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Feature Articles: Food, Fitness and Eating Well


Leftovers in refrigeratorMeal planning

Bethany Bachmann, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, University of Missouri Extension


Busy school year schedules can make it challenging to provide healthy, timely and inexpensive meals for our families. Between football practices, volleyball games, band performances, club meetings and other school-related activities, we often find ourselves in the drive-thru lane at the nearest fast food chain. While dining out every once in a while is fine, hitting the drive-thru most nights of the week shouldn’t become a habit. When it does, not only are you consuming excess calories, fat and sodium, but you also are missing a great opportunity to bond with your kids in the kitchen.


A better option is to take time each week to plan quick, healthy and easy-to-prepare meals. Here are several tips for budget-friendly, time-friendly meals:


  • Choose one day a week to menu plan (Saturdays or Sundays usually work well). Set aside time that day to look for recipes and plan meals for the entire week.
  • Consider making your own meal system. For instance, Mondays are Mexican food, Tuesdays feature Italian dishes and Wednesdays are slow cooker meals. Create your system based on the preferences and nutritional needs of your family. Also remember to include a night for leftovers so you don’t waste food or money.
  • Think about the nutritional quality of your meals as you plan. Half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables. Frozen vegetables are a great alternative to fresh vegetables when the fresh veggies are not in season, and are fairly inexpensive if you purchase the store brand.
  • Before planning your meals and hitting the grocery store, inventory what you have on hand. Check your pantry, garden, freezer and refrigerator for food you can use that week. This will save you money at the grocery store and reduce the amount of food that goes bad.
  • Buy items at the grocery store that are on sale. Some items you are looking for may be on sale, and others may not. You can do a few different things when the foods on sale don’t match what you planned on making: you can choose a different recipe to fit the sale items, or you can substitute. For instance, if you are planning to make tacos, but chicken is on sale instead of ground beef, make chicken tacos.
  • Look for “Manager’s Special” or reduced items. Many of these items are a few days from their expiration or “best-if-used-by” date. You can usually save a substantial amount of money if you purchase these items and work them into your meal plan. Meat such as ground beef or chicken can be put in the freezer for later use. Milk is also an item that is sometimes reduced for quick sale. You may be skeptical about keeping milk after the “best-if-used-by” date, but it can be safely stored in the refrigerator for up to seven days past the date on the carton. Buying sale items that are close to their expiration dates can be a big money-saver, and is certainly worthwhile for those families who will use the food quickly.
  • Use coupons. They are making a comeback in a big way. Weekend newspapers, websites and in-store displays can provide you with coupons for a wide array of items. If you do clip coupons, review the coupon policy for the stores where you shop. Match the coupons up with sale items in your store to increase your savings. Some stores will double coupons up to 50 cents or more. Stores may also match the price of a competitor’s sale or coupon, though you should be sure to bring that coupon or store ad with you. If you don’t use coupons, consider giving it a try. You may be able to purchase items for your menu that you otherwise wouldn’t because of the price.
  • As you plan meals and shop, choose the healthier options when they are on sale or if you can afford the extra cost. Opt for the whole-wheat pastas instead of regular varieties, or the higher-protein Greek yogurt instead of regular yogurt. By doing this, you will increase the nutritional value of the meals you plan and prepare.
  • After grocery shopping, take time to do any prep work you can in advance. For example, most vegetables can be washed and cut in advance. If you buy extra meat while it is on sale, cook and cut the meat to your liking before freezing it in order to save time later. Then when it comes time to prepare the meal, you will be able to throw things together in no time.
  • Choose foods that can be prepared once and used twice. Use the extra grilled steak or chicken from one meal in a soup, salad or casserole later in the week. Shred extra beef roast prepared in the slow cooker for BBQ sandwiches or pot pie on another day.


If you simply cannot avoid the drive-thru, help your children pick healthy options, and be sure to model that behavior as well. Grilled chicken, salads, fruit and milk are some of the healthier options now offered at many fast-food chains.


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Last update: Thursday, August 03, 2017