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Prepared by Statewide Nutrition Educator Kate Yerxa
Reviewed by Associate Extension Professor Jane Conroy

Plan Your Meals

elderly man pays for groceriesDo you go to the supermarket more than once a week? Do you find yourself spending more than you want on food? Does dinnertime get you down? Taking the time to plan your meals can save you time, money, and energy.

Start with Dinner

If the task of planning breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks seems too big, start by planning only dinner meals. Once that becomes routine, add in one other meal like lunch and so on. Follow these tips to start your weekly or monthly meal planning routine:

  • Make a food budget. Decide how many times per month you plan to shop; if you shop once a week, divide your monthly food budget by four to get your weekly food budget.
  • Check to see what foods you have on hand. Once you know this, decide what meals and recipes you can make with the foods you have.
  • Write down the all the meals and recipes for your plan, and make a list of all the items you will need to buy to make the planned meals. Include fruits and vegetables, grains, protein foods, dairy, and beverages.
  • Include a “planned-over” meal for another meal during the week. A “planned-over” meal is a meal that uses leftover food from another meal.
  • Use sale fliers from your local store to help you plan meals with foods that are on sale, or look for coupons for foods that are part of your meal plan.

Making a Shopping List

Once you have made your meal plan, make a shopping list and stick to it! Lists cut down on time spent grocery shopping. Plus, having a list helps you save by sticking to a budget.

Shopping List Strategies

  • List your food basics, or staples. Include all foods and ingredients you will need for your planned meals.
  • Organize your list. Some people arrange lists according to the layout of the supermarket. Other people arrange lists by the food groups. List cold foods last on your list so you will pick them up last. This helps keep foods like milk safe.
  • Keep a record of needed items between shopping trips. Add items you like to keep on hand but have run low on. Use this when making your shopping list.
  • Consider keeping non-food items on a separate list. Things like household cleaners may cost less at a dollar or discount store.
  • woman shops for groceries with her two childrenStick to your list when you are at the store. Sugary desserts and pre-packaged snacks can tempt you. They can also add extra costs to your food budget.
  • Encourage everyone in the family to add to the shopping list. When the last of something is used up, add it to the list.
  • Don’t shop when you are hungry.

Avoid Extra Trips

By shopping with a list, you can avoid trips to the store for items you forgot to buy. Often, when you go to the store for only one item, you end up impulse buying and spending more money than you planned. Also, more trips to the store means more gas used in your vehicle. See how much more money you might spend by taking one or two extra trips to the store each week:

Assume gasoline is $3.50 per gallon and a 20-mile round-trip distance to the store

One extra trip per week Two extra trips per week One extra trip per week for one year Two extra trips per week for one year
Your car gets 20 miles to the gallon



Your car gets 10 miles to the gallon




Store Leftovers Safely

How long can you safely store leftovers before food becomes unsafe? In general, leftovers should be used within 3 to 4 days when stored properly in the refrigerator. Follow these few important steps:

  • Always wash hands with warm water and soap before handling food.
  • Toss food that was left out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours (or 1 hour if the air temperature is above 90º F).
  • Store food in shallow containers so it can chill quickly. Cover the food and label the container with either a “use by date” or “today’s date” so you know when to toss.
  • Place containers in the refrigerator to cool, not on the counter. Check your refrigerator temperature; it should be set between 34º F and 40º F to keep food at a safe temperature.
  • When reheating, heat leftovers thoroughly to 165º F or until hot and steaming. Soups, sauces, and gravies should be brought to a rolling boil.
  • Only reheat leftovers once!

If you do not plan to use all of your leftovers within 3 or 4 days after cooking, freeze the leftovers. If you are not sure how long a food item has been in the refrigerator, do not taste the food to see if it is still good.

When in doubt, throw it out!

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