How To Write A Meal Plan (When You Hate Meal Planning)

It took me a long time to start meal planning. It sounded so painfully dull, and I hated the idea of being obligated to make a particular meal for dinner. I mean, what if it didn’t sound good that day? No, I wanted to decide each day what sounded best to me and make it. Who needs a meal plan?

Then, I realized we had a few problems.

  1. We were spending way too much on groceries.
  2. We constantly felt like there was “nothing to eat” even with a full pantry.

The problem was, when we bought food, we had no idea how we were going to use it. We’d buy stuff and say, “Oh that sounds good!” or “I’m sure we can find a use for that.” So we’d just have a mishmash of different items that might or might not go together.  As a result, we went to the grocery store far more than necessary and thus spent way more than we needed to.  Or, we would give up and get fast food, which, of course, would completely blow our budget.

I realized I needed to suck it up, put on my big-girl pants, and embrace meal planning.

When I first turned to Pinterest for ideas for meal planning, I’d find plans that detailed everything: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.  Yuck.  That left me feeling completely overwhelmed.  I still wanted a little spontaneity to my food choices each day.

As a result, I only meal plan for dinners.  I’m sure I could save more money planning the other meals, but dinner is the most important meal for our family each day.  If that’s taken care of, the rest sort of falls into place and I’m fine with that.

Okay, so you’re on board with me. You want to start planning your dinners. Now, where do you start?

Because the Hubs is paid on a bi-weekly schedule, I plan meals for 14 days. So I take a sheet of paper and write out the dates for that time period.

dates for meal planning

At this point, I look at my calendar and mark days that we have plans to eat out or eat at a friend’s house, because I don’t need to plan dinner those days.

Then I decide which meals I’d like to make.  There are several factors that go into this.

  1. Check ads. Obviously, the best place to start if you want to save money is checking if something is on sale. Is chicken on sale? Go ahead and add a few different chicken meals.
  2. Check Pinterest. To prevent us from giving up on my meal plan for the week, I need to be sure to keep the meals I plan exciting.  Did you find a recipe lately you’re dying to try? Add it.  I also check the Hubs’s boards, in case he found something tasty while he was bored at work.
  3. Check the Hubs’s work schedule. One of the challenges of being married to a LEO is a crazy schedule.  I try to plan any labor-intensive meals for days that he’s either off early or scheduled completely off.  I also aim to make meals that are good reheated or can stay in the crockpot on “warm” on days that he works late.  For instance, if I want to make spaghetti squash, I’d plan to make it on a day that he’s home, because reheated squash just isn’t as good.  My plans don’t always work out as I expected, by nature of his job, but I do what I can.

To make meal planning easier, I also highly recommend doing a lot of crockpot meals that can be prepared ahead of time and frozen.  That way, you thaw it in the refrigerator the night before, dump it in the crock pot, and you don’t have to think about dinner again until it’s time to eat.  Seriously, it’s life-changing, and it’s enough for its own post.

I also recommend making enough of each dinner that you’ll have lunch the next day, especially since with this plan you’ll be “seat of your pants”ing it.  It’s easy for us since we’re only a family of three, but if you have a bigger family, this might mean doubling or even tripling recipes.

So now, go ahead and start writing meals on your date sheet.  You can also write 14 meals on a separate sheet of paper and transfer them, but that’s up to you.

meal planning tally marks

As you do this, write down the ingredients you’ll need.  You’ll notice that if I need multiples of something, I use tally marks instead of re-writing it. It helps keep me more organized while I’m shopping, rather than writing “1-2 lb chicken” several different times, for instance.

Keep doing this until it’s all filled out.

meal plan completed

Woohoo! Now don’t you feel proud of yourself?

At this point, I add a few breakfast and lunch related purchases to the bottom of my list: lunch meat, milk, eggs, juice, snacks, etc.  Just things that we’ll need over the next few weeks for breakfast and lunch (that is, if there aren’t leftovers.) I also give us an allotment for fruits and veggies (say, $25 for a week.)  Sometimes we go over that amount, but it’s nice to have a rough estimation of what we’d like to spend.

When I’ve finished the meal plan, I reorganize my shopping list by where things are found in the store. Don’t judge me, here.  It’s not as obsessive as it sounds.  It’s just a straight-up necessity when shopping with kids. I usually divide it up by dairy, produce, meat, pantry/canned, and other. It saves so much time in the grocery store to take the extra minute or two to do this.

Sometimes my meal plan gets changed around and I make meals on different days than expected, but, for the most part, we stick to it.  The important part for us is that we have the ingredients for meals for the next two weeks set aside and ready to use.

Meal planning has saved us so much money.  Where we used to spend $200 or more in a pay period on food, we now spend under $140 per pay period.  Now that we’re on a lower income than we were before, it’s even more necessary than before and I’m grateful to have learned to do it before we needed to figure out how to work with a smaller budget.

PS. If you need more help figuring out how to reduce your grocery budget, there’s a great course called the Grocery Budget Makeover.  It’s only open for a limited time, but you can join the waitlist here: I hear they’ll be opening up for enrollment for a brief period in early 2017 🙂

Let’s hear from you guys:  How do you meal plan? Or is this your first rodeo?

 

This is excellent. I love how she only plans for dinners. I can't handle planning breakfast AND lunch AND dinner AND snacks and drinks... but this is doable. And a great way to save $!

About The Author

Leah

I’m a twenty-something LEO wife and stay-at-home mom to a one-year-old little boy. I enjoy writing, reading, taking my son for walks and runs in the stroller, and crafting. My goal is for Love and Blues to be a resource for first responders and their families. I write about marriage and family topics, as well as about the quirks that come with being married to a man in law enforcement, firefighting, or emergency medical services.

  • Love this post! I just started meal planning a few months ago. I hated the idea of it because I also hate cooking, but it’s just me and my husband in our family and we were spending $800/month on groceries by shopping like you described above.

    I use a spreadsheet to plan out all of my meals, because spreadsheets make me happy. We plan out one week of meals. I only plan dinners as well, and find most recipes that are sized for a family of 4 are great for us two because then we have leftovers for lunch the next day!

    I plan meals for the most perishable items like fish towards the beginning of the week, and more shelf-stable things like pasta towards the end. I am also horrible about meal prep, so at the same time I’m planning meals, I add meal prep in the day before on my to-do list (i.e., take frozen shrimp out of freezer on Tuesday so it’s thawed and ready on Wednesday).

    I’m not perfect, but so far using this system we’ve managed to save several hundred dollars a month on our grocery bill. 🙂

    • That’s awesome! We’re the same way. Most recipes are just fine for us in terms of leftovers because our little one is still so little.
      Doing meal prep the night before makes cooking way less daunting, doesn’t it?
      I plan to do a post in the future about batch freezer cooking: It’s a great way to get meals made and ready all in one day to save time and clean-up during the week. You might be interested in that 🙂

  • I really need to start meal planning. It would make my life so much easier :p

    • It really does! It’s a hard habit to get into but totally worth it.

  • Hi Leah, I was just looking at our food budget this week and decided we have to start meal planning. You make very good points. It okay to buy what’s on sale, but if you don’t have a plan for how you are going to use it, you don’t have what you need for complete meals your family will enjoy.

    • That’s so great! I’m glad you’re starting to meal plan. It’s made such a difference for us, and I know it will for you as well.

  • I love doing meal prep ahead of time. It makes life so much easier. My favorite way to do this is freezer cooking. I used to be so good at this, but lately I’ve gotten quite discouraged in the meal plan department as my kids have gotten picky.

    • That’s rough! I don’t have older kids and our little guy is generally a good eater. Best of luck; I wish I had advice for a situation like that!

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