Frugal Living 

Ten Tips for Successful Meal Planning

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Grocery ShoppingI think these two words bring different thoughts for different people. I know I may be unique, but all of my adult life I have found I love planning my trip to the grocery store – writing the grocery list, pricing out the items, going shopping.

When our daughter came along, though, I knew I needed to get more serious about the actual meal planning part. Not only did we need to save money, but I also realized how chaotic the dinner hour can get with a little one. For us, dinner time was when our daughter wanted to be fed and now its when she wants to play. For many families, the dinner hour is when everything comes together – kids are arriving home from activities, parents are coming from work, lots of communication is happening about the day, homework, relationships… And, all while trying to think about what items you have at home to make a meal and you’re considering whether its easier to run out to the grocery store for missing items or for fast food.

So, with all of that I decided on saving money and my sanity and plan meals each and every week! To be honest, I think more than anything else, I just love putting a price on the weekly meal plan and “playing the game” of sticking within that budget. Now, I know it meal planning may sound like a bit of work, but it’s much less time consuming and cheaper than not having a plan! I promise! There are so many reasons to meal plan – saving time, money and energy being the key things! Where a lot of people get stuck, I think, is how to actually start.

Ten Tips for Successful Meal Planning

  1. Just get started! Any plan, regardless of how good or bad it is, is better than having no plan at all. I love having a list of meals on my fridge so I don’t find myself scrambling at 4PM wondering what will be for dinner. It’s a lot easier planning the week’s meals on a lazy Sunday than the day of, I welcome the opportunity to just go on auto-pilot and prepare a meal, rather than think and prepare!
  2. Review the week’s sales circulars. Planning your meals around those items will really help make your grocery trip more cost effective! If the local grocery store is having a sale on chicken breast, we’re sure to put chicken parmigiana on the menu. Reviewing the circulars helps ensure you take full advantage of your store’s sales cycle.
  3. Start your shopping list during the week by writing down items you need. By starting your week during the week and keeping a runny tally of things you need, you won’t forget them on shopping day. If I do forget, I try to go without it so I can avoid a second or third trip to the grocery store and some some money that way.
  4. Shop around the edge of the store. These tend to be the fresher, less processed items. It’ll save you some money and you’ll have better nutritional options in those areas. There there are healthy options all throughout the store, but they tend to concentrate on the edge of the store.
  5. Don’t bring your kids if you can help it. Grocery stores are designed to appeal to children, they keep all the sugary cereals and all the sweets at their eye level so they can beg and plead for them. If you can help it, and I know it’s not always easy, try to go without them.
  6. Keep your normal meals and create new meals by tweaking ingredients a bit. With pasta, for example, buy whole wheat instead. When thinking about rolls or biscuits, try making your own using whole wheat flour.
  7. Cook ahead of time. Whether you make a couple of meals to freeze for busy nights or just make extra to freeze half, I’ve found it’s wonderful to know there is a home cooked meal sitting in the fridge or freezer. It’s a lot easier to defrost and/or stick something into the oven than to make a meal entirely from scratch! Another tip, I’ve made four loaves of bread at a time to freeze so that we could save money in that way.
  8. Do what you can ahead of time. This kind of sounds like the one above, but here I’m talking about the daily preparation. Last night, for example, we had a vegetable medley roast with steak. I washed and cut the vegetables in the morning as well as marinated the steak so that everything was ready to go into the oven that evening. I was much more motivated in the morning and didn’t have to really think about it, then, all day.
  9. Use leftovers! Whether you rethink them and use them to create a new meal or just eat the same thing twice, this saves so much money! I even write leftovers into our meal plan each week. I know that we’ll have them to use and I want to make sure we use them. If you hate eating leftovers, but often have food leftover from your meal, just start making less at each meal. This way, it’s helping the environment as well as your pocket book. Learn how much your family really eats.
  10. Have fun and keep it flexible! A meal plan is supposed to be helpful to a simple and peaceful home, not an extra burden.

There are so many benefits to meal planning, especially giving you more time and energy to do the things you really want and need to do! For a lot more helpful information on meal planning and healthy eating on a budget check out “A Month of Meals” – complete with the work done for you (meals, recipes, weekly plans for a month, and shopping list)! I also write on my blog – Baby Get Green.

(Photo: ralphbijker)

{ 14 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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14 Responses to “Ten Tips for Successful Meal Planning”

  1. Meal planning can be an enormous task, especially if you’re a newbie chef. I try to think of good ideas for meals, but I always come back to some chicken and rice dish and pasta because they are the easiest.

    Recently, I’ve started checking out the frozen meal sections of the grocery store. I’m not out their buying hungry man though. I’m looking for good ideas. Frozen meals will really help get you thinking about what you can make.

  2. saladdin says:

    I take leftovers for work lunch but there are very few things I like heated up the next day.


  3. Patrick says:

    I love meal planning. My fiance and I just started doing it and it really saves us time and money and allows us to more easily shop.

  4. Shannon says:

    Yes, meal planning has been greatly overlooked thanks to fast food. Meal planning can really help cut down the spending of a family and at the same time provide nutritious, home cooked meals.

    Meals with “heavy veggies” like carrots, potatoes etc will do fine in the refrigerator but herbs or leafy veggies like spinach really need to be bought, or picked just right before cooking. Simple solution? Plant these in your garden!

  5. Great article.

    I think tip 7 is especially essential. Just consider that it doesn’t take that much extra effort to make a double portion of any meal. Serve one portion and then freeze the other portion.

    Do this for every meal for a week or two and you’ll quickly have a stash of frozen meals in your freezer that are great when you have a hectic weeknight and need something quick to serve your family.

    Its like having a fast food restaurant in your freezer.

    Another option is making several meals at the same time and freezing them for later use. Two great books that provide great recipes for accomplishing this are:

    Fix, Freeze, and Feast by Kati Neville and Lindsay Tkacsik


    Don’t Panic – Dinner’s in the Freezer by Susie Martinez, Vanda Howell, and Bonnie Garcia

    Tip 9 is also a great money saver. Consider stocking up on items like potatoes, eggs, and salad greens. These are what I call meal extenders as they allow you to make an extra meal from left-overs.

    Almost any sauce from a meal the night before can be poured over a baked potato to make another meal. Many left-overs can be combined with eggs to create an omelette or mixed with salad greens to make another meal.

  6. tom says:

    I think the first step is the most important, don’t expect to get it perfect, just do it.

    As I always say Ready Fire and then you AIM
    not Ready Aim Fire
    You could end up aiming for a long time.

  7. BrewCrewFan says:

    Great post. I’ve started to planning our family’s meals. Not only are we eating better, we are also reducing our monthly food budget. There are fewer expenditures at food restaurants and I am able to consolidate shopping trips at the warehouse grocery store for many of the staples in my pantry. While I still prefer to buy meat and produce at the local grocery store, I am making fewer trips and making less impulse purchases.

    I have been using for recipe ideas. The user ratings are a good way to identify new recipes to try. Does anyone else have any good recipe websites to share?

  8. bocarat says:

    I think the key is flexibility. Let the person who does the cooking also clip coupons, check sales and do the shopping… if possible.

    Have a repertoire of various dishes and be flexible based on what’s on sales, seasonal etc.

    Watch the cooking shows for ideas, too!

    • Jim says:

      We’ve been growing our list of dishes we can whip up without looking at a recipe and it’s helped tremendously. I think having a good portfolio of backup dishes is great when you’re in a rush. Not much time? Whip out some pasta and a homemade pasta sauce. Have more time? Maybe you make a chicken pot pie. 🙂

  9. bocarat says:

    When I roast a whole chicken, I always make a pot pie out of the leftovers and vegetables.

    I used to make my own pasta sauce but if I can get a jar of decent sauce for around $2 it’s cheaper than scratch. Though we often just have pasta with a little olive oil , garlic and basil instead of sauce, and it’s healthier.

    I also use a crock pot, pressure cooker and have discovered slow roasting in the oven for making tougher cuts more tender and delicious.

    Great blog, Jim!!

    • caro says:

      My great discovery is Hunts canned spaghetti sauce, found on the top shelf above all the pretty jars in our market. Has been running $1.00-$1.20/25.6 oz can for the 6 or so years that I have been buying it . . .

  10. deidre says:

    one of the best money and time saving things i do..i buy meat in bulk when its on sale..cook it…freeze it and its ready to thaw and make a meal. i cook ground meat (usually turkey for us…sometimes beef and pork) add onions and garlic-freeze it in family size packs-its ready for many different meals-spagetti-shepards pie-my stuff i make lol 9thats what the kids call it) but to have the meat all reay to go is a huge time saver. we eat onions and garlic in everything so i always add them when im cooking the meat.if im cooking chicken breasts i sometimes marinate them in something…cook..freeze…when you think about it cooking the meat is usually the most time intense part of cooking..that and chopping veggies–which i also do in bulk. i almost always make mor than we need so i have leftovers to take for lunch to work.

  11. Carrie says:

    meal planning has been such a huge help in keeping my grocery costs down. i feel like i’m eating better and tastier food than ever before too!

  12. Kathy Brown says:

    I would like to know some good meal planning websites too. I have not found that elusive combination of inexpensive, healthy, and comes with an organized shopping list for everything in your recipes. Anyone?

    Also, one of my favorite tips, though simple, is to buy meat in bulk, portion it into one meal per ziplock, put marinade in the ziplock with your meat before freezing it. (I like to wait a day before I freeze it). Then you don’t waste marinade by opening it and leaving the rest of it in the fridge for months, and you just pull the meat out of the freezer already marinated! Then, if you’re really on the ball, you’ll cook enough for two meals, and use the leftover meat for sandwiches on a nice french roll (like pulled pork or shredded beef) or even tacos.

    Also, check out the food network’s Melissa D’Arabian; I think her show is called Ten Dollar Dinners, and she lived in France so she has some FAB recipes.

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