Using a Kitchen Whiteboard to Minimize Food Expenses and Maximize Meal Efficiency

Right now, in the entryway right next to our kitchen, a giant whiteboard hangs on the wall. On that whiteboard, you will find several different sections – a calendar of the week stretching from Sunday to Saturday including a meal plan, an ongoing grocery list, a section that just contains notes between Sarah and myself for short-term reminders, and a to-do list as well.

(I actually took a picture of our white board for this post, but I realized that posting it would seriously cross some of my personal rules for protecting the privacy of some of my immediate family members due to some of the items written on the board. I don’t mind sharing most aspects of my own life, but they’re not online writers and shouldn’t have their info shared like that unless they choose to do it.)

This simple whiteboard has saved us thousands of dollars over the years, not because the whiteboard itself creates new paths for saving money, but because it enables us to take our already-existing frugal routines with our meals and make them that much easier. Here are three ways that this happens.

First, it makes our meal plans easy to execute. This is really the biggest part of how the whiteboard creates value for us. When we write our weekly schedule on the whiteboard, usually on Sunday afternoon, we include with it our meal plan for the week along with any notes about things that need to be done for advance prep, like “slow cooker chili – put in slow cooker in AM.”

By simply sitting down and looking at our schedules for the week, we can pencil in meals that work for each evening situation. For example, Thursday evenings are almost always a challenge at our house because our children have different taekwondo lessons at different times (because they’re in different groups based on their age) that makes it logistically impossible for all of us to gather for a family meal. On that night, we almost always have a slow cooker meal that’s easy to serve when needed and can stay on the slow cooker until everyone has eaten.

Some evenings, we’ll plan to have a meal from the freezer. For example, we might decide that on Tuesday night, it makes sense for me to put a batch of frozen lasagna in the oven from the freezer, and if it’s fully thawed it takes about 45 minutes. So, we’ll write down on Sunday to pull a frozen lasagna from the freezer.

All of this only works if we have a central place to look in the kitchen so we can be sure that we both know what’s happening for supper and we can take steps in advance to make sure it comes off without a hitch. The white board is perfect for that.

Second, it conveniently reminds us of what we actually need at the store. Whenever we notice that something is low, we jot down that item on the whiteboard in a small section in the corner that we’ve labeled “groceries.” That way, when we’re making a grocery list off of our meal plan – which is how we largely shop for groceries – we just add the items on the “groceries” list from the whiteboard to our real grocery list before we head out.

Again, this works because Sarah and I share so many household responsibilities. Some weeks, Sarah shops for groceries; some weeks, I do it. If only one of us did it, a more closed system (like a smartphone app) might handle this, but using a whiteboard makes it possible for both of us to contribute to the grocery list no matter who actually does the shopping.

Finally, it helps us keep track of leftovers. One thing I’ve really found valuable from the whiteboard is a simple list of leftovers that are in the fridge. Whenever I pack up some leftovers and pop them in the fridge, I add them to the list. I usually write a number in parentheses after this as an estimate of how many meals could be provided by the leftovers. Then, during the workday, when I want something for lunch, I just look at that list, choose something, and cross it off, then I look for that item in the fridge.

This helps us to waste fewer leftovers and thus extract a lot more value from the meals that we eat. When I keep this up to date – which is something I’m still learning – I basically eat leftovers every single day for lunch, which basically makes lunch “free.” That’s a real money saver.

These little tactics take very little time, but they add up very quickly. You’re saving a dollar here, a few dollars there, and suddenly you’re saving a lot of money over the course of a month thanks to strategies like eating leftovers and having a meal plan.

Again, it’s worth noting that a whiteboard doesn’t make it happen on its own – it’s just a tool for making these common money-saving strategies that much easier for us. You need to have a sensible meal planning and grocery list system; without that, the whiteboard won’t really help. The whiteboard shines as a tool for implementing that system, but it doesn’t magically create a system on its own.

So, how can you make this work in your own house? Obviously, you need to start with a meal planning system, but the real question is how to integrate a whiteboard into a system like this. Here are three things to look for.

First, make sure that you have a place to put the board in your kitchen. You need to be able to see it when you’re opening the refrigerator and pantry doors and it shouldn’t be more than a few steps away from you when you’re in there. Many people hang these things right on the refrigerator door, but I actually prefer it to be on a wall so that I can see the board while I’m digging in the fridge.

Second, get a fairly large whiteboard. We originally used a fairly small whiteboard, but we quickly found that jamming a full week meal plan, family schedule, grocery list, and notes to each other on there made things cramped to say the least. We then swapped it for a substantially larger whiteboard which worked much better for our needs.

Third, get in the habit of using it consistently. This takes practice, but when you naturally use the whiteboard for meal planning, adding things to grocery lists, and jotting down leftovers and other notes, it becomes a really valuable tool. You just need to get into the practice of using it consistently.

For us, the big step in moving to consistent use was putting our weekly meal plan on the board (along with each day’s activities). We very quickly learned that the plan for tonight’s dinner was to be found on that white board, so we got in the routine of looking at that white board several times each day.

Since the board also had sections for things like grocery lists and leftovers, it became natural to use those features. When you’re looking at the board two or three times a day already, you start to think of that board when you see that you’re low on dried basil or need some milk or want to see what leftovers are in the fridge.

Over time, our whiteboard has become such an essential tool for our kitchen and meal planning. It saves us money by helping us have better grocery lists, helping us plan ahead and prepare meals at home, and by facilitating the use of leftovers.

Why not use an app of some kind for this? There simply isn’t a mobile app that I’ve found that replaces what this whiteboard provides for Sarah and myself. It allows us to see a freeform view of what’s going on with our time and meals all in one glance.

There are some whiteboard apps, but they’re hard to use in terms of seeing a lot of information all at once. There are other good shared information apps, but they all have some form of limitation like the method of input or the ability to collect all of these types of information. A true digital whiteboard might be okay, but that’s just far more expensive than an analog one. Some things are just better solved with an analog solution and this happens to be one of them.

If you live in a busy household and are having difficulty working together with other household members to maintain a shopping list and a meal plan, consider getting a big white board that will hang in your kitchen. For us, it has become a central tool for meal planning and has saved us piles of money over the last year or two.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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