Meal Planning

A Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning

My very first blog post was an intro to how I feed my family of 3 for about $300 a month.  I’m not going to lie…sometimes I nail my grocery budget, and sometimes I go over.  Most of the time the reason I go over is because of impulse buys.  The solution: meal planning.

We’ve all been there: you’re navigating through the grocery store when suddenly you see (fill in the blank for whatever you’re currently craving).  For me, it’s anything new I see at the store.  “Basil and garlic green olives?? I need those!”

The truth is, olives aren’t going to break my budget.  However, if I have that same thought with 3 or 4 items each week, it’s not hard to overspend when you have a small grocery budget to begin with.

That’s why I meal plan and make a grocery list for the week.  I’m a planner by nature, and I love lists!  Can I get a high-5 from all my list makers??  Seriously though,  I have about 3-4 different lists going on at my house at any given time.  It makes me feel in control when I have a million things going on in my head.

When I talk to people about meal planning, most people who don’t do it tell me it’s because they don’t have time or that they’re not that organized.  It doesn’t have to be a chore!  You can either set aside a little bit of time to do it all at once, or you can spend a few days thinking about meals and seeing what you have available.

I actually enjoy meal planning…mainly because I get to think about food.  I get weirdly excited on Wednesdays when the grocery store ads come out because I get to daydream for the next few days about what I’m going to buy/eat the next week.

My Meal Planning Process

1.On Wednesday or Thursday, I glance at the ads and circle any items that have a good deal and I just kind of keep that in my head over the next few days as I’m thinking about/pinning meals.

Here’s a rundown on how I plan our meals for the week.

Dinner

2. When I’m planning our dinners, I think about a few things:

Do we have most of the ingredients?

  • I try to find recipes that don’t require me to go buy a million ingredients for one meal. I’m always amazed by how versatile meals can be just by changing a few things.  For example: you can use ground beef and a few other ingredients to make meatballs for spaghetti night.  Or you can take those same ingredients and add/subtract just a few things to make a meatloaf.

What can I make with _______, since it’s on sale?

  • I plan a few meals around what is on sale. This week, HEB has pineapple on sale.  I found a recipe for Teriyaki Chicken Noodles that calls for pineapple chunks.  Sold.

Can I use something in more than 1 meal?

  • Let’s keep going with the pineapple. Not only can I make the Teriyaki Chicken Noodles with the pineapple, but I can also use it for pizza night.  Hawaiian pizza anybody?  Yes, please!  Plus, pineapple is good for a snack too.  That’s basically 2 1/2 meals with just one measly pineapple.

Can I stretch at least 1 meal out over 2 days?

  • This is the easiest way to stretch your budget.  Did you have alot of left over chicken from last night’s meal?  Use it the next day for chicken tacos.
  • Example: About 2 weeks ago I made a pot roast in the crockpot. Nothing special: just a shoulder roast, carrots, onions, and potatoes.  We had a lot left over, so the next night we used the meat to make carnitas tacos.  It was so yummy, that Chase mixed the carnitas meat with eggs and potatoes the next morning for breakfast burritos.  2 meals + 1 breakfast from 1 roast.

Does my hubby have any special requests?

  • I like to keep my man happy, so I try to work in any special requests he has. If it’s something that requires me to spend a little more money on ingredients, I definitely try to use those ingredients in other meals too.

Is my hubby cooking?

  • Chase usually cooks a meal 1-2 nights a week. Not only because he’s an amazing cook, but because I literally don’t have to buy anything for the meals that Chase makes.  Unlike me, Chase is definitely not a planner.  He won’t know what he’s cooking until he gets in the kitchen.  And he is so gifted at creating awesome meals out of things we already have in our fridge or pantry.

Can Lincoln eat it? (Or is there enough for him?)

  • Ok, Lincoln is a year and a half so most people would argue that he can eat anything now. But seriously y’all…my kid is a crazy eater.  He doesn’t quite grasp the concept of biting…. or chewing for that matter.  He literally grabs every single thing that is on his plate and shoves it in his mouth all at the same time.  It’s terrifying!  Every time I think I’m going to have to use the Heimlich, I glance back and his mouth is empty…as in, he’s swallowed everything whole!  On top of that, he likes to “fake choke” ….and he thinks it’s hilarious.  *insert eye rolling emoji*  Needless to say, I’m still careful about certain foods.  He mainly eats what we eat, except for raw veggies and nuts and all that.  So when I plan meals, I try to keep that in the back on my mind.
  • Also, he doesn’t eat a ton. So sometimes meals that I make are only meant to serve 2 people (like the flatbreads we make).  Here are my solutions in that situation:
    • I keep a few frozen foods in the freezer for times like this, like chicken nuggets or pizza rolls.  Ibotta sometimes has a $1 rebate on Kidsfresh dinners, so that’s what I’ve picked up at the store the last few trips. If you aren’t using Ibotta, read my post on how you can make money using this app!
    • If I have a small amount of leftovers from dinner (but it’s not enough for another meal), I’ll put it in these little silicone molds and freeze them for Lincoln.  I had some leftover Salsa Quinoa Chicken, and since we had already eaten it for dinner and lunch the next day, we were ready to be done with it.  Rather than throwing it out, I froze it in individual cups to use as a backup meal when Lincoln isn’t eating what we’re eating.

 

Lunch

3. I have 2 or 3 go-to lunches that I rotate throughout the week.

  • Salad: Start with some spinach and dress it up however you like! The things I put in my salad include (but aren’t limited to) broccoli, tomatoes, olives, black beans, kidney beans, boiled egg, avocado, sunflower seeds, cucumbers, left over chicken or beef from last night’s meal.  And yes, I’ve been known to put all those things on there at once!  Don’t go buy these things specifically for salad…. this is food I’ve bought for other recipes and can use again.  Add a quick dressing that you whipped up (olive oil and lemon juice if you’re in a rush), and that’s it!
  • Tuna salad: Have y’all tried these flavored tuna packets? They are so yummy!  I usually get mine at Aldi, but Ibotta sometimes has a rebate on StarKist and Bumble Bee packets at HEB, so I’ve been getting those.  I think mayo is gross, so I mix mine with ½ cup of cottage cheese.  Don’t knock it ‘til you try it!  It makes the tuna creamy like a tuna salad without the disgustingness of mayonnaise.  Add in a boiled egg and some diced tomato and you’ve got a quick and tasty lunch.  Take some bread if you want to make it a sandwich.

  • Sandwich: A sandwich is always an option. Toasted bread with pesto, turkey, and cheese is pretty dang good.
  • Leftovers: If we have a lot of leftovers from the night before, that’s always an option.

Breakfast

4.  When I think about breakfast, I try to think about if we’ll have any meat from the night before we can use in hash or burritos.  I talked about breakfast a little more in this post, but here’s a quick recap:

  • Baked oatmeal or overnight oats (using ingredients I already have at home).
  • Hash: using leftover meat, potatoes, and eggs
  • Breakfast burritos: eggs, beans and cheese
  • Cereal is also an option if you don’t feel like making anything or are in a hurry.

Snacks

5. I don’t really keep “snacky” foods like chips and cookies at home.  Mainly because I have no self-control, and if I know there’s a package of Oreos in the pantry I will literally eat them every single day until they’re gone and can’t tempt me with their chocolatey goodness.

For snacks, we usually have:

  • Fruit
  • Yogurt (+ fruit)
  • Cottage cheese + fruit
  • Edamame
  • Veggies (sometimes)
  • Boiled eggs
  • Cheese sticks

 

6. The day before I go to the grocery store, I write down really quick what we’re having for each meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.  I also make my grocery list of everything I’ll need to buy for these meals.  It doesn’t have to be pretty!  Here’s what my menu looks like.  It just ensures me that I haven’t forgotten any meals, and that we are all well fed and happy that week.

I do have a menu board displayed that shows what we’re having for dinner, but that’s more for Chase’s benefit than mine.  He’s always asking, “What are we doing for dinner tonight?”, and I usually just give him the side-eye and point to the board.  Ha! (On nights that Chase cooks, I just write “Chase” …since he has no idea what he’s cooking until that night).  I made this menu board out of an old Walmart collage frame, but there are tons of cute ideas and printables on Pinterest.

7. Once I’m at the grocery store, I try as hard as I can to stick to my list.  If I see something I really want, I can go home and put it on the list for next week and find some kind of meal I can use it in.  Usually by the time I get home, I realize I don’t even want “olives” anymore.

Oh, and I think it goes without saying…don’t shop when you’re hungry.  Because you will impulse buy.  I’ve been there.

If you haven’t tried menu planning, I challenge you to try it for a month and see if your monthly grocery bill goes down.  Putting a little bit of work in at the beginning of the week makes the rest of your week run smoothly when it comes to meals.  You’re not wondering at the end of a long work day “What am I going to do for dinner?” or making quick trips to the grocery store mid-week for 1 or 2 items (which ends up being about 10).  Plus, your family will like knowing what options are available when it comes to breakfast, lunch, and snacks (instead of cereal and sandwiches every day).

What successes have you had with meal planning?  Do you have any tips or tricks when planning your meals?  If you don’t already meal plan, are you willing to give it a try?

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