How To Start Meal Planning; It’s Easier Than You Think

Recently, I’ve been noticing a lot of websites referred to something called ‘Menu planning’ or ‘Meal planning’ and it has inspired me. It sounds easy enough to start and like something I should try in the spirit of frugality (and probably for my health too), but that little devil that sits on my shoulder and encourages me to be lazy wins me over each time I even think about attempting it.

I don’t have the drive to sit down each week and plan out my meals for every day in the upcoming week. I was convinced that I didn’t need to do it and that I could easily find something at home to make each day. Then it hit me!

I bought a Subway twice in the last two weeks (not frugal at all I know), and have, more often than I’d like to admit, shoved something frozen in the microwave because I had nothing else prepared (potentially frugal, but super unhealthy). Even now as I’m writing this, I haven’t planned my groceries well and have run out of coffee so I’m drinking a Caramel macchiato from Starbucks (even less frugal, but so much more yummy).

If you’ve been reading my recent blog posts and articles, I keep referencing the move I plan on doing at the end of summer (I’m moving out of my mom’s place and sharing a house with two friends). Saving money and budgeting more effectively is therefore becoming more and more important for me as my costs go up. I can’t let that little devil get to me anymore: buying fast food because it’s easier is no longer acceptable and I’m going to have to change my habits. Even the yummy splurges for coffee from Starbucks will have to stop. So I went on an information-gathering spree and discovered a bunch about ‘Menu planning’ and how my wallet will be thankful for it. Now I can gladly share with you my new aggregated knowledge.

What is Menu/Meal planning?

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The name is pretty self-explanatory: You create a menu for all the meals (breakfast, lunch, supper, desserts and snacks) of the week or even the month to come. This allows you to plan what you need before you go grocery shopping and helps you avoid that silly temptation of buying more you require and potentially wasting food and money. It also ends that blank stare that most of us get when we look into the fridge and/or freezer and have absolutely no idea what to cook. The main goal is to eliminate waste and to save money.

There is also an amazing side effect of meal planning. It’s healthier, since you are choosing the meals yourself and resisting the temptation of getting take-out or frozen meals.

Start by taking inventory

I love saying this and it seems to have become a catch phrase of sorts whenever I write a new article: Do your homework! Check your pantry, your fridge, your freezer, your stockpile, underneath your bed or anywhere else you store food. Take stock of what you have on hand and take a closer look at things that are close to expiring. Since our goal is to waste less and be more frugal, consider using those items that are going to perish soon first. Dig deep and look at everything. It’s easy to forget something hidden behind other items. Done effectively, this step will eliminate the chance of re-buying the same product and wasting money, or letting it go past its expiry date, all of which is against the frugal lifestyle you’re trying to accomplish.

Scan the weekly flyers and check your coupons

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If possible, try and set your menu around what’s on sale. For example, if you see that Loblaws offers ground meat at a ridiculously low price, maybe you can focus more on recipes that contain this ingredient, like hamburgers or this easy peasy and tasty unstuffed shells recipe from Kraft. By planning around flyers, you gain a step on the frugality ladder because you’re saving money by shopping the specials. Also, if possible, try and play with what’s in season and create a fun menu based on the season. For example, summer could be more of a focus on barbecue recipes and salads, whereas winter could focus more on soups and chili recipes. Mrs. January has compiled a list here of which fruits and vegetables are in season to make things easier for you.

Also, check your coupons to see what amazing deals you can get. If pasta is on sale and you have a coupon for it, why not have a dish or two comprised of pasta? By checking your coupons and playing around with your menu, you’ll find yourself one step closer to your goal of saving money. If you haven’t read it by now (shame on you), check out what I wrote about where to find coupons.

Go on the hunt for recipes

So you’ve scoured through what you have in stock, you’ve checked what’s on sale this week and now it’s time for the fun part: going to look for recipes. Start with easy recipes you already know and you’ve already tasted. Your goal is to save time, and sometimes learning a new recipe can take more time than needed (I’m not saying don’t try any at all, but don’t create a menu that just consists of new recipes). If possible, try and look for recipes where you are bound to have leftovers for another day. Not only does this save money, but it also saves time. Leftovers mean less fusing with food preparation and more time for what you love (like wasting hours on Facebook or catching up on Game of thrones). Consider doing theme weeks or theme days; for example, a Mexican themed day or a vegetarian themed week. Be creative. This is your menu and you can choose whatever your heart fancies.

Pro tip: Have a separate folder set aside for your favorite recipes and recipes you would like to try. When you’re stuck and have no idea what to eat, just take a quick peak in there for ideas. And don’t forget to keep the shopping list; it’ll save you buckets of time in preparation.

If you need more recipes, simply Google the word “Recipes” and you’ll be bombarded with suggestions. My personal favorite sites:

- Kraft.ca
They have plenty of neat and tasty ideas for whatever meal you are planning and also offer the feature of searching by which ingredients you have on hand. My favorite part? They have plenty of meals that you can search by how much prep time it takes (lower prep times are a must for me)

- Allrecipes.ca
If you’re still confused as to what ingredients go with what, Allrecipes.ca has a larger search feature for ingredients on hand.

- lifeoncloakehill.blogspot.ca
Shameless plug for my sisters’ recipe blog (who is an avid menu planner and has been for years apparently). Her and her hubby set out a goal to try a new recipe each day for an entire year. As they are a vegetarian family, all their recipes have been adapted to fit. I’ve tried her cooking and, trust me; you can’t tell that it’s vegetarian.

Make your meal plan

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Start off by doing one day at a time so it’s easier to switch up what you eat each day and how to plan for what and if you are going to eat leftovers. Make sure to include your family in the planning (or roomies, in my case) and ask for their input. Whereas you might love the idea of a fancy fish meal, your roommates or significant other or overly picky child might prefer something more basic like spaghetti. It also makes it easier to plan your meals around your schedule; a meal that takes longer to cook is good one night, but for those busier nights where you have to be out the door super fast, a quicker no-fuss meal might be less of a headache.

Pro tip: Save a copy of your meal plan so you can use it again it when your in a rush or feeling particularly lazy. If that week was a hit with everyone, why not do it again?

Knowing what you are having in advance also gives you the chance to start preparations if needed. For example, if you need meats defrosted, take it out the night before and if something has to be chopped up, that can be done the night before as well. One more step towards the goal of saving time.

There are plenty of ways to create your menu plan. Squawkfox offers a printable template for easy planning. Allrecipes.ca have a meal planner function built into the site and my sister uses a program called Living cookbook.

What about those unexpected moments?

Breathe and don’t panic. If needed, think about which meal days you can switch, if you have to abandon a meal idea completely because you scored tickets to a hockey game (that’s my inner Canadian talking), make sure you plan that meal for the next week. Remember, you were smart and bought items only for particular meals so you don’t waste money.

If possible, have a couple back-up ideas like a frozen pizza that can be easily made or a quick salad. Have company you weren’t planning on? Go shopping in your pantry or stockpile and see what kind of goodies you can create.

Like everything else I’ve written about, be patient with the process. Once you get into the habit of doing it every week, it’ll become painless and a fun hobby. Do you have a meal plan for each week? Any tips or tricks? I have the following that my sister sent me and would love to hear more!

I tend to spend a few hours one day a week and find the recipes I want to try that week. I use a program called living cookbook that let’s me import recipes (or write them out) and I can move them around. So I have a folder called “this week” where I put what I am planning for the week.

When I decide I MUST try a recipe that has, say, sour cream, I know I will be buying the big ole Costco size (because we need to feed a minimum of 5 people). So I will look for other recipes that have sour cream as well to use it all up. Same for produce, I buy what is in season when possible, and then make sure I have enough recipes to use it up. This week we have broccoli and spinach and will be eating many meals with those.
I only plan 5 meals a week, which gives us one day to eat out or 2 days to eat something else we are craving.
Because I have the meals planned out, we only go to the grocery store once and I know I have everything I need for the whole week, which saves multiple trips to the store and also the “Mmmm that looks good and I have to have that now” that I get when I go into said stores.

These days I shop mainly at Costco so prices stay the same. But if I know something is on sale I will plan my meals around that too (which also ties in with local produce making it cheaper).
I am also very big on experimenting; we are constantly trying new recipes. This year we are doing a 365 challenge where we are trying a new recipe a day for a year. The only way we are able to do this is by planning the meals and making sure we have everything.

Aside from that, it works great for us. With the kids home and my hubby working full time from home (as well as the hubby’s dad) there are 5 people here all the time which means 3 meals a day, 7 days a week. This makes sure we are getting healthy meals that are varied. I can also plan a longer cooking meal on Saturday when we don’t have to be anywhere and make sure I have something quick and easy on a Beaver or Guide night.

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