The Many Benefits of Meal Planning, with Erin Chase
Welcome to The MapleMoney Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. I’m your host, Tom Drake, the founder of MapleMoney, where I’ve been writing about all things related to personal finance since 2009.
Did you know that the average grocery bill for a Canadian family is over $1000 a month? Not only are groceries expensive, but planning and preparing meals takes time. Thankfully, there are ways to save both money and time with a little bit of planning. My guest this week is Erin Chase, founder of $5 Dollar Dinners, and meal planning expert. Erin joins me to discuss how meal planning can transform your lifestyle, as well as your budget.
We begin our conversation with Erin explaining exactly what goes into meal planning. According to Erin, there is no right or wrong way to meal plan, you just need to do what works for you. As with anything that requires regular discipline, Erin cautions that meal planning isn’t always easy. There will be days when the last thing you feel like doing is cooking. Erin’s advice for those moments? “Just cook it!” In other words, get it done. There’s too much money and time at stake not to stay on track.
We dive into recipes a little bit, as Erin demonstrates how many meals can be made with only a few ingredients. When it comes to tools in the kitchen, Erin explains why she loves her Instapot so much, and how it’s become the new slow cooker. If you’re cooking for a large family, or you’re simply looking for new ways to save money and time, don’t miss this episode of The MapleMoney Show!
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- There’s no right or wrong way to do meal planning
- What exactly does meal planning entail?
- Meal planning vs. meal prepping
- Why meal planning won’t always be easy
- Meal planning and personal finance
- Why Erin can’t stand meal delivery kits
- The one scenario when meal delivery makes sense
- The benefits of using an Instapot
Do you know that the average grocery bill for a Canadian family is roughly $1,000 a month? Not only are groceries expensive, planning and preparing meals takes time. Thankfully, a little meal planning goes a long way. My guest this week is Erin Chase, a meal planning expert and founder of $5 Dinners. Erin joins me to discuss how meal planning can transform your lifestyle as well as your budget.
Welcome to the Maple Money Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. It’s December and RSP season is right around the corner. With an RSP from our sponsor, Wealthsimple, you pay less tax and save on investment fees. Maple Money readers get $10,000 managed for free when they open a new account or transfer their RSP to Wealthsimple. To open your RSP, head to maplemoney.com/wealthsimple today. Now, let’s talk meal planning with Erin.
Tom: Hi Erin, welcome to the Maple Money Show.
Erin: Hey Tom, thanks for having me on. I’m excited to be here.
Tom: I’m glad to have you on. We’re going to get into meal planning and everything but I just wanted to set this up first. This is something I’ve been a little stop-and-go on. There’s been a few times where I decided on what I wanted to do but never quite mastered by making it a productive thing that works. I know there is one time I made 30 egg McMuffins and froze them. It seemed like such a huge project. I’m sure it saved time in the long run, but I feel like I was doing it wrong so I’m hoping you can help me along the way.
Erin: Well, let me just start by saying there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do meal planning. Meal planning is one of those things where sometimes you feel bad because you’re not doing it. But really, what it comes down to is we have to eat every day. If you have a family, you have to feed them every day. You get into this very overwhelming sort of situation where you think, “Oh, my gosh, I have to eat again today…” and you end up falling into all the traps. You read all the articles that say, “Don’t do all these things…” I think the key with meal planning is understanding you need to do it because you have to eat every day. You need to know what your plan is. We’re going to stop calling it meal planning. We’re going to call it, meal knowing. You’ve got to understand that it’s going to change over time. The way you plan for meals is going to change as you move through life seasons. When you get married, it changes. When you have babies and toddlers, it changes. When you have older kids, it changes. It changes and evolves. You just have to be willing to change and evolve with it. There is no, “This is how you have to do it,” involved. If you feel like that, then you end up beating yourself up because you’re doing it wrong. You’re not doing it wrong. The other thing too is, whatever you can automate, do it. Have it emailed to you or set reminders for yourself. For me, Sunday afternoon is my meal planning time. It’s just been that way for years and years and years. It looks a little different month-after-month, week-after-week but it’s still Sunday afternoons that I do the meal planning. That means setting up my shopping list and getting ready for shopping. Whatever you can do to work it into some sort of automation or system, the better off you’ll be in the long-run because it’s less you have to think about. It’s less actions you have to take to bring that food to you. Again, we have to eat every day so whatever we can do to make that easier, we’ve got to work on that. Just know that it’s going to change too.
Tom: What is meal planning? Is it the act of seeing what meals you’re going to make and making a shopping list? Is it preparation? Or is it all together?
Erin: I would say meal planning (by definition) is planning what you’re going to eat for that day or week. Some people do it by the month. We actually recommend when you’re getting started to do it in three or four day chunks. It may mean you have to go to the store a little bit more often. My personal cadence forever and ever has been to plan weekly. It’s knowing and planning what you’re going to eat with the ingredients you have on hand so you don’t have to end up calling for takeout or going through the drive-thru. If you want level-up your planning, you’ve got to match what you’re going to eat with your schedule. And that has changed over time, especially as our children have gotten older. We’ve got a high-schooler now, a middle-schooler and two in elementary school so we’re double-booked two or three nights a week. And even though I’m really protective of our schedule, we’re still just busy. Take tonight for example, we’re double booked. I have to be out of the house by 5:30 to get to a meeting that’s going to be probably two and half hours long. So I’ve got to feed them before I go. So what did I do this morning? I started the slow-cooker because I knew I wouldn’t be available to cook a fresh meal in the kitchen from 5:00 to 5:30 or 5:30 to 6:00 when I would normally be doing that. I had to set myself up for success because what would have happened otherwise? I would have buzzed through the drive-thru or maybe called for pizza or something and ended up spending two, three, four, or five times what I would have spent if I had just had my act together and made something at home. I think that’s the idea—just planning. There’s also meal prepping. Meal prep (by definition) would be you setting aside time at some point during your week (most people do it on the weekends) where you’re going to prep meals for that week or to put into the freezer. We recommend doing meal prep of 8 to 10 meals at a time that go into the freezer or make a couple of meals for throughout the week. My personal peeve with meal prep is when you cook a big pot of rice or quinoas, grill up a bunch of chicken and by Tuesday or Wednesday you’ve eaten it two or three times and you don’t want to eat it anymore. Of course, you can prep different meals for that week. It doesn’t have to always be the same. But it’s easy to fall into that trap where you’re going to do this work then you’re not going to eat it. That’s a problem. You want to make sure you’re prepping food you’re actually going to cook and eat later. That’s why I personally prefer freezer cooking (that kind of style) because I think it’s easier to do. There is more variety. You don’t get sick of eating the same chicken, rice and broccoli over and over.
Tom: So freezer cooking is the prep, but specifically for meals that we can stick in the freezer?
Erin: Right. In our particular style, methodology or strategy (if you will) freezer cooking prep means there is very little pre-cooking. You can bake a quiche and freeze it but I don’t have time for that. I would rather throw ingredients into bags or trays and put that into the freezer because it’s really fast and very efficient. It doesn’t feel like cooking. You prep it, then either put it in a slow-cooker, instant pot or into the oven. That’s what we’re having tomorrow night— Greek chicken that I froze a couple of weeks ago. It’s homemade chicken marinated with a Greek vinaigrette with some artichokes, olives and tomatoes that have been in the freezer. I’ve already pulled it out. It’s in the fridge thawing and I’m going to bake it tomorrow. So dinner’s prepped. I prepped it a few weeks ago and I’m going to cook it tomorrow. But I literally just have to put the tray in the oven. It’s not really cooking but it’s an easy way to do dinner. It’s a good dinner hack (if you will). So freezer cooking is more about you putting it into the freezer to use at some point in the next couple of weeks versus a Sunday meal prep where you’re cooking things you’re going to eat on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
Tom: In general, how long can we keep these meals in the freezer?
Erin: Well, the fridge freezer—you’re opening and closing all the time so we recommend not leaving it in any longer than 6 months. Hopefully, you go through them faster than that and don’t lose them in the back corner. If you have a deep freezer, maybe in a garage or utility room, you’re not opening it as often so it stays colder. You can keep them there up to 12 months. Again, if you’re going to do the freezer meal prep, you want to use them in accordance with your schedule. For example, when you know you have something coming up. This morning the slow-cooker meal I put on was also a freezer meal. I just know I needed a freezer, slow-cooker meal for the days we’re double-booked, where I have an early meeting or I have a late pickup. We have a basketball game at 6:00 tomorrow so that’s a 5:30 arrival which means you leave at 5:00. That’s actually going to be heavy snack, late dinner day so I need dinner cooking itself while we’re gone. When you know the madness is happening and plan accordingly, that’s big winning right there.
Tom: Yeah. I’m glad you said a minimum of 6 months because I was thinking, you prepped this meal and you’re still kind of stuck eating it day after day. But without too much time you can prep one multiple meal in one weekend. Then another weekend you can perhaps prep something else. In general, you get a bunch of variety and your freezer and not just a whole bunch of one meal. When I was looking in my freezer yesterday, I’ve got all sorts of food in there. It’s not meal prep though. It’s pizzas and mozzarella sticks and things like that. There are a bunch of little hors d’oeuvre too. I get the freezer benefit of being able to grab something but mine is all this unhealthy stuff just sitting in the freezer. We’d rather have it packed with a bunch of frozen Ziploc bags filled with real food. I see the health benefit as well as the time benefit there.
Erin: I think it’s health benefits as well as saving money on groceries. We haven’t mentioned this before but you kind of touched on it with doing a couple of different meal preps. That’s where you get that variety. The whole reason we do this and why it all started is because when boneless chicken breast is on sale you don’t want to have to pay $5.99 a pound for it when you can pay $1.99 a pound when it is on sale. That’s a big difference. So buy it when it’s on sale. And what do you do with 6 packages of chicken? I’m going to use one a week for the next couple of weeks. You need to flip it into frozen meals. Otherwise, you will forget the package of chicken is in there. If you flip it into a freezer meal, you’re more likely to actually cook it because, if you freeze it in the package you start thinking, “Okay, now I have to thaw it and figure out how to cook it.” Take the packages and dump them into bags. Throw in some barbecue sauce or marinara, salsa or taco seasoning. That’s three different chicken meals right there. With shredded barbecued chicken you can make 790 things; salsa chicken, burritos, tacos, enchiladas… You can do a lot of things. You can take the meat when it’s on sale and turn it into some sort of a freezer meal or freezer starter meal or the Greek chicken like I described earlier. That way you’re setting yourself up for success. You save on groceries and you really don’t have to cook later. That’s the double winning; saving on groceries then prep and cook dinner later on when you need it.
Tom: Without getting too deep into the recipes, when you’re throwing this chicken in are you just throwing the breast in with salsa? Are you cubing it or cooking it ahead of time?
Erin: You certainly can. If you wanted to do a chicken stir-fry, you’re going to want to cut that up into smaller bite-sized pieces and mix it in with teriyaki or stir-fry sauce and vegetables. You can prep that way, for sure. My favorite way to prep, especially when I’m in a hurry, is just to throw the chicken in with whatever favorite sauce you have. You can slow cook that with the barbecue sauce then shred it up. You can use shredded barbecue chicken for sandwiches, quesadillas, nachos, street tacos. There are a lot of things you can do with shredded barbecue chicken. It’s the same story with chicken and marinara. You could bake that. You could slow cook it. You could put it the instant pot. You could put it in a skillet. So there’s a lot of different variety in terms of what you’re going to do with that. If you can just set yourself up for that later, all the better. It’s the same story with salsa chicken; it’s chicken breast, taco seasoning and a cup or two of salsa. Again, you can make a lot of different things with that. You can slow cook it, use your instant pot or bake it. These are really common, popular type recipes that are kid-friendly and family-friendly. Everybody loves salsa chicken. If you want, when you cook it, throw in some cream cheese to make it creamy, salsa chicken. I wouldn’t freeze the cream cheese with it. You can if you’re in a hurry, but you don’t have to. Just add it later. It’s nice to have the kind of flexibility and variety with these sort of staple-style recipes and ingredient combos.
Tom: We covered some of the health and time benefits. But I did want to get more into the money end of it because we are personal finance here after all. I found a few different stats here in Canada, but roughly, a family of four spends $1,000 a month (Canadian) on groceries. Anything we can do to reduce that is obviously helpful. You mentioned the chicken sales being one third the original price. It makes perfect sense to say, “This is this chicken prep week because it’s on sale.” And next week it’ll be beef or something.
Tom: You can follow the flyers too which is smart—where you’re actually planning ahead. I’ll just buy the big warehouse pack when it’s on sale. I might portion that out or something, but it’s still just sitting there on its own—a frozen piece of meat. On the money side, how else can we save money? One of the things that comes to my mind is food waste. We keep a lot of food in our fridge and if we’re not freezing it, it’s going bad. And if we don’t have a plan for it, sometimes it just doesn’t get eaten. Even food on the shelf for that matter. If it’s just sitting at the back of the shelf and never has a purpose then it’s just wasted money.
Erin: Right, but I think this kind of goes back to food planning. If I can just pop back real quick on a soapbox again, we’re going to go back to the fact we have to eat every day and it’s overwhelming. We did a great job and planned for A, B and C this week. And we planned around our schedule. We can have a backup available which is why we like freezer meals but what we can’t plan for is feeling like you don’t want to make that (meal) today. It happens every week, to everybody. I don’t care who you are. It happens. You can be the best planner in the world. You can be the best type-A, thoroughly organized but sometime you are going to find you don’t feel like cooking. There are two things that I want to suggest for this. The first is; just cook it because you planned it. I’ll just use an example recently for my own kitchen. We had some carrots that needed to be eaten. That involves peeling, maybe chopping. I wasn’t going to use them in a roast where I’d just throw them in without peeling them. I needed to peel, chop, boil and add some sauce and I did not feel like doing that. But what did I do? I did it anyways because throwing carrots into the trash is like throwing dollar bills into the trash. Right? So I did it anyways. And the same goes for fresh ingredients like produce and meat you need to use within a couple of days of buying it. You just need to cook it. That’s my hard advice. Number two is to know or get a sense of the days of the week where you know you just kind of run out of steam and plan for that. For me— I’ve been doing this maybe the last two and a half years. For me, it’s Thursdays. I don’t mind cooking Friday night at home. I don’t mind cooking on the weekend because there’s a little bit more flexibility. But for whatever reason, I have the hardest time with cooking on Thursdays. I’m kind of over it. I’ve been working hard all week. We’ve had all these activities. We’ve been here, there and everywhere. And by the time Thursday rolls around, I get home from getting my kids from school around 4:30 or so and I’m just done. I know I’m not going to feel like cooking so what do I do now? I have a freezer meal I put in the slow-cooker on Thursday mornings. It’s almost like going back to automating systems. It’s the same kind of deal. I also know there’s a little bit of unpredictability to your life you expect. Maybe you get some bad news one day and you don’t feel like doing anything so give yourself some grace. But if you’re doing that two or three times a week where you just don’t feel like cooking, even though you made this plan and have got these ingredients, you just have to get over yourself and cook it. Plan for easy meals even if it’s grabbing pizza from the freezer. That’s fine. Just so long as it’s not pizza from the freezer every single day. Having that balance and giving yourself that grace but also knowing that I can do better, especially if I know that (for me) Thursdays are just rough, I can kind of work around that.
Tom: I don’t consider myself a great cook. I don’t want to do all the chopping and prep and everything. What’s your thought on the food delivery kits? It certainly seems better than going out to a restaurant or constantly eating unhealthy food.
Erin: Okay, Tom is setting me up here because he knows I’m going to rant. I think the meal kit deliveries are useful in really only one scenario. I say that with a financial, money-saving filter. Food delivery kits can be helpful for teaching you how to cook. They’ve got the great pictures and walk you through step-by-step. Everything’s pre-portioned for you. Some of it even comes chopped, depending on which one you’re working with. And so it is nice in the sense that you get what you need. And you might learn a new cooking strategy too, which is cool because you can apply that to other recipes or similar type meals. But with the financial lens, I think the only time it makes sense would be if you’re in some sort of a life crisis that happened quickly and you’re desperate. And the reason I say that is because it can be three to four times the cost for the actual meal for your family. The marketing says they’re $6 a meal. I have six people in my family. Three of them eat like adults but I still have one kid-size eater. So let’s multiply it by five to be gracious. That’s $30 for the meal that I’m cooking at home. I can get takeout or get a pizza for less than $30. I can do a taco run for the whole family for less than $30. So is it really worth it? Maybe tacos and pizza are a little bit less healthier but I can probably cook that meal for under $10. Maybe $5 dinners is my thing. It depends on what’s in the meal. But $6, $7, or $8 is my target range right now for my family of six. It’s really hard for me to justify and recommend that you do those (meal kit deliveries) on a regular basis unless you have some major crisis in your life where you literally have no bandwidth for thinking about food. But if you do the math on meal deliveries; let’s say you do it two or three a week—I just can’t justify that. What I would be spending at the grocery store for similar ingredients versus what I’m spending on that convenience means you’ve got to look at the costs versus convenience. That’s why I say it needs to be something dramatic happening in your life to justify that added expense. Because again, we have to eat every day. So anything we can do to “hack” that, we need to be doing. Unless you’re swimming in money—then good for you. Eat a meal kit delivery every single day. But we’re not. That’s the other thing I tell myself too. It’s not just with food expenses but other things too. What else could I be using this cash for? This cost of the meal kit delivery is money I’d rather be putting away for retirement, into a college savings fund or toward a fun vacation. Food dollars can easily steal away from other financial goals you have. But again, because we have to eat every day, we justify by saying, “Oh, I’ll just get tacos, pizza, or another meal kit delivery again this week because I’m busy…” Well, we’re all busy.
Tom: I wanted to let you get that rant out because I found it kind of similar to having reviewed different meal kits available here in Canada. In the end, just going with your $5 plans made the most sense because you can just go to Costco. But if you really just want the food delivered to you, more and more often, you can just get food delivery from grocery stores for a few dollars. It really comes down to the plan. It seems like if you just plan ahead and get the groceries, whether you’re going to Costco or getting them delivered to you, for some reason it’s becoming easier and easier to do that—just get your groceries directly. One thing I wanted to ask was the instant pot you mentioned a couple times. I know that was a huge deal maybe two years ago when I caught onto it. Are you still in love with that? Does it help with meals?
Erin: You know what, it really does. The instant pot is the new slow-cooker, if you will. It does have a slow-cook function although I don’t recommend it. It is meant to pressure cook so I recommend just using it for pressure cooking. I use mine because I forget to start the slow-cooker mostly. And it makes a fantastic sticky-rice if you’re doing a copycat Chinese, fake-out, takeout. It makes a fantastic sticky-rice that you would get from your favorite Chinese place. It does hard boiled eggs like no other cooking method can. There are a lot of things it cooks really well. And the fact that it’s a countertop appliance and basically hands-off is what makes it so appealing. For me, it’s not necessarily the time savings. There are a few things that it does cook much faster; a whole chicken, roast, dry beans… There are different things it does cook faster. But for the most part, it’s because it’s cooking dinner for you. So, yes, it is a fantastic appliance. I’m not using mine tonight but I’ll probably use it tomorrow night to make some rice to go with our Greek chicken. I use mine all the time. I think it’s a fantastic appliance. I still use my slow-cooker. It hasn’t replaced my slow-cooker. I know a lot of people say it has. But that’s not been the case for me. I think the newest, “buzziest” one out there is the air fryer which is another appliance that cooks a little bit differently. It cooks different ingredients differently. I probably use my instant pot and slow cooker about the same amount week-after-week. I think it’s an appliance worth having just because of the hands-off nature of it. You just kind of load it and walk away and it takes care of the cooking. So you are cooking even though you don’t feel like you’re cooking. You’re not standing there chopping onions and bell peppers and standing over the skillet while they sweat, then throwing in some chicken. That feels like cooking. But throwing all of that into the instant pot, putting the lid on and walking out of the kitchen—I don’t feel like I’m cooking anymore.
Tom: I think that’s what I need is a slow cooker and instant pot and meals from the freezer. Basically, these one-dish meals where we you get them from the freezer and pop them into the appliance, I’m good with that.
Erin: Yeah, we call them dump dinners. They’re magical..
Tom: Yeah. The more of those I have, the better. That’ll keep me away from the pizzas and mozza sticks and everything else in my freezer right now.
Tom: Can you let everybody know where they can find you online?
Erin: Yes. We have all kinds of fun goodies available at 5dollardinners.com. It’s the number 5. Although I believe if you spell it out you’ll still get there. We have all of our resources, tools and thousands of recipes that are very budget-friendly. Many of which we’ve done for well under $5. And again, some for a few dollars more depending on how many you’re serving. We talk about meal planning and about the grocery savings. Everything we talked about here, we have there as well.
Tom: Great. I know you have multiple sites so I’ll put them all in the show notes so people can find them. Thanks for being on the show.
Erin: Perfect. Thanks, Tom, for having me.
Thank you, Erin, for showing us how meal planning can save money and time. You can find the show notes for this episode at maplemoney.com/erinchase. I want to take a moment to thank you for listening to the Maple Money Show. I appreciate your support in helping us continue to grow. If you have an Apple podcast app on your phone can you pull up Maple Money and give it a quick rating? Even better, leave a review and let everyone know what you think of the show. Anyone who leaves a review in December can enter a draw to win a signed copy of the book, Love Your Life, Not Theirs, by Rachel Cruze. Head over to maplemoney.com/reviews for instructions and to enter. Since our regular Wednesday schedule ends on Christmas this year, we’re going to take our first break since we started the podcast a year and a half ago. See you back on January 1st when we’ll have Mike Vardy on the show to discuss how you can be more productive in the New Year. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you.
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