Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning: Save money and time

2018-01-22T14:53:52+00:00 Food, Saving|

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.

Beginner's Guide to Meal Planning

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 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.

Related: How to reduce food waste and save thousands of dollars a year

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.

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.

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 “[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.

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.



  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.

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