Do you want to save time and money cooking at home but don’t know where to start?
A “done for you” meal plan seems like an easy solution when you don’t have time to plan. But, trying to fit someone else’s meal plan into your life sets you up for burnout and overwhelm. And, you can quickly go over budget when shopping off of a meal plan.
Meal planning isn’t as time-consuming or as rigid as you might think. If you want a simple system, create a meal plan based on your schedule, your family’s preferences, and the food that’s already in the house.
Whether you want to eat healthier, save money or save time, these meal planning tips will give you meal-planning tips that are easy to implement.
Tip 1: Plan Around Your Schedule
The first step is to look at your schedule to find the best day to meal plan, food shop, and for the days you’ll be too busy to cook.
Do you get home too late to cook?
What days are you shuttling the kids around after school?
How much free time do you have on your days off?
Once you know your schedule, plan to batch cook on the days when you have a little extra time. For example, if you have a busy day on Wednesday, plan a quick meal for that night or plan to have enough leftovers to heat up.
Look at your schedule and identify the days you can cook and shop. Then, use a whiteboard calendar, chalkboard, or paper and pencil (no pens!) to plan your meals for the coming week.
Next, block out the days you know you don’t have time to cook. Write “leftovers,” “prepped ahead,” or “?” in the box for now. Plan to batch cook on the days you have extra time.
Tip 2: Get Organized
The biggest concern I hear from people is that they don’t have time to meal prep. It only takes a few minutes throughout the week or no more than thirty minutes if you plan the whole week at once. Once you have a system, it will feel manageable and less time-consuming.
Hang a whiteboard calendar and use different dry erase colors for daily meals, cook-ahead meals, and meal prep.
Keep a running shopping list so you can add food you’re out of. I hang my grocery list on the whiteboard calendar for the weekly menu.
Designate a time of the week when you can go through the grocery store flyers and make the final list for the week.
Find a place to keep all the supplies needed for meal planning, such as grocery store flyers, coupons, and recipes. Keep them where they’re easily accessible as you cook and prep throughout the week. That way, you can add to the grocery list or note changes to the meal plan.
Hanging a white board next to a calendar will streamline your planning.
Tip 3: Buy Low and Stock Up
If your goal for meal planning is to save money, then one of the best strategies is to stock up on the food your family eats when it goes on sale.
Start by going through the weekly grocery flyers and making a list of the food and household products you use that are on sale. Keep a master list of food you need as you are about to run out. If you don’t need to replace the item right away, you can wait until it goes on sale again.
Buy the maximum amount of each product the promotion allows, and start stocking your pantry. Use caution when stocking up on perishables. Buying more than you can use before it goes bad may end up being a waste of food and money.
This strategy works best when you know the lowest prices for your favorite foods.
A price notebook is a great way to track the cost of food at different stores. Over time, you’ll know which stores have the best price for your regular food and paper goods products.
Start a price notebook to compare the prices of your family’s favorite foods at different local stores. Then, use the store’s website to look up prices.
Now take a look inside your pantry. Can you plan meals from the sale items and food you already have?
Here are templates to help.
Tip 4: Take Inventory of Your Pantry
Before you stock your pantry with sale items, take an inventory of what you already have in the house.
When you know the food you already have, you can start thinking about what ingredients you need to make a whole meal. This also helps you avoid buying food you don’t need, which wastes food and money.
If you have a lot of ingredients on hand, try planning meals to use them up. This helps reduce food waste and save money. Don’t be afraid to experiment with flavor combinations to come up with new meals using the ingredients you already have.
Take inventory of your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Discard expired food and anything that’s gone bad. You can always donate unopened pantry items your family isn’t going to eat.
Can you make any meals using just the foods in your pantry?
Tip 5: Make Time for Meal Prep
By preparing your meals ahead of time, you’ll avoid the temptation to order takeout or go out to a restaurant.
There’s no one right way to meal prep. Find the best way that works for your schedule and style of cooking. Some people prep their meals for the week or even the month in one day.
Or, you can “piggyback” your meal prep by doing a little each day to prepare for the next meal. For example, you can chop vegetables and fruits, pre-cook grains and proteins, and wash and dry greens when you have extra time.
Try a meal prep method that’s doable with your schedule and cooking ability. Try once-a-week prep and see if that method fits with your lifestyle.
What can you wash, chop or cook to prep for this week’s meals?
Tip 6: Get the Tools
You’ll need essential kitchen tools such as a good knife, a cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, and storage containers. A food processor and slow cooker are also handy when you do a lot of cooking.
Clean out your gadget drawer and cabinets and make a list of items you need for meal prep, batch cooking and reheating leftovers.
Tip 7: Be Flexible and Realistic
Meal planning is not a diet. So you don’t have to feel like you need to stick to a weekly menu exactly as you planned it, especially if other things are going on in your life that week.
If something comes up and you can’t make the meals on one particular day, just switch them around with others so that everything still gets eaten before it goes bad.
If you’re short on time or don’t feel like cooking, make something simple or switch “leftover night” with that night.
Make a list of easy meals you don’t mind cooking even after a long day. Breakfast for dinner counts!
Tip 8: Keep Meals Simple
You don’t need to be an experienced cook or make fancy meals. I hear many moms say that they don’t have time to meal plan because they don’t like to cook complicated meals from scratch.
Meal planning is supposed to make things easier for you, not more complicated. Instead, of introducing a few new recipes at once, start a one new recipe a week rule. Look for easy recipes with ingredients you’re familiar with. All you really need in the kitchen is a little confidence and a willingness to try new flavors.
Plan to make one of your simplest family favorite meals this week instead of making a trip to the store or ordering takeout.
Tip 9: Use Leftovers
Leftovers are time savers on busy nights. Plan ahead and make extras for the days you don’t have time to cook.
If you don’t like reheating leftovers, repurpose leftovers into another meal. For example, use leftover chicken to make chicken salad, tacos, or top a salad later on during the week. You could also double a recipe so there’s plenty of leftovers for lunch throughout the week.
Come up with different meals using leftovers in the refrigerator. Omelets, stir-fries, and tacos are a few simple meals you can create from leftovers.
Tip 10: Be Creative
Some people are afraid to not follow a recipe exactly as it’s written.
While sticking to a recipe is a great way to learn how to cook and add new ingredients to your pantry, buying every ingredient a recipe calls for gets expensive.
Update your go-to meals by substituting ingredients you don’t have with something else (or leave it out). Experimenting will keep your meals interesting and prevent you from getting bored with the same meals.
If you see a recipe you’d like to try but have all the ingredients you need, try improvising and using what you have on hand.
To Wrap Up
When you take the time to plan out your meals for the week, you can avoid multiple trips to the grocery store or unwanted last-minute takeout. And you can save money on food by planning your meals around what’s on sale.
And remember—you’re not alone! I’m here to help you with cooking basics, grocery shopping hacks, and meal planning.
Get started with free meal planning and grocery list templates to organize and plan your meals ahead of a busy week.
About Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD
I’m a food loving Registered Dietitian. I help families plan meals, reduce food waste and save money on food!