Meal Planning 101

I have had a few friends say they want to start meal planning, but that they feel overwhelmed and don't know how to begin. I thought I would share a few tips that have been helpful for me in my meal planning.

Before meal planning, I used to take a list of items we needed (toilet paper, dish soap, cereal, etc.) but I had no real plan of what I would be making for dinner or other meals that week. I would grab things that sounded good (in the moment I was shopping at least) and ended up wasting a ton of money because I ended up having to throw out a lot of food I didn't use- mainly because I hadn't planned how things would go together. (I would have say, zucchini, garlic bread and spaghetti noodles- but that doesn't really make a meal now does it?)

When I started meal planning I was a bit overwhelmed at first too, but as I practiced, and tried it for a few weeks, I realized the benefits were great.

Benefits of meal planning:
1. You never have a night when you go to the fridge, stare into it, then eventually eating something ridiculous like saltines with ketchup because you could never decide what to make.

2. The food you buy, gets used- you don't waste food.

3. Cooking a meal is faster and easier because you have exactly what you need on hand (it's like cooking show hosts' fridges only in YOUR house! What you need is right there! So convenient!)

4. We eat well. By planning ahead, I can prepare to try new recipes that look intriguing and balance less expensive meals with more expensive ones to eat some gourmet foods, but keep the budget in check, I can also ensure our meals are well balanced nutritionally.

5. I SAVE SO MUCH STINKIN' MONEY! Before meal planning, I spent around $120 per week for our family of 3 (2.5 really, because our toddler doesn't eat a ton- he's in the "it's yucky" stage and could live off of Go-gurt alone if he was allowed). After meal planning my weekly grocery bill went down to around $80 per week. Recently, it has decreased even more (some weeks, I spend as little as $50) with the opening of Fresh and Easy stores in our area (I save their store coupons, which are given in store, through the mail or in the weekly ad and give you $3-$10 off a purchase of x dollars- and you can use more than one in a trip!)

So, how do I meal plan? Here goes...
1. I think about what I have on hand. If I have chicken frozen or tortillas, or pasta or pasta sauce- I try to think of meals that sound good that can utilize as many of the things I already have on hand. This cuts down on costs and waste.

2. I think about the week ahead. On Mondays, I usually get off at a decent time from work, and we eat at a regular time- so I often make recipes I've never tried on Mondays. On Tuesdays, I take a class at the gym and by the time I get home- I am HUNGRY! So, I like to prepare meals that can either be put together on my lunch (or in the morning or night before) that Brandon can just pop in the oven, so it's ready when I get home at 6:45 or, I cook something in the Crock pot. On Wednesdays, we have small group and I only have about 1 hour to get prepped, cooked and eaten- so I always plan something super fast for this night. Thursdays are a normal night, so a good night to make something that requires a bit more prep time. Fridays- I know by the time we hit Friday- as a full-time working mom I have ZERO desire to do anything but crash with a RedBox movie. So, I usually call Friday "take out or leftover" night. Whenever we are able to, we try to get a date night in on Saturdays, so I usually don't plan dinner for Saturday night either. Sundays, I like to make something special, as usually it's a calm, family dinner- and sometimes we invite family or friends to join us.

>I've rambled on here, but my point is- look at the week ahead- do you have dinner plans with someone and know you won't be cooking one night? Do you need a fast meal because of a sports practice in the family two nights a week? Think about how many nights you actually need to cook, and how fast your meals need to come together. This keeps waste and overspending in check and helps you not to give up on cooking on a hectic night. (Read: skip the drive thru, you can do much better yourself at home :-))

3. Once you are familiar with your usual stores and how items are sold, plan to use up as much of a fresh ingredient as possible within the week. Example: Fresh and Easy sells cilantro in a big bag. Usually, I don't use it all in one recipe, but I hate to let the second half go bad- so I usually plan two meals in a week that use cilantro.

4. This one might not be a match for every family... so I understand if you have to throw this one out if you have major carnivores in the house- but you don't have to serve a meat main course every night! This is a great way to keep your budget low, and you don't have to sacrifice nutrition! I usually make some sort of Italian/pasta-cheese-veggie meal once a week, that is meatless and gets it's protein from cheese (cheese and spinach lasagna rollups for example). You can also use tofu in stir fry dishes.

5. Once you've decided on your meals for the week, now it's time to make your shopping list. I like to write the meals on a magnetic white board, labeled by the day I plan to make them and keep it on the fridge. Once those are written down, and make of list of the items I don't already have on hand to make those meals. I separate the list by store (if I'm going to go to more than one store) and then I add items I need not related to meals (snack foods, baby shampoo, dish soap, etc.). A key thing to remember to ensure you save money is once you're shopping STICK TO THE LIST. I know I'm not the only one who runs into Target for baby Tylenol and soap and walks about $65 poorer with two bags of things I "needed" when I saw them. Make "stick to the list" your mantra! (*Exception: be flexible to a point- if they are sold out of yellow squash and you were going to make sauteed yellow squash, by zucchini or buy salad fixings- don't be so rigid you skip a veggie altogether ;-))

So, that's pretty much what I do when I plan my meals. I do plan one week at a time, and shop weekly- mainly because I use a lot of fresh produce in my cooking, and it doesn't keep as well beyond a week. I have heard others swear by shopping every two weeks, and just grabbing a few basics in between trips, and they say this saves them more money. I haven't tried that so far, but it might work for you!

I hope you found this post helpful, please feel free to leave any questions in the comment section.


  1. This is quite helpful, I mean as a college kid there's not a scheduled "dinner time".. but I feel that I'd love to try a version of this. Perhaps cook a meal every other day & have the left overs on hand!! Thanks for getting me thinking about this :)

  2. Michelle BurgessMay 8, 2010 at 12:11 AM


    I love point 4, we do the same on a Friday night - usually a soup with lentils or chickpeas to add some protien. It is a GREAT way of keeping the budget down and if you cook up an extra big batch (which won't take much longer) you can eat it for lunch on the weekend or freeze it for nights where you need a quick meal.

  3. I read this when you first posted it but I didn't get to say THANKS! <3 your ideas... I had another dilemma... cooking while having a clingy 6 month old! I feel bad when he cries like he's dying in the exersaucer while I wash dishes/bottles. Do you have tips on fast meals or how about more crock-pot meals? I love when you post about those :)


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