How to Meal Plan

Over the years meal planning has been one of my most time, money and sanity saving practices. Time is saved by my only needing to go grocery shopping once a week. I also do not have to plan/think about what we are having for meals on a daily basis. Early on, in my living on my own days, I found if I had to make a quick run into the store for even one item, I invariably came out with additional items I was not planning on purchasing. Meal planning allows me to minimize trips to the store. Additionally, by planning out meals far enough in advance, I am able to identify items that can be bought in bulk, which is often cheaper.

Even though I have to take a bit of time to sit down and write out a meal plan, it is much better than fretting every day (or few days) about what to make for dinner. My sanity suffers little to none when all I need to do (besides prepare the meals) is look at our calendar and follow the schedule I’ve already come up with using ingredients I’ve already bought.

Here are some basic steps that I use when creating a meal plan:

1. (This step I usually only do every few months or so) Make a list of things you buy on a regular basis that are non-perishable (or can be frozen, as in the case of meat, etc.). I call these my staples and includes such things as: toilet paper, paper towels, dried beans, Rapadura, coconut oil, etc. Track the quantities you are buying and how quickly the items are consumed. Identify whether or not you would save time, money, and/or sanity by buying in bulk for at least a one month’s supply.

2. Buy a calendar (or use some other handy, dandy organizational tool) and decide how long of a meal plan you would like to create. We use a regular wall calendar. We write in our schedules (appointments, etc.) on the calendar as well so everything is in one place and easy to reference. Our calendar hangs on our kitchen wall. We plan our meals in one month increments.

3. Start filling in your dates with meals! I typically have one breakfast and snack food per week that lasts the entire week. Sometimes I’ll plan a weekly dessert as well. Then, lunches during the week are leftovers or a choice of several staple lunch items that I keep on hand at all times, such as tuna, peanut butter, etc. or fresh fruit/veggies that we’ve got on hand. So dinner is really the only meal that requires extensive planning. So, my planned week may look like this (except written in the boxes on our calendar):

Jan. 30-Feb. 5

Weekly breakfast: Oatmeal with fresh fruit

Weekly snack: Nutriblobs

Weekly dessert: Homemade icecream, chocolate chip cookies

Jan 30: Baked salmon, rice and beans, roasted beets and carrots

Jan. 31: Homemade chicken noodle soup with homemade sourdough bread

Feb. 1: Rosemary chuck roast, mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts

Feb. 2: Salad with grilled chicken

Feb. 3: Pan-seared pork chops, mashed delica squash, cauliflower

Feb. 4: Bacon, Avocado, Tomato sandwiches on homemade sourdough with salad

Feb. 5: Tacos (homemade tortillas, tomatoes, lettuce) with beans and rice, left over veggies

4. After you have come up with meals, write out a shopping list for each week. Some people may prefer to look at grocery store ads first and then come up with meals based on what is on sale. We get a month’s supply of meat (we’re part of a meat CSA) delivered to our home once per month. Once the meat is delivered, I develop a meal plan around the different meats we receive. Then, come up with my shopping list based on the meals I’ve planned. If you like the idea of having all the meat you need for an entire month, try buying meat in larger quantities and freezing it. Then, keep a list of your meat supply and use it for meal planning.

Other helpful tips and ideas:

  • I keep a shopping list for each week on a separate piece of paper (in my weekly to-do list notebook for easy reference) and then add to it throughout the week.
  • If I plan to use a recipe that I do not have memorized already, I write down the page number and recipe book initials next to the item on my meal plan. So, it would look like this, “Rosemary Chuck Roast, p. 42., GFC.” This way, I’m not scrounging to find a recipe when I go to make dinner. I know exactly where to find it.
  • If any recipe requires prep work before the day you are going to be making the meal, write whatever prep work (feeding sourdough, marinating meat, etc.) that is required on the calendar day that the prep work should be done. So, if you are planning to have fresh sourdough bread for dinner on Tuesday, the sourdough starter must be fed the day before. So, I would write Monday’s date, “feed sourdough”.
  • Try to have meals correspond with your schedules. For instance, I know that by the time Friday night rolls around, I am going to be exhausted and not feel like cooking. So, I usually plan a lighter meal for Friday nights, such as BATs (bacon, avocado, tomato sandwiches).
  • I find it useful to find a quiet moment in a day, sit down and surround myself with cookbooks and do all my meal planning at once. Most people think and plan better if they are able to focus on the task at hand and not have to deal with interruptions. I’ve found it takes me less time when I set aside a chunk of time and concentrate on meal planning, than if I try to meal plan in the midst of my daily activities.

So, there is my meal planning method. If you find it overwhelming or confusing, I encourage you to develop your own method that works best for you and stick to it. The more you do it, the quicker you will become and the easier it will be for you. I have been using this method now for five years. You can also start small. I used to only plan for one week’s worth of meals when I first lived on my own. I gradually increased my planning to a month’s worth of meals (even before we joined our meat CSA) merely to save money and reduce the number of trips I was taking to the grocery store. Now I plan our meals in one month increments. I go to a grocery store once a week on Friday, mainly for perishable items, such as fruit, which is not available at our farmer’s market during the winter. I also go to a local farm on Fridays and get our week’s supply of milk. Then, Saturday mornings our family heads to the farmer’s market for the rest of our groceries and to have fun together. I do admit I buy a fair share of non-perishable items in bulk online at either or merely because I can get things cheaper there (and often with free shipping) than in our local stores.

If you have any other meal planning tips or suggestions, I’d love to hear them! There are so many different methods of meal planning out there, it really is all about discovering and/or developing a method that works best for you and your family.

Happy planning!

*This post is shared on Monday Mania and Raising Homemakers.


3 thoughts on “How to Meal Plan

  1. Jenn M says:

    I meal plan as well. I used contact paper over a blank store list with headings like, meat, frozen, dairy, etc and then fill in under it with dry ease marker and bring that with me. Wipe each item off when grabbed. I use this because its easy and reusable!!

  2. Lisa H. says:

    I also meal plan. I do a very similar type of meal planning except mine is done twice a month and I plan around the sales ads. Also, we are not part of any meat csa.

  3. Sarah L says:

    One thing I have done (and am striving to do more!) is to double or triple what I am making and put extra in the freezer. This way I have homemade thaw and heat meals. It has taken some trial and error to determine what freezes well, but it has been worth the effort to me. As I have increased to 3 little ones and homeschooling my kindergarten this year I have been seeking to streamline whatever I can! I have also done this before some of my babies were due to make it easier on myself while recovering. Sometimes it has been simple as cooking a large quantity of chicken, shredding it and then freezing it in ziploks for a quick addition to soups/casseroles/stir-frys.

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