How to Meal Plan to Save Time and Money
Social media: where it seems like everyone can work out, work their career, and work wonders in the kitchen every single day. Guess what? You don’t have to compete with that, but you do have to eat.
If you learn how to meal plan, you can eat healthier and save time, sanity and money—three things you need for all the important stuff in life, like spending time with the people you care about and crushing your money goals. (Afterall, togetherness and goal crushing are way more valuable than anything you’ll see or post on social media.)
You can make the journey from store to table easier and less expensive with meal planning. Here's how:
What Is Meal Planning?
Meal planning is deciding up front—and on purpose—what you’ll eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks throughout the week.
And the best meal plans happen in the kitchen. First, start with what you already have in the fridge, freezer and pantry. Think about those ingredients as you look at recipes and your store’s sales ad. (Yup—we’re talking about the old-school newspaper ads with the weekly sales . . . or find the online version.) Then build your week of meals around what’s on sale and what you already have. You’ll save more and waste less.
Meal planning done right is a game changer for your stress level and your budget.
Why Should You Meal Plan?
We’ve already said that meal planning saves your time, sanity and money. Here’s how that plays out in real life:
1. Meal planning saves time.
You know that annoying feeling on the drive home from work when you think, Ugh. What the heck is for dinner tonight? You get home, rummage through the fridge and pantry, and try to think something up. But oh—you’re missing a key ingredient for this or that. Time to run to the store or grab fast food.
It’s seriously the worst—all that time wasted on last-minute trips to the store. Yes, meal planning takes time on the front end, but it saves so much more in the day to day. It’s worth it!
2. Meal planning saves your sanity.
Speaking of worth it—your sanity is valuable too! When you plan out your meals every week, you’ll feel less stressed. You won’t have frantic runs to the store, hoping to find dinner inspiration in one of the aisles. You won’t have that “what the heck” moment again and again. Instead, you’ll be able to enjoy the drive home! Crank up your favorite podcast and breathe easy knowing you have everything you need for dinner already at home.
3. Meal planning saves money.
When you get organized before you hit the grocery store, you won’t buy food you don’t need. That’s because you’ll look at the recipes you’ll be using, see what’s on sale, and know what ingredients you already have in your pantry. Then you’ll make your grocery list for only what you need.
That means no more random purchases of things you might use because they seem like a good idea in the moment. And no more good intentions to use those three pounds of ground beef before they expire, but no real plan on how to make that happen. You are going to save. So. Much. Money! By planning, you’ll spend less money and waste less food (which is like throwing cash into the trash). It’s a win-win.
Meal planning also helps you beat those drive-thru and snack machine temptations. As you meal plan, think about your crazy busy nights ahead of time and put healthy quick-prep dinners on your grocery list. Also, keep some nonperishable snacks in your car and at work to keep the munchies under control.
When you do all this, you’ll drop the amount of money you spend on food each month. That means more of your hard-earned income can go toward your money goals!
How to Create a Meal Plan That Works
It’s one thing to hear, “You should meal plan! It’ll change your life! Goodbye, food stress. Hello, savings. Yay!” It’s another thing altogether to make it happen. But meal planning isn’t hard once you get the hang of it. It just takes a little practice and time on the front end. Here are nine ways to create meal plans that actually work.
1. Make time to meal plan before the week begins.
Grab your phone or laptop, find a pen, print off our free EveryDollar Weekly Meal Planner, and head to the kitchen. Give yourself 30 minutes to an hour to make a good meal plan and grocery list for the week.
2. Check your calendar.
See what events are coming up and plan ahead. You might need to double a recipe to feed a crowd or have a meal ready to go for those nights you have to run kids from soccer practice to piano lessons.
3. Talk to the people you’re cooking for.
Get some input on the upcoming meals from the people who’ll be eating them. If you’re splitting cooking responsibilities, make sure each chef is on board with what they’ll be making that week.
4. Consult your budget.
If it helps, break your monthly grocery budget into weeks. For example, if you spend $894 a month (which is what the average family of four spends on groceries), that’s about $223 a week.1 That’s just an example though. As you meal plan, keep your grocery spending within what works for your budget. And if you spend more than that one week, you’ll need to tighten it up another week.
5. Look through your pantry, fridge and freezer.
If anything’s expiring soon, make use of it before it spoils! Also, work some of what you already have into this week’s meal plan.
6. Look at sales ads and coupons.
Definitely plan your meat and fresh produce purchases based on these discounts. Because they can get pricey otherwise! Plus, stock up on sale-priced pantry and frozen items you could use later in the month.
7. Look for recipes.
Look online or ask friends for their favorite recipes. Then pick out meals based on the ingredients on sale and what you’ve already got at home.
8. Make a grocery list based on your meal plan.
As you’re planning, jot down what you’ll need to pick up at the store. Again, our Weekly Meal Planner helps you stay organized!
9. Go shopping.
And stick to the list! If you realize you forgot something you needed (because we all do!), that’s fine. But grocery shopping isn’t improv night at the comedy club—it’s no time to go off script.
What Should My Meal Plan Look Like?
Now it’s time to actually plan your meals for the week ahead. Use the Weekly Meal Planner we keep talking about to help you stay focused and organized. Start by planning out dinners. Here’s a sample for inspiration:
Sunday: Salsa Chicken Rice Bowls
Monday: Turkey Meatloaf and Potatoes
Tuesday: Breakfast for Dinner
Wednesday: Chicken Quesadillas
Thursday: Baked Potato Bar
Friday: Dinner at the Smiths
Saturday: Chicken Fried Rice
Don’t forget to double up on items when it makes sense. We’ve got a space called “Double Up” on the planner for this. For example, a 10-pound bag of frozen chicken costs less than two five-pound bags. So, if you’ve got a chicken recipe ready that week, add in a second chicken recipe to double up on the value. Also, cooking it all in one batch saves you time—you’ll have the chicken you need later in the week all ready to go!
The same is true for things you’d use just half of for one meal. If you buy a whole head of lettuce for rice bowl night, and you know you won’t eat it all, plan a salad later in the week. Less waste. More savings.
Once you’ve got dinners planned, be sure to jot down ideas for breakfasts, lunches and snacks as well—even if you eat the same thing for these meals each day. A solid meal plan helps you build a grocery list for all the food you need that week. And that’s the next step. Write down the items you’ll need (including spices) to make those meals happen.
How to Stick to Your Meal Plan
So, now you know how to meal plan. It’s time to learn how to stick with it so you can make the most of those food savings.
Don’t forget about your leftovers.
Once you make a meal, don't forget about it in the fridge until it becomes a moldy science experiment. That wastes food and money. And it’s gross. As you’re putting away the leftovers from dinner, don’t throw the whole casserole dish in the fridge. Portion it out in reusable containers so you’ve got lunch for a day or two.
Another tip is to use leftover ingredients again. Take the leftover chicken from salsa chicken rice bowl night and make chicken and cheese quesadillas later in the week. Or you can put a leftovers night on the calendar—where everyone eats what’s already been made. And don’t forget your freezer: Save half of that lasagna you didn’t finish, freeze it, and put it in your meal plan in a couple weeks.
Remembering the leftovers saves time and money—two of our favorite things to save.
Keep basic breakfast, lunch and snack items on rotation in your grocery list.
We’ve said it before—a meal plan isn’t just for dinner. Make sure you have what you need to cover all the food you need to eat that week. Stock up on fruit, veggies, nuts, cereal bars, milk, juice, sandwich stuff—whatever you and yours like to eat at all the other mealtimes of the day!
Stock your pantry, fridge and freezer with staples.
When rice, steam-in-the-bag veggies, pasta, spices, sauces or other staples that won’t go bad go on sale, buy more than what you’ll use just that week. Stock up on these to use throughout the month.
Keep a running list of favorite meals.
If you try a new budget-friendly meal and everyone raves about it, save that recipe! Either put it in an old-fashioned recipe book or save it online. When you’re feeling stuck one week as you stare down the calendar, pull out one of these tested-and-approved meals and put it back in action.
Inspire the planning process with themed nights.
Inspiration for what to cook every night, every week, every month—meal making can start to feel a little stale. If you need a good starting point when you’re staring down the meal planning calendar, think themes. Taco Tuesday. Backyard BBQ. Breakfast for Dinner (aka Brinner). Finger Food Night. You don’t have to dress up or decorate (though you could), but a theme can help you build the night’s menu.
Order your groceries online.
Have you looked into buying your groceries online? Now you can fill your virtual shopping cart from anywhere. Check into your options like delivery or pickup. Some stores charge an extra fee for these services—but don’t let that stop you from using them. Maybe you’re the kind of shopper who gets sidetracked in the actual store, tempted by those snack items at the end of the aisle. You’ll probably save more in the long run with this option, even if there is a fee.
Online ordering is also great because you can shop while you’re actually looking at everything you have—in real time. This way you don’t buy a ninth can of black beans because you forget you’ve already got eight at home.
The best budget-saving part of online grocery shopping is that you can easily watch what you’re spending. Before you check out, you can delete some items or look for cheaper options. You’ll never have a surprising total in the end.
Add meal prep to your to-do list.
Maybe you don’t love chopping veggies or putting lunch items into those segmented boxes for the whole week—but that kind of meal prep saves you so much money! Just put it on your to-do list. Then make it fun by turning up some of your favorite tunes or having someone help out. Listen, it’s worth the short time investment to chop and portion your own food rather than pay someone else to do it!
Double recipes whenever possible.
Let’s say you’re buying all the ingredients for chili anyway—because ground beef and beans are on sale this week. This is the perfect time to double that recipe, freeze half, and enjoy the rest a couple weeks later. Think ahead, and your future self will thank you.
Don’t complicate dinner.
You can have a delightful dinner without sticking to the old standard of meat and three. Switching things up can be both simpler and cheaper. Make a great soup in the slow cooker and serve it with a salad. And what about all that leftover lettuce? How about adding beans, salsa, cheese and chips for a meatless taco salad later in the week?
Don’t be afraid of simple suppers! They can taste just as fantastic and be just as healthy as a complicated dinner—all while reducing stress and spending.
At EveryDollar, we’re all about keeping it uncomplicated. That’s why we’ve made a budgeting app that’s simple, mobile and free. When you can meal plan with ease, you’re more likely to keep meal planning, right? The same goes for your budget. When you can budget with ease—from your kitchen, grocery store and . . . well . . . everywhere—you’re more likely to keep budgeting too!
And you must keep budgeting! Because those three super valuable things we keep saying a meal plan will protect—your time, sanity and money? A budget saves them too. So start budgeting with EveryDollar today.