We all get into habits for just about everything we do; some of these habits, we may not even be aware of. With a few changes in your habits, you can become better at Meal Prep, save money, and budget your time more wisely. Here are some things you can do to change your habits. You don’t have to do it all at once, just whenever you can.
At the supermarket: You can change a lot of unproductive habits when it comes to grocery shopping. This can be difficult, so you may want to take it one step at a time.
Start small. Studies show that by doing the simple act of eating before you go grocery shopping, you will end up spending less money overall, and you can avoid impulse purchases at the checkout lane, which are often motivated by hunger.
Make a list, check it twice, and stick to it like super glue. If you have some idea of the things you’re going to make in your Meal Prep, put things on your list that you need for those dishes. Use the supermarket sales flyers as a guide in preparing your shopping list as well as your Meal Prep menu.
Buy as much as you can afford according to how much you normally use in the entire month. This is especially important for your staples, such as rice, pasta, and canned goods. Do you normally use about three cans of tomatoes in a month? Buy four, especially if they’re on sale. By buying one extra can, you’re getting a jump on next month’s canned tomatoes, plus you’re planning for a just-in-case scenario, such as trying a new recipe.
Try to do as much shopping as possible at one store, and only go to a different store if your main one doesn’t have something you need, such as a key ingredient for something you’ll be making. By concentrating on only one store for the bulk of your shopping, you can get more done in other ways, such as prepping vegetables ahead of time or portioning nonperishables, such as crackers, for the pantry.
Shop differently. We have a tendency to get perishables such as milk or eggs at the beginning of the trip. The end result is that these items can go above their optimum temperature for the time it takes to complete the shopping trip, load the groceries in the car, get home, and put the groceries away. During that time, perishables can develop harmful bacteria that cause food poisoning. By saving those items for last, you’ll ensure they have a longer life in your fridge or freezer, and they’ll be less likely to develop harmful bacteria.
Adding your supermarket trip to your list of tomorrow’s errands is a good way to kill as many birds as possible with that stone. However, if you put it somewhere in the middle of your list, you’re likely to run into similar problems as above. Making sure you do your shopping last, on the way home, is another way to ensure you get your groceries home as fresh as possible.
At home: Once you’re finished shopping, there are some tricks you can use to budget your time wisely. Immediately putting perishables away is obvious. Less obvious are ways you can apportion time doing prepping tasks such as chopping vegetables or portioning nonperishables such as crackers or cold cereal.
Begin by leaving your nonperishables out. Ask the kids, partner, or roomie to help out to get it done faster. Decide how you’re going to portion things out–by one cup or two cups, in baggies or lidded containers–and get those things out. You’ll also need a permanent marker for any stickers or other labels. Frozen veggies can also be left out to thaw. Set them in a colander over a bowl to catch any liquid, and then save that liquid; there are all sorts of ways you can use the liquid from frozen or canned veggies, so saving it is very economical.
Do the hardest thing first and work your way through. Remember the old adage, “first is worst, last is best”? Getting the hardest thing out of the way means you’ll have smoother sailing as you work. If you put off the inevitable, you may get to the end and say, “I can do it tomorrow,” but never actually do it. Hey, life happens. If you want to do Meal Prep on a regular basis, you need to carve out time wherever you can and use it as wisely as possible. Putting things off never did anyone any good.
Get into the habit of a “First In, First Out” approach to putting away your groceries and foods you make for the freezer. Instead of just mindlessly putting things away in the pantry, fridge, and freezer, make an effort to move the things that are already there to the front and put the new things in back. This way, you’re more likely to use what you already have, plus you won’t accidentally repurchase things you do have but have gotten lost in the abyss. Organize your pantry, fridge, and freezer as well as you can so you know most of what you have at a glance. When you use something, bring everything behind it forward to fill the space, so everything will be easier to just grab.
Take the opportunity when reorganizing everything to use up those small amounts of things such as frozen veggies, rice or pasta, and anything else that is less than a typical serving or recipe amount. Make a casserole or soup using as many of those little ingredients as possible. The great thing about making a casserole or soup is that you can put just about anything in it and it’ll still be good.
Are you wary of expiration dates? Let me explain most expiration dates to you. You need not toss everything just because it’s off its date. The expiration dates on nonperishables such as cereal, crackers, and many condiments are only there to make sure you buy more of the product in a timely fashion. The same goes for most over-the-counter medicines such as pain relievers. When in doubt, do the smell test. If it smells ok, then usually it is. If you need further confirmation, take a small taste, just enough to get it on your tongue. Again, if it tastes ok, you can use it just fine.
You can very safely use most things past their expiration dates, including some perishables. Milk, for instance, is guaranteed to be fresh for up to seven days past the date on the carton, provided you refrigerate it promptly when you get home from the supermarket and every time you use it. If you continually have milk that goes bad exactly on the expiration date or at any time before, you need to contact the dairy where it was produced; the contact information should be on the carton. If you know you’ve stored it correctly, they should issue you a refund. Other than that, you need to worry much less about expiration dates than you may think. Just remember First In, First Out. When you buy new milk, eggs, butter, etc., bring the old to the front so it gets used first.
Another way to cut down on food waste is to make a habit of keeping track of what you have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer. There are several apps you can use to help keep track of the things you’ve bought and used up, and whatever you need to replenish. If you know that a few months ago you bought a roast, you can make a plan to make something with it before it gets past its prime. Meats can safely be stored in your freezer up to six months.
I hope this little crash course on changing habits when it comes to grocery shopping, Meal Prep, and cooking is helpful to you. What other ideas do you have for changing your habits?