When I have shared past Meal Plan Monday posts, a lot of the feedback I receive is that you want to meal plan but aren’t sure how to get started. Well, today’s post is dedicated to helping you build a plan that works for your family. Obviously everyone is different and all things will vary, but this guide can help you adapt it in a way that is unique for you.
Meal planning has been such a game changer for our family. Not only for our budget but just for life in general. Time goes so fast already, so between shuttling Laney to and from school, running the needed errands, cleaning house and completing other to-do list items, I love not staring blankly into my fridge and pantry every evening around 4:30/5:00pm to try to figure out what I’m making. I can see what I’m to make every morning when I look at my planner and can thaw meat if needed, start a crock pot if that’s what the day holds or go ahead and pull the dry ingredients from the pantry to be used later in the day. I’m all for anything that will simplify my life as a mom of 2 toddlers and meal planning is one of them!
Step 1: Shop Your Pantry
The ultimate goals for meal planning are to save money and reduce waste. So to start the process, shop your pantry to prevent having to throw away both your money and perfectly good food. Do you have anything in your freezer, fridge and pantry that you can pair together for several meals? Great — write down those dinners. Can you build partial meals that may need another ingredient or two? Great, add those to the list and make note of the needed items on your grocery list. Shop that list only, cook those meals and when they are gone, begin the meal planning process.
Step 2: Set Your Budget
You’ve whittled down your pantry to the necessities and are ready to start meal planning. Now it’s time to set your budget. You can go about it 2 ways: (1) a weekly budget, or (2) a monthly budget. I aim to spend no more than $100 per week. However, realistically with Morgan’s gluten-free diet, it’s now usually around $125 per week since I need to purchase additional items just for her.
Step 3: Weekly or Monthly?
Once your budget is set, determine if it will be best for your family to meal plan weekly or monthly. Maybe you prefer to shop weekly to get your fresh produce that will accompany your meals. Or maybe you prefer or your schedule only allows you to shop all at one time for the month to reduce the number of times you are out at the store and then will just pick up milk, etc. as needed. The choice is yours!
Step 4: Check Your Schedule
Are there any nights that you or your husband has to work late?
Will your family be traveling?
Do you have company coming over?
Any school or work functions?
Sporting events or team practice?
Plan for any of these when putting together your week of meals.
Step 4: Use Your Resources as a Guide
When I need dinner inspiration, I ask my husband if he is in the mood for anything in particular, I flip through my personal cook book with our family favorites and I’ll check my saved tab on Facebook with any cooking videos that may have caught my eye recently. Things like this will help you to mix in new things to make cooking fun, keep it simple with family favorites and make everyone happy by incorporating what they actually want.
Step 5: Designate a Time
Every Sunday is my meal planning day. Usually when the girls go down for naps, I will sit down with my ‘resources’ and my planner to write down what dinners I want to make that week. I also will notate if I know a meal will make enough for leftovers. If I know Brad will be out of town or has to work late one night, I will try to cook a meal that makes leftovers to eat fresh the night he is home and then have the extra for the next night when he isn’t. This makes it easy when it’s just me and the girls — less time in the kitchen, less clean up and a smoother bedtime routine after dinner.
Once all of my meals are written down in my planner, I will get the pad of paper I use for grocery lists. I keep a running list of anything we may run out of between grocery store trips like butter, seasonings, bread, snacks, etc. and then I will go meal by meal writing down what else I need.
Meal Planning Tips:
+ Start with a higher budget. This can easily be adjusted over time and will help you to feel like you are starting off on the right foot, especially if you see yourself under this initial budget getting started.
+ Stick with your diet. Does anyone in your family eat gluten-free or dairy-free? Morgan follows a GF, oat-free diet so I have to consider this when making my grocery list. Whatever dietary restrictions your family may or may not have, this could mean that you will need to shop at several grocery stores and that’s ok. Aldi has a great selection and an easy to shop section of GF items that Morgan loves! Winning!
+ Learn the store where you love to shop. As newlyweds we shopped at Wal-mart due to small town living, but when we moved to Columbia, SC we began shopping at Publix. It just seemed like the thing to do since we were ‘moving on up’ and more financially established aka DINKs (Dual Income No Kids). But looking back on that now, it makes me cringe because we were spending SO much money on groceries. And most of the time we were over buying for just the two of us.
When we had a new Aldi open up in our area, I went to see what the hype was about and couldn’t believe the money I saved! I could spend $100 on all of the groceries I would spend around $250 on at Publix. This was a big deal for us, especially as we began talking about starting a family and were taking a closer look at our budget to figure in the costs of a child. If you are a Publix shopper, that is totally ok. Just shop their weekly BOGO sales to help stay on your budget. When I began shopping at Aldi, I had to learn the store since they keep their overhead down by various operating procedures and a limited inventory (They don’t carry vitamins, etc. nor a wide variety of items. You may have one of two choices of an item whereas at a larger grocery store you may have 5+.) Over time I figured out what I could and couldn’t get from Aldi and I learned to build my meal plan around things I could get to keep my budget in line. However, we are still loyal to several brands and I know I’ll need to run to Bi-Lo or Publix for a few items from time to time. For example, my husband will only eat Peter Pan’s Creamy Honey Peanut Butter, which I can’t get at Aldi.
+ Don’t overbuy. It leads to waste and then you are basically throwing money in the trash if you can’t throw those foods in the freezer.
+ Don’t stray from your shopping list. Impulse purchases can quickly wreck a budget and can lead to waste, as mentioned before in the overbuying bullet above. If this is something you struggle with, grocery pick up may be your new best friend.
+ Use grocery pick up where available. This can be so helpful for staying on budget because it eliminates the impulse purchases. However, there are several negatives, one being order minimums. I am the type of person who places the order and then realizes I left one thing off and still will have to go back out to the store. It can also be inconvenient at times when the store is out of something or could not fulfill an item, which you don’t find out about until pick up, You can opt for them to substitute if applicable but most of the time I’m pretty picky about what I’m needing. One time I included gluten free waffles in a Wal-Mart grocery pick up order. When I picked up, I was told by the employee loading my car that they didn’t have the specified waffles, so they gave me whole wheat waffles instead. What?! Clearly the person shopping my order didn’t understand what GF meant. So frustrating.
+ Plan for the special extras. Celebrating an anniversary or a birthday at home and want to cook something that takes the average menu up a notch? Plan for that by keeping your other meals simple. My husband also likes to have fresh deli meat and cheese in the fridge on the weekends, so I have to budget for a Friday Publix trip for Boar’s Head Ham and American cheese. At that time, I check to see if I need to restock our Peter Pan peanut butter I mentioned before, etc.
+ Look into meal subscription services. For some families, this is the easiest option when planning for dinner; however, you’ll just want to be sure something like this fits into your budget. Some are pricier than others.
Something we have recently tried is Butcher Box. This is a meat subscription service that ships your specified selections every other month for a set price. We tried this back in January for our proteins and it has been great. We have had chicken wings (we bought in at a time that gives us free chicken wings for life aka the amount of time we stick with the subscription), steak, sockeye salmon, ribs and bacon with plenty of steak, ribs and salmon still in the freezer. The only protein I have to purchase from the store is the occasional bag of frozen chicken breasts. (I prefer to buy frozen so that I don’t have to pay attention to dates or risk throwing away spoiled meat.) We just updated our selections, since you can change them each time, for our box that will ship at the end of this month.
+ Buy a cow. This is an investment in the beginning but will last for a long time! We purchased half of a cow (we split it with friends) in the fall of 2017 and are still eating it. We are down to the last couple of packages of stew meat and 1 lb packages of ground beef, but when we started off, we had a deep freezer FULL of beef including various cuts of steak, 1 lb bags of ground beef, chuck roast, stew meat and more. This can also cut down on grocery spending because I initially was only needing to purchase the sides.
+ Use a planner or a visual guide of your choice. I use a daily planner already to keep track of my to-do lists, appointments, events, etc. So for meals, I use a different color ink and write each night’s dinner to always have it at-a-glance.
Feeling overwhelmed? It’s ok. It can seem complicated in the beginning, but I promise you will find your rhythm. I keep family favorites, crock pot meals and dinners that make for leftovers on repeat. Find what works for you and your family and stick with it! Be realistic with what your family actually needs, plan easy breakfasts and lunches as well as snacks and budget for nights out. We love cheap Mexican and our share of weekly trips to Chick-fil-A!
Happy shopping and planning! Let me know if you have any questions. I am happy to help!