Meal Planning 101

What is meal planning?

Meal planning is essentially taking the time to plan meals ahead of time for a length of time that fits your budget and lifestyle.

When I first heard about meal planning, I was skeptical, too. How much could meal planning actually save?

The answer is, a lot.

When you’re hitting up the grocery store every few days–it adds up quickly. The ‘forgotten salad dressing’, ‘ran out of milk’, and ‘last minute wanna bake’ shopping trips nickel and dime your bank account.

Thank frickin’ goodness for meal planning!

In this article you’ll learn the foundation for meal planning with these simple rules! From there you’ll be able to adapt and apply the skills you’ve learned to your own family’s needs.

So, without further ado, here they are!

Set a budget

If you’re like most people, you probably have a go-to grocery store. You recognize the cashiers, you know where everything is, and you know what the prices are like. So, even if you’ve never budgeted before, you still have an idea of what you spend on groceries in a typical month, so use that as your jumping off point.

Keep in mind that your first couple of times shopping with a meal plan in place may not save you much. It’s a learning process. The longer you plan, the more experience you gain meal planning, the more money and time you’ll save.

The most important part of this step is that you become aware of what you’re spending, take steps to lower your bill, and consolidate those trips to the store.

Write It Down

I forget damn near everything, so this one is essential for me. That being said, if you forget a key ingredient from your plan you’ll have to alter your plan or run to the store again–so write it down!

Take that piece of lined paper out. Fetch your favourite pen. We all know you have one.

If you want to plan for a week, write down numbers 1-7, one number per line. If you’re planning for two weeks, write down 1-14, one number per line. Each line will represent one meal per day during that time period. I tend to keep it to suppers because we are generally all home for that meal.

An example of meal planning for one week.

My kids are all in school full-time, so I plan their school lunches when I make my shopping list. More on that later.

Consider Your Diners

Next up! We all know Mama’s kitchen isn’t a restaurant. When I say ‘consider your diners’, I mean consider their allergies. Take in to consideration things they love and things they’re likely to vomit up onto their dinner plate. [Yes, it happens. Even a toonie couldn’t convince Kaytie to swallow that cherry tomato.]

If you take the time to think about who will be eating the meals you’re planning, it takes some of the stress off. Refusing to try something is one thing. Barfing is on a whole other level.

Consider Holidays and Occasions

If your week includes Thanksgiving, you likely have a plan for that day. Maybe it’s dinner at the in-laws. Maybe you’re the host. Maybe your family’s traditional Thanksgiving includes Chinese take-out.

Birthdays, Christmas, Easter, and Anniversaries might also include some special supper activity. You’ll want to include that in your plans.

Mix It Up

Nobody wants to eat grilled cheese sandwiches every day of their life.

Okay, maybe my son does. But, he’s 12 and that’s beside the point.

The idea behind this is two-fold. One, change it up and you won’t get bored. Two, make sure to include one or two meals that cost a bit more, and keep the rest as inexpensive as you can.

Again, this is a skill that you’ll learn as you gain experience.

Use Your Leftovers

I’ll never understand why eating ‘leftovers’ is looked down upon by some people.

If you’ve never raided the fridge for a cold barbecued pork chop, you’re missing out, because that shit is fucking delicious.

This step is more about planning ahead for the uses of your leftovers. I always make extras of certain things in preparation of other meals.

Example 1:
Meal: Barbecued steak, baked potatoes, green salad.
Leftover Plan: Make extra baked potatoes and make those bad boys in to Loaded Baked Potato Soup.

Example 2:
Meal: Roast Chicken, mashed potatoes, carrots.
Leftover Plan: Use the chicken carcass to make broth for a hearty chicken soup. Use the left over mashed potatoes for cheesy potato pancakes.

Example 3:
Meal: Chicken Drumsticks, rice, corn.
Leftover Plan: Set aside a few drumsticks to cut up for cold chicken sandwiches, or add the diced chicken to a salad.

Plan One Free-For-All Per Week

Life gets busy. So plan for one ‘free’ day per week to make things easier on you. This could mean dinner out, a bowl of cereal, or soup and sandwiches. Whatever suits you.

Just do it.

Make A Shopping List (& stick to it!)

For the purpose of this lesson, let’s say we are planning for a week’s worth of meals.

You’ve considered your budget and your diner’s needs. You’ve chosen 7 meals. Now all you have to do is break down the ingredients for each meal.

I can’t stress this enough–write it down! You’ll thank yourself in the end.

My method for figuring out what groceries I’ll need for any given meal plan is to run through my list top to bottom as many times as it takes while writing my list according to category–produce, meats, dry goods, and so on. I write down all of the meat, then all of the dairy, then the produce, the dry goods, etc.

As a another example, let’s pretend spaghetti and garlic bread is the only meal on our plan.

Example: Spaghetti and garlic bread

Ground beef


Dry Goods
Spaghetti Noodles
Canned Pasta Sauce
Dried Basil
Dried Oregano
Dried Thyme
Diced Tomatoes

Parmesan Cheese

Garlic Bread Loaf

The example above is a basic version of spaghetti, but you get the idea.

time to cook!

The beauty of my version of meal planning is that you don’t have an assigned meal per day. You can pick and choose within the meals you’ve planned. If you’re craving mexican–make the tacos you planned for. If you want something simple, maybe a cob salad or use one of your free-for-all nights?

I generally use up the ingredients that have a short shelf life first. The salad greens I buy tend to wilt quickly, so I try to use those up within the first of my two week plan, whereas homemade macaroni and cheese is something I can make towards the end of the two weeks.

School or work lunches

Dave works away, so I don’t include him in my lunch planning, but the kids are in school full-time and I work outside of the home, so I do plan for the kids and I.

As a family, we eat a lot. We all have healthy appetites, so that’s something I need to include in my plans. I always account for an entree of some sort, 3-5 snacks per person per day, and a drink. When I shop for lunches I usually write down ‘yogurt’ and ‘cheese’ because I find I stay full longer with a protein, but as far as other lunch snacks go, I aim for one sweet thing and a couple ‘whatever elses’ that look decent and fit the budget.

When it comes to writing my shopping list I simply write ‘school snack x 40’ on 3 separate lines, and then when I find something that fits, I just add it to my total and cross it off my list. Done!

Other Tips:

  • Include other grocery store items besides just groceries from your meal plan when writing your shopping list. Pet food, household cleaners, diapers, and toiletries should also be included on your list for maximum streamlining.
  • If possible, plan all of your errands for one day. Go for your dental cleaning, hit the grocery store, go to the greenhouse, and pick up gas for your mower all in one day. It will save you so much and save you the hassle in the long run.

Need more help? Ask a question in the comments!

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