How to become a star at-home cook

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With the hectic and activity-filled lives we all live, getting an inexpensive and healthy meal on the table every night can seem like a tall order. In the morning, right after the children get shuffled off to school, I begin tackling my mile-long to-do list. Before you know it, they’re back home and it’s all about carpools and after-school activities. Suddenly I find myself in that critical hour when everyone needs to be fed so they can do homework before heading up to bed.

Fast food and prepared meals have some obvious advantages: They are quick and easy. But the cons outweigh the pros. Most are chock-full of preservatives, chemicals or other ingredients our bodies don’t need. In most cases, the cost of the convenience can add up at the register. What you are saving in time, you are losing at the bank.

To feel good about the food you’re giving your family every night, make meal planning a priority. It doesn’t take a lot of time or much extra effort. When you focus on buying the right ingredients and taking the time to cook, you will feel it in your health and your wallet.

Here are a few easy steps I use to eat on a budget.

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Shop with purpose

Weekends usually allow for a break from the hectic weekday routine. The kids are doing activities or on play dates. So figure out what you want to cook for the week and make a list of the items you need to get those meals on the table. If you stick to the list, you won’t buy ingredients in excess and you also won’t find a bunch of junk food in the cart inflating your food costs.

Here are 50 ways to save on grocery shopping

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Prep ahead of time

As tempting as it is to throw everything in the fridge after shopping, there is a better way. For example, if you know the beef stew you want to make on Tuesday requires three carrots, peel and chop them, place them in some Tupperware and store them. When you are ready to cook, that few minutes of prep can save you at crunch time, when everyone is ravenous and yelling, “Geez, mom, is dinner ready yet?”

Here’s how to stock your kitchen

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Keep it simple

As much as I love tackling a complicated recipe, I save those for weekends and special occasions. Monday through Friday, it’s all about minimal prep, a few healthy, seasonal ingredients and maximum flavor results. “One pot wonder” is my middle name and should be yours too. Once you get into a rhythm, you will be pleasantly surprised at how many meals you can put together that don’t require many ingredients. (Read this review of the meal-kit delivery service Plated.)

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Leftovers are a good thing

Take that beef stew you made on Tuesday and pop it in your kid’s lunch thermos. My kids love hot food for lunch and we all know stews taste better the second day. It beats the pizza and French fries they will inevitably buy otherwise in the school cafeteria. Remember, grandma always cooked for 10 to 12 even when only four were eating.

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A stocked pantry is the key to success

I always look at the week’s sales in the grocery store. Look for the sale items at the end of each aisle. While I always have my list handy, if I see a good deal, I try to figure how and when I can use it in a future meal. For example, if you see chickpeas on sale, grab them and make hummus before the kids get home. Everyone loves a great snack before running off to soccer practice.

Remaining on a realistic food budget and providing healthy food for your family go hand in hand. With a little planning, recipe gathering and thoughtful food shopping, your dinner repertoire will come together easier than you might anticipate.

This article originally appeared on Policygenius and was syndicated by

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