Introduction: Easy, Cost Effective Meal Planning

Hi! My name is Rachel and if you are reading this, it likely means your life is busy and you are looking for some ideas on how to save time (and money) by planning your meals out ahead of time. We all need to eat, and sometimes the amount of time and work that goes into coming up with appetizing, as well as time and cost effective ways to accomplish this can be annoying; even if you enjoy cooking like I do! Our lives are kept full and busy between work, school, social activities, and whatever else your life consists of.

If you are like me, you like variety in your food and that doesn't mean jar salads one week and spaghetti the next! Do you wonder if it's actually possible to accomplish your hopes of delicious, varied meals to eat throughout your busy week, without having to spend your whole weekend in the kitchen? I have been planning my meals out for some time now and I hope that the method I'm sharing with you in this Instructable can be of help.

You may not have tons of fridge space either, making some popular meal planning ideas that allow for more variety by making things ahead of time and freezing them impractical for your situation. Another plus with my method is that it works just as well for a family of 6 as it does for one individual!

Meal planning can look overwhelming to a lot of people. The thought of trying to plan out a whole weeks worth of meals at one time can certainly be a daunting thought, but if we break it down a little bit we find that it's not only doable, it also doesn't take that much time! I work Monday - Friday, so typically do my shopping on Saturday. But, before I go grocery shopping I want to know what I need for the week ahead for two primary reasons:

1) So that I don't over buy and have fruit or vegetables go to waste (not to mention the wasted money)

2) I don't want to find out in the middle of a week that I'm missing something and need to run to the store!

Some people like to use the weekend to prepare meals for the rest of the week. I don't like to do that because it usually doesn't leave much time to do other things. Another thing is that it often results in a week's worth of meals with only slight variations (different types of jar salads, casseroles, wraps, etc.). The meal planning I use and am about to share with you helps to ensure more variety in meals, plus it saves time and money! What is there not to like about that?!


8 1/2" x 11" spiral bound lined notebook or 2 blank pieces of paper (8 1/2" x 11" recommended)

Pen or pencil

Optional: Ruler

Alternative option: Electronic device with a spreadsheet program or something similar

Step 1: Getting Started

Do whatever works best for your schedule and set a side an hour or so one day a week to plan out your meals. For me, I do it Friday evenings. All you need is a couple pages of blank paper and a pen. I like to curl up on my couch in the evening and do it the relaxing, simple, "old fashion" way! :-) 8 1/2" x 11" paper is a good size, and a spiral bound notebook works perfect! (More about that later).

If you want to use an electronic device, that's fine too. I would suggest using either a spreadsheet or a table with seven columns across the top and four rows down the side (see screen shot for an example. Note that I have already formatted it according to the specifications we discuss further down in this step).

Turn the paper (or notebook, like I'm using here) horizontally and start out by writing the first day of the week that comes AFTER your shopping day in the top left corner. Since my shopping day is Saturday, Sunday is the first day I have on my paper. Next, draw a straight divider line as shown in the picture.

I use a lined notebook and just hand draw everything. The faintly printed-on lines make it easy for me to keep my vertical lines between each day straight. It also helps me get evenly spaced lines (which makes for evenly sized squares!) by simply counting the same number of lines for each box. Here, I counted five lines from the edge of the paper to the first line and then continued that spacing pattern the rest of the way across. If you're using lined notebook paper like I am, the last square will be a bit wider because of the header at the top of the page. You may find using a ruler helpful, which is completely fine! You can also make a template on the computer and print one out for each week if you like handwriting the meal plan itself (see above).

Once you have your first day and line on the paper, write the remaining days in order across the top of the page, along with a dividing line between each day. Try to space them evenly, using a ruler to help if you find that easier.

Step 2: Completing Your Layout

Once you have a column for each day of the week along the top of your page, underline the titles to make them stand out a bit.

Next, along the left hand side of the page, write "B:" (for "Breakfast") and draw a horizontal line approximately an inch and a half down from you column title (the day of the week) and across the width of the entire page. Below that, write "L:" (for "Lunch") and another line an inch and a half below the one you just drew. Do the same again, this time writing either a "S:" (for "Supper") or a "D:" (for Dinner) (use whichever you prefer), on the left hand side of the page and another line, followed by writing "Snack". You can add one more line to give the "Snacks" box a finished look if you like, but it's fine not to as well.

Your page should look the example in the picture. Now that you are prepared with a great organization and planning tool, let's start developing our menu!

Step 3: Brainstorming Meal Ideas

This is a step that is especially helpful when you're just starting your meal planning journey. After you have been doing it for a while, you may not find it so necessary.

When coming up with a meal plan, one of the biggest challenges for starters can be thinking of things to make. You can keep a running list that you add to whenever you think of something, or you can just sit down and brainstorm some ideas each week. The most important thing is to write them down so that you have a list to look at when you are writing out your menu plan and your mind goes blank!

So...go ahead and start brainstorming! What are some of your favorite dishes? What do you remember your mom or grandma making that you always loved? Do you try to follow a specific diet? Are there seasonal dishes you like to make? Spend around 15-20 minutes brain storming ideas and write down any that come to mind. If you want to take more time for this step, go right ahead. I would recommend that you write the ideas you come up with down in a notebook or some other place that you can keep track of them, as you can just keep adding to the same list every week rather than starting all over each time.

You are going to want to make two lists - one of breakfast ideas and a one separate of lunch/supper ideas.

Step 4: What Do You Already Have on Hand?

This step is optional, but it can help you keep from buying things you don't need. If you prefer to come up with your menu for the week first and then write out a grocery list of the things you don't have and will need, that's fine. But if finances are tight and you want to avoid spending extra money as much as possible, this will really help with that.

Write out a list of what you currently have in your pantry/freezer/ get the idea! Make it as detailed as you feel necessary. For myself, I always have things like flour and salt on hand, so don't write them down. But I do write down what vegetables I have, whether they are frozen, canned, or fresh. Other main things I write down are dairy products and proteins. Pretty much the perishables, and anything else that can fluctuate a bit as to the likely-hood of me having it in my cupboard or not.

You will then reference this list when writing out your actual meal plan for the week. Do you have ground beef in the freezer but not much chicken? Focus on recipes that use ground beef. Do you have canned vegetables? You can incorporate some of them so that you don't need to buy as many fresh vegetables that week. You get the idea!

Step 5: Bringing It All Together

Here is the part we've all been waiting for! Actually getting a menu planned out and written down! Are you excited?

As you've already learned, cooking meals on the weekend for the entire following week does not work for me. Nor does buying large quantities of a few items (like lettuce) and making a weeks worth of nearly-identical meals work for me. So how do I still manage to make a meal plan that saves time and money and stick to it? That's what you are about to discover.

Start off by taking the chart you made in step one (Coming up with a plan) and write in any meal appointments you have. This includes dinner at your in-laws, an evening in town with your buddies, a date with your significant other, a lunch meeting with a professional acquaintance...etc.

Once you have all of your over-food appointments written in, take the list of breakfast meal ideas you wrote out in step 3, "Brainstorming meal ideas". If something stands out to you like "hey, cereal and yogurt would be great on Tuesday, since I have that early appointment and it is fast", take your pen or pencil and write it in the box for breakfast on Tuesday. If the next thought that comes to mind is that an omelette and toast sounds good for a late breakfast on Saturday, write that in next.

You do not need to start with the first day on your chart! This helps to alleviate the potential of a mind block from not being able to decide what to write down for, say Monday, and getting stuck on it until you decide what would be the best option. As you can see in the pictures, I jump around, writing things down in whichever order ideas come to mind. I always do breakfast first. If that doesn't work well for you, that's completely fine! I do lunch and supper together, and you're welcome to use whatever order you find easiest. This Instructable is simply a tool to give you the information you need and to help you get started with your own meal planning.

Coming up with a menu for my lunches (since I work) and dinners (or supper, whichever you call it!) is where more of the planning comes into the picture for me. I don't like to try to cook something for lunch in the morning when I'm trying to get ready to leave for the office, but I also don't like eating sandwiches and salads all. the. time.! So, what I do is when I cook supper, I make enough for a lunch (or two) later in the week at the same time. It takes practically no extra time and I can even put it into a container right away so all I need to do in the morning is put it in my munch box! Doing it this way also removes the problem of having 5 or 6 lunches in my fridge at once. I typically only have one or two in the fridge at a time. It also means my lunches are fresher! If you're making extra for multiple people, just increase your amounts accordingly.

The other important thing to do is plan meals that have some mutual ingredients. If your ingredients are pretty much all the same, your food gets boring. But if they are all unique, it can be much harder to keep the cost down. In the middle with some overlap seems to be the happy balance.

Take a look at the picture of the meal plan dated 11/3/19 - 11/9/19. Sunday night I have chili with cheese and will make enough for three meals. I have chili down for lunch on Monday and again on Thursday. Monday evening, I made chicken stir-fry and rice for supper, and also put a container of it together for lunch the following day (Tuesday), and an additional container of it for Friday evening. I like to put onions and mushrooms in my chili, then I also used them in my stir-fry. I added other vegetables to the stir-fry as well, including peas. Tuesday evening I made enough tuna casserole for three meals and again used peas. I topped the casserole with cheese, which I also used with my chili. Then I put some in a container for lunch on Wednesday and a second container for lunch on Saturday. Wednesday evening I took a break from involved cooking and made a simple grilled cheese sandwich. Since I had chili from Sunday night planned for lunch on Thursday, I didn't need to make anything more. Supper on Thursday used chicken (I bought one package of chicken and used it for multiple meals) and some of the same vegetables as the stir-fry from a few evenings before, but was made into a stew, keeping things varied while still using some of the same ingredients.

Do you see how that works? Isn't it great?!

If you take a look at the menu plan I just wrote out for myself for this next week, you'll see that I incorporated left overs from Thanksgiving and have an menu that varies significantly from the one I did the first week of November, but I still follow a similar pattern of overlapping ingredients and frequently cooking enough for two or three meals each time I make something more involved. This just shows the flexibility and variety that is available with this style of meal planning. You'll also notice that I have three evenings with social functions this week, which also had an impact on my planning; I decided on salads for two of my lunches.

In addition to main meals, you can also plan out snacks and desserts if those are something you like to include on a regular basis.

Once you have all of your meal squares filled in for the week, you can write out your grocery list. Look over the list you wrote out of things you already have on hand and put any groceries you don't have or will need more of to make the meals you have planned onto your grocery list. It's that simple!

The example "Things on Hand" list and also the sample grocery list are from my meal planning for this week.

Step 6: You're All Set!

As I mentioned earlier, I like to use a spiral bound, lined notebook for my meal planning. This keeps them all in one place and I can easily flip through it for meal ideas when I'm making out my meal plan for the coming week. If a different method, like keeping your meal plans on an electronic device, works better for you, that's fine. Just find what works well for you and start planning out your meals!

I hope you found something helpful from my method of meal planning and that you enjoy the variety it gives room for, while also helping you save time and money! I'd love you hear any additional thoughts on what you find helpful or any questions you may have.

Thanks for reading and happy meal planning (and eating!)

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