Not Your Mom’s Meal Planning

My friend described her mother’s meal-planning approach: every day she’d browse through Bon Apetit, choose a recipe, and shop for the ingredients. My mom, who was feeding a family of seven, would scan the grocery circular and build meals around the sale items.  Not everyone has the time or inclination peruse food magazines or even grocery ads, yet planning ahead for meals is one of the best ways to stay within your food budget.

When we were first married I planned meals a month in advance! Now I spend less than ten minutes per week meal-planning, and my family eats healthfully on half the USDA’s “low-cost” food plan.  Check out these simple speed-strategies that may be quite different from your parent’s approach to meal planning.

  1. Create a rotation of familiar favorites.

What are your favorite meals to cook and eat? List five to seven ideas, or however often you make dinner at home. Next, write a “master” grocery list including all the items you need for these meals. Save it digitally and check which items you need to replenish before grocery shopping. If you’re a diehard creature of habit, you might like to assign each dish to a certain night of the week. It takes all the guesswork out and is a great way to get in the habit of cooking at home.

  1. Schedule themed days.

Maybe you can’t stand the thought of eating the same meals week after week. Instead, create a schedule of themed days that allow for more flexible. For example, Taco Tuesdays could involve different proteins or toppings, while still offering some structure to speed meal planning. Other themes ideas include main ingredients like Pasta Night, Meatness Monday; your favorite ethnic cuisine; or a go-to dish, such as pizza or curry. (My all-time favorite is Leftover Night)

  1. Batch cooking tailored to your schedule.

Is one part of your week busier than another? On less hectic days I like to cook larger, more involved meals that will provide leftovers later in the week. I also might cook a lot of one protein, to be used into two or more dishes. For example, shredded chicken or ground beef can be incorporated into a wide variety of recipes. Or grilled or baked proteins can later be served with different sauces. You can batch cook more than one meal at once, or simply prep a protein to streamline meal prep later in the week.

  1. Planning around protein sales.

If you want to shop sales but feel overwhelmed by grocery ads or remembering prices, focus on purchasing your proteins on sale, since this is often the most expensive ingredient in a recipe. See what’s on sale—ahead of time if possible—and brainstorm two or three meals using that same main ingredient as the basis for your recipe. Pinterest, Yumly, or other recipe curating web sites might help if you need ideas. But if you find those sites overwhelming, it’s better to stick with your favorite cookbook.

  1. Planning by cooking method.

For the busiest days, I plan ahead for quick recipes using the grill or pressure cooker. If I’ll have time at home but want a hands-off dish, the oven is my friend. Sometimes I want to unwind through culinary therapy and choose a hands-on, stove-top recipe. Of course the slow cooker is a stand-by for long busy days. Connecting these cooking methods to your scheduling needs can help set you up for meal planning success.

  1. Mix & match.

I use a combination of the ideas above to power meal planning. Practice has helped me become flexible and fast about making our menu, but I continue to think in categories: meatless dishes, 2 dishes from a large package of chicken, Thai, Indian, Mexican, etc. I enjoy trying one new recipe some weeks. This keeps things interesting and allows us to discover new favorite while keeping home cooking manageable throughout the week.

  1. Subscription services that plan meals for you.

If none of the ideas above appeal to you or meal-planning is just not your thing, you might try one of the subscription services that do the work for you. Many allow you to specify dietary restrictions, food preferences, and even tailor menus to weekly sales at various grocery chains. An affordable menu service could actually help you lower foods costs by reducing over-spending, food waste, and last minute dining out. I’ve never used one, but if you could recommend one, we’d appreciate your comments!

For more tips for cutting back your grocery budget without sacrificing nutrition, check out:

Say Good-Bye to Meatless Monday

20 Frugal Food Hacks

Are You Too Chicken? (To Raise Backyard Chickens)

Inflate Your Usefulness with Gardening

Cut Your Grocery Budget in Half

Cut Your Grocery Budget in Half, Part 2

Do you find meal planning saves you money? How do you plan meals? 


33 Responses to “Not Your Mom’s Meal Planning”

  1. Penny She Picks Up Pennies says :

    OMG! Yes! Thank you for being real. I do some really basic meal planning when I put together our weekly grocery store list. We don’t even get this carried away. The biggest thing that works in my favor is that I have now taught my husband how to eat leftovers for dinner later in the week rather than for lunch. That’s our most expensive meal! No need to wolf it down in 8 minutes in an office/closet before the lunch bell rings!

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for concurring, Penny. I’m dying to know: 1. How you convinced your husband to eat something besides leftovers, and 2. What he eats instead.

  2. Josh says :

    My wife belongs to several groups that will truck discount food that grocery stores no longer need, over-ordered, or the packaging was damaged (food integrity still intact) too much like cheese, pasta noodles, and other dry goods.

    To get ideas, she also looks on Pinterest, plus we have a few household favorites she makes throughout the month.

    • Kalie says :

      Very interesting–I didn’t know those groups existed. I’m glad to hear it, as I know a ton of food waste occurs at that level.

  3. The Green Swan says :

    We usually buy a lot of the same things at the grocery story and really only plan out “big” meals for the weekend with hopes to have leftovers throughout the week. Those are some good tips though, to help folks mix it up. We do a subscription meal service once a month for a few meals which is nice and fun for Lucy and I to cook together.

    I imagine as our family grows, we will need to be more thoughtful of our grocery shopping and plan sales and deals.

    • Kalie says :

      We also buy a lot of the same things at the grocery store, and that makes it easy to pull together meals if I didn’t plan that week, or if plans change. It’s good to always have some “pantry” meal staples on hand. I’ve gotten less fussy with the planning since having kids, since I simply don’t have time, and they won’t appreciate fancy food, anyway!

  4. Amanda says :

    Yes! I am lost without a meal plan! I shop the grocery ads and plan my meals around what I have. We have some quick favorites and I always keep ingredients on hand for those. We plan leftovers as well.

    If I have trouble coming up with ideas for meals, I turn to the cookbook, as I do find looking through online recipes to be distracting and a tad overwhelming. That said, if I have a particular ingredient I want to use up, I do an online search for meal options using that particular ingredient. Like you, I spend less than 10 minutes/week on this task.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, I love the ingredient search tools. That’s helped me discover some new recipes and avoid wasting food. I agree that having ingredients for standbys on hand is a great way to simplify cooking and reduce food costs.

      I’m not a huge fan of cookbooks, simply because I like seeing recipe ratings. It can get overwhelming, though, and everyone’s taste varies. Sounds like you a pro meal planner–I know you’re cooking for more and bigger people, too!

  5. FullTimeFinance says :

    We do many of what you have listed, but I will add one more to the list. Plan based on the time you will have available to prepare. We have 2 kids and a busy lifestyle, not every day is there time to cook a 4 course meal. About the time of our kids birth we discovered crock pot meals. Set the thing in the morning and it’s ready when you get home at the end of the day. Crock pot meals are for days when the kids have swim lessons or other activities. More advanced meals are for days when perhaps the kids spend the afternoon at grand moms or a weekend.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, I absolutely plan easier meals, crockpot recipes, or leftovers for the nights that we have a busier schedule that may run into the time I typically cook. In fact, this is the single most important way for me to actually stick with my meal plan and cook the food I’ve purchased for the week.

  6. Our Next Life says :

    Such a great list of tips! We go through cycles — sometimes we’re great at meal planning and we spend less on groceries (and enjoy our meals more!), and other times we get super busy and neglect it and then just buy whatever. I’m definitely excited to be a meal planning pro in retirement — and to fill up my freezer with batch cooking meals, something we never think to do now.

    • Kalie says :

      That’s a good point about meal planning making meals more enjoyable. It is hard when you work a lot, though. I used to plan by the month when I was working crazy hours. It took longer up front but it was nice not to think about it too much after that.

      I’ve never had much success with freezing meals–we just eat it all! We have people over for dinner a lot, though. It will be nice for you to come back from your retirement adventures to freezer meals!

  7. Emily from evolvingPF says :

    Thanks for these ideas! I find meal planning to be time-consuming and stressful, even though I cook quite easy and simple meals and there is a lot of repetition and batch cooking. But it hadn’t occurred to me to just say that we’ll eat the same things on the same days of the week, or that certain days require certain cooking methods!

    I have been back and forth with meal planning. I tend to overestimate the number of meals we need to plan for, which in turn causes overbuying and sometimes waste. When we go without a plan we tend to stretch our food a bit more, though the meals themselves may become unbalanced, which I don’t like. I haven’t yet hit on the right method but I think your ideas will help!

    • Kalie says :

      I can see why you’d overestimate the number of meals, thinking you don’t want to come up short. I do find that one or two nights of the week, I don’t end up making what I’d planned. Maybe we have a dinner guest on short notice and I want to make something fancier, or maybe we had more leftovers than expected or weren’t home for dinner. In any case, maybe you could plan 2 pantry-staple meals that involve items that are frozen or dry, so those items won’t be wasted if you don’t get to everything you’d planned.

  8. Mustard Seed Money says :

    My wife definitely shops like your mom. She grabs the circular each week and figures out what is on sale. Based on what she finds that’s what we will eat for the week. It’s been incredibly successful in terms of saving money and keeping us happily fed.

    • Kalie says :

      I used to do the same. If we didn’t have ALDI as our closest store, I still would. Nearly everything there is sale-price or less compared to the other grocery store ads. I’ll buy their “sale” produce that week. It always makes me laugh when they advertise some item they’ve marked down 10 cents. Anyway, I’m glad to hear that this system works well for you!

  9. Fruclassity (Ruth) says :

    I love that blue sign at the top : ) Very impressive that you manage to cook healthy meals at half the cost of the “low cost” recommended food plan. We tend to do great with planning for several months and then lapse – usually because we’re tired of what we’re eating I think. A little intentional seeking out of new recipes or ways to vary familiar ones would be a very good idea. Making frugal groceries work is so key to reaching financial goals.

    • Kalie says :

      That “tears of our forefathers” really makes me smile 🙂 The grocery chain ALDI is a huge factor in our low costs. I used to look for several new recipes per week to keep things interesting, but that became overwhelming and time-consuming. That’s when I instituted a rule of one new recipe per week. Now that I’ve expanded my repertoire, I may not even include a new recipe. But I can definitely get into a rut and that’s when meal planning feels less appealing.

  10. Ms. Montana says :

    I feel like left overs are the only way I survive or ever eat lunch. When people talk about throwing out their left overs, I am horrified. That is the golden meal right there! Because there is no prep, no clean up and no cook time, it’s better than take out. Plus I don’t have to get dressed or drive somewhere to pick it up!

  11. Mr. PIE says :

    This is a great list. We do a reasonable job at spending the occasional weekend cooking multiple meals using the crockpot, but it is bitter sweet as this is our family time where we love to head to the mountains and hike, talk, laugh…..anything but eat!

    So much looking forward to the day we hit FIRE and can have ample time to do both.

    Oh, and we are getting so good at cooking larger meals for our growing boys and to bring to work for a posh brown bag lunch. My office neighbors are invariably jealous of the aroma and probably the savings I am getting instead of dollars down the drain on uninspiring work cafeteria lunches.

    • Kalie says :

      I don’t even want to think about how much more food I’ll need to make when my kids are older. That’s a great way to look at your bagged lunch, as so much more appealing than buying bland cafeteria food.

  12. DC YAM says :

    We’ve been meal planning for most of the past five years, and I definitely can attest to having a few “family favorites” as a key part of meal planning. We also started to keep our old meal plans so if we don’t have much time or are lazy in a given week we can just go grab 7 ideas from the past. Meal planning has definitely evolved!

    • Kalie says :

      Keeping old meal plans is a great idea. I used to do that and got away from it, but I’ll have to start saving them again. Thanks for the tip!

  13. Laurie Frugal Farmer says :

    I’ve just started working to choose more interesting meals. We were doing the “usual” for far too long (in the name of cheap and easy 🙂 )and the fam was getting annoyed. 🙂

    • Kalie says :

      I could eat the same thing every week, but when my kids start refusing to eat dinner I know it’s time to mix it up. It is fun to try new things, too.

  14. Ditching The Grind says :

    This is something we need to work on. Up until a few months ago, my wife’s aunt had been living with us for the last 3+ years. We’d buy the food and she’d usually have dinner ready for us when we got home. Now we’re getting back in the groove of making dinner every day ourselves. We have a core group of meals, now we need to start cooking in larger batches so we can have leftovers more often.

    • Kalie says :

      That would definitely be an adjustment if you were used to having dinner made! It helps to find recipes that are easy to double–some take almost no additional time to double, while others are more work than it’s worth.

  15. drew says :

    I’ve actually just wrote an article like this… (Unpublished… maybe someday).

    I myself am able to spend about 35-40 a week on not only groceries but toiletries, paper products, and household necessities.

    Every couple of weeks I can even skip the store so my averages may be even lower on the year?

    I agree once you are in the routine it is very easy to do, and if you are like me you will hate being off of it; especially if your recipes and cooking skills are good.

    I am almost always disappointed in convenience options. Nothing beats a good home cooked meal (even the leftovers). Its sad so few know this.

    Thanks for the post

    • Kalie says :

      I agree that convenience food is not nearly as tasty as homemade. That’s awesome your grocery and household costs are so low!

  16. Amy says :

    I came up with a meal plan for dinner 15 years ago. I’ve been using that same meal plan, with minor tweaks like protein source when we became vegetarian, then vegan and back to vegetarian. It’s nice not to have to think about what’s for dinner.

    • Kalie says :

      Wow, 15 years ago! That sounds like one amazing meal plan. And flexible, too!

    • Amy says :

      It’s a pretty simple meal plan. Sunday is a stir-fry. Monday is soup, which for us is usually vegan black bean chili with add-ins like cheese and crackers for those who want it. Tuesday is tacos or burritos, for a while the oldest (now 16) was on an enchilada kick so we did those instead. Wednesday is spaghetti, we vary the type of noodle either doing whole wheat, corn, rice, buckwheat or ancient grains. Thursday is hot brinner night so a lot of options there. Friday is pizza, always pizza and thanks to Daiya we could have cheezy pizza still when my husband and I were eating vegan. Saturday is sandwiches or leftovers.

      The kids still eat meat sometimes so I’ll make some turkey meatballs, cook up some meat with taco seasoning and chicken with teriyaki marinade so that it can be warmed and added to their meals. We’ve always got carrots and broccoli with hummus or ranch dip on hand. We stop at the store a few times a week to pick up salad supplies too because all three of the kids love to eat salads.

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