Tell me if this sounds familiar: you’ve eaten out two or three times this week because you couldn’t figure out what to make for dinner. The thought of creating meals for a whole week is daunting and you don’t even know where to begin! Plus, you’re spending too much money on food and want to eat healthier. I’ve been there, starting with the first year of marriage! Meal planning takes practice and doesn’t have to be difficult or fancy. In time, I developed a system of 5 steps that I use every week to create meals- this guide to meal planning for beginners can help save you tons of money and start eating healthier!
1.) Make a budget
This is the most important step! If you don’t start out with a budget, you’ll end up spending WAY more than you intended, and may end up throwing out uneaten food. So what’s a good number? That depends on your family’s size and needs!
- I’ve heard many people say that an average of $25 per person per week is about average. That would mean my family of 3 should spend $75 per week, so we’re right on track!
- Look at how much you’re already spending. Keep records of your grocery trips for one month and see how much you spend. Do you think it’s too much? Try cutting that number by 10% for the next month to see how you do; it’s a very delicate process, and you have to find that balance! John and I started out our marriage with $50 a week, but after Allison was born we raised it to $60 to help cover formula and other baby food.
- If you have any special dietary needs, like a diabetic diet, gluten-free, all organic, etc., you may need to allow a little more room in your spending.
2.) Create a master list of your favorite recipes
Every family has at least a few meals they love to eat every month. If you have a list of recipes that you make often, it would be helpful to have all of them in one place to help you choose what to make each week! I’d recommend having at least 30 on your list, if not more, to cover at least a month of meals. Rent cookbooks from the library, get recipes from family/friends, or use my favorite sites, Pinterest and AllRecipes. Pinterest lets you create different board categories so you can keep your recipes organized, and AllRecipes has a recipe box you can send all your favorite recipes to.
- If you’re having trouble thinking of meals each week, try making each day a themed meal! For example, Monday could be Meatless Mondays, Tuesday could be Taco Tuesdays… you could have breakfast for dinner once a week, make soups and sandwiches one night, or plan one night for leftovers. This seems to work for some people! I personally try to have at least one vegetarian meal per week, one pasta dish, and one Mexican dish, and we do leftovers once a week.
3.) Make your grocery list for the week
Decide the best method of keeping a grocery list for your family. Will you use a notebook? A grocery list app? Maybe Google Docs like we do, so you and your family can access it anywhere or anytime! Either way, make sure it’s easily accessible during the day. Here’s my ideal scenario, in order, for making my list:
- What have I run out of this week? If I know I’m out of milk or eggs, these items immediately get put on my list throughout the week as I use them up. This way, I won’t forget to do it later and have an “Oh crap!” moment when I go to make something next week and realize I’m out of eggs.
- What meals can I make from my pantry? This is why I love having a small stockpile. If I already have basic essentials like canned tomatoes, beans, cheese, etc., I can make simple and cheap meals and may only have to buy one or two items for that meal! If you’re having trouble figuring out what to make with what you have, I recommend Supercook.com. You enter in the ingredients you have and it’ll tell you the recipes you can make! I’ve used this site a couple times and it’s a great way to get ideas.
- What can I make with what’s on sale this week? The Meijer preview ad comes out on Fridays, and all other ads usually come out on Sundays with the Sunday newspaper. Look through the ads to see what’s cheap that week! Is chicken at a rock-bottom price this week? Find a bunch of chicken recipes! Maybe rice is on sale? This week could be a Mexican or Asian inspired recipe week.
- What can I make from my Master List for the meals I have left? If I still need a couple meals after doing everything above, I’ll then look through my Master List for any favorite recipes we want to have that week, still making sure that we’re under budget.
- Do I have any emergency “cheap” meals in my pantry/freezer? There have been a couple of times that after adding a bunch of essentials to the list that we’ve run out of, there’s suddenly not a lot of money left to buy dinners! “Oh crap, I only have $5.00 and need two more dinners!” In situations like these, we try to keep cheap meals in the freezer like chicken nuggets and fries, or frozen pizza. Sure, it’s not the healthiest, but they’re there in a pinch! If you don’t have any emergency meals but have some extra money in the budget, think about buying one or two meals to stick in the freezer in case you’re low on funds the next week.
4.) Set aside an hour a week to plan your menu
This is up to you when you plan to do this! I usually start on Thursday afternoons and have it finalized by Friday for our weekend shopping. It might be hard to set aside an entire hour at a time, especially if you work full time or have young kids. Plus, you can always break it up into two separate days, as long as you get it done!
5.) Stick to your budget and be consistent
If you can’t be consistent, it’s going to be really hard to turn meal planning and budgeting into a habit. Try taking out the amount of cash you need for groceries that week. Using cash tends to keep you in check and it “hurts” more to hand over cash than it does a credit card, because you can physically see the money leaving you.
This will probably take awhile to get used to if you’ve never actually done meal planning. It comes easier to some people than others! I’m not perfect either; I have hundreds of recipes at my disposal and I still find myself staring blankly at a screen trying to figure out what to make for the next week. I also tend to go over budget by a few dollars because I forget we’re out of cheese or something! This kind of thing takes a lot of practice, but I promise, your bank account (and your body!) will thank you if you just take the first step towards meal planning! What other tips do you have? Share with us in the comments below!