Meal Planning: Save time and money in your kitchen

Tasty Trash: The $55 million Squawkfox Food Waste Challenge is a series aimed at helping your family save up to $1,500 this year by reducing food waste. The environment may also thank us. To start from the beginning, read the introduction.

At 3AM I knew something was wrong. Like usual, I was perched on my sofa stuffing a bottle into my baby’s mouth, trying my best to appease her hungry tummy. The problem was my stomach was starving too. Her cries for food matched my own. Waaaaaaaa! Gulp. Chug. Spit up. Wipe.

meal planning

Somewhere between washing diapers and brewing formula I somehow managed to miss dinner. I recalled seeing Carl peel a hard-boiled egg around 9PM. I think I sliced an apple. But in our frazzled figuring-out-this-new-baby-thing state, our dinner plates went empty. Grumble.

What the heck happened? In our previous child-free existence, we made dinner together every other night, sometimes splitting a bottle of vino. Our meals wern’t fancy or complicated, but they were planned ahead of time, affordable, tasty, healthy, and ready before 7PM. We had lots of leftovers too.

These days I can’t remember the last time I ate anything cooked, let alone shopping with a meaningful grocery list.

At 3:25AM I had an epiphany (or so I’d like to call it in my sleep deprived state) — Carl and I had slipped in our weekly meal planning, and the results were miserable.

My bad. His bad. Frig, I’m pinning this one on the baby.

By 3:45AM I knew the solution and started to get to work, ’cause really, after soothing a baby to sleep and having random epiphanies, it’s impossible to get any shut-eye with all those endorphins floating about. Besides, my dog found a splat of baby spewage on the floor, and watching her lap it up grossed me out in a ‘gag me with a spoon’ sorta way. That’s likely the most unsexy, undelicious, and unfun thing I’ve ever shared. Sorry.

6 Reasons to make a meal plan

Families of all sizes and on all budgets can benefit from a simple menu plan. Here’s why:

1. Reduce food waste.

Since this series is about cutting food waste from your life, I’m putting this one in the numero uno position. If you plan meals and coordinate with your grocery shopping, you won’t have uneaten food go bad in your fridge. You will have an ingredient for every dish ready to go, and plans can include the about-to-expire items in need of a hungry stomach, or a mob of teenagers.

food waste
Take the Food Waste Challenge

The $55 Million Squawkfox Food Waste Challenge is a series aimed at helping your family save up to $1,500 this year by reducing food waste. The environment may also thank us.

2. Save money.

Eating out costs a fortune. Eating at home costs less of a fortune. Scouting the sales in grocery flyers and planning meals around these bargain items can save you a fortune. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

3. Avoid meltdowns and other melancholy.

What’s for dinner, Mom? How much longer for lunch, Dad? I’M HUNGRY! WAAAAAA! Yeah, children can be hungry little ducklings. Prevent your kids from doing the monster mash and having meal-time meltdowns by planning your meals a week in advance and serving in an instant. Magic.

Those without kiddlets can have dinner doldrums too. Avoid those home-late-from-work cases of the hungry stomach sads by having your meal prepped and ready to heat. Adults can be (hungry) ugly ducklings too, you know.

4. Save time.

Better meal planning can mean fewer grocery shopping trips (hello, save on gas anyone?), cut dinner prep time since you’ve got all the ingredients for dinner, and reduce time spent staring into an open fridge.

organized fridge
5 Steps to a Freshly Frugal Fridge

What’s inside your refrigerator? Prevent food waste and save money by getting your fridge organized and storing items in the smartest spots.

Lots of helpful tips, great graphics, and easy steps to keep your food fresher, for longer. Check out The Organized Fridge for the details.

Do your food prep ahead of time — when you HAVE time — to cut back on time crunches (and soccer game nights) by making sure your veggies are chopped and ready to rumble and your chicken is thawed and ready for the BBQ.

Plan your meals large enough and reap the time saving (and sanity sparing) benefits of leftovers! Less time spent cooking means more time for other activities, like sleeping. Sigh.

turkey leftovers
10 Terrific Turkey Leftover Recipes

Take your turkey leftovers and spin them into a second (or third) delicious dinner. Easy recipe ideas for those in a time crunch. See 10 Terrific Turkey Leftover Recipes for the yummys.

5. Make healthier meals.

If you plan it, you’ll eat healthier frugalicious foods. No more takeout ’cause nothing’s ready for dinner. No more more highly processed, sodium stuffed, and fatty instant packaged dinners.

frugalicious food
Stop faking it! Eat frugalicious food!

There’s real food. There’s fake food. And then there’s the frugalicious foods. See How to Find Frugalicious Foods for the tasty ingredient sleuthing tactics.

6. Get the family in on the fun.

Involve your family in the menu planning process — your kids will learn better eating habits and might eat all the food on their plates (yep, less food waste) if they’ve helped decide what’s for dinner.

According to Waste Free “[Kids are] more likely to eat a meal that they’ve helped prepare. Involvement in meal preparation also teaches them where their food comes from, and it provides them with the confidence and skills they will need to prepare food for themselves later in life.”

Bottom Line: Starving students can plan meals on a budget to save money, couples can save time by cooking only a few times per week (freezing the leftovers), and families can avoid kiddlet meltdowns by having food ready (and on hand) to fill empty stomachs before the big soccer game or music recital.

Two Meal Planning Tools

I’ve put together two types of meal planning tools: A blank meal planner download, and a DIY whiteboard project. Pick one, or both.

1. Blank Meal Planner Download

Ideal for sticking on the fridge or on a cork board near the family dinner table.

menu planner

Free Download: Printable Blank Meal Planner (pdf)

2. DIY Meal Planner Whiteboard

This project is great for cutting back on paper, perfect for jotting down ideas, erasing dishes the family vetoes, and creating an on-the-go shopping list for your next grocery trip.

menu planning

Stuff you’ll need:

meal planner

Whiteboard items:

STEP ONE: Measure. Use a ruler to mark and measure a grid three or four columns across (days of week, breakfast, lunch, dinner) and eight rows down. Leave room at the bottom for a shopping list. The size of each row and column depend on the size of your whiteboard.

7 day meal planner

Note: Carl and I generally only plan our lunches and dinners since breakfasts often consist of just oatmeal, fruit, cereal, or toast.

STEP TWO: Tape. Painter’s tape is easy to remove and shouldn’t leave residue on your whiteboard, so it’s my choice for creating an attractive and durable 7-day menu grid. Cut tape to correct measurements and stick it to your whiteboard. If you love re-drawing a grid every week, feel free to skip this step.

STEP THREE: Label. Use different colored dry-erase markers to represent the days of the week, dinner, lunch, breakfast, and leftovers.

meal planning

I draw red arrows to show when I’m planning to eat my lovely leftovers.

menu planner meal planner

The space in the bottom serves as my on-to-go shopping list.

How to Make a Meal Plan

Menu planning is easy, people. I made mine at 4:15AM in the morning while watching a baby sleep. OK, the husband stepped in to make sure I was still alive (honestly, I think he missed me. Or maybe he needed another hard boiled egg for dinner. I dunno). But all it takes to devise a 7-day meal plan is a strong desire to eat, and a little brain magic. Don’t ask me what ‘brain magic’ means, it’s 4:15AM.

STEP ONE: Pick a day, any day. After asking the fine people who follow me on Twitter and like me Facebook about meal planning, most agree that Saturday or Sunday is the bestest day to plan weekly meals.

Tip: It’s a good idea to pick a day before your weekly grocery trip so you can create a grocery list that corresponds to your recipes.

STEP TWO: Hunt and gather. This step takes a little legwork.

  • Peek into your pantry, fridge, and freezer and list the ingredients you have on hand. Note which foods are about to expire, and how many need to be consumed pronto.
  • Check the weekly grocery flyers for sale items and deals on meat, produce, dairy etc., and try to use these bargains in your weekly meal plan.
  • Use your noggin (BINGO — that’s brain magic) and think about all the dinner recipes and lunch ideas that tickle your tummy’s fancy using your stocked ingredients and a few grocery sale items. Make a list of seven dinners, lunches, breakfasts, and snacks.

Recipe Sleuthing Tip: Got a few odd leftover ingredients in need of a tasty recipe? Check out and search for the top rated meals based on your lowly food items. This is a great tool for finding new ways to use leftovers.

Rotate Your Recipes: Keep a list of all your family favorites and reuse your recipes the next month. Creating a stack of meals on recipe cards can help reduce your planning time in the future.

STEP THREE: Make the meal plan, man. Grab your whiteboard or download our Printable Blank Meal Planner and start scheduling your meals.

Place an ‘X’ through the days where you won’t need a home meal, such as dinners out or office lunch meetings.

Plan to eat easy meals like leftovers on busy days (hockey practice nights) and schedule meal preparation when you have more time (weekends).

Try not to be a bore by eating the same thing all week long, but don’t get too crazy either and introduce more than one new recipe per week — learning how to cook new things can be exhausting and time consuming, no matter how delicious.

STEP FOUR: Get listed. Go shopping. List all ingredients needed for each meal. Cross off any ingredients you have at home, and make note of what’s on sale.

printable grocery shopping list
Grocery Shopping List

Stuck in a grocery store aisle wondering what groceries to buy? Download the Printable Grocery Shopping List to help in your quest to find affordable, healthy, and delicious foods fast.

Go grocery shopping. Avoid the impulse buys. Be strong.

STEP FIVE: Get cookin’, good lookin’. Cook your nightly meal and prepare your daily lunches. Store leftovers safely. Each evening, look through the next day’s plan and do any early prep. For example, if beans need soaking, start them now. If meat needs defrosting, pull it out of your freezer.

how to defrost a freezer
How to Defrost Your Freezer

When your freezer is a time capsule celebrating the Ice Age, then maybe it’s time to join the Modern Age by thawing your deep freeze. Check out How to Defrost Your Freezer to get the job done.

Next Steps: When things go very wrong

Pobody’s nerfect. Seriously. Perhaps your previous night’s chicken was smaller than you thought, leaving little for today’s leftovers. Maybe you got stuck in traffic and don’t have time to start dinner. Or maybe one of the kids decides to bring home a friend for dinner. Gotcha.

Tactics: When meal plans become problematic

  • Swap: No, don’t swap your husband (wife or crying baby), but switch out a complicated meal for something easier.
  • Emergency meals: Have a few easy ‘go-to’ emergency meals you can make on the back burner. Scrambled eggs with ham or an omelet can be made in a pinch for an easy dinner.
  • Get frozen: On days where you have more leftovers than you had planned (or hoped for), freeze them for future emergency meals.
  • Get back on track: Do you best to get back on schedule for the next meal — you don’t want all those fresh ingredients going to waste!

OK, it’s dawn. The birds are chirping and the sun is mocking my spontaneous all-nighter. Carl is making coffee and marvelling at my euphoria-driven insanity to plan meals over the next week. I totally rocked this meal plan, and now I need some serious sleep. Hmmm, but first — breakfast! Chow!


Your two cents:

  1. Rob May 25th, 2012

    Dogs eat anything. Seriously. They are food vacuums. Especially dogs named beer.

    I’m on a juice fast so meals are easy. Pour fruit and veggies into the top of the juicer. Stop when you’ve got a liter of juice. Drink juice. Repeat 4 times a day. πŸ™‚

    I drove through Vernon a few days ago. I could sense the black hole of tiredness off in the distance. πŸ™‚

  2. Pippa May 25th, 2012

    *Dogs eat anything. Seriously. They are food vacuums.*

    Very true.

    But very false economy if you really are serious. Feed a dog anything and you, the owner, will be paying the price in vet bills. Check out this link for a list of foods dogs should not be given.

    Sorry for hijacking, Kerry, but this is all about making ends meet and getting value for money…which is getting more and more scarce it seems.

    Have a warm weekend!

  3. Rob May 25th, 2012


    I make a joke about the dog eating baby barf and you feel the need to point out the gazillion things that dogs shouldn’t eat? I notice that baby barf isn’t on the list, so I guess Kerry’s OK.


  4. Carl Lassegue May 25th, 2012

    I’ve been meal planning for over 3 months now and you’re right it saves a lot time and money. I usually plan my meals around the different deals the store has.

  5. Pippa May 25th, 2012

    I stand corrected Rob…I’d not seen that. One more reason to read the fine print. Sorry.

  6. Lili May 25th, 2012

    It’s so hard, especially with the first child. It took us by surprise. Two otherwise organized, got-it-together people, suddenly can’t do basic things in a timely manner (don’t even get me started on how many bills I failed to pay on time in those first months).
    A meal plan is essential, if the two of you like to eat. I find that even if I’m just making out my plan the night before, I’ve got a start (in my mind at least) on the next night’s dinner. I also find that if I start making dinner, just chopping veggies, making the rice or something, in the AM, then it feels like I just have a little left to do, by the time the afternoon rolls around. A lot of people use a crock pot in the same way –load it up in the AM and when late afternoon comes, and you’re tired, the baby’s getting fussy, dinner is almost done.
    Anyways, good luck. You’ll get through this. Your baby will grow up so quickly. And you’ll find a new normal.

  7. This was great! I don’t remember having meal planning issues when my son was an infant. I don’t remember much about when my son was an infant. Which is probably why I’m sitting here waiting to embark on round 2 in about 6 weeks.

    Of course, I nursed on mat leave while watching a LOT of food network, so I incorporated food into my day that way. What I learned is that the baby napped about 3x a day. So during one nap, I napped. During one nap, I put him in the sling and walked (usually to the grocery store to buy food). And during one nap, I did chores – sometimes laundry, sometimes dinner prep, like chopping veggies, shredding cheese, or precooking rice or pasta. This made final assembly faster.

    My meal planning has varied from “crap, what’s for dinner” to “monthly”. Mostly now it’s 3-4 days at a time. I plan on Friday nights because our CSA pick up day is Thursday and the farmer’s market/grocery store run is Saturday. Plus, I never REALLY know how long the leftovers are going to last us mid-week.

    My “emergency” meals tend to be grilled cheese, veggie burgers, pasta with marinara, and stir-fry. These are rarely planned into the week ahead of time, they just kinda show up.

    Great plan! I use a monthly white board, so I only put dinner meals on there, not lunch.

  8. A really great post on a really important money and time saving topic, Kerry. Our weeks always run smoother when we menu plan. We’ve shared our cheap meal plan board Tutorial on our blog too. A side benefit of using it is that the kids can see what’s coming up and it gives them some sense that if their favorite isn’t today – groan – it will be tomorrow – yay.

    BTW I am totally not shocked or grossed out by your over share. Dogs and spit up are a sort of symbiotic relationship. It’s probably why mankind domesticated them!

  9. Jules May 26th, 2012

    This is almost exactly what I do. I still get an occasional squishy kiwi or some shriveled grapes, but by and large it’s definitely a big time and effort saver. The only major problem I’ve been running into is that the closest (and cheaper) supermarket’s flyers run Wednesday-Tuesday, while the other supermarket (more expensive but better variety) has the normal Monday-Saturday cycle. Even so, it’s helped us manage our grocery budget quite well…well, at least in the weeks my boyfriend doesn’t decide to shop with me…

  10. Laura May 27th, 2012

    I too have been planning meals for a long time and I make one trip to the grocery store with a list. However, I have 3 grown/growing boys in my house, so there is never leftovers. I am always concerned if there is enough food. I try to make extra veggies and a starch. A lot of planning and work for a working mother who is also hungry and tired. They all have school and work, so it is all on me to cook, with a smile…

  11. Ajka May 30th, 2012

    I always have the dilemma whether to shop at Loblaws (expensive but at least the store is not a mess),close by, or make a drive to No Frills (less $$ but getting everything I want can be a hit /miss).
    On top of that, I don’t get any flyers at home. I used to get a truckload each week but years ago, suddenly nothing. So I never know what’s on sale until I am at the store and I have to admit I don’t always bother checking the flyer as that means going all way to the entrance (I enter the store via an escalator from the underground parking). Besides, the stuff on sale usually does match my planned menu.

  12. Lili@creativesavv May 30th, 2012

    Ajka, can you find ads for your stores online before you go shopping? The stores around here all have their ads online. Don’t know if it’s the same where you live.

  13. KT June 12th, 2012

    LOVE your site! It is colorful, great graphics, and a well-planned organized presentation. Found you via the popcorn link on Pinterest.

    Back to the topic…………..
    Except for fresh ingredients, I have all the ingredients in my freezer and pantry for nearly every meal that I ever prepare. I purchased those items on sale and stock up on a few extras. I combine sales and coupons, but do not do extreme couponing. Having everything already on hand makes dealing with sudden meal planning changes easy.

    Sunday is when I do meal planning, cutting and sorting coupons, and making shopping lists from the sale flyers. My recipes are on 4″x6″ index cards in a box. Dividers are “This Week” and “Meals Used”. Each evening after cleaning up the kitchen after supper, I take the recipe card from the counter and place it right behind the divider of “Meals Used”. Then I pull the recipe card for the next day from the section “This Week”, scan it, and pull items from the freezer, if needed. When planning meals for the next week, I start with the oldest cards in “Meals Used.”

    When shopping with my list, I only purchase fresh items and anything on sale that would replenish my freezer or pantry. Upon returning home from the store, I update my freezer list on my computer.

  14. Dawne June 15th, 2012

    Kerry, as a mom of 6, I have 2 words for you. Baby. Wrap.

    It’s a bit different from a turkey wrap, but much better πŸ™‚

    Then you can walk around and do things with both of your hands while the baby is snuggled on you (and sleeping happily, hopefully. The motion soothes baby and helps her get nice long naps, and you could actually wrap baby and then sit back in a chair and doze if you are really wiped out. Or you could chop veggies for dinner. Or hang out on the computer with us. Just don’t expect us to be here at 3:45 am.

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