We’ve all heard how meal planning can help save you money on groceries. I actually started meal planning to save me panic at 5:00 when I still didn’t know what we were going to eat for dinner. We lived an hour away from any stores or restaurants or fast food so it was up to me to cook and to make sure I had the ingredients I needed for several weeks. So, as much as I didn’t want to, I sat down one day to write up a meal plan. And I had no idea how. People write posts explaining it and I read those. I still had no idea what I was doing. Most of their meal plans were centered around the weekly sales ad at their favorite stores. I didn’t go shopping once a week. I sometimes only went once a month! Besides, this wasn’t an easy job; did I really want to have to do it every week?? No. I didn’t. So I decided to make it up. Much like I did when I set up our budget. That had worked out well for me. Maybe I’d luck out again. And I did.
I’ve altered it several times over the two years I’ve had it which keeps us from getting too bored of the same foods but I haven’t ever had to completely re-plan our meals. If you’re interested, keep reading and I’ll tell you the best way to meal plan if you don’t want to do it every week.
I chose a month long outline. More specifically, 5 weeks with the 5th week being foods we didn’t want to eat as often. Sometimes months have a 5th Tuesday but not a 5th Saturday (or visa versa) so the foods on this week didn’t get eaten every month. For some people, assigning a specific food to each day of the month works out (tacos on the 1st, hamburgers on the 2nd, spaghetti for the 3rd…)but for me, I wanted crock pot meals every Sunday so I could throw it in before going to church and eat it when we got home, so I set mine up by days of the week. The first Sunday of every month, we ate roast rather than the 1st of every month. Do whichever works for you. I do recommend a full month though. By the time you make it back around to the first week, you’ve gone long enough that you don’t mind eating the same foods again.
See here for my actual meal plan. Stuff We’ll Eat (Yes, that’s what I named it.)
Write down a list of your favorite meals to cook and eat. Or make a stack of the recipe cards if you use them. Count up how many you have. You might have enough for 6 weeks or only enough for 3. That’s ok. I also organized mine at this point. You can sort them by meat type, ease or quickness, favorite to least favorite…whatever works best for you.
Make a template. Whether you do it my way or so every 1st you are having the same meal doesn’t really matter. You can use an actual calendar if you want. You can draw some boxes on a piece of paper (which is how I started out.) Just find a way to start assigning.
Think about specific times you may need to plan a meal around such as my Sundays. If you work late or if you know you’ll only have 45 minutes until you leave again on certain days, plan easy fast meals on those days. I wrote these thing in first. All of my Sunday meals were planned before I planned anything else.
Begin filling in the rest with your recipes. I tried to think of meals that could be made from another meal’s leftovers. For instance, I put enchiladas in the first week because I often have leftover roast from the first Sunday and use it for shredded beef filling in my enchiladas. Another time I used some leftover bbq chicken for the meat on a pizza. Some of these got rearranged when I started finding trends so they could fall in the same week.
I also tried to space out similar meals. I did it so that Mexican type foods were all on Tuesdays, chicken things fell on Thursdays, Salads went on Saturdays, etc. This just helped me have a little more variety in each week. We don’t really like eating fried chicken one night and chicken cordon bleu the next.
I didn’t plan most meal’s sides. Here I usually used food we had or produce I found for a good price. Sometimes our roast is with carrots and potatoes. Sometimes we have salad and homemade bread.
I like a little more flexibility here so I don’t feel like I have to spend way too much for mushrooms to make something specific but you are welcome to plan out sides with each meal if that works better for you. I made a list of some side dishes I like to reference on days when my mom brain just can’t think of anything.
Then, because I had more recipes than days in the month, I started doubling some days up. That gave me two options on some days so I had a choice based on what sounded good or what I had ingredients left for. Some of you might not have this many recipes. Read the next tip. It seriously saved us!
Consider a night specifically for trying a new recipe. We did Mondays. Every Monday, we try something we’ve never tried. Some days we find new favorites. Sometimes, we open a can of soup or make a sandwich because the new experiment was such a resounding failure no one can gag it down. It’s sad to waste ingredients but I don’t believe in force feeding anyone something that is just horrible. (Spaghetti squash alfredo. Just don’t.) For those of you on a strict budget, try recipes that were specifically recommended to you by someone you trust to minimize the risk of waste. You might also only want 1 or 2 “try something new” nights per month instead of 4 or 5. Whatever works for you. But I’ll tell you, we could eat our meals on the same rotation for a very long time without getting bored because once a week we had a brand new experience.
Begin incorporating your good recipes from step 5 into the monthly meal plan. This will help fill out those missing gaps for those of you without enough recipes. For the rest of you, it will help give you more choices an varieties on more days.
Once you start getting a ton of great recipes stacked up, consider expanding your meal plan. I just upgraded mine to 6 weeks. Soon, I want it to be 2 months long so we have an even longer rotation.
I started meal planning with only dinners. We ate cereal for breakfast most mornings and leftovers were a pretty big staple at lunch so I didn’t plan them either. Since my boys are getting bigger, we have a lot fewer leftovers and I realized cereal is kind of terrible stuff so I just recently planned those both out using the same method. I only have 2 weeks worth of breakfast and 3 weeks worth of lunch right now but I expect they will eventually expand.
See here for my breakfast and lunch rotation. Stuff We’ll Eat B&L
Ta-dah! Your meal planning is done. Congratulations, the easy part is over.
Now for the hard part. Grocery list. Ugh. I didn’t love this part. I went through every recipe I intended to use and made a list if ingredients needed to make them. I just used tally marks so that for each recipe that needed a chicken breast, I wrote a tally next to chicken breast on my list. Once I got through all of the recipes, I added everything up and figured out how many packages of things I needed. I might need 50 tortilla shells but only 5 packages. Some things require guessing for the first month or so, especially produce. I don’t have a clue how many cups (or tablespoons) of onion equals 1 onion.
Write your list so you know how much it takes to get through every recipe for your whole monthly. This will be your master list. Then, every month you only have to look at what you need to get based on that list rather than re-writing it every time. You can use it as a checklist to make sure your ingredients make it to your grocery list. You can also see things you over or under estimated on and adjust accordingly.
This has worked out great for us. Like I said, we spent two years with practically the same meals all month every month. I think if I ever changed anything, I would make a warm weather list and a cold weather list. I’d way rather eat salad in the summer and soup in the winter. Currently, I just try to have two options on days like those but eventually, I think I’d like completely separate lists.
Monthly meal planning also works well for me because we are on a monthly budget plan so I have my entire month worth of grocery money. I usually spend most of my budget in the beginning and reserve just enough for milk and produce at the end of the month if we need it. For anyone who is bi-weekly with their budget, you may need to make some adjustments or perhaps only shop for one half of the month at a time.
I’d love to hear if anyone gives this a try and how it works out for you. Meal planning has saved me so much time and energy and it has also helped save a lot of money on groceries, even without planning around the weekly sale flyer. I hope you have the same good luck with it as I have.