You know how come families ate home-cooked, (more or less) healthy meals together at the dining table every evening in the fifties? Because (middle class) women didn’t work, and middle-class women often had domestic help. Cooking dinner every night is hard work, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Cooking dinner is just as much hard work now as it ever was, but now women have jobs and no one can afford domestic help anymore (which is actually a good thing—domestic help was so available in the twentieth century only because the labor of women and people of color was grossly undervalued). Apparently lots of people have determined that cooking dinner on the regular is simply more trouble than it’s worth: this year, Americans spent more money on eating out than they did on groceries.

Eating out is expensive and unhealthy and did I mention expensive? But it’s also fun and tasty and you don’t have to cook or do dishes. Plus, you don’t buy a bunch of expensive fennel for a recipe, use a third of it making something that doesn’t even taste that good, and then have to throw the rest of it out.

The key to eating at home more and wasting less food is meal planning (it’s also the key to making lunches for work that aren’t sad desk sandwiches, but that’s a post for another time). A meal plan keeps you from buying food you don’t need, from throwing away food you don’t eat, and from coming home to an empty refrigerator on a Thursday night.

I’m not going to lie: meal plans are work. You spend part of your weekend looking at recipes, another part at the grocery, and a good chunk of Sunday night doing some kind of cooking. But you’ll thank yourself later that week when you come home from a long day to leftovers you can put right into the microwave.

There are three keys to a successful meal plan. I’m assuming here that, like us, you want to cook as few times as possible during the week while maximizing variety.

Plan for leftovers. This is admittedly easiest to do if you have a household of two, but you should always aim to get two or three meals from anything you cook during the week. Double recipes if you need to, but make sure you’ll have enough for several meals.

Front-load the cooking. I always have more energy on Monday and Tuesday nights. The week is full of promise, the grading is still in the hazy future, and I haven’t yet had my third or fourth request for an extension on a paper. I’m much more likely to successfully cook a meal at the beginning of the week than I am at the end. Therefore, I plan to cook on both Monday and Tuesday nights, and then alternate the leftovers for the rest of the week.

Alternate meals. Nothing brings on austerity-induced misery quite like eating the same thing for four days in a row. By day two you’re bored, by day three you’re disgusted, and on day four you start questioning all of your life choices because no amount of fiscal responsibility is worth living like this. That’s why a good meal plan alternates meals.

A meal plan that follows these three general rules might look something like this:

Monday: Chicken chili
Tuesday: Ropa vieja
Wednesday: Chicken chili
Thursday: Ropa vieja
Friday: Chicken chili

Not exactly rocket science, I know, but while nobody wants to eat chicken chili three days in a row, it’s not so bad eating it three times a week if you’ve got something else to eat in the alternating days.

The meal plan above also demonstrates a few other important principles:

Cook one-pot meals as often as possible.
Choose dishes that can be made in a slow cooker.

Both chicken chili and ropa vieja work well in the slow cooker. This means you can prep the chili Sunday night, put it in the slow cooker on Monday morning before work, then eat it in the evening. Then, you prep the ropa vieja Monday night and put it in to cook on Tuesday morning. At which point you are done with the cooking for the week.

Sometimes you misestimate the portions on one of your meals, or something turns out terrible, or you just can’t eat anymore chicken chili. That’s when your backup meals come in handy.

If you stick to your meal plan, I guarantee your dinners will be cheaper and less wasteful than eating out, and cheaper and easier than cooking a new meal every night of the week. But to trim your grocery bill even further, you have to pay close attention the the meals themselves. Next time, some tips on budget-friendly recipes.