Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning {save time and money}


Meal planning saves money, saves time, and as a student, parent, gig hacker, or a human being who likes to eat — saves you from getting hungry. Meal planning is also one of the easiest things you can do to eat healthier. If there’s something homemade and it’s ready to rumble in the fridge, you are less likely to make a last minute fast food decision to feed the hangry (hungry + angry) on the way home.

OK, let’s talk money. I can’t count the all dollars you’ll save for every meal you make at home, but I did calculate the cost of my lunch. By doing the mathy math, I figured I’d save $2,450 per year (that’s five lunches a week) by preparing and making my lunch at home. Woot!

Beginner's Guide to Meal Planning

With meal planning I find my homemade daily lunches and dinners are always high on nutrition with whole foods and low on the heavily processed ingredients often found in takeout.

OK, let’s talk time. I pick a day and use my Instant Pot for an hour. Then I make another meal in under an hour. And then I’m done. Maybe you need more than two hours, maybe less. That’s up to you and your schedule. This post can help!

So let’s do this. Here’s the Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning — even if you hate meal planning. Kudos.

Meal planning for beginners

Menu planning is easy, promise. It may take a few tries to get into the habit and find the weekly pattern that works for you, but you can do it.

meal plan

Step 1: Pick a day, any day.

You’ve got seven days to choose from, so pick one. I tend to plan my meals on Friday so I’m ready to do my grocery haul on Saturday. Start by counting how many meals you need for the week ahead. Take a quick inventory of everyone’s plans and give yourself a rough tally. A sample list might include: seven breakfasts for everyone, six family dinners, five school lunches (1 kid), and eight work lunches (two parents).

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

meal planner

Step 2: Check your pantry and fridge for ingredients.

If the back of your panty has been neglected for a while, this step might reveal a whole bunch of ingredients you forgot about. If your cupboards are a little more bare, this step should be quick.

  • Peek into your pantry, fridge, and freezer and list the ingredients you have on hand. Note which foods have an upcoming “Best-Before” date and should be consumed sooner.
  • Start thinking about recipes — all the dinner recipes and lunch ideas that tickle your tummy’s fancy using your stocked ingredients. Make a list of possible meal ideas using what you have in your freezer, fridge, and pantry. Start thinking about the ingredients you’ll need to purchase.

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

meal planning ideas

Step 3: Watch for grocery deals!

Check the weekly grocery flyers for sales and deals on meat, produce, dairy etc., and try to use these bargains in your weekly meal plan.

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.

Tip: A grocery flyer app can help you cut through the clutter and find the best deals. Check out these 5 Free grocery apps that save you time and money — plus they are all free.

plan to eat

Step 4: Make a schedule.

Grab our 3 Meal Planner Templates (or use a whiteboard) and start scheduling your weekly meals. Place an ‘X’ through the days where you won’t need a home meal, such as dinners out or office lunch meetings.

meal planner

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.

meal planning calendar

Step 5: 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. Before buying something on impulse, ask yourself Is it worth it? and avoid the ‘Fluff Factor’ — that’s adding stuff to your cart you don’t need. It’s adds up!

healthy meal plans

Step 6: Get cooking!

I have three easy methods for meal preparation — you may have more.

ONE: Batch Cooking. Set aside a few hours on a less busy day (Saturdays or Sundays are popular) and cook a few meals at a time. I tend to use my Instant Pot to prepare two meals on Sunday, and then refrigerate one for Monday and Tuesday night, and freeze the other for Thursday and Friday night. Cooking everything at once saves my sanity because dinner is done, and all I have to do is reheat the main dish and prepare a side dish, if needed.

TWO: The Nightly Nosh Each evening, look through the next day’s plan and do the early prep to best prepare. If meat needs defrosting, pull it out of your freezer. If beans need soaking, give them a bath.

THREE: Freezer Cooking. Take all the raw ingredients you need for a meal and combine the lot in a freezer-safe container or bag, lay flat, and freeze! Defrost on demand and cook away! Freezer cooking is most often done in bulk so you have a few meals ready-to-go at a time. Start by simply doubling a recipe you already love, serving one today and freezing the second for later. Freezer cooking works well with stews, lasagnas, and anything that can be layered and cooked later.

How to Better Organize your Kitchen {it’s easy}

Is your refrigerator a mess? My step-by-step guide, How to Organize Your Fridge shows you how and where to store food safely.

Is your pantry crowded? If your pantry is far from perfect (been there) then get decluttered in my step-by-step guide How to Organize Your Pantry.

Is your freezer full? Check out How to Organize Your Freezer for a step-by-step organization guide, free food storage labels, and tips for getting more out of your icebox.

Is your freezer frozen? If you fear your freezer because it resembles the ice age, check out How to Defrost Your Freezer. You’ll need a hairdryer and a sense of humor, but you’ll love freezing food and meal planning again.

Next Steps: When things go wrong {very wrong}

Life can come at you quickly, and even your best meal plans and awesome foodie intentions can go bust. 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 cook this evening. Or maybe one of the kids decides to bring a friend home for dinner. Gotcha. Here’s help.

Tactics: When meal planning becomes problematic

  • Swap: Switch out a complicated meal for something easier. Use your meal planning template to reschedule something simple.
  • 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. I have a few pre-made frozen pizzas ready to pop into the oven.
  • 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 your best to get back on schedule for the next meal — you don’t want all those fresh ingredients going to waste!

What did I miss? How has meal planning helped your bottom line? Let me know in the comments below.

Love love love,

Related Posts:
Meal Planner Templates
How to Save $2,940 a Year on Lunch
How to Organize your Refrigerator
How to Organize your freezer
How to Organize the Perfect Pantry
Impulse Spending on Food: What’s your Fluff Factor?
Defrost your freezer and warm up to cool savings
Use a Food Waste Diary to save money
10 Healthy lunch box ideas for under $2
1 Organic Chicken, 22 Healthy Meals, $49 Bucks


  1. Rob May 25, 2012 at 8:41 am

    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. 🙂

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

  2. Pippa May 25, 2012 at 10:29 am

    *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 25, 2012 at 12:01 pm


    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 25, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    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 25, 2012 at 4:56 pm

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

  6. Lili May 25, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    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. Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple May 26, 2012 at 2:05 am

    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. Robin from Frugal Family Times May 26, 2012 at 4:20 am

    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 26, 2012 at 7:24 am

    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 27, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    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. […] Excellent post over at Squawkfox:  Meal Planning: Save Time and Money in Your Kitchen […]

  12. Ajka May 30, 2012 at 8:18 am

    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.

  13. Lili@creativesavv May 30, 2012 at 9:15 am

    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.

  14. KT June 12, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    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.

  15. Dawne June 15, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    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 🙂

    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.

  16. Allan Smith September 3, 2018 at 2:19 pm

    I have never thought about money saving on meals in such a methodical way. As a finance blogger, I always try to explore different ways to save money. We always invest a good portion of our income on food. It is great if we can save a few bucks on food. As a resource, your article is a great inspiration. I am happy to land here. Thank you for sharing.

  17. Sarah anderson September 25, 2018 at 10:03 am

    Meal planning is really necessary and this is a wonderful guide to for it.Thank you so much for such balanced diet plan.

  18. Emma S October 1, 2018 at 12:52 pm

    Planning meals does save time (in the long run) and money; not to mention week day stress. Thanks for sharing!

  19. Danielle Ogilve October 8, 2018 at 6:22 am

    This is so useful! Not only does it save money, but it also helps people not to be wasteful!

  20. Danielle Ogilve October 9, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    Not only is it good for you financially, but also a huge help to stopping waste. It’s a pity how much food is gone to waste because of poor planning.

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