Meal Planning: Less Stress, More Money

Last year I wrote a blog on menu planning and mentioned that my son’s famous first words after we got home at night were, “I’m hungry.” Now that my daughter is two, I have two kiddos telling me this! Therefore, I find meal planning even more important so I can get a healthy meal on the table fast.  Since I find it so helpful, I’d like to share tips for successful meal planning again.

  • Determine what meals you will plan. Since the meal my family eats together is supper that is the meal I spend time to plan. However, you can plan for breakfast, lunch, supper or snacks. I go to the grocery store once a week so I plan my meals a week at a time. You might choose to plan them for more or fewer days.
  • Write the plan on a calendar. I write my meal plan on a calendar that hangs in my kitchen. This calendar includes other family activities so I know if we will be gone for a meal at night or have a really rushed evening. My husband knows to look at the calendar to see what we are having. If you use an online calendar for planning activities, you could also write your meals there.
  • Check what you have on hand. Check your refrigerator, freezer, and cupboards for foods that need to be used up in the next few days. Think of ways to include these items in your meals. I always plan a night to have leftovers so they don’t go to waste.
  • Review the grocery ads for specials you can use. Save money by purchasing items on sale that you can pair with the foods you have on hand to help complete your meals.
  • Keep a list of the recipes your family likes best. Having a list helps make meal planning go really quickly because you can easily spot the recipes that use things you have on hand or are on sale. Some recipes my family likes are Lentil Tacos and Chicken Alfredo Pasta.

To help you get started, check out our Meal Planning Calendar. This week-long menu features recipes from Spend Smart. Eat Smart.

How to Plan Meals CALENDAR

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

More Posts

Spice Cupboard Spring Cleaning

Spice Mix - 2 Spice Mix - 1Sometimes the idea of spring cleaning is just too much. When the weather turns warm I have a hard time staying in the house scrubbing floors and cleaning bathrooms, but there is one spring cleaning chore that I actually enjoy – cleaning out and sprucing up my pantry and cupboards!

Most dried spices start to lose their flavor after about a year or so but they can hide in our cabinets for much longer than that if we don’t make a point of cleaning them out. Once a year I go through all of my spices and either throw out any that are more than a year old or make a point of getting them used up quickly. I often end up with a few containers that still have a fair bit of spice left in them that I don’t want to waste. I combine these spices into one all-purpose seasoning mix that I use for vegetables, meats and even soup seasoning. I tend to have things like thyme, parsley, garlic powder, chili powder, cumin, and poultry seasoning. These are many of the common ingredients in pre-packaged spice mixes. This little spring cleaning tip not only avoids waste, but it also saves me money!

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

More Posts

Labor Day Meal Plan

Labor Day Meal, serves 4 for less than $3.50 a person!

Labor day is quickly approaching! This national holiday on the first Monday of September results in a long weekend filled with relaxing, picnics, and spending time with family and friends. This simple menu is easy to prepare and easy on your wallet.

labor day menu plan


New labor day label

I put together this menu plan with a day of soaking up sun with friends and family in mind. The pita pocket is easy to eat on the go and provides the perfect opportunity to light up the grill or use stovetop and avoid turning on the oven in the heat. The carrots and whole wheat pita chips are finger foods that are packed with vitamins to keep everyone fueled throughout the day. The dessert will satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth while featuring any fresh fruit that is in season.

The total cost of this meal is only $13.85. This breaks down to $3.46 per person.

Click here for recipes! I have separated the recipes into two sections, the first is recipes to prepare the night before serving the meal and the second is recipes to prepare the day of serving the meal.

Guest Blogger,

Liz Breuer

Is it Still Good? Tossing Food that has Expired

On New Year’s Eve my husband and I invited some friends over to celebrate. My husband requested that I make chili and white chicken chili for the gathering and offered to help me in the kitchen! We made some other appetizers too, so needed some space in the refrigerator to store all the food. While trying to make space in the refrigerator, my husband started looking at the dates on various bottles and containers, such as a partially eaten bottle of barbeque sauce, and tossed out the old ones. Soon I started looking at dates on the spices I was using. I wasn’t concerned about the spices going bad but that over time their flavor would deteriorate. I decided it was time I get rid of some of the old ones (like the ground ginger I’m sure I moved with us to our current house almost four years ago!) and purchase new ones.

Deciding what needs to go and what is still okay to eat can be confusing when it comes to certain foods like spices and canned foods. And the different dates printed on food containers don’t help much. Some say “sell –by” others say “best if used by”. So if I buy or use the food after these dates, is it a food safety concern or will the food just not be as fresh? The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) does a good job explaining the dating on food containers. Something I learned while reading thru this information is that, except for infant formula, product dating is not generally required by federal regulations. Some states have requirements, while others have none. However, even though it isn’t required everywhere, many food manufacturers do put dates on their products. Below is what some of the dates mean:

  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
  • “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

These codes are used more for food quality, not food safety.  As far as safety is concerned, perishable foods like meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs are the most vulnerable. We recommend you eat food by the “use-by date”. Before I taught my husband, he thought you could use the ‘smell test’ to tell if something was safe to eat. However, you can’t see, smell, or taste bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses.  If you aren’t going to be able to use a food before the “use-by” date, freeze it.

For eggs, always purchase them before the “sell-by” date on the carton. When you get home, refrigerate the eggs in the coldest part of the refrigerator (on a shelf towards the back), in the original container. Use the eggs within 3 to 5 weeks of when you purchased them.

So what about canned goods and other non-perishable items? High-acid foods such as tomatoes will have the best quality if used within 12 to 18 months. Low-acid foods such as meat, fish, or vegetables will retain the best quality if used within 2-5 years. This is if the can remains in good condition and is stored in a cool, clean, dry place. Use the FIFO method to be sure to use up the oldest cans first. FIFO stands for first in, first out. So when putting away groceries, place the recently purchased items behind the existing food. Home-canned foods should be used within one year for best quality.

As far as ground spices and herbs, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says they keep for about one year. One way to tell if they are fresh and will have good flavor is if when you open them you can smell their aroma. If you can’t, it’s time to replace (so it was time to get rid of my ground ginger!). Keep dried spices and herbs in a cool, dark, dry place.


Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

More Posts

How to Organize the Kitchen Pantry

I think of myself as an organized person.  However, I know that I have a problem with clutter.  If you have not gotten to the back of your kitchen pantry in a long time, here is a step by step guide that I used last weekend.

  1. Clear off and clean your countertops.
  2. Take everything out of the pantry including food storage containers and other junk that may have accumulated.
  3. Working from the top shelf down, wash and dry the panty shelves including the corners or cracks, to remove crumbs and food particles.
  4. Evaluate the places you store food.  Food stores best in cool dark spaces. Try to rearrange so that your food is kept in the cool dark spaces in your kitchen. Keep your pots, pans, utensils, and tableware in the cabinets near the oven, stove, hot pipes, or refrigerator exhaust.
  5. Sort your food on the countertop by categories. The ones I used were canned soups and broths, canned fruits, canned vegetables, canned legumes, condiments (catsup, pickles, salad dressing, canned sauces, etc.), canned meat/fish, dried beans, and rice and pasta.
  6. Find a place in the pantry for each category. Check the “used best by dates” on the food before putting them back on the shelves. Next week we will have tips on how to decide which foods should be discarded.
  7. Use the same principles as we talked about in The Basics of Kitchen Organization last week. Create centers, get rid of what you are not using, and use your prime space for the most used items.
  8. Use bins and baskets for items like dry pudding mixes, sauce mixes, and bags of dry beans.
  9. Before you quit for the day decide what you what to do with the items you removed from your shelves.

What did I gain from this exercise?

  • Oil, vinegars, and syrups were moved from above the stove where it is warm to another cupboard.
  • 4 bottles of balsamic vinegar were found?!? I think part of the problem was I could not see to the back of that cupboard.
  • Expired can of cream soup that said “best used by” 4 years ago was found. The soup is probably safe but I decided not to chance it and threw it away.
  • Canned goods were organized by putting multiples on the shelves and one of a kind on the shelves on the back of the door.
  • Through this process I found some pizza crusts and rice noodles I forgot I had. Menus were made to use them next week.
  • I do not need to buy canned tomatoes, black beans, or canned green beans for a while.

The picture to the right shows some of the things that I am removing from my kitchen:

  • I am throwing away the old food.
  • My niece who has a new apartment is going to check out if she needs any of my utensils or dishes.
  • I am taking the rest to the Free Store which takes household items. They give them to families who are moving out of Children & Families of Iowa’s Domestic Violence Services. Most communities have a center to give away items you don’t need.

Doesn’t it feel good to help someone else AND have a kitchen which is easier to work in?

The Basics of Kitchen Organization

In the last few days, I’ve been reading a lot about organizing kitchens and how kitchen organization relates to saving money.  The three common themes I found are listed below:

1. Create “centers” in your kitchen around common activities. Common activities include: food storage, cooking and serving, cleanup, planning/messages, and eating. The idea of centers is that you group all the items that will be used on a task close to each other. For instance silverware, plates, and glasses,  are stored close to the dishwasher or drying area so you can just stand and put them away rather than carrying them across the room. Baking ingredients including flour, sugar,  leavening, and baking tools are grouped together in another location for a baking center.

I thought I was doing pretty well creating “centers” but I made a couple of changes that I think will help my organization. I moved my rolls of foil, plastic wrap, and plastic bags directly across from the refrigerator so I can easily prepare foods for the refrigerator or freezer. I included marking pens to write what is in them plus the date (so as not to have more UFO-unidentified food objects).

I moved my colander and cutting boards under the sink. To make room for them, I moved the vases and plant care items that I won’t use until spring to a box in the garage.

2. Get rid of items you are not using. The old rule about getting rid of clothes you haven’t worn also applies to serving dishes, utensils, and small appliances: If you haven’t used it in a year you probably don’t need it. I was ashamed of my cooking utensil drawer so I decided to do what all the experts say: lay everything out, clean, remove duplicates, remove items you do not use, and remove items that belong somewhere else. I like the results of my work and I think I can keep it in order now that the drawer isn’t so full.

Utensil Drawer Before
Utensil Drawer After
Removed From Drawer

3. Store the items you use the most between your shoulders and knees and in the front where they will be visible.  This way, it is easy to find what you are looking for and quick to put items away.  I moved my flour and sugar canisters to the bottom cupboard instead of using prime space in my top cupboard because I don’t bake every day.  In their place, I put the coffee filters, tea bags, and travel cups that I use often.

I am happy with the changes I made. I think it will make food preparation and clean up faster and less stressful. The key, of course, will be if I can follow through and put things back where they belong.

If you would like to read more on this subject, here are 2 great resources:

Essential Kitchen Tool kit This kit from the Canned Food Alliance has great tips on kitchen organization.

Dealing with Clutter in the Kitchen This page is part of a website that includes ideas for clutter reduction all over the house

Next week: How to organize your pantry and how to tell if food is still good.

How Being Organized Saves Money

Does an organized kitchen save money?  I say yes because:

  • If you are organized, you won’t buy duplicates of things you already have. Can you see in your cupboards? How many jars of cumin and cans of cream of celery soup do you really need?
  • If you are organized, you will throw away less food like leftovers hidden at the back of the refrigerator or frozen meat left so long it has freezer burn.
  • If you are organized, your kitchen will be more enjoyable to work in and it will take less time to make a meal and clean up.
  • If you are organized and know what you will make for dinner, you will be less inclined to buy fast food or rush through the deli section of the grocery store.
  • If you are organized, you will know where the coupons are that you cut out and you will use them before they expire.

During January, our SpendSmart.EatSmart blog will feature tips for getting organized in the kitchen.

Please start us out by sharing some of your tips or thoughts about organization. (Just go to our blog site and in the upper right corner by tittle and date click on the comment section and add your ideas)

I’ll start.  When I was a kid my mom used to tell us “There is a place for everything and everything in its place.”  When we lost something she would say “If you pick up everything and put it away you will find it.”   (she was usually right)

Organizing your kitchen

Organizing your kitchen will save you time and stress (any time of the year, but especially when we are doing lots of extra holiday cooking).

It is so much easier to prepare food when you do not have to hunt for tools, ingredients, or dishes.  It takes less time to prepare and clean up when you can see what is in a cupboard or drawer.

Here are a few things I try to do:

  1. Figure out how many plastic grocery bags, empty disposable containers, rubber spatulas, measuring spoons, etc. I really need.  I toss or give away the extras and do not add to my collection until I am below the number needed.
  2. If I have not used something in over a year, I probably do not need it (just like clothes in your closet). I just gained space by clearing out a top shelf of special glasses that I cannot reach and rarely use.
  3. Store things I only use once a year, such as coolers, roaster pans, grill equipment, waffle iron, and special serving dishes, in the storeroom or garage.
  4. Store things close to where they will be used and with other things they will be used with.  For example, I have baking supplies, measuring cups and spoons stored together close to the mixer and baking pans.
  5. Do not buy special gadgets that are used for only one purpose.  The Simple Dollar had a great blog on “stuff”.   More stuff equates to lost $$, time buying, cleaning, getting rid of the stuff, and you eventually need more space/bigger kitchen to store.

Organize your KitchenThink about your own kitchen, as eating habits change and children grow up. If you want more ideas for organizing your kitchen and reducing clutter, check out these websites:

Save time with an organized kitchen

University of Illinois:
Dealing with Clutter

Resource for using up ingredients

I don’t have a large kitchen which means I don’t have room to store ingredients I won’t use (or keep until they are so old I have to throw them out). In a fit of organization, I went through my cupboards and pulled out 9 items I needed to to use or get rid of. One internet site I like to use to search for recipes with specific ingredients is You can put in the ingredients you want, those you don’t, and you have the choice to search all the recipes or by category. The only thing that is annoying is the pop-ups that ask if you want to become a member or a supporting member. Here are the 9 items and what I decided:

  1. Salsa Picante Hot Sauce—Try to use instead of Tabasco in the marinade I make frequently.
  2. Raspberry Jalapeno Ambrosia Sauce—Pour over lite cream cheese for an appetizer I need to take for New Years Eve Party.
  3. Canned Savory Beef Gravy—See if my daughter wants.
  4. Fish Sauce—Give away.
  5. Maraschino Cherries—I think I bought these to decorate yeast rolls. Give away.
  6. Guacamole Mix— Just add avocado and serve the night we have #8. Maybe next time I have dinner club I can do a Mexican theme.
  7. Hoisin Sauce—The Allrecipe search came up with 67 recipes. To narrow my choices, first I sorted by rating, then I looked at the number of reviews. There is one that I think would be good: Super-Simple, Super-Spicy Mongolian Beef. Since super spicy doesn’t appeal, I will omit or reduce the red pepper flakes in the recipe.
  8. Roasted Tomato Taco Sauce—The Allrecipe site came up with 31 recipes that included taco sauce. Chicken Enchiladas I has 1,139 reviews and 4+ stars. Beef and Bean Chimichangas has 479 reviews and 4+ stars. I will look at these recipes and choose one to make.
  9. Fajita Marinade—The bottle says to marinate chicken or beef in half a bottle for 15 minutes, then cook.

I feel better knowing I don’t have to look at those items in the cupboard. Do you have any organizing tips you would like to share?

-pointers by Peggy

Join Our Mailing List

Enter your email address:


Recent Posts

Posts from the Past