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How to plan meals

By Liz (

When my husband gave me the green light to quit my job, I quickly began researching ways to lower our monthly expenses. Purchasing food ingredients in bulk and making everything from scratch was our most effective budget-stretching method.

I began using the pantry principle, which entails making a list of every food item you have or would like to have in your home on a regular basis and shopping only to replace those items.

We saved a lot shopping this way, but (there’s always a but, isn’t there?), as our food budget grew so did my spending (hello Hedonic Treadmill) and I recently decided the increased spending was unnecessary. I know we’ve added a few kids to the mix in recent years, but at their age they don’t really eat much (unless crackers are involved).

Enter the meal plan

I know that everyone says meal planning saves money, and they’re right, it does. Each time I planned meals in the past I saved a significant amount but I hated doing it. Which is really weird for someone who loves planning and making lists, but it just seemed so hard. Planning meals for days, weeks, even a month in advance just seems so daunting. How do you pull that out of thin air?

Well, you don’t.

Naturally, you can sign up for a meal-planning service. However, I’ve found that the really affordable ones use a lot of foods that I can’t eat (food allergies!) or they only provide 5 dinners a week. I need help with all of my meals.

Since I approach everything with a DIY attitude, I decided that I could do the same with meal planning. After all, if I can take four kids under the age of six to Costco on the weekend by myself, then I should be able to write out a menu. The trick is to…

Keep it simple

People say variety is the spice of life but when I have too many choices, I get overwhelmed and have to fight the temptation to curl up in a ball under my covers. That’s why my grocery list is incredibly simple.

Rather than eating new and exciting veggies every week, I focus on getting more of the same ones into our diet. My grocery list has eight veggies on it. That’s not much but we eat them fresh and often; they can be mixed and matched in a lot of different ways.

We do the same with fruit and meat, choosing just a few that can be cooked in a variety of different ways to create some really tasty meals.

My favorite cooking tip: get really good at making lots of different sauces. The same meat and veggies tastes completely different with a new sauce on it.

Shop your pantry

I love the weekly ads stores put out, but I don’t let them determine what I purchase or what meals I make. I’ll usually snip out coupons for butter or cheese or see if Kroger has bulk almonds on sale. That’s about it. If it’s not an item I buy regularly, I won’t buy it. If I see one of my staple items priced to sell, I stock up.

Even if you’re simply buying the staples, planning it out in advance saves money. The forethought allows you to tell yourself how much food you’ll need – sort of like budgeting money – so you avoid overspending. If you would normally buy 5 lb. blocks of cheddar cheese (yep, that’s me) but your meal plan says you only need 2 lbs., then you save the extra $10.

Meal planning saves me from buying too much, especially the higher-priced items. (I have the tendency to shop for food as if I’m going to feed a dozen people.)

Make a meal list

Get some paper and write out every meal you can think of. Make sure you like them, of course. Take a look at the meals and think about their ingredients. Now take a look at your pantry list – those foods you buy all the time.

Which meals can you make while sticking to that list? Is there a meal with ingredients not on your list that you love so much it warrants a list augmentation? Also, what meals can you tweak using ingredients you have on hand?

Do this for breakfast and lunch as well. Throw snacks on there too. For lunch it’s ok to do leftovers (from the previous night or days before). If you can only think of ten dinners, it’s ok. Eat them three times a month. If you can only think of 7, eat them four times a month.

It’s ok to eat the same food on a regular basis if you love it. I give you permission to resist any pressure that says you need to eat 30 different meals each month. You can always change it up completely next month.

Matt’s note: Betsy and I (we have no children) will make a huge pot of whatever and eat on it for several days. When we tire of it we’ll mix in a different meal then come back to it.

Make the plan

Now that you have the list of foods, it’s time to make the plan. I take a blank calendar page and just start filling in the blanks. It’s really that simple. If you don’t know where to start, go in alphabetical order and when you get to the last letter, start over. Some of you may be saying, “Duh, that’s really easy.” but that’s where I tripped up – I put too much thought into it rather than just doing it.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” – Voltaire

Don’t let messing up stop you from doing this, just start and keep building on what you have – tweak as you go.

Do it in pencil

It’s ok to change the plan once you’ve made it. Your spouse may veto something or remind you of a meal that you’d forgotten. The plan is not set in stone, it’s simply a guide to save you time, money, and anxiety. Knowing what you’re eating ahead of time will also rid you of the temptation to eat out last minute.

If you want to go out to eat… pencil it in, ahead of time.

What’s your favorite DIY meal planning tip? 


About Nina Nelson

Nina is a writer, student midwife, and mama of four. She blogs regularly at Shalom Mama and loves helping others create wellness through simple living. Check out her website for more simple wellness tips.

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  1. camille says

    Wow! Thanks for this article. I too love making lists and yet I found meal planning overwhelming. It definitely was one of those things that made me want to hide in bed. AND I’m single no kids, no pets. I’m planning for one but your tips were fantastic and fit my single life as well. Thank you! My favorite is the one about only 8 veggies!

  2. joy says

    Great job! Something I do is try to double favorites and freeze for the next week! It’s a huge time saver! 🙂

  3. Gissel says

    Thank you Nina I just found your blog and your Facebook page, I plan on doing lots of research.

    Thanks again

  4. Gissel says

    What can I say but thank you so very much, even though I would still need to do lots of thinking and writing down this is an awesome start. I’m a mother of 2 young girls and work FT outside the home ( sometimes long hours) and dinner time is THE most stressful time for me. I don’t like to eat out every time I do I feel sick no matter where I eat and I don’t like not knowing what’s in my food. During the past year we have been trying and doing our best to eat organic ( the things we can afford) do you have any suggestions as far as shopping organic on a budget?

    • Nina Nelson says

      – Check out Matt’s list of foods that you should buy organic (The Dirty Dozen), and the ones that you really don’t need to (The Clean 15). Some of the foods on the list can be found pretty cheap.
      – If you have a Costco membership, they have a few different options for fresh and frozen organic vegetables that are really well-priced. We get carrots, green beans, peas and applesauce there (We set aside $4 a month for our annual membership fee). Note that we only buy a few items at Costco.
      – Keep an eye out for organic seasonal items, as they’ll probably be discounted. Ask friends if they know of any local farmers that grow without pesticides and support them.
      – Avoid organic pre-packaged food. Not only can you make those items from scratch way cheaper, but a lot of the stuff isn’t good for you. Organic junk is still junk.

      My sister-in-law’s mom worked full-time outside the home when she was growing up. She said that she would set aside a day and cook all of the dinners for the week and then put them in the freezer. I don’t know if that’s something you want to do, but it’s a suggestion.

      If you want any more help/suggestions, feel free to email me at nina at shalommama dot com.

  5. Kathryn says

    Wow! Thank you so much for the FREEDOM of repeating meals and vegetables! I have what I call “Jicama Guilt.” I look at other veggies like Jicama and feel guilty that I’m buying regular old asparagus and brussel sprouts.

    I feel free now and empowered on how to go about doing what I have wanted to for so long!

    Thank you!


  6. SaveWithSusie says

    I find when I meal plan, it relieves a lot of stress. I always have the ingredients that I need in my kitchen, and I always know what’s for dinner. When it comes time to fix dinner, I just have to look at my plan – no thinking involved! I meal plan for the week and make a grocery list for that week from the meal plan. Making the plan each week? Well, I really don’t enjoy doing it, but I do enjoy the benefits, so I stick with it!

  7. Juli says

    I have a massive dry erase board that I used back when I was in school but was sitting around the apartment doing nothing so I made a graph, in permanent marker, on it… Each day of the week (in numbers, not days) on the long side and “B”, “L”, “D” and “Sx2” on the short side. My weeks are rarely seven days and I make meals for 2-4 people despite living alone so everything except breakfast shows up as a leftover elsewhere.

    Dinner for Day1 is typically lunch for Day 2 or 3. Lunch for Day 1 makes a reappearance as Dinner for Day 2 etc.

    The joy of this all is that it’s an old dry erase board so it costs nothing and is 100% reusable.

    At the start of my “week” I dig through the books for three dinners, one lunch and maybe a breakfast then arrange them on the board. I then buy the food for the first three days, cook it all (I’m a very busy girl), and stick more or less to the meal plan. I don’t have a set list but seeing as about half of my lunches are salads and half of my breakfast is a salad (it replaces the grain I no longer eat) vegetables are almost always in the cart.

    I make the grocery list in the kitchen so it’s easy to check the fridge / pantry for things I think I have or may be low on. “I think I have lemon juice… no, wait, yes, running low…”

    I also use and my list to determine which foods I can buy in bulk. For instance, onions are in almost every recipe and they last, literally, months in a cold, dark place so I can buy them on sale or at Warehouse store and not face a loss.

  8. Ashlee says

    I have the opposite problem. I don’t shop big enough. It is only my husband & I and we are just starting out. My pantry is pathetic so it feels as if every shopping trip I have to start from the beginning. I try to meal plan but our schedule changes often & I fear things go to waste. I’m going to keep at it & hopefully see some good come out of it.

  9. Jan Eckert says

    Nina – I also found your article inspirational! I have tried to plan weekly meals but found that it took a lot of energy for me to think up meals each week and, I have to admit, I really like variety. When I did plan my meals, I found that it cut down on a lot of stress.

    I would love to see what others plan for meals. I am inspired to put together a BIG roster of meals that I could rotate but could really use some ideas for quick, healthy, and budget conscious recipes. I would also love to get a variety of homemade marinades that I could use. Anyone willing to share?

    • Nina Nelson says

      Some of my favorites are chili, stew, fajitas and fried rice. These all take very inexpensive items and one pound of meat is easily stretched to feed several people.

  10. Susan says

    This is a great article! I forget from time to time how easy it is to save by planning meals. As a mom of six it is a great thing to plan them. It also saves time and answers the inevitable evening Question we can all come to dread,… “What’s for dinner?!?” We also find here that doing theme days, like “taco Tuesday” or “pizza Friday” help every one get excited. Not that we always have Tacos on Tuesday but it is always something related, sometimes its burritos or fajitas. And Pizza is very easy to change up with toppings or making them calzones.

    Thankyou for the re-inspiration!!

  11. Steph in Berkeley says

    Ahhhhh Nina.

    Thank you. I’ve been discussing this very topic with my husband because I really want to do it for both sanity and health reasons (my spontaneous meals tend to be processed and generally unhealthy), but I’ve had little direction and been intimidated by the whole process.

    So, thank you x four gazillion. for the tips and framework.


  12. Danielle says

    First off, EXCELLANT article! I’ve wanted to do a better job of planning out meals and finding ways to lower the grocery bill. We have 4 kids, I stay home and homeschool the younger 2. The older 2 are special needs and are not homeschooled – none of that is neither here nor there, but is background info.

    I’ve planned out meals before but its always been a major chore for me as my time is extremely limited…hence above background info. Your article has TOTALLY inspired me! I jumped right up and got an empty notebook – hence above info again and I have tons of empty binders around – and some clear page protectors. I started pulling related recipes, favoritee recipes, easy recipes, etc. Im going to do a pantry chart like you reference in your article.

    Buying extras is my biggest problem with grocery shopping. With 4 kids, you can imagine why…..along with the love of various kinds of crackers! I totally see how having a basic list of necessities and checking them off like that will keep your frame of reference in check. Its way too easy to get distracted in the store.

    I too shop for an army at times. For some things it is completely appropriate, but for other things it is not. I’m sure this list can help me remember what needs to be bought in bulk, such as CheezeIts, and what does not.

    Thank you so much for this inspirational article!!!!!!

    • Nina Nelson says

      That’s great Danielle! I’m so glad that this has inspired you. Let me know if you notice any savings in your grocery budget or other benefits for doing this.