I’ve been cooking and meal planning for a while. Not always consistently though. As part of our save money live on one income mission 2017, we decided that our food budget needed the most work. Like a lot of work! So I set off to learn more and truly create a plan, a beginners meal planning guide that includes everything we need. If you are starting a new budget, cooking dinner is an easy way to cut back. The fact that it’s healthier is an excellent added bonus.
We were going out to eat too much and our grocery bill needed to be lower by at least a third. My cooking was very nonchalant, some weeks it was spot on and others not at all. While I planned sometimes and I cooked a few times a week, I was mostly cooking what I already knew and just getting the grocery shopping done as quickly as possible. And of course there were those many nights after we both had exhausting days at work. Needing to still put both kids to sleep, we would look at each other and already know, “Where are we ordering from?” It’s so easy that it becomes part of the routine.
If that sounds familiar, you don’t need to be intimidated by meal planning!
It can definitely be done if you are committed to the change and develop a solid plan. We didn’t want to do any extremes at first, like start a new diet or try too many new things at once. While I always want to reflect on how we can eat healthier, eating at home versus in a restaurant would already cut some calories and not so beneficial additives.
Decide What’s Important to Your Family
Our first main goal was to have variety so we wouldn’t miss any of the food we were having out. Of course, we needed to keep things affordable also. Decide what your family needs are- they could be dietary preferences, budget guidelines, easy and fast planning, etc.
We knew that not going out to eat at all was not realistic nor enjoyable. Our goal is once a week and right now it seems manageable. After a couple of months, we’ll look at how we’re doing and adjust as needed.
Pick a day for planning and grocery shopping- they can be different or the same. For you to stick with meal planning, there has to be time carved out for it on a regular basis. Read our ways to overcome money issues for how we took our meal planning to the next step.
Start with What You Have
Before I go to the store, I take an inventory of what we have. In the fridge especially, since you may have items that will go bad if not used. Throwing food away that never got eaten will not help your budget! We were also very guilty of that on many occasion. If I have veggies, I’ll plan to put them in omelets, or salads, taco bowls or fried rice. With fruit, you could make a fruit salad, yogurt parfait, or freeze for smoothies. Whatever you decide, plan for those items early in the week so they get eaten.
Look at Weekly Sales Online
Most grocery stores have their weekly circular online, listing their sales for that week. I go to the meat section first, since they are usually the most expensive part of the meal. Based on which are on sale, I look at the recipes I have and pick what I will cook for the week (you can also plan for two weeks, month or whatever works best for you). We also do at least one night a week meatless. It’s usually whole wheat spaghetti with a veggie sauce because it’s easy.
I usually pin all of my recipes so that they are in one place, you can follow my Pinterest recipe board here!
If you are really trying to be on a budget, multiple stops may be necessary. I usually try and split those up for different days. For example I won’t buy diapers, wipes or paper products at the grocery store. I’ll go to Costco or a dollar store. Also, produce is sometimes cheaper at a produce market by my house than the larger supermarket. Shop around until you find your best deals.
Write it Down!
After you have looked at everything on sale, list all of the meals you plan to cook. If you need a visual reminder, you could put it on a white board calendar and hang it up in your kitchen. Or print a calendar page and tape it to your fridge. You can also just point to the calendar if your husband and kids keep asking you what’s for dinner!
Write your grocery list based on your recipes for the week. Lunches at our house are usually leftovers or sandwiches. We rotate the same 3-4 breakfasts so those items are also included. Try not to deviate from the list! When you are just throwing things in the cart, that is when things can get expensive. You are also more likely to get stuff that won’t be eaten and then thrown away. Include preferred snacks on the list- or get what’s on sale currently.
Prep Yourself Vs. Buying Things Pre Cut
Things that are made easier for us are more expensive. If fruits or vegetables are cut, they will most definitely cost more. Buy them whole and plan to cut everything up and put it away ready to be cooked or eaten. I know he probably hates that I share all of this on here, but my husband was mortified when I bought a block of cheese instead of slices. It was actually pretty funny. He’s making a sandwich, holds up the block of cheese and asks, “What am I supposed to do with this?”. Lol. Prepping for your
husband children on Sunday (or whichever day you decide) will help during the week when things get busy.
There are many ideas out there on freezer meals that you could put together on one day and then thaw the day you want to cook it. If time is an issue for you, these are great options! I used a couple of these in my menu.
Our 2 Week Dinner Menu
The variety was perfect! We had seafood, Indian, Asian, Cuban and Mexican (and Italian if you count spaghetti). Tilapia, chicken breast and pork tenderloin were on sale when I went to the store. I already had some recipes that I used and a couple I was trying out for the first time.
The next week, I got the beef for the teriyaki dish and frozen shrimp that was on sale. I love seafood, so if it’s on sale I’ll usually get it. Also, most of these meals were made with enough for leftovers the next day so I wouldn’t have to cook every night. Spaghetti is not pictured but we had that a couple nights as well.
Tilapia- First night we had Tilapia Bowls and the next night made them into tacos. My husband is usually not excited when he sees anything resembling a salad for dinner, but he loves these bowls and requests them often! I always seem to change recipes a little bit- depending on our preferences or ingredients we already have. I used green onions instead of red onions. Also, we didn’t do rice or beans but added cucumbers and red bell peppers.
Chicken Tikka Masala– One of the easiest and tastiest meals I made! It’s from this website- New Leaf Wellness. They actually have a ton of freezer, prep ahead crock pot meals that are healthy and make the week nights a lot smoother! Served with Basmati Rice and a side salad.
Japanese Beef Teriyaki- this was also a tasty and easy recipe from New Leaf Wellness. I added a frozen bag of stir fry vegetables and served with brown rice.
Shrimp and Avocado Salad- The recipe calls for tortilla chips but we skipped that part and added some extra vegetables.
Cuban Spice Rubbed Pork Tenderloin- I’m Dominican so a menu wouldn’t be complete without some pork served with rice and beans and avocado. 🙂 The recipe was from Rachel Ray. The rice is a Goya yellow rice and a can of Goya black bean soup (trick I learned from my mom- if you buy the soup instead of just the black beans, they will already be seasoned).
Honey Soy Chicken Thighs- This recipe rotates at our house frequently. I’m not perfect and I burned the top this time, but the middle was still good! So it worked out. Lol. Served with green beans and Rice Quinoa (Seeds of Change packages you can find at Costco- family favorite, even the two year old loves it!).
What are your tips for meal planning? I am always ready to learn more!