovers to use? Try an app to search for recipes. My favorite one is Yummly. I use the search bar to list ingredients I want to use up and several recipes will come up that I can choose from, depending on what I'm in the mood for and what remaining ingredients are needed.

So what's for dinner tonight?

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