I recently got back into meal planning for my family. We’ve been so busy for the last year that I just got lazy about it. However, meal planning is the single most effective way to save time in the kitchen, so I’m my own worst enemy here.
Since I was restarting something I’ve done before, I thought it was time to update my planning strategy. When I first created our household meal planning documents, we couldn’t use grocery rebates and rewards apps because of where we lived. Plus, on second look, v.1.2015 is not very comprehensive (or pretty). Time for an upgrade and some research!
Even a cursory internet search for meal planning, menu planning, or meal prep will net you more information than you need. So, while there are a million different ways to meal plan, I outline how I meal plan, share my updated meal planning packet, talk about how we use grocery rewards and rebate apps, and discuss how I get my shopping done in 15 minutes without using a service.
First, let’s go over the basics.
What is meal planning?
Meal planning is simply planning out the meals you will eat including writing out the menu and an organized grocery list. It saves you money and time through prior planning and organization.
Why does meal planning matter?
Bottom line up front (BLUF for my fellow vets): meal planning saves you time and money.
Meal planning or menu planning saves money without specifically budgeting because you only buy what you need, you make fewer impulse purchases, and you don’t forget key ingredients for meals. You also make fewer trips to the store – less wear-and-tear on the family hotrod!
Since you are planning around food you already have, meal planning reduces food waste. Food waste is basically the same thing as throwing cash in the trash!
Because you already have a plan for each meal, you save time. There is no more guessing what’s for dinner or making a hangry-induced regrettable decision. Less dinnertime chaos!
Finally, meal planning gives you control of your diet and health because you’re less likely to reach for convenience food if you have a simple, healthy meal ready to cook at home.
Things to consider when making a meal plan
Your budget, obviously. Steak and lobster aren’t realistic for minimum wage earners, but it’s also not necessary to live on Ramen. Checking sales and for seasonal produce means even a low-cost meal can be healthy and fresh.
It should go without saying, but your schedule is such a big part of meal planning. Your schedule drives the meal planning, but is also hugely benefited by it!
- When you’re actually shopping. Meal planning is most financially beneficial when done before you go to the store.
- Will you have time to cook the meal by your typical meal time?
- Is there something scheduled that will eclipse meal time necessitating take-out or a bagged meal?
- Is there a special event for which you will need odd ingredients or food you don’t normally have on-hand?
- Do you have guests? For tea or two weeks?
- Is there a day when you can do meal prep for the week to cut down on prep time before the meal? Pre-mix, marinate, wash, cut/chop/dice, bag for the freezer, crockpot, or instant pot?
- Can you make double batches of your weeknight meals and store half for another time?
- Do you have a plan “B” for when things can’t go according to plan? A healthy meal you know *you* can throw together in 20 minutes?
Does your household have special dietary requirements such as heart disease, diabetes, or food allergies/intolerances?
Has a pediatrician recommended an elimination diet for a fussy eater?
Will you have guests who may have some of these concerns?
The meals you like to cook *and* eat. Konmari your diet!
‘Tis better to spend a little more to purchase something you will eat, than ’tis to purchase a good deal you will later throw away. (Remember – cash in the trash!)
If you neither like to cook it, nor eat it, chances are you won’t. Now, I’m not giving you license to eat only bacon, chocolate, and wine, and it’s unlikely that’s your goal if you are reading this. But if there’s a dish like tuna and rice that’s in your repertoire and you dislike the whole process, thank it for its service and bid it adieu!
There are an overwhelming number of resources for making tasty *and* nourishing meals online. Find a couple you like and run. Or use Pinterest to create meal boards. There’s no reason to make food you dislike!
Your knowledge, skills and abilities in the kitchen. Meal planning doesn’t mean cooking something new every single day – but it can make integrating new recipes easier!
If you’re new to the kitchen, keep it simple and incorporate leftovers. There’s no need to make every single meal fresh, from scratch, *or even from a recipe*.
If you are someone who loves to cook something new daily, then meal planning will help keep track of your pantry items.
Your Kitchen Stock
“Shopping your kitchen” is an excellent way to cut your weekly grocery cost, use up “old inventory”, and reduce food waste.
Be aware of anything that’s going to expire in the next week or two, including leftovers, dry goods on the shelf, and items in the freezer starting with the oldest items first.
[One really excellent and super easy way to extend the shelf life of your dry goods such as oatmeal and flour is through dry canning. Find out more about it here.]
Just in case you didn’t already know, fresh produce is always cheaper in season (*and* even canned produce goes on sale during peak harvest).
Farmer’s markets, roadside produce stands, and community support agricultural programs offer competitive prices on fresh, local produce.
You can also grow your own!
- If you don’t have lots of space, there are countless resources online for container gardening or even regrowing produce you purchase at the store from the root or cuttings.
- If you do have space, you can make preserves or can your harvest to eat at a later time.
Frozen or canned items are also a good way to purchase out-of-season produce at a reduced price without degradation of quality, flavor, or nutrients. Some foods are even more nutritious after they’ve been cooked.
Rebate and Reward Apps
Rewards programs and rebate apps enable consumers to receive money back for purchases of specific items or made through specific means. [This is generally in exchange for information so it would be prudent to do your research before you sign up.] You can also increase your earnings by taking surveys and completing tasks. Using multiple apps or payment methods does enable you to stack your discounts.
The key with these programs is to only purchase things that you have on your grocery list. There are lots of discounts and it can be tempting to purchase something simply because you can get it for a good deal. A store-brand product can also still be cheaper to purchase so check the math when you’re in the store!
There are dozens of these money back apps such as Ibotta, Checkout 51, ReceiptHog (waiting list), ReceiptPal, NCP ReCap, Fetch, Target, and Walgreens. There are even Berrycart and Makeena for people who purchase organic! [See the bottom of this post or download my free printable for more apps!]
These programs either require you to scan your receipt after the purchase or that you load the coupons on their app before purchase. Once you earn a minimum number of points, you can exchange them for gift cards and even cash.
I also recently discovered that Samsung Pay offers cash back on purchases at certain retailers. Using Samsung pay doesn’t impact your credit card rewards either – an automatic double dip!
Here are a couple articles that cover grocery rebate apps in more detail:
- 6 Best Grocery Rebate Apps
- 7 Best apps to Save Money on Groceries
- The Best Coupon and Grocery List Apps that Save you Money
Search for coupons for items you purchase regularly, but remember! Purchasing the store brand item is almost always cheaper! In some cases, budget brands are just name brand items in different packaging. If you have a smartphone, there are several coupon apps (even Coupons.com, Key Ring, and Basket) you can download to do the clipping, sorting, and storing for you.
Ibotta is even great for coupons, too, in that you scan through their offerings for items you need and then upload a picture of the the receipt after purchase. They automatically add the money to your account. Once you reach the threshold, you request a gift card.
Customer Loyalty Programs
Check your local grocer for rewards and cashback programs. My favorite grocer offers both money off gasoline at a partner gas station as well as in-store coupons applied at the register when you have a rewards account with them – no clipping required. I signed up by giving my name and phone number. Now I just enter my phone number at the register before I pay. There is nothing easier than that!
Purchasing in bulk or when things are in deep discount can save money, when it’s done right. It’s important to consider storage requirements, space, how long it takes to eat something, and whether you will get tired of eating it before it goes bad. Remember! Just because something is past it’s freshness date, doesn’t mean that it’s inedible.
Common and Uncommon Ingredients
Do you like different dishes that use some of the same ingredients? Plan these meals for the same time frame and you can cut back on food waste and possibly save money by buying bulk (depending on how much you need!)
Try to avoid dishes that require specialty ingredients you will never use up. You can also see if someone you know has what you need, look for it in your grocer’s bulk section (the measure-your-own bulk, not the large-portion bulk), see if there’s a substitute, or find other dishes in which you can use them up.
This is all a lot of information, so how to we put this all together to create a meal plan? [Hint: The kitchen is a good place to do this.]
Get it Together!
Whether you use the packet I created (which you can download from my free resource library by signing up to receive updates – a fillable (thus, saveable) version will be available for sale on Etsy soon!) or one of those notepads that come in junk mail (letter-size is best), find something to write on and with. You’re going to need a couple pages.
Give yourself 30-90 minutes your first time. You’ll get faster, and you’ll be able to reuse menus.
To make the most of your budget, make sure to create your meal plan and shopping list before you go grocery shopping.
To make the most of your time, schedule it before a time when you can dedicate a couple hours (depending on the size of your family and complexity of your plan) to meal prep to save time during the work week.
List your Favored Foods
Sit down and write out what foods and/or meals you (and the people you feed) like to eat.
These meals don’t have to be complicated, filled with dishes made from scratch, or nutritionally balanced (though that is a goal we can all work towards). As I mentioned earlier, your meals don’t even have to come from a recipe. You are just trying to get a comprehensive idea of what foods your family loves so you can take the stress out of dinner time.
Organize the List
Once you get a good list, try to extract some categories from the chaos so you can organize them. Some categories that might be helpful are breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, protein, fat, carbs, soup, casserole/hotdish, crockpot/instant pot, meals ready in 20 minutes, easy meals, kid-friendly meals, main course, side, etc. You can even organize them by season or holiday.
Use your list to keep track of where any recipes are stored, whether it’s an heirloom cookbook or in boards on Pinterest. Or create a meal planning binder to keep hard copies. Find a way that is sustainable for you.
Written Menu and Shopping List
(Subscribe to updates to) use the meal planning documents I created or take the time to create your own, but write it down or type it out. And then save/keep it! (A saveable version of my packet will be available for sale on Etsy soon. Sign up for updates to be notified!)
Create a Template Meal Plan
If you’re anything like us, you probably eat pretty much the same things for breakfast, lunch and snacks. If you eat the same things for several meals each week, turn that habit in to a time-saving tool. The best place to start is with a template menu and shopping list.
Enter what you normally eat or want to start eating for your repeat meals on your menu.
For instance, at our house M-F breakfast is oatmeal, walnuts, almond butter, flax seed, chia seeds, chocolate chips, honey, maple syrup, butter / banana / cereal / whole grain bread / kiwi / berries / orange / yogurt / cheese / milk, coffee, cocoa, espresso, tea (B / W / G) / Matcha. Weekend breakfasts are croissants, jelly / pancakes / French toast / crepes / waffles / eggs / bacon / sausage / banana / kiwi / berries / orange / yogurt / cheese / milk, coffee, cocoa, espresso, tea (B / W / G), Matcha. Snacks and lunch are also on autopilot. It’s okay to generalize on the menu, e.g. fruit or pancakes.
SUPER SAVER HINT: If you know where everything in your grocery store is located, brava you! I actually created a grocery aisle map of the store I frequent the most. To get your shopping done as fast, efficiently, and on-budget as possible, I strongly recommend doing this. At a minimum, organize your list by your best guess. If you buy certain items at a specific store (e.g. diapers, toilet paper etc. at a club store vs. grocery store), separate that list.]
Once you create your template menu, transfer all your ingredients and food items to your shopping list. The real trick is to write everything out, including flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, oil, eggs, milk, and vanilla for waffles and in its proper column. This will save you from backtracking across the store for forgotten or missed items. It pays to be specific on this list if you prefer a specific brand or flavor, e.g. green seedless grapes.
After your template menu and shopping list are done, you should have a good picture of what the staple ingredients are in your house. If you know there are things that you routinely use in making other meals, add them to the shopping list. For instance, one of my go-to 20-minute meals is chicken tenders, couscous, and vegetables. These items are on my template shopping list.
You can take your shopping list a step further by adding non-grocery consumables you routinely use. You will not buy everything on your template shopping list every time you go to the store. This is just a tool to help you remember to check your stock before you leave.
Save this document as your Meal Plan Template and reuse it for each week! To reuse your own form, you can laminate it or use a document protector. Otherwise, I will make a fillable version of my packet available for sale on Etsy soon (sign up for updates to be notified!).
To be specific, our list includes (or has included): Trident Layers Grape/Lemonade gum, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, Cetaphil face wash, deodorant, razor blades, lotion, Q-tips, baby bath soap and lotion, toothpaste, mouth wash, flossers, Quilted Northern, feminine hygiene products, pull-ups, wipes, tissues, Bounty select-a-size, Tide Oxy, dryer sheets, trash bags, Scrubbing Bubbles shower cleaner, Kirkland dish soap, AA/AAA batteries, vinegar, coffee filters, plastic bags.
Write out the Month’s Schedule
Using the Monthly Menu worksheet or your trusted calendar, take a look at your month’s schedule. Annotate significant events and anything that will impact meals. For instance, away games, field trips, anniversary, work travel, awards banquet, family wedding, etc.
With a focus on dates with activities, write a rough draft menu on the month sheet.
Plan the Current Week
Go to your kitchen and take a quick look through your cabinets, freezer, fridge, and pantry. Note any food items you want to be eaten soonest. This is also a good time to get ready to put groceries away – toss anything beyond eating and wipe down the shelves.
If you want to type your weekly meal plan, save the Template Meal Plan you created earlier as a new file (perhaps by date) so you don’t overwrite your template. Or print out your template, fill in the remainder by hand, and go back and type it later.
Using the template Weekly Menu and Shopping list, your Monthly Menu rough draft and schedule, the lists of your favorite meals, and the food you have on-hand that must be eaten, write out what you want to eat for the week. If your meal is a recipe, type/write every ingredient into its respective space, right down to the salt and pepper. This ensures you don’t forget anything from the store or to take it out when meal time comes – as I’ve been known to do on taco night. Include portions and measurements.
If you created the meal template, using the same information and tools as above, decide what you will eat for those meals.
Once you have your Weekly Menu done, add all ingredients and items to your shopping list – even if you know you have it! This means you can reuse this menu again and again! Don’t forget to add the portions so you purchase the appropriate amount from the store.
Now, again, physically go through your cabinets, fridge, freezer, and pantry, and *pencil* through anything that you have on-hand or enough of to get through the week. Now get ready to go shopping!
At the Store
Check any rewards programs you’re enrolled in for their deals and conditions before you enter the store. Some are before shopping, while shopping, at checkout, or after receipt of receipt.
Take your menu and shopping list, a writing tool, phone, wallet, and coupons, and head to the store. Try not to mark up your shopping list too much so that you can type it up after the week is over or just reuse the same one.
Stick to your list! When you get to the store, don’t deviate from the list unless you are 100,000,000% certain it’s something you need. This will help keep the bill down considerably.
Do deviate from the list if you cannot find the ingredient you are looking for, or if the produce is sub-par. If so, decide if the meal can survive without it or if you can find a substitute ingredient such as another type of the same item or perhaps frozen or canned items.
Don’t forget to give the cashier your coupons or rewards numbers at checkout!
Keep your menu and shopping list so that you can reuse them.
Keep your receipt and use it to track prices of items you purchase frequently. Then you can watch for sales and bulk up when things are cheap. Also, if you decide to look into grocery delivery or pick offers, you can check to see if the difference in price is truly worth the convenience for you.
If you don’t have a lot of time during your work week, do as much prep work as you can on the weekend. Wash and cut, premix, marinate, or thaw what you can/need to. This will help get the meal together quicker and save you from washing those same dishes more than once. You can even make your lunches for the week. These steps will help reduce meal-time and morning chaos!
There’s no hard and fast rule that says you have to cook the specific meal on the specific day – but do remember you planned it that way for a reason. Go ahead and adjust on the fly if you have to.
Use your menu or recipe, too, to make sure you don’t leave anything out!
Create an aisle map of your store
This is my shopping secret! As I said earlier, I created a grocery aisle map of my most-frequented grocery store. I’ve gotten my week of groceries for my family of four in as little as 15 minutes by doing this. I don’t have to backtrack looking for forgotten items and I’m not as tempted to purchase off-list because I don’t spend as much time searching or browsing. I’m also not losing out on in-store deals or paying premium prices for my groceries by going through a third-party service.
I made my aisle map by walking around the store as I normally do and taking photographs of the aisle and section markers. Then I went home and, keeping in mind the path I usually walk through the store, I typed up my aisle map. Then I built my grocery list in the same order, leaving space so that I can add my shopping items. It took some time to put this together but now it’s done and I can reuse it every week.
I absolutely recommend making the most of your time, so if meal planning and grocery shopping prove too time consuming or otherwise onerous, here are some alternatives: meal planning services, meal delivery services, grocery delivery services, a diet of ramen and cereal (I kid), grocery pick up services, and even menus and meal prep guides on Etsy!
Some grocery pick up services are so reasonable you could pay for them with what you saved by meal planning.
I would caution you to do your research, whatever your choice. Sales and specials are not always available to people who use these services and sometimes deliveries go awry. That being said, I’ve used Instacart with great success, taking advantage of special promotional offers to offset the additional costs. Also, if you are the type of person who is easily tempted to purchase items not on your list, having someone else pick up your groceries could actually help cut down on your grocery bill.
Here are some resources I linked (and some I didn’t) in the article above:
Meal time can be stressful. Particularly if you have a fussy eater (*selective foodie* in our house so he doesn’t internalize it). Here’s a website I found that really helped us over many obstacles. We don’t follow the letter of her guidance, but were able to make great progress with many of her techniques nonetheless. https://yourkidstable.com/best-strategy-picky-eating/
A really helpful article about how to store different foods to preserve their freshness: https://lifehacker.com/food-storage-101-where-and-how-long-to-keep-your-favor-498597803
A couple articles on money saving grocery apps:
- 6 Best Grocery Rebate Apps: https://urbantastebud.com/best-grocery-rebate-apps/
- 7 Best apps to Save Money on Groceries: https://clark.com/shopping-retail/best-grocery-savings-apps/
- The Best Coupon and Grocery List Apps that Save you Money: https://www.pennypinchinmom.com/grocery-list-coupon-apps/
Several articles with tips on meal planning, many of which I couldn’t cover here:
- The Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning: What to Know, How to Succeed, and What to Skip: https://www.thekitchn.com/the-beginners-guide-to-meal-planning-what-to-know-how-to-succeed-and-what-to-skip-242413
- 15 Tips for Better Weekly Meal Planning: https://www.thekitchn.com/10-tips-for-better-weekly-meal-planning-reader-intelligence-report-177252
- 5 Steps to help you make a weekly meal plan that works: https://projectmealplan.com/5-steps-to-weekly-meal-plan/
- Simple Meal Planning for Beginners – Step-by-Step Instructions: https://www.busybudgeter.com/simple-meal-planning-for-beginners-step-by-step-instructions/
11 Essentials you should always buy in bulk: https://www.bradsdeals.com/blog/best-things-to-buy-in-bulk
Comparisons of grocery delivery services:
- We Broke Down the Top 5 Grocery Delivery Services So You Don’t Have to: https://www.thepennyhoarder.com/save-money/best-grocery-delivery-services/
- The 8 Best Grocery Delivery Services of 2019: https://www.verywellfit.com/best-grocery-delivery-services-4159966
- Grocery Delivery Services: Can You Trust a Stranger to Shop for Your Food?: https://www.consumerreports.org/online-grocery-services/grocery-delivery-services-review/
- 8 Best Grocery Delivery Services in 2019: https://wellkeptwallet.com/best-grocery-delivery-services/
Some really helpful information about buying groceries on the cheap: https://wellkeptwallet.com/buy-groceries-on-budget/
Rebate and Reward Programs
Here are several grocery rebate and reward apps. I’m still sorting through which ones I want to use for the long term. Some of these are affiliate links which means if you use these links and sign up for these programs, we both can get a sign up bonus.
Good for using coupons in-store
Good for getting money back after purchase
Good for earning points toward gift cards
Good for earning points for completing tasks
Good for comparing prices locally
Good for creating lists
Good for rebates while shopping online
I hope you find this helpful! Let me know in the comments what I’ve missed!
And, just in case you missed it the first time, here’s where you sign up to download my free Printable Meal Planning Kit!