52 weeks of saving: Weekly dinner menu

What’s for dinner tonight? If you dread this question, it may be a sign that you are spending more money than you should on groceries or takeout food. A little planning may save you thousands of dollars per year.

Most people know it’s smart to take a shopping list to the grocery store. But a list without good planning isn’t good enough and will actually lead to a waste of food and money every week.

Before you make a shopping list, create a dinner menu for the week so that when you are at the store you’ll buy only the groceries that you need for those recipes and not what you think you might need.

It’s not as much work as you’d think. You can plan for the week in 15 minutes. All you need is a pen and paper, or go mobile and take notes on your smartphone.

How do I know this? Each week, one of Bankrate’s personal finance reporters is reporting on a new way to save and chronicling the savings journey. This week, I tried creating a weekly dinner menu myself so I could share my experience with you. See what happened.

The real-life test: Not that complicated

The real-life test: Not that complicated

Don’t think of meal planning as another layer of work before trudging to the store. Think of it as a little work being done in advance to save time and money during the week, says Tracie Fobes, blogger and founder of PennyPinchinMom.com.

Fobes has been planning her family meals for over a decade. The weekly menu routine started when she first got married. The scenario in her house was one that may sound familiar to you: It started with, “What do you want for dinner?” And went on to, “Let’s see what we have in the refrigerator.” That was soon followed by, “Let’s just order a pizza,” she recalls.

Without a plan, you end up wasting some of the groceries you bought and you spend more dining out, she explains. The mom of three says she now plans every meal, and menu planning has made dinner a breeze.

“We don’t even know how to cook dinner without looking at the menu plan on the refrigerator,” she says.

Save money, eat healthier

Save money, eat healthier

Taking a few minutes to plan your meals each week is a financial and health investment, says Christine Hradek, state nutrition program specialist at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

“When you plan your meals, you are less likely to buy the convenient foods that are so attractive at the grocery store,” she says. “If you don’t have a plan, the things that tend to be easier to eat are the things that are less healthy.”

Meal planning allows you to go over the ingredients that you have at home and prepare your vegetables in advance, Hradek explains.

Don’t think you are organized enough to stick to the plan? You can do it, Fobes says. Just start small and set realistic expectations when you create your menu. If you know you are going to be dining out one day that week, make sure that is included in your menu. Once you are done, stick the plan on your refrigerator door and you’ll be ready to go.

My attempt. Survey says: Success!

My attempt. Survey says: Success!

I can’t tell you how much I dreaded the “What’s for dinner?” question at my house. I hated it even when I wasn’t the one cooking dinner. The process of having to stare in the refrigerator, thinking of what my husband and I could cook for dinner — while we were hungry after a long day at work — was irritating. To avoid the stress, we often ordered food to be delivered. Needless to say, I spent more than what I wanted to on dinner, and at the end of the week I would throw away food that I bought and never used.

Then I tried this menu planning for one week.

At first I thought meal planning would be a burden. But it took me only 15 minutes to create a menu and stick it to the fridge before we headed to the store.

Three days into it, my question was: Why didn’t I do this before?

By the end of the week, I had used every ingredient I bought for that week’s menu. We were also able to stick to the menu and order takeout food only one day that week, which was part of the original plan.

Considering we spend about $30 each time we have to order food for delivery, I saved at least $60 for sticking to my menu plan. I also saved at least $20 at the grocery store by buying only what I had planned to use. I figure if I can keep doing this, by the end of a year I’ll have saved more than $4,000.

That’s significantly more than I thought I would save. Even better, I don’t have to answer “What’s for dinner?” anymore — and that’s just priceless.