Step by Step Guide to Meal Planning
So, you’re thinking about meal planning. You’ve heard about how it saves money and alleviates the “4:30 Blues.” Meal planning has been a huge blessing for me and has impacted my family in so many ways. I spend less money at the store and spend more time with my family. We eat a wider range of meals, avoid those dinnertime ruts, and weekly discover new favorites.
However, today’s post isn’t here to sell you on the idea of meal planning. Instead, I want to walk you through the process I use and help you get started. Within no time, you’ll be seeing the benefits I do!
1. Pick a date range
The first step in meal planning is to choose the window of time to plan for. I plan for three weeks at a time. Ideally, you should aim to plan 2-3 weeks worth of meals at a time.
I would not recommend planning for less than two weeks at a time. Part of the “magic” of meal planning is keeping you away from those weekly (or more!) trips to the grocery store. More time in the store means more money spent. On the other hand, most families cannot swing the cost of a month’s worth of groceries in one shot. In our family, I simply could not push a cart with more than three weeks worth of groceries in it!
Decide if you’re going to plan for two weeks or three. Pick the day you plan to start implementing your meals. Make sure to give yourself a few days to plan and shop. (My meal plan rotations always begin the day I do my grocery shopping.) Make your plan and stick to it!
2. Make a List
Grab a spiral notebook and make a list! I start by making two columns, Dinner and Breakfast. I number each column 1-21. (I also plan for our treats!) It’s important to have your numbered list ready to go so you can easily plug in meals and quickly know how many more you need to plan for. It’s all in the details.
3. Cookbooks, and blogs, and Pinterest, oh my!
This is my favorite part of meal planning. I am OBSESSED with cookbooks and love food blogs. I usually give myself a couple of days to choose my meals (not because it takes that long, but because it’s fun to browse!) Pull out your favorite cookbooks, check out some food blogs, or waste some time on Pinterest. It’s time to start choosing WHAT you want to make.
This is also a great time to start polling your family. Take their suggestions. Ask what sounds good.
One thing that has been important for me is the planning not only of the main dish, but the side dishes as well! When I mark down that we’re having Bourbon Chicken, I also write down that I’ll be serving rice and broccoli as well. Planning all facets of the meal helps keep me on budget and on track.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing your meals for your selected time period:
- Do you have any special dates to remember or consider? (birthdays, holiday, etc.)
- Do you have plans on any evenings that might influence your planning? (Ie- A busy evening might call for something QUICK or something from the crockpot, etc.)
- Will you be doing any entertaining during this time period? (Plan for extra portions, dietary restrictions, etc.)
- Only going to use half? If you’re making a recipe that calls for say half a bottle of bbq sauce, try to choose another recipe that will allow you to use up the other half. Why not use your ingredients wisely and spend that money more effectively?
- Mix it up! Don’t pull all your recipes from an Italian cookbook or choose 21 chicken dishes. Try to mix up your proteins and “genres.” Similarly, try to vary your starches, vegetables, and fruits. Instead of always relying on “salad,” choose a stir-fry or raw veggie platter. Change up the way you cook potatoes. Get creative!
4. It’s All About the Ingredients
This is probably the most important step in successful meal planning. Staying on track and keeping yourself out of the grocery store hinge on the execution of this step.
After your list is made, and you’ve selected each of the meals you plan to make, it’s time to write down exactly what you need to prepare each meal. (You can do this step after step 3 or in conjunction with step 3 – whichever is easiest for you!)
Start with your first meal. On my menu it’s Bourbon Chicken. I look through the recipe, and write down all the ingredients I need to prepare the dish. On my ingredients list, I jot down that I need chicken and apple juice. I see that the recipe calls for soy sauce and apple cider vinegar, but know that I have those on hand, so I don’t add those to my list. I check to see how much brown sugar I have on hand, and go ahead and add that to the list. This process is all about checking to see what you already have, and figuring out exactly what you’ll need.
As I make my list, I start to note how many of certain items I’ll need. I mark how many times I’m cooking with chicken so I know to purchase enough. I see that I’m using sour cream 4 times, so I make a note to buy 2 containers instead of one. Your list will do you no good if you don’t buy the quantity you need!
Here are a few tips to remember when planning your shopping list:
- Don’t forget things like spices!
- Don’t forget the staples! Do you have things like flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, oil, etc. on hand? Think about the things you ALWAYS need but don’t necessarily purchase all the time. These things are easy to forget.
- Don’t forget the non-edibles! Make sure to write down the personal hygiene products, paper goods, cleaning products, etc that you need for the next 2-3 weeks. (A quick run to the store to “just buy toilet paper” can and will turn into more money spent! Don’t forget those items now!)
- What do you need for lunches and snacks? I don’t need to write these things down anymore, but if you’re just getting used to this system, take some time to write down the things you’ll need to make lunches. Also make sure you buy things to snack on!
- This is also where knowing your quantity is important! If you buy a 2 lb. bag of baby carrots and are planning to use them in several of your dishes, but have kids who love to munch on carrot sticks, you might find yourself short on carrots when it is time to make vegetable soup. When ingredients pull double duty, make sure you have plenty to go around!
5. Organize Your List
I cannot stress how important this step is! It’s one thing to have a list. It’s another thing entirely to have a HELPFUL list. When your list is just one giant mess of things you need, it’s VERY easy to forget things!
Instead, sort your list by aisles. I divide my list into these “categories/aisles” : Produce, Hygiene, Chips/Crackers, Condiments/Canned Fruit, Pasta, Ethnic, Canned Goods, Baking, Cereal, Bulk, Cold, Frozen, and Other. Sort your list based on the layout of your grocery store. My categories go in the order of how I walk. With this method, it’s very easy for me to double check I got everything I need from each “section” of the store.
6. Plan the Meals! (And Get a Calendar!!)
“Wait Bekki, isn’t that what we’ve been doing?” Yes and no. It’s time to write those dates on a calendar! I have a separate calendar for meal planning that hangs beside my family calendar. (Yes, I still prefer paper calendars!) If you don’t have an extra calendar (or can’t find one at the dollar store), you can print one out online. (Just Google blank calendar!)
Start filling in the dates with your meals. Here are a few things to consider when filling in the calendar:
- Make sure to space out your proteins. If you’re having chicken on Monday and Tuesday, make sure to have something with ground turkey on Wednesday, etc.
- Similarly, make sure you space out your pasta meals, Mexican dishes, meals with rice, etc.
- If you planned for something in particular (birthday, company, a night with sports, lessons, etc.) makes sure to write the meal on the correct day.
6 1/2. SAVE YOUR CALENDARS!!!
This is a bonus tip designed to make your life in the future easier. Save every meal planning calendar you make. Then in the future when you don’t feel like coming up with ideas or just aren’t feeling creative, you can go back through what you previously planned for ideas!
I literally have my meal planning calendars dated back to 2007! I can tell you what we had for dinner on April 15, 2007. It’s so fun to take a peek into the past and get ideas.
Another bonus of using the calendar system is to keep track of winners and losers. If I make a dish that at least 4 of us (out of 6) really like, I’ll put a star by it. If most of us don’t like something, I’ll make a sad face or cross it out. Then when it’s 7 months down the road, I don’t have to try to remember if we liked Pretzel Chicken or not.
7. Stick to the Plan Stan
Meal planning all sort of hinges on follow-through. Your meal plan is worth nothing if you let feelings of, “I don’t feel like Sloppy Joes tonight” win.
I would LOVE to answer any of your questions. I’ve been doing this for 8 years and now meal plan for a family of 6. If you have a question about any facet of meal planning, leave a comment with your question and I will reply!
Here are a few of my other posts regarding meal planning: