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With the cost of groceries and everything else on the rise, my family is reexamining our food budget. In order to help make the most of our allotted food dollars, we’re focusing on reducing food waste. Meal planning is an excellent way to not only save money and reduce food waste but also alleviate some of the stress of putting food on the table.
Meal planning doesn’t have to be an overwhelming endeavor. If the idea of coming up with a month’s worth of breakfast, lunch, and dinners, along with twice-daily, snacks leaves you almost paralyzed, you are not alone!
Every day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner times roll around. We can’t seem to escape it!
By putting in a little effort in advance, these meals can easily go together with less stress. In this article, I’ll share a few of the methods I’ve used over the years for meal planning. Keep in mind, there is no perfect plan that will fit every individual. Sometimes, what works today won’t work next week. Remember to give yourself plenty of grace!
One easy way to avoid the overwhelm with meal planning, and still have nutritious and economical meals, is to plan for the next day only.
As you’re cleaning up from supper, take a minute to think about tomorrow. What’s on your agenda? If you and your spouse and/or children share cooking duties, who is in charge of tomorrow’s food? Once you know, you can figure out the best meals to accommodate your day. Then you, or your helpers, can get a jump on tomorrow by doing a few things now.
Put some oatmeal on to soak for breakfast. Pack lunches. Take meat out of the freezer and cut veggies so it can all be dumped in the crockpot before leaving the house.
I’ve found this daily method works best when keeping a full fridge, freezer, and pantry while using simple recipes and methods.
My book, Design a Dish, is the perfect complement to the daily plan. Design a Dish shares a variety of formulas that allow you to put together tasty dishes using ingredients that are abundant for you. Have package of stew meat in the freezer? Check out the Design a Crock Pot Dish section for easy-to-assemble ideas that can help you get out the door fast in the mornings and come home to a tasty, ready-to-eat dinner.
There have been many seasons in my life when the daily menu plan worked perfectly for us. I especially like this method for multiple cooks in the household. Each person can determine what they’ll make based on the ingredients on hand. With planning ahead, you’ll also avoid the 5:00 issue of what in the world will we eat tonight? Which too often results in take-out.
7 days. That’s not terribly long. Where a monthly menu plan is almost paralyzing, a week’s worth is doable. Especially if it’s dinners only!
Through my years of meal planning and finding what works best in my house, and what doesn’t, a few different weekly plans are standout winners.
Shop the Pantry
For a basic weekly menu, I always check for fresh vegetables lurking in my fridge, bits tucked in the freezer, and pantry supplies first. Once I have a good idea of items on hand, focusing on perishables that need to be used up, I’ll then think about our week. We have martial arts two nights a week. On those nights, I know I either need to plan on crockpot dinner (Hello, Design a Dish) or make those a night for leftovers (be sure to check my previous post on making the most of leftovers). I’ll also check the calendar for other events. If we have a meeting or something similar, those also need to be easy meal nights.
Something I’ve learned, and I’m sure you know too, is without a plan on those busy nights, it is easy for a restaurant to call my name! I’m not going to lie, I enjoy eating out. But to help our budget and waistlines, we prefer to have our restaurant meals as special occasions as opposed to meals caused by poor planning.
Once I have an idea of our schedule for the week, I start filling in favorites, focusing on perishables that need to be used up first. We live about half an hour from the nearest grocery store, so I rarely put something on the menu needing a special ingredient.
One time per week, when we’re in town for martial arts practice, we’ll grab vegetables, fruit, other perishables, and “loss leader” sales. But our “big” shopping is limited to about once every four to six weeks. I also take advantage of home delivery from Amazon, Walmart, Target, and other places that have pantry items we use, and I utilize Azure Standard for bulk orders. Azure Standard is a great way to fill your pantry without incurring large shipping costs when you live near a route. They are continually expanding and opening new routes across the United States. Check them out here.
By shopping your fridge, freezer, and pantry first, you can keep your food budget low and utilize sales and in-season items as you find them. Instead of needing something special for this week’s menu, I simply buy things I know we’ll use. With the holidays rapidly approaching, you may find “loss leader” items in your local markets. Stock up on those seasonal goods now and utilize them on your menu in the coming weeks and months.
This weekly plan, from a method shared in Well Fed, is something I’ll often utilize not only as a menu plan but as a way to get a jump on the week. For this plan, I work backward, doing a large shopping trip first, a little cooking, and then the planning.
I’ve found this works best when I plan a big shopping trip on Saturday. We’ll then spend an hour or two on Sunday afternoon putting it all together. The one-day prep is also a great way to involve the family in meal preparation. We set up separate workstations and go to town chopping and cooking.
One of us will wash and cut up all the veggies. The hearty ones that need cooking are moved to the next person, who steam-sautés them. The vegetable should be soft but not thoroughly cooked. Store the individual vegetable in its own container in the fridge. When it’s time to use, heat with a little oil and seasoning until hot. We’ll also keep raw veggies ready for crudité and/or salads.
In addition to precooking the veggies, we’ll also cook up several pounds of ground meat, maybe some chicken thighs or pork chops, and possibly cook a roast or whole chicken.
To make the week run even smoother, we’ll add in a large batch of brown rice and/or bake sweet and white potatoes along with spaghetti squash. While we do love homemade bread, I don’t add any baking on these cook-up days—it would be too much!
Then I’ll quickly sketch out plans to enjoy our precooked meals as quick dishes through the week, adding in a couple of days worth of crockpot meals based on what’s happening during our week. With the bulk of the cooking done, we can have hot, tasty meals in about twenty minutes.
Bean of the Week or Stretchy Beans
Similar to the one-day cooking method, my absolute favorite and most utilized weekly meal planning method is to choose a bean, cook a big pot or sprout a batch, and enjoy the bean of the week for three, four, or even five meals. This method is the basis for my Stretchy Beans book. It’s easy and economical, plus it’s a great way to practice cooking with beans that may be part of your food storage.
I’ve found this plan works best when also cooking a bone-in roast or a couple of whole chickens on Sunday.
The meat kicks off the week with a cozy meal and the basis of broth. The meat is portioned in the kitchen, allowing for the Sunday dinner serving, then various amounts are saved for other meals during the week. You can see examples of my stretchy beans menus here.
A wildly popular way to plan a week’s worth of dinners is to choose a theme for each night. The weekly themes can be anything of your choosing and may even rotate based on the seasons. Here’s one example:
- Sunday = Roast or roasted chicken
- Monday = Italian
- Tuesday = Mexican
- Wednesday = Soup
- Thursday = crockpot
- Friday = Pizza
- Saturday = Leftovers
Once you have your nightly theme, you plug in your favorites. Based on the above theme, the menu may look like this.
- Sunday = Roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, buttered carrots, green salad with blue cheese dressing
- Monday = Spaghetti with Italian sausage
- Tuesday = Stuffed burritos
- Wednesday = Antelope (or any red meat) stew
- Thursday = Jambalaya
- Friday = Homemade pizza on sourdough crust
- Saturday = Leftover smorgasbord
While I love the organization of a nightly theme and have very fond memories of a weekly homemade pizza night when my older children still lived at home, this isn’t one of my favorites. That said, it does work well for millions and may work for you too.
An easy way to do monthly meal planning is by collecting four weeks’ worth of weekly menus and rotating through. I did this with my bean of the week aka stretchy beans plan, rotating through 13 weeks!
Having several weeks of plans under your belt can make a monthly plan seem much less daunting. I’ve even done monthly meal planning using a combination of my three favorite weekly versions: shop the pantry, one-day prep, and bean of the week. You could even add in a week of theme night if you wish! That would certainly keep things interesting.
What About Breakfast, Lunch, and Snacks?
While there are seasons where I plan three meals plus a daily snack a week at a time, that is not my norm. Usually, I have a simple list of breakfast, lunches, and snacks I rotate through. Here is an example of lunches we’ve enjoyed. Here is my breakfast list. My oldest daughter brilliantly keeps a dry erase board in the kitchen with available snacks.
During this season of over planning, mapping out all three meals plus snacks, my goal is to get back on track health-wise. Since 2009, we’ve enjoyed a mostly traditional diet focused on real and whole foods. While we still eat traditional foods, my husband and I have found a need to pay more attention to our over-50 waistlines.
For the past 18 months, we’ve been following the purist version of Trim Healthy Mama. Well, I should say we dabbled with it last year, becoming serious in January. We were having great results. We’d both dropped several pounds and felt good. Then summer fun took over and healthful eating went out the window!
This detailed menu plan has been helpful for getting us back on track while keeping our budget in check. You, too, may find that you need more of a plan at certain times than others.
Grace and a Backup Plan
I mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Give yourself grace. I can’t tell you how many times my well-planned menu has gone poof in an instant. Grace goes a long way on those days. So do backup plans.
While we strive to eat healthfully and focus on real foods, we keep things on hand for emergency meals. While these may not be quite to the standard we prefer day in and day out, they’re a fine fit for crunch times. Here are a few suggestions based on what we’ve kept for quick meals.
- Applegate Farms (or similar style brand) uncured lunch meats
- Hot dogs and/or brats
- Frozen pizzas
- Mac & Cheese
- Eggs (scrambled eggs or an easy omelet makes a great dinner)
- Canned salmon (the large cans for salmon patties and the smaller specialty cans to top salad greens or coleslaw)
- Canned soup
- Cans of spaghetti sauce and spaghetti
- Frozen vegetables and fish (thin fillets thaw quickly)
The key is to find items that fit your lifestyle and food choices, keep well, are easy and quick to prepare, and fit in your budget. I believe even grilled cheese and tomato soup, prepared with love, can be an almost gourmet meal.