Meal planning saves money, saves time, and as a new parent — saved my sanity. My adventures in meal planning started with a startle in the wee hours of the morning just after becoming a parent.
Somewhere between caring for a newborn and getting some sleep, I somehow managed to miss dinner. I recalled seeing the husband 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.
In our previous child-free life, we made dinner together every other night, sometimes splitting a bottle of wine. 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.
Related: How to Save $2,940 a Year on Lunch
With our lives in a flux with a newborn, I knew the best way to get back on track with healthy eating and affordable means was to get back into the meal planning routine again.
Meal planning for beginners
Menu planning is easy. Download my guide and get to it.
Step 1: Pick a day, any day.
Planning your meals around local grocery flyers and weekly sales makes good money sense. As new flyers tend to be available Wednesday through Friday, planning recipes with the food you already have on hand and sales items can save you a lot of money. When chicken is on sale then stock up! If you’re more a weekend person then sit down and plan a few homemade meals on Saturday or Sunday.
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 2: Check your pantry and fridge.
This step takes a little bit of preparation.
- Peek into your pantry, fridge, and freezer and list the ingredients you have on hand. Note which foods are about to expire, and 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 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.
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.
Recipe Sleuthing Tip: Got a few odd leftover ingredients in need of a tasty recipe? Check out Allrecipes.com and search for the top rated meals based on your ingredients. This is a great tool for finding new ways to use leftovers.
Step 3: Make the meal plan.
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 4: Make a grocery list. 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. Head to the grocery store with a list and be on a mission to stick to it. Don’t fall for the Fluff Factor and avoid the impulse buys. Be strong.
Step 5: Get cooking!
Cook your nightly meal and prepare your daily lunches. Organize your fridge and learn how to store leftovers safely. Each evening, look through the next day’s plan and do any early prep. If meat needs defrosting, pull it out of your freezer.
Related: How to Defrost Your Freezer
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!
How meal planning can save you money and time.
Families of all sizes and on all budgets can benefit from a simple menu plan. I did a little math, even small steps like bringing your lunch to work or school can save up to $2,940 a year. Here’s why:
1. Reduce food waste.
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 recipe.
2. Save money.
Eating out can cost a small fortune. Eating at home and making the most of leftovers and ingredients you have on hand costs a lot less. Scouting the grocery sales and meal planning around these bargain items can save you a big 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, kids can be hungry little grumps. 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.
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.
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.
5. Make healthier meals.
If you plan it, you’ll eat healthier. No more takeout ’cause nothing’s ready for dinner. No more more highly processed instant packaged dinners.
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 Lunches.org “[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.”
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.
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.
Stuff you’ll need:
- Dry-erase whiteboard
- Dry-erase markers
- Painter’s tape
- Ruler or tape measure
- Cookbooks, with your favorite recipes
- Brain magic
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.
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.
I draw red arrows to show when I’m planning to eat my lovely leftovers.
The space in the bottom serves as my on-to-go shopping list.