Learn how to plan delicious, healthy, and affordable meals every single week! Download the FREE printable meal planning worksheets to make planning easy!
Hello, it’s me. Your friendly neighborhood meal planning advocate. Meal planning is a habit I’ve adopted within the past year, and I can confidently say it’s helped me save hundreds of dollars, reduce my food waste, get more creative in the kitchen, and preserve my overall sanity. In short, it’s improved my quality of life tenfold, so I’ve built a nice, big soapbox from which to tout its greatness to all of you!
In this six-part series, I’m going to take you through my meal planning process step by step to show you that it doesn’t have to be hard, boring, or super time consuming.
This is the first installment of the series; over the next four weeks, I’ll deliver weekly recaps of my experience with the process. And if you follow along in your own kitchen, you’ll end up with a fuller wallet, a clearer mind, and several healthy meals to put on the table. What’s not to love about that?
If you’re a newbie, no worries! This series will be chock-full of helpful pointers to make meal planning less daunting, more fun, and totally approachable. Hopefully, you’ll learn a thing or two, and if you’re already a meal planning expert, I hope to give you some new ideas too.
To help you visualize the planning process and organize your ideas, I created a set of three printable worksheets, which you can download here.
DOWNLOAD THE FREE PRINTABLE MEAL PLANNING WORKSHEETS HERE!
Got ’em printed? Great. Without further ado, let’s hop into the step-by-step meal planning process. The planning process typically takes me about an hour, and I fit it in whenever I have some free time. Usually, I plan the next week on Saturday morning, go grocery shopping on Sunday morning, and kick off that week’s menu on Monday. It might seem like a lot at first, but once you get the hang of it, the first few steps will become second nature.
MY WEEKLY MEAL PLANNING PROCESS
Each week, I follow a system that goes more or less like this:
- Look at the week’s schedule.
- Determine how many meals to make.
- Look through the weekly sale ads for my local grocery stores.
- Choose a few recipes that look good, leaning on sale items and things I already have on hand.
- Make a grocery list.
- Go shopping.
- Cook all the things!
In more detail, though, here’s how it shakes out:
First, write out what your week is going to look like. Plans with friends, late nights at the office, and after-work classes all impact how we plan, cook, and eat our meals. If I know that we’re going out with friends on Saturday night, I won’t plan a dinner for that night. Or, if I’m planning on attending an exercise class one evening, I’ll find a recipe that’s quick and easy.
With your weekly schedule in mind, determine how many meals you’ll need to make. On an average week with minimal plans, I’ll plan 4 dinners, along with a breakfast recipe and a lunch recipe to prep for the work week.
Look through your cabinets, fridge, and freezer to figure out what ingredients you already have/things that need to be used up.
Skim weekly ads for stores near you to determine major ingredients that are on sale and that might go well with ingredients you already have. For example, if I have a jar of sun dried tomatoes and a can of artichokes in my cabinet, and I see that chicken is on sale at Fresh Thyme, I’ll plan on making a Mediterranean chicken dish with those ingredients. Or, if pasta is on sale, maybe I’ll make a Greek-inspired pasta dish with them instead.
Pull up blogs, Buzzfeed recipe roundups, and cookbooks if you’ve got ‘em, and find a few recipes that look promising. (I usually try to incorporate at least one of my own recipes in here for recipe testing, but you don’t have to make anything up if you’re not comfortable!) Here are some of my tried-and-true faves for delicious, simple, budget-friendly recipes:
Make a list of all the recipes you plan on making! Keep cookbook pages marked and blog tabs open, because you’ll need to reference the recipes for the next step.
Go through your recipes and make a grocery list, referencing what you already have in your cupboards so you don’t buy duplicates. I use the Out of Milk app to make my grocery list and it’s a game changer! It automatically sorts items into categories for you, so you can grab everything you need from the produce department, everything you need from the baking aisle, etc., all in one swoop.
The fun part! (In my opinion!) Take that list, grab your reusable bags and containers, and hit up the grocery store! When I’m really trying to save money, I’ll drive across town to Aldi to pick up my basics. On the way home, I’ll hit up Fresh Thyme or Kroger for produce and other staples Aldi didn’t have in stock.
TIPS FOR BUDGETING, STAYING MOTIVATED, AND PLANNING EFFICIENTLY
- My biggest tip for saving money? Try buying fewer meat and dairy products. Seriously, they’re so expensive. Even chicken breasts are 4-5 times more expensive than a plant-based source of protein. I’ll typically cook some sort of animal protein once a week; the rest is vegetarian.
- Make a plan and buy what’s on sale! I always, always, always check out the weekly ads for the stores around me before I go shopping. If your store offers electronic coupons, clip those too. I highly recommend the Flipp app if you have multiple stores near you; it compiles all your weekly ads in one place to make planning easy.
- Buy in bulk, if possible. Dry beans, lentils, and nuts are incredible sources of protein, and they’re typically offered for lower prices in the bulk aisle. Pick up as little or as much as you want. Bonus points for bringing your own reusable container!
- Shop seasonally. SeasonalFoodGuide.org is a great resource for discovering what’s in season near you. Not only are these items more delicious because they’re at their peak, they’re also typically on sale. Win-win!
- Take advantage of low-cost stores like Aldi. In general, if you live in an area where you have access to many stores, know your options well and choose the most budget-friendly option. For me, Aldi is the cheapest, then Kroger or Meijer, then Fresh Thyme, then Whole Foods.
- Write out your weekly meals somewhere that you’ll see them every day. We have a small whiteboard in our kitchen where I write the weekly meal plan. If you see the names of those delicious meals every day, it’ll remind you of all the time and effort you put into planning them, and you’ll be less inclined to skip out on cooking and order takeout instead.
- Find good-for-you recipes you know you’ll enjoy! This one should go without saying, but all too often, people equate “eating on a budget” to “eating sad, boring food day in and day out.” Similarly, when people first start trying to make healthier choices, they often think they have to make bland, repetitive meals in order to see results. This simply isn’t the case! Don’t be afraid of flavor or of trying new things. Stock your spice cabinet, go hard on the garlic, and learn to season your food properly. And finally, unless you have a health condition that requires a low-sodium diet, don’t be afraid to add salt to your food. Believe me; the amount of salt you add while cooking could never compare to the amount of salt companies add to processed food. You’ll reduce your sodium intake just by cooking at home, so don’t go without salt. It’ll make your food, ya know, actually taste good.
- Select a wide variety of recipes so you’ll have different options to suit different moods. I typically try to include several different flavor profiles in each weekly plan. So, instead of having Italian-themed dishes every night, we might have spaghetti night, then fancy ramen, then chickpea shawarma. Meal planning is much more exciting when you have new things to look forward to throughout the week!
- If you’re new to this whole meal planning thing, don’t feel obligated to do everything all at once. You don’t have to plan out and prep for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of the week. If you want to start slow by planning out your weekly dinners, keep it simple and start there! One size does not fit all, so find the method that works best for you!
- Don’t feel like you have to make each meal on a specific day. I plan my meals this way because it allows for flexibility. I’ve tried writing out what I’m going to make every day of the week, but sometimes I get to Thursday and I don’t want chili. In my experience, it’s much easier to come up with a few ideas that sound good, then decide which one you’re going to make the day of.
- Don’t overthink it. You don’t have to use up every spare bit and bob you have lying around your cupboards. The general rule is this: If it sounds delicious, make it. If it doesn’t, don’t. It’s easy to get hung up on whether or not you’re “doing it right,” but the thing is, if you’re shopping more efficiently and making food you like to eat, you’re doing it right.