How To Meal Plan -my tried and true method to plan a weekly menu, save money, and reiginite your passion for cooking again.
How To Meal Plan
An easy method to help you plan out meals your family will love, stay on budget, and even rediscover the joy of cooking.
These are pretty big promises, but this is the method I use and have used for about 15 years + and I can tell you that it works for me. In fact, I never really gave it much thought, until a couple of things happened. A newly separated friend who hadn’t previously been the one to cook and grocery shop was learning it all from scratch, and I noticed some of my other friends struggling with their food budgets, and often complaining about resorting to take out.
As much as I believe in this method though, it’s just what works for me. It might not work for you and your family, and that’s ok too. But then again, it might help you, so it’s in that spirit that I share. I’m not the world’s best meal planner or budgeter, but this method has worked for me and kept me on track.
Check Your Weekly Grocery Flyer
I start my weekly meal plan by looking at my grocery store’s weekly sale flyer. Decide on a grocery store that you like -but remember that if it’s nicer -with a flower shop and wine shop, and a place to get a coffee while you shop you’re probably paying for it. A discount food store will be cheaper. It might not be nicer, it might not have as much selection, it might not have some of the add ons like a drugstore, floral shop, in-house bakery, etc. but it will be cheaper.
We have a store here in Ontario, Canada called “No Frills”. It’s a discount grocery store, and I remember thinking when I first started grocery shopping for myself when I was in University that I did indeed want some frills and was willing to pay a little more for them. I have since changed my mind.
I can go to another store -a pharmacy, a floral shop, or a bakery for those things, but I’d rather not waste my money on paying more for basic groceries. Choosing to go with the cheaper option, makes me feel in control of my money, and is kind of empowering. I could shop at a nicer grocery store, but I don’t want to pay more for my groceries so I buy the bulk of what I need at a discount store, and make an extra trip to a fancier store if I need to. You might say you don’t have time to go to two stores, and fair enough; we all make different choices and this is mine.
Look For Your Protein First
Check out the weekly flyer for your store. I always start with what meat is on sale, because it’s usually the most expensive thing you’re buying. Look through the flyer and see what meats and what cuts of meat are on sale that week.
This week at my store sausages were on sale, and pork was on sale so they were the starting places for my menu.
The discount grocery store I choose also does price matching. In Ontario there are only a couple of grocery stores I know of that do price matching -Fresh Co., and Walmart. Everywhere is different so you’ll have to find out if there is a store in your area that does price matching. This means that if you find an item on sale at another store that week, your grocery store will match their price. I often use the Flipp ap on my phone to do this. You can also just take the flyer from the other store with you to show them. Either way, every little bit helps. I know lots of American stores price match and there’s also the option to use coupons. We don’t really have coupons here, so the price matching helps.
I often use price matching for those pantry items I’m out of, or those non-main ingredients I need for a recipe that week.
Cook Once Eat Twice
I like to cook once and eat twice. I feel like it really helps for a couple of reasons.
- Cooking every other day really cuts down on the time and energy it takes to cook from scratch. Only cooking every other day means I only have to cook 3 or 4 times a week out of 7 days. I don’t mind cooking from scratch and making things that take a little more time, because I know that the next night I get the night off. I feel like this helps to keep my passion for cooking alive. It’s half the work of cooking overnight and perhaps it would help you get excited about cooking again?
- It really helps to save money. I find that you don’t end up throwing out as much food with this method. Items like salsa, or sauce, or vegetables get used out the second night instead of wasting away in the fridge and getting thrown out later.
Lots of people will say that they take their leftovers from dinner for lunch the next day but we don’t. We take lunch foods for lunch -things like a sandwich, cheese and crackers, a salad, or even a frozen individual meal (bought on sale). I think it helps us to save money because these items we make at home and bring to school or work, and they’re cheaper in the long run than the food we use for dinners.
I’ve been asked also if my family gets tired of the food by the second night. The truth is they really don’t. I think it has to do with the quality of the dinners. If you only had to cook half the time, you might have the energy to make meals that are so good your family would actually be excited to have it again the next night. I also include a ton of variety.
For one thing, we try to eat seasonally. That means that some foods are winter foods and some foods are summer foods so that adds to the variety. This isn’t a hard and fast rule but for the most part it just makes sense. Foods that are in season will always be the cheapest, the freshest, and the tastiest.
When I was a kid my mom made the same few things week in and week out. When she did discover a new recipe she’d make it over and over. Anyone else remember taco Tuesday? There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you and your family prefer. I tend to feel like there are so many amazing foods in the world that I can’t wait to eat them all. In fact my kids have become real foodies too over the years. We typically won’t have the same meal more than once every month or two, unless it’s a real favourite. I really do find that when you’re cooking less frequently you have the energy to be a bit more adventures and if you used to love to cook -and eat, it might even reignite your passion.
Sometimes the second night I cook more of a certain side dish, especially if it’s something that’s not so good reheated. Sometimes I plan to make a new veggie too. And how do I reheat the food the second night? Usually we just use the microwave. Simple and easy.
Cooking Larger Batches
My sister used to tell me that this method of cooking once and eating twice won’t work for her, because her husband would always eat the extra food. In order to cook once and eat twice you do need to cook double. She said he’d always steal the leftovers and there won’t be enough for the next day. My advice to her was to buy more. If he’s eating the extra chicken breast the first night, then buy two more next time. You know what she did, and it worked. She’s been a convert to my method of cooking and her grocery bill is the lowest it’s ever been because she has the energy to cook again, she’s going to the store less because it’s all planned out and they’re eating way less takeout.
Making the Menu For the Week
So I mentioned above that sausages and pork were on sale this week at my grocery store (along with a much of other proteins, but this is just want we picked for this week.) This was my starting place.
I write down the days of the week on the right side of my list, and then I plan the main dish for each night. For us this week we had a treat Sat chicken and waffles (with take out chicken and homemade waffles and a side of kale salad). See we do still have takeout sometimes as a treat but we’re intentional and plan for it.
We planned on potato soup with bread made in the bread maker for the next two nights (which is why we only needed two proteins this week, normally there would be at least three.)
The next two nights bangers and mash -so sausage with an onion gravy, mashed potatoes, roasted carrots, and bok choy.
The last two nights of the week we planned on pork souvlaki and greek salad.
The order doesn’t really matter too much, and often I’ll switch things around in the week, but I need to know that I have enough dinners to last us all week.
How Did I Come Up With It
I look at those proteins that are on sale and I think about all the recipes I know that use that meat. For example sausages were on sale so I thought about all my options sausage and tortellini soup, or penne and sausage, or gnocchi and sausage, or grilled sausages, or bangers and mash. Pick what’s in season, or you feel like that week, or you haven’t had in a while.
I did the same thing with the pork. It was on sale so I thought about possible dishes in my repertoire Vietnamese pork sandwiches, pork stir fry, pulled pork, pork fajitas in the slow cooker, pork souvlaki. We decided to have pork souvlaki.
Maddie request potato soup so that’s how it got on the list, and the chicken and waffles was something special for the weekend because we were having friends over. Just showing that these aren’t set in stone rules, they’re just guide lines that I use. Make sense?
The Rest of the List
After those main items for dinners are decided, I go through the recipe and add anything else we need to the list. The side dishes might be picked because they’re on sale too. If I need pantry items I always try to price match where I can. For the pork souvlaki night I needed lemon and olive oil for the marinade. Olive oil was on sale. Feta was on sale so we used it for a greek salad. We also planned on pita bread, and tzatziki sauce. I did check the flip ap for the tzatziki sauce but it wasn’t on sale anywhere this week, so I had to pay full price.
Buy Extra When It’s On Sale
Also if there’s a good sale on the protein I usually buy a couple and put the extra in the freezer. I was inspired to buy the pork because it was on sale, but then I remembered I had some in the freezer so I ended up using it. When I got in the store there was an in-store sale on the store brand of sausages that was even better than the one in the flyer so I ended up buying two packs since it was such a good price. My only caution with shopping sales is to be careful and not over buy. It’s no bargain if you end up throwing it out, or it gets freezer burned.
On the list there is also some breakfast basics and some lunch basics as needed. My daughter Maddie is kind of on a lunch making kick, so there were some ingredients she wanted for lunch making -pasta salad and egg salad on croissants. She’s been making everyone’s lunch the last two weeks. But I had to laugh when she adopted my method too. The first week she made something different everyday -and everyone loved it since she made it for my other daughter and husband to take too. By this second week she made two things -pasta salad the first two days, then they have pizza lunch at school Wednesday, egg salad for Thursday and Friday -she’s cooking once and eating twice too!
Fruits and Vegtables
When it comes to picking fruits and vegetables for the list my main tip is to shop in season, these will usually be what’s on sale too. You’ll notice this week, since it’s January I bought carrots, sweet potatoes and onions -root vegetables for winter. Citrus is in season too, so there’s some of it. I also included things that weren’t in season, but I definitely avoided some fruits and vegetables, like cauliflower that’s about $5 a head right now.
Plan Some Easier Meals Sometimes Too
I mentioned the chicken and waffles already, but it’s super easy and delicious. The first couple times we made it we made fried chicken from scratch, but let’s face it take out chicken is just as good or even better. We continued to make the homemade waffles because they’re so amazing, and I paired it with a store bought bagged kale salad. It’s a really easy weekend dinner and so good for a treat!
I have a few easy dinners in my repertoire too, things like frozen pizza and a salad, burgers and frozen fries, toasted bacon and tomato sandwiches, breakfast for dinner, butter chicken made with jarred sauce with frozen naan bread and roasted cauliflower, chicken alfredo with store bought alfredo sauce and baked chicken, meatball subs with frozen meatballs and jarred tomato sauce. These kind of easy, lower effort meals are great to have in your rotation. Also a few good slow cooker recipes are handy too. Also think about your schedule as you’re planning. On a night you get home late, or have an early activity for the kids you might need to plan for that to fall on a night two of a recipe where it’s leftovers, or have an easier quick meal planned.
Plan When You’ll Eat Out
Especially if you’re new to meal planning and used to eating out often, how about you ease into it. Start slowly and build up. And even if you’re a long time meal planner you’ll want to plan some restaurant treats or takeout every now and again. Things like this will help you from burning out and giving up. Also, part of the power of budgeting is choosing where to spend your money. Just like with choosing a cheaper grocery store, notneccesarily because you have to, but because you want to, because you’d rather spend your money on something else. It’s empowering. Deciding when to eat out and where, and for what price that actually fits your budget is an empowering thing too. If you knew it was a treat, planned in advance and within your budget won’t you enjoy it more?
Tips For Getting Started
If you’ve never planned your meals this way, you might need a little help building up your repertoire of recipes. You might not be able to think of something to do with the meat that’s on sale this week. I would recommend a recipe binder. I have a binder with all my regular recipes in it. You could organize your binder by section. Create a section for chicken, beef, pork, fish, and other proteins your family enjoys. This would make it easy in the beginning to flip through for ideas.
Also, challenge yourself to try something new. If all the ingredients in a new recipe sound good to you, chances are you’ll like the finished dish. Check out pinterest and find some new recipes to try. Perhaps aim for once a week to try out something new at the beginning, or if you feel like you’re in a bit of rut.
There’s a few reasons that meal planning helps you save money the most important being that you’ll buy only what you need, waste less food, and eat out less. You will also save more if you shop for things on sale, shop at a discount grocery store, buy what’s in season, and take advantage of price matching when you can.
For our family of four, I spend about $125 – 150 a week on groceries at the grocery store. We also shop at Costco about once a month where we buy items like coffee, maple syrup, frozen chicken breasts, toilet paper, laundry detergent, and all our personal toilettes like soap, shampoo, and feminine hygiene products. With this added to the grocery store spend,we average about $180 a week all together.
I took an informal poll on social media and found everything from about $150-$300 a week, but all the way up to $600 a week (because they included eating out which they did a lot.) One thing is for sure, you’re not going to spend any more than you already do by meal planning -it’s only going to go down. So what have you got to lose?
The Health Benefits
One of the biggest secrets to healthy eating is planning ahead. My weight has always, always been a struggle for me. We eat too many treats, and my portions are too big. But, my saving grace health wise is that meal planning helps you eat healthier food. Cooking from scratch most of the time really is better for you. You control the recipe, so you control what you put in. Also if you do have health goals one of the best ways to stay on track is to plan ahead, and meal plans allow that.
Getting a Little Personal
Many of you know my story. Despite a lot of education, I wasn’t and still am not able to get a job in my field like I had planned to after my kids were school age. I ended up staying at home, and working on my blog. I love my blog, but in terms of $ it’s got a ways to go. My husband and I had a lot of financial goals for when I returned to work and we were both disappointed when that didn’t happen -my husband is a real planner, budgeter, and saver. I’ve learned a lot from him and our journey to make one good income work for our family -and in hindsight I’m so grateful for my at home years and working on growing the blog. And we’ve still been able to work towards all our financial goals.
I’ve realized over the last little while that I’ve contributed to those goals too and it’s made me feel really good. I’m sharing this because there are probably some people out there who wish they could contribute more, but don’t realize that saving is a big contribution too. I always knew that being home was contributing to my girls, to the home we’d created and to the sense of balance in our family. I didn’t undervalue what I was doing per say, but I did wish I was contributing more money wise. But there’s two ways to have more money at the end of the day. One is to make more money, but the other is to spend less money. I didn’t think about the second too much, and I’m beginning to see how much I’ve accomplished by saving money.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years about money is that the battle is often control. Do you control it or does it control you? I could easily spend more on groceries, but by spending less I get to control my money, make it work harder for me, and choose where I want to spend it. I like that feeling. That feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness can be turned around into a feeling of power in your life when you’re bossing your money around, and it’s not bossing you around.
You Can Do It
If I can do this, you can do this. I’m really not the most organized or disciplined person -if you know me in real life you’re laughing out loud right now. But this system works. If this is an area of your life that you’d like to change I’m cheering you on. Set aside a few minutes a week -it probably takes me about 10-15 minutes with the flyers, a coffee, a piece of paper (or more usually the back of an old envelope) and a pen. Once you plan out your week, you won’t have to think about it again until next week. It might take you a little longer at the beginning, so be graceful to yourself. You got this!
I’d love to know if this post is helpful. Are you a meal planner already? Do you have any tips to share with the rest of us? Or are you a new meal planner and have a few questions I could help you with? What are your thoughts about the cook once eat twice method? Comment here or connect with me on social media.
With a meal plan for the week, life really is a party!