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 Allrecipes.com 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,
Kerry

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

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