Meal Planning Process

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I have been using meal plans/menus for a couple of years now. When I worked a full time job outside the home it helped so much to be able to know in advance what we were having instead of standing at the fridge at 4:30 hoping to have something thrown together before Joe got home from work at 5:30 or giving up and going out.

When I started meal planning we had come to the point of knowing we needed to make a conscious effort to improve our diet. That was before I had read (or even heard)of Nourishing Traditions and those concepts. But we knew that the road we were on was not working. We were dining out way more than we should and our wallets and waistlines were suffering. Meal planning really helped us make some needed changes.

I didn’t know how to meal plan. A little research and I found this article from The Hillbilly Housewife. She also offers a blank menu planner. With that information I was off and running. The first thing I did was make a list of meals that I knew we liked, then I got out my cookbooks and looked for notes that I might had left at some previous time, then I asked the family for input. With my master idea list and a blank menu planner I would sit down on either Saturday or Sunday and plan our meals for the next week. I would always ask Joe or the kids if they had any requests (Lulu would request ribs every week). Until recently this was my meal planning process.

A couple of months ago Donna mentioned that she only shops once a month. I liked the idea of that. But with trying to eat mostly fresh foods I wasn’t sure how that would work. Plus each week I need to pick up my milk from my cow share. It seemed that I wouldn’t be able to only shop once a month but I decided to use some of her concepts. Here is an excellent article that Donna did that explains her once a month shopping.

My new process is still a work-in-process but I’m very pleased with the way it is going. I would recommend that if you are new to meal planning that you start with only planning a week (or even just a couple of days) at a time. In a nutshell, I plan the main dish for each night of the month, keep ingredients on hand for a list of breakfast and lunches, and make sure that I have any other basic ingredients that we use on a regular basis. I do not try to buy all of the produce we need for the month, instead I plan on picking up fresh produce weekly as needed on my cow share day or even better having one of the other three adults in our family shop with the list I provide.

My minimal shopping/minimal planning process

Step 1- Take Inventory. What do I have on hand? In the fridge? In the freezer? In the pantry? I try to clear out as much fridge stuff as I can before I go shopping so I can start fresh. I have a basic shopping list that I developed (you could do a google search if you need to find a blank shopping list to start you off). My plan is to make my menu and add to my shopping list as I make it.

Step 2- Loose Planning. I use a word document and type up the month in document form. You could do it this way or use a calender (that might be better). I go through and fill in the stuff that we do that repeats. Like we do Pizza on Friday nights and on Sunday’s we do try to have a nicer meal. We do something like beef roast , roasted chicken or salmon. We started doing that again (we had got away from the habit of a nice Sunday meal) after I read this article from The Nourishing Gourmet. Usually Monday night is Planned Over’s from Sunday’s meal, with winter here Tuesday is soup (often more Planned Over’s). Usually, I’ll just fill in the blanks loosely and write on Sunday Big meat, Monday Planned over, Tuesday soup from big meat. That just leaves me Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday to plan. Thursday is often soup or a bean dish. And Saturday I try to plan something that doesn’t require any special prep so if we need to use up leftovers or have strayed from our menu during the week I can adapt. That leaves Wednesdays to figure out. After the first month of planning this part is pretty easy.

Step 3- The Details. I don’t fill in the details for Pizza night. We usually make the same kinds each week and I already have those ingredients on my basic shopping list. For our Sunday Meal I start with what I have in the freezer. This is where the inventory comes in very handy. If I don’t have enough on hand to fill in all the Sunday’s for the month then I put it on my list. I continue on with each day of the week checking my inventory on hand and adding to my list as needed. Since I am doing this for the entire month I usually spend a couple of minutes a day for a few days. After the first month it gets easier because some meals can be repeated. I don’t plan sides unless it is something I feel ‘needs’ to go with the meal (such as the chick pea curry I make. I plan on the sides being rice and flat bread since I love that with it).

Step 4- Where to Purchase. The most likely response to this is the grocery store and it is possible to buy some high quality nutrient dense foods from the grocery store at reasonable prices. But I do use a few other sources. We get beef each month from a grass fed beef CSA. The CSA delivers to me between the 1st and the 5th (except when Farmer’s Market is running then I pick up). I have already done my big shopping by the time I get my CSA but I can usually count on getting 4 or 5 pounds of hamburger, a very nice roast or giant steaks, a few smaller steaks, and some beef stew meat. It is supposed to be 10 pounds but I weigh it each month and it is usually 10+ pounds. I rarely buy any other beef from the grocery store unless Albertson’s has a special on their Wild Organics brand. For chicken I either buy the Albertson’s WO brand or now that my friend (JLB) has processed her chickens I will get them from her. If you look at my menus we sometimes have antelope, elk, trout or venison. Those items my husband either brings home for us or we are gifted by friends who have excess except for the trout. Weather permitting the entire family goes fishing. I am part of a new co-op for Azure Standard. We are finally to a point where we have enough people ordering to try to order each month. My plan is to buy what I can through Azure in hopes of getting away from the major chain markets. I get 1 gallon (soon to be 1 1/2 gallons) of milk each week from my cow share, I also buy homemade cheese from her occasionally and eggs when she has them. The rest of our eggs come from our 5 hens or from JLB since she has both chickens and ducks (love duck eggs). On occasion I don’t have enough eggs from those sources and I have to buy them from the store (chickens do not lay as well during the cold of winter). Hopefully, after I have exhausted those sources my grocery store list is small. It doesn’t always work out that way but that is my goal. Then I look online at the grocery ads. I try to never go to more than three stores since I am toting my baby along with me.

5. Flexibility. At this point, I have made a menu and a list. I have planned where I am buying my items. On my grocery store day I follow my list for necessary items that I’m out of (like baking soda and stuff like that) but I try to be flexible for other things. Maybe I planned on salmon but when I get to the store I find shrimp on a great sale. So I swap it (or if I can swing it I buy both). I feel that having my entire month planned but not being 100% set on what I’m getting helps me to buy quality items at the best prices.

Again, my meal planning is still a work in progress but I’m pleased with how it is going and love that I’m saving money plus saving time.

Do you plan your meals? Do you think it saves you money by planning ahead?
Millie Copper
Millie Copper is a Wyoming wife and mama. After reading Nourishing Traditions in early 2009, her family began transforming their diet to whole, unprocessed, nutrient dense foods—a little at a time while stretching their food dollars. Millie is passionate to share how, with a little creativity, anyone can transition to a real foods diet without overwhelming their food budget. Millie began blogging in late 2009 and has amassed a collection of frugal recipes and methods. Her specialties include cooking with wild game and creating “Stretchy Beans”. Discovering a love of writing, she has penned four books focusing on healthy eating on a budget and is trying her hand at fiction writing. Learn more at


  1. Cyn

    >Planning ahead definitely helps to save money. If I buy the meats we generally eat when they are on sale, than we can eat them when we want during the month, rather than just the week they are on sale.
    We would've been in trouble this week if we didn't have frozen meats to use. Everything in the grocery ads was related to Thanksgiving, and you can only eat turkey and stuff so many days.
    Keeping the plan flexible certainly does help. Hoping to finally make the lasagna that was planned for last Wednesday.

  2. Rebecca

    >I found this to be very interesting. I usually plan a week at a time, unless there are things I'd like to have soon. We have a freezer full of stuff right now, so I am trying to plan meals around eating from the freezer and pantry… sometimes I have no inspiration in meal planning and don't plan the cheapest things, but I find you have to get creative when trying to use as much of what you already have!

  3. Millie

    So true about being creative using things up. I'm still using up organic chicken livers, my creativity is fading though. Good thing we love pate.

    My youngest girl has a birthday this month and wants me to make lasagna. I have NEVER made lasagna. Wanna share your recipe with me?

  4. Cyn

    >It's really SO easy-but I'm sure you can complicate it by making it nutritious 🙂
    Basically you boil the lasagna noodles.
    Add some sauce to the bottom of a pan so noodles don't stick.
    Layer your ingredients (I mix it all together -ground meat, mushrooms, spinach, any veggies you want to throw in, red sauce and Cottage cheese (standard recipe is ricotta cheese, but it's too rich and we've always used cottage cheese-it melts down while cooking)
    Layer this mixture on the noodles, top with cheese and another layer of noodles.
    Repeat-generally 2 layers of meat and then the top is a layer of noodles covered with red sauce and moz. cheese.
    Bake 350 until the top cheese is a delicious color.

    It's generally better twice baked. Bake it in advance and then bake again when you want to eat it. This helps keep it from being 'soupy'.

    If you make your own noodles, you could use that and you probably have a way to do cottage cheese.

    If that wasn't really clear let me know. 🙂

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