It took me a long time to start meal planning. It sounded so painfully dull, and I hated the idea of being obligated to make a particular meal for dinner. I mean, what if it didn’t sound good that day? No, I wanted to decide each day what sounded best to me and make it. Who needs a meal plan?

Then, I realized we had a few problems.

  1. We were spending way too much on groceries.
  2. We constantly felt like there was “nothing to eat” even with a full pantry.

The problem was, when we bought food, we had no idea how we were going to use it. We’d buy stuff and say, “Oh that sounds good!” or “I’m sure we can find a use for that.” So we’d just have a mishmash of different items that might or might not go together.  As a result, we went to the grocery store far more than necessary and thus spent way more than we needed to.  Or, we would give up and get fast food, which, of course, would completely blow our budget.

I realized I needed to suck it up, put on my big-girl pants, and embrace meal planning.

This is amazing.  I HATE the idea of meal planning... but just planning dinner for the week sounds a lot more doable than breakfast/lunch/dinner/snacks/drinks/etcetctetc.  I need a little flexibility still buuuut we need to figure out something to lower our grocery bill.

When I first turned to Pinterest for ideas for meal planning, I’d find plans that detailed everything: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.  Yuck.  That left me feeling completely overwhelmed.  I still wanted a little spontaneity to my food choices each day.

As a result, I only meal plan for dinners.  I’m sure I could save more money planning the other meals, but dinner is the most important meal for our family each day.  If that’s taken care of, the rest sort of falls into place and I’m fine with that.

Okay, so you’re on board with me. You want to start planning your dinners. Now, where do you start?

Because the Hubs is paid on a bi-weekly schedule, I plan meals for 14 days. So I take a sheet of paper and write out the dates for that time period.

dates for meal planning

At this point, I look at my calendar and mark days that we have plans to eat out or eat at a friend’s house, because I don’t need to plan dinner those days.

Then I decide which meals I’d like to make.  There are several factors that go into this.

  1. Check ads. Obviously, the best place to start if you want to save money is checking if something is on sale. Is chicken on sale? Go ahead and add a few different chicken meals.
  2. Check Pinterest. To prevent us from giving up on my meal plan for the week, I need to be sure to keep the meals I plan exciting.  Did you find a recipe lately you’re dying to try? Add it.  I also check the Hubs’s boards, in case he found something tasty while he was bored at work.
  3. Check the Hubs’s work schedule. One of the challenges of being married to a LEO is a crazy schedule.  I try to plan any labor-intensive meals for days that he’s either off early or scheduled completely off.  I also aim to make meals that are good reheated or can stay in the crockpot on “warm” on days that he works late.  For instance, if I want to make spaghetti squash, I’d plan to make it on a day that he’s home, because reheated squash just isn’t as good.  My plans don’t always work out as I expected, by nature of his job, but I do what I can.

To make meal planning easier, I also highly recommend doing a lot of crockpot meals that can be prepared ahead of time and frozen.  That way, you thaw it in the refrigerator the night before, dump it in the crock pot, and you don’t have to think about dinner again until it’s time to eat.  Seriously, it’s life-changing, and it’s enough for its own post.

I also recommend making enough of each dinner that you’ll have lunch the next day, especially since with this plan you’ll be “seat of your pants”ing it.  It’s easy for us since we’re only a family of three, but if you have a bigger family, this might mean doubling or even tripling recipes.

So now, go ahead and start writing meals on your date sheet.  You can also write 14 meals on a separate sheet of paper and transfer them, but that’s up to you.

meal planning tally marks

As you do this, write down the ingredients you’ll need.  You’ll notice that if I need multiples of something, I use tally marks instead of re-writing it. It helps keep me more organized while I’m shopping, rather than writing “1-2 lb chicken” several different times, for instance.

Keep doing this until it’s all filled out.

meal plan completed

Woohoo! Now don’t you feel proud of yourself?

At this point, I add a few breakfast and lunch related purchases to the bottom of my list: lunch meat, milk, eggs, juice, snacks, etc.  Just things that we’ll need over the next few weeks for breakfast and lunch (that is, if there aren’t leftovers.) I also give us an allotment for fruits and veggies (say, $25 for a week.)  Sometimes we go over that amount, but it’s nice to have a rough estimation of what we’d like to spend.

When I’ve finished the meal plan, I reorganize my shopping list by where things are found in the store. Don’t judge me, here.  It’s not as obsessive as it sounds.  It’s just a straight-up necessity when shopping with kids. I usually divide it up by dairy, produce, meat, pantry/canned, and other. It saves so much time in the grocery store to take the extra minute or two to do this.

Sometimes my meal plan gets changed around and I make meals on different days than expected, but, for the most part, we stick to it.  The important part for us is that we have the ingredients for meals for the next two weeks set aside and ready to use.

Meal planning has saved us so much money.  Where we used to spend $200 or more in a pay period on food, we now spend under $140 per pay period.  Now that we’re on a lower income than we were before, it’s even more necessary than before and I’m grateful to have learned to do it before we needed to figure out how to work with a smaller budget.

Let’s hear from you guys:  How do you meal plan? Or is this your first rodeo?