20 Tips For Better And More Affordable Meal Planning

What Is meal planning?

Meal planning is simply collaborating with your calendar and your cupboard to organize your eating plan. It's the opposite of winging it. It means going to the grocery store with a plan and a list, and not buying ingredients on a whim. It means, ultimately, saving money and your sanity.

Before I started meal planning, I went shopping without a purpose, and our meals suffered for it. I found I had always forgotten one ingredient, or hadn't bought enough for the entire week...but had somehow spent more money. On the few occasions I had my crap together, I recognized how the dynamic in my home (aka: incredibly tiny apartment) changed. Having a full meal on the table (and having all the ingredients to make said meal) set the tone for a relaxing evening with my husband.

Now, please don't get me wrong. I'm not saying you have to be Susy-Homemaker. I'm just saying you have to be organized and intentional about planning meals. Not fancy. Not rigid. Just prepared.

1. Plan your week.
Only going to be home five nights this week? Only make five dinners. Don't waste your time, energy or money planning meals that won't happen. Counting is fun! If you're really needing to get organized, I highly suggest buying an Erin Condren Life Planner. They're amazing for anyone, but especially if you struggle with keeping a calendar.

2. Enjoy it.
When you first hear the phrase "meal planning," you probably think of a monotonous task, but it's actually my favorite step in the process. Get on Pinterest. Google stuff. Ask your grandma for suggestions (Grandma's always have the best recipes). The bottom line is, if you don't find a way to enjoy it, you won't keep doing it. Open a bottle of wine and get on your iPad after the kids go to bed-just do something to keep it enjoyable.

3. Be realistic.
This is so important, and I'm guilty of ignoring this rule. I get on Pinterest and see these extravagant meals and get determined to make one every night. This is not Julie and Julia. Please feel free to lower your expectations a bit.

4. Shop the sales.
I admit, I don't really believe in couponing. I sometimes catch an episode of Extreme Couponing on TLC, and while I admire those individuals' hard work, it's not something I'm interested in doing. They always check out with 100 bottles of Gatorade, 300 packs of dried noodles and 60 tubes of toothpaste. I'm creative, but I can't make a meal out of that. I personally stick with Southern Savers, which will tell you what is on sale at your local grocery store, then I plan my meals around that.

5. Make a plan.
Once your week is laid out, schedule your meals on days when they fit the best. For example: don't plan to make that new, complicated-looking dish on the night you're juggling ballet, soccer practice and homework. Shoot for a Friday or Saturday night when things are less hectic. Not that I know anything about ballet or soccer practice-I just always hear them mentioned together, like peanut butter and jelly. There's absolutely nothing wrong with buying a frozen pizza and pre-made salad to feed your family on a busy night. But if you don't plan that, you'll end up ordering out (which is twice the cost) and probably not have the salad.

6. Make a list.
List every single ingredient for every single recipe or meal you've planned. Before your hand starts cramping, do what I do: copy/paste ingredients from the web or type it out. Then print it and just mark it off. Doesn't need to be pretty. Saving money can get messy.

7. Check your supply. 
The hardest part, and the reason so much money is often wasted. We (myself included) hate the task of going through our cupboards to see if we have any cans of spaghetti sauce in the cabinet so we can mark one thing off our list. Skipping this step is how you end up with thirty cans of black beans and four heads of lettuce. It's annoying. But it's the most important step. Honestly.

8. Take note.
Keep track as you run out of things, especially the necessities (milk, cereal, flour, etc.). So often I get caught up in the actual meals and forget to check on the daily items. Then I end up either a) buying it at the grocery store when I already have it (aka, wasting money) or b) not buying it and going without or having to make a second grocery trip. I use this magnetic notepad on our fridge, and it's very helpful.

9. Bend the budget rules. 
This might be controversial, but I have no problem using grocery money for eating out. If I know one day is going to be hectic, I don't spend my whole grocery budget and plan to pick something up on the way home. That way, it's still budgeted, I know where the money is coming from, and I haven't wasted money on groceries when what I really need is a bucket of chicken and some mac & cheese. Can I get an amen?

10. Don't be afraid to supplement. 
When I was growing up, my parents would drive by Burger King on the way home from church and buy each of us a Whopper (back when they were $.99). They would prepared baked potatoes when we got home, and that was our Sunday lunch. It was dirt cheap, and we loved it. 

11. Don't be wasteful. 
This is another hard one for me, especially with canned goods. If a recipe calls for half a can of tomato paste, I tend to throw the other half away. Yes, that can only cost $1.00, so I would only be wasting $.50. But if I did that three times a week, that's $6.00 a month I just threw away-that's lunch! I realize many people would roll their eyes at wasting that little amount of money, but the goal here is to save money and time. Freeze your foods. Invest in some great tupperware. Just stop throwing everything away.

12. Coordinate meals with each other. 
This isn't to say that you have to have pasta every single night because you bought a larger-than-life loaf of garlic bread. Just use common sense. If you're having burgers one night and know you'll have leftover buns, make barbecue chicken sandwiches that week, as well. You get the idea.

13. Buy in bulk...sometimes. 
You have to figure out if it's worth it to buy a membership to Sam's or Costco. For a family of two, it's probably not. But if you have kids, it might be worth your time and money. Oftentimes, staple ingredients are used in many recipes: chicken, shredded cheese, eggs, etc. So instead of paying more to buy larger quantities from the grocery store, get those staples in bulk.

14. Go meatless. 
I tend to do one dinner per week without meat, and it's typically a pasta dish. Look into it. It has definitely saved us money.

15. Fill them up. 
I once worked with a woman who had eight children, five of which were boys. Her advice on mealtime? "Always serve either bread or potatoes with your meals-it's cheap and it fills them up." Words for the ages.

16. Prep food immediately after shopping.
This is one of my favorite tips. I recently went to the dollar store and bought seven cute baskets. When I get home from the store, I put all the dry ingredients for each recipe in its own basket. That way, when I'm ready to make a meal, I just have to grab a basket and go! 

17. Utilize your freezer.
I didn't know the beauty of the freezer until Judah came along. Thankfully, I had worked ahead and had a freezer full of food. Now, I make a few of our staple meals at a time, freezing what we won't be eating that day. For example, Tim and I both love my crock pot breakfast casserole. If I want to make three and freeze two of those, what I do is make all the ingredients at one time (like the sausage) and divide it into three, then freeze the other two. You get what I'm saying. I'm tired.

18. Record the winners.
The way this blog started was by recording recipes that I used and loved. Don't forget to keep track of the ones that worked. The biggest lie I tell myself is that "I'll remember that." You won't. Write it down. Type it out. Do something, because you will forget.

19. Go to the store.
This seems pretty obvious, but I can't tell you how many times I did every step except get my butt to Walmart. It's easy to find excuses and continue to live in the chaos of disorganization. Don't do it. Go to the store and follow through on your meal plan.

20. Cook the food.
Again, follow through. I am the biggest hypocrite of all when it comes to this. I do everything in steps 1-19...and then I get tired and decide I don't want to cook. Ever again. Which is where number 3 comes in again. But seriously. Cook. Feed your kids. 

Love and saving a buck,

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