Basic Meal Planning

Occasionally, I post pictures of various parts of my meal planning process on Instagram.  Inevitably, I get people who want to know more about my meal planning process.  I’m always hesitant to blog about meal planning because I’m afraid what I do might not be complicated enough to really be considered “meal planning.”  The phrase alone sounds like you need some kind of healthcare or nutrition degree to put one together.  But I do consider what I do to be meal planning, and it does save our family money and me some sanity throughout the week.

So, here we go.  My version of meal planning…

I meal plan on Saturday mornings as soon as I get up.  I get the kids breakfast, and then while they eat, I plan our weekly meals, get my coupons ready, and make my shopping list.  When they finish eating, the kids like to get paper and pencils and write their own shopping lists at the table with me. We go grocery shopping right after breakfast.  The kids actually love to help.  They each get to decide one meal we will eat a week, and they love finding the food for “their” meal when we get to the grocery store.

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Before I sit down to begin, I make sure that I have the following things with me:

  • My iPad – I use Pinterest to find recipes
  • My meal planning calendar – I print an iCalendar off our computer every week and use that for my meal planning calendar.
  • My own calendar – I have all our family obligations for the week listed in my planner, so this helps me get an overview of what we have going on and what kinds of meals I will need throughout the week.  If I know I will be staying late at work one night, I make sure I have a crock pot meal that day.  Or, if I know I have something one evening and Chris will be making dinner, I make sure I plan something he is comfortable making.
  • A pencil – I use a pencil to write on my meal calendar because things change as I plan, and it’s easier to change things on the calendar if it’s written in pencil.
  • My shopping list – This is a magnetic notepad that hands on our fridge.

Step One:  Plan meals 

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The first thing I do when I sit down is plan what we will eat that week.  Which is, like, meal planning.  I look at our family calendar and decide what we will need based on what we are doing that week.  For example, I have my small group at church on Tuesday nights, so Tuesdays are usually simple meals or crockpot meals.  This week on Tuesday, we are having french bread pizza, which is super easy and quick in the oven.  Plus, I know the kids love it, so that will keep the dinnertime battle to a minimum, which is key to getting out of the house and to my 7:00 small group on time!  I also do take weather into account, too.  We do a lot of grilling, but if I know the weather is going to be rainy, then I make sure there isn’t much grilling on the menu.

I also know that I get out of work an hour early on Wednesdays, so those days usually have our meals that need more time to prepare.  For example, this week, we are having chicken fajitas, which is actually a crock pot meal, but still takes longer to prepare to eat and to clean up.

Another thing I try to do is pay attention to what we are eating.  For example, I buy large family-size packs of chicken breasts at our grocery store.  These packs last us two meals.  Now, I could break them apart and freeze some of them so that I don’t have to use them back to back, but I’m not that into prep work.  So, I just make sure that we have chicken two nights in a row.  But I try to make sure that if we are having chicken two nights in a row, that we have very different kinds of meals.  No one in our family really cares.  On Thursday nights, I have an ESOL class I am taking for my teaching certification and Chris has the kids.  So, I put stir fry on our menu because it is really easy and a favorite with the kids.  Plus, it is a very different chicken dish than we are having with the chicken fajitas.

I also try to pay attention to cooking times.  We usually have our larger, bigger meals on the weekends.  As you can see on this week’s menu, we had meatloaf on Saturday (which was actually leftovers from Thursday night) and then ribs on Sunday, when we would have longer to cook them.  Except, next weekend I am going to be away at a girl’s weekend and Chris will have to cook all weekend for the kids, so that menu is going to be much simpler.

Step Two: Make my shopping list

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Once I have my menu planned, I make my shopping list for my meals. This list includes everything I need to make all my meals. I make sure to pay attention to what I already have in the pantry, fridge, or freezer. Some people meal plan based on what they have in their house first. But I don’t buy a lot in bulk and I don’t plan too far in advance. This means, by the end of the week, I don’t have much left in my kitchen. I know this would drive a lot of people crazy. But I like it this way. Everything I use is fresh and I don’t have a lot of junk shoved in the back of my pantry or fridge that I forget to use. I basically keep on hand what I need that week and that’s it. Buying in bulk is cheaper, I’m sure, and I do buy the staples when I see they are on sale. But I don’t store 25 pounds of rice in my pantry. I have found that this makes my shopping cheaper week to week.

I also know that lots of people meal plan based on what is on sale at the grocery store first. I think this is a great idea. But I don’t have time. I don’t drive all over town to find the cheapest deals. I don’t hunt down chicken wherever or whenever it is cheapest. I’m sure my bank account would like it if I did, but I don’t have the time. Instead, I think I save enough from my coupons and other deals that I’m okay making what I want when I want it, rather than having to plan around what the grocery store puts on sale. (More on coupons and savings later…)

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After my meal items are on my list, I add all our regular staples to the list, too. Always on our grocery list are two kinds of yogurt (a big tub of Greek for my smoothies and the kids breakfasts, and then smaller ones for my lunches), Goldfish, raisins, carrots and hummus for my lunch, Lean Cuisines for my lunch (I know – bad for me, but I don’t care), dog food, milk, orange juice, cucumbers, bananas, apples, and tiny oranges. If I do buy in bulk, these are the items I buy because we get them every single week. I also make sure to take inventory of bathroom, laundry, cleaning, and paper goods as we need them.

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Once my grocery list is put together, the kids are usually done with breakfast and making their own lists, so I turn them over to Chris (who has usually just rolled out of bed on Saturday mornings), and I head to my office upstairs.

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This is where the savings on my meal planning take place.

Step Three: Savings

At my desk, the first thing I do is go through my coupon book. I clip coupons out of the newspapers all week long and store then in my coupon book by categories. I use coupons probably not how they are most effective, but it works for our savings. I only pull coupons for what I am already planning to buy that week. I don’t just buy things because I have the coupon, though I know many people who shop that way and do save money. It just doesn’t work for our budget.

After my newspaper coupons, I turn to the computer. The first site I visit is always www.coupons.com. I like Coupons.com because you don’t have to register to use their coupons. Plus, they usually have really useful coupons for products that we use often. I usually find 3-5 coupons a week on this website.

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After Coupons.com, I go over to the Target website. Since I have a Target RedCard, I save an additional 5% on my purchases, in addition to any coupons or other discounts I use. This usually saves me a good bit, so I try to stick with Target for my grocery shopping. On the Target website, they have an entire coupon section now where you can print coupons for their store. I have saved a lot with these coupons.

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After I have printed Target coupons, I go to the Cartwheel section of the Target website. Cartwheel is actually an app that you can load discounts onto and then the clerk at the cash register scans your app and your savings apply automatically to your bill. You set up your coupons on the website, and then they automatically apply to your app. What I like about Cartwheel is that they put discounts on fresh goods that you don’t normally find coupons for. Things like milk, eggs, fresh fruit and veggies, and meat products, in addition to regular items you normally find coupons for. The other thing I love about Cartwheel is that these savings apply on top of any coupons you use. So, if you have a great coupon for something, you can then get the Cartwheel savings on top of the original coupon savings. With my Cartwheel app, I save an additional $5-8 a week on groceries.

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All total, meal planning usually takes me two hours a week and I usually save between $15 and $30 a week in coupons and discounts on my grocery shopping.

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So, armed with my planned out grocery list, my coupons, and my Cartwheel app, I am ready to get shopping. It really isn’t rocket science, and you can certainly take meal planning to much greater depth than I do. But I think successful meal planning is more about finding what works for your family. Whatever you choose, deliberately planning meals for the week is a little more time, but saves quite a bit of money.

And a penny saved is a new nail polish earned, ladies…

(P.S. In case you were wondering, this is not a paid advertisement for Target or any Target products.  I have a long, documented history of being a Target lover.  Ain’t no pay for true love.)

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11 thoughts on “Basic Meal Planning

  1. Kat

    I love it 🙂 especially the kids’ participation.

    I started following some coupon blogs that way some of the coupon searches are done for me 😉
    WISH we had a target nearby.

  2. Jennifer

    Southern Savers has a coupon database so if you know you’re buying dog food, you can search for printable coupons for it. One of my favorite tricks and doesn’t take much time 🙂

  3. Denise Armbruster

    We have very similar planning. I find that I can’t even go to the grocery store anymore without knowing what I’m going to make that week. It has really made a difference. Love Target Cartwheel but so many times I forget about it when I’m at the register 🙁 How do you not get yourself distracted when you sit down to look at recipes thought?That’s where I struggle, before I know it I’ve got every cookbook pulled out and pinterest and pioneer woman and etc etc pulled up on my computer. I don’t have young ones any longer so it should be easy…

  4. Sara

    My planning routine is very similar. The only difference is that I create appointments in my Outlook calendar for our dinners (so I can see it from my phone, tablet or desktop). What we’re having goes in the main description field, the ingredients go in the Notes field and if it’s a recipe I found on a blog/ Pinterest, I put the URL in there too…nothing worse than knowing what you’re supposed to make but not remembering where you found it to get the directions! I “invite” my husband & kids (15,12,10) via their calendars so they don’t have to hear me say “Food” when they ask “what’s for dinner?”.
    My Pinterest Boards include “Dinner Recipes TRY” and “Dinner Recipes SUCCESS”. If I find something yummy in a magazine I check to see if its available online to Pin 🙂

  5. Ashley

    Another thing you may want to consider (since I’ve discovered that in Florida a Publix is usually super close to a Target) is checking the Publix ad for buy one, get one free items. I save a lot and know to look for certain items for meals we have once or twice a month (like ham slices or specific bread or bread crumbs for meatloaf) and staples, like mayo, cheeses, salad dressings, etc… this makes it cheaper than any store brand I’ve found and you can apply coupons on top of them, too. I’m taking a year off from teaching and have been working part time, so we have had to adjust our budget accordingly – I definitely stick to my list when I go shopping now! We plan very similarly!!

  6. Angela

    I really loved this post! I wish coupons were as easily come by in the UK as in the US. I’m sure I’ll not be the only one to ask you now to share some of your favourite crockpot recipes. I have my first one on order and can’t wait to make something in it. Please do share! x

  7. Elaine

    I do practically the same thing, except I have an excel spreadsheet for it all. It has the list of meals for the week, a list of favorite dinners (for when I feel stuck), a checklist of all the items I buy routinely – food and around the home, and a place to make my actual list. I’ve been using it for so long that I’d be screwed if I went to the grocery store without a plan!

  8. Mae

    I know you said you dont care about Lean Cuisines being bad for you…I just felt compelled to tell you that like you I had a TIA (actually I had 2 back to back at age 30). Leading up to them I ate frozen meals for lunch every day. Like you, I work full time and have two small kids. I knew they were bad, but hey they were better than most alternatives…right? Wrong. My doctor sat me down and explained that there is no real way to tell how much sodium is in these babies. I am not telling you to stop eating them. I’m just telling you they are not healthy, at all, and they don’t help lower that very real chance of a large stroke you now live with every day.

  9. Michelle

    Great post! I always plan our meals and grocery list out in advance as well- it really does save money. I am one of those people who buys in bulk at Sam’s Club occassionally so that we don’t have to resupply the staples quite as often. We only have to do it once in a while, though. The rest of our stuff is bought each week as needed. Most of my meals are planned around what we have in the house already in order to save time and money.
    I am new to the Cartwheel app and just love it- I was ecstatic when I found that you could use stack those savings on top of existing coupons!

  10. Vanessa

    There are so many ways to save, thank you for sharing yours! I really enjoy reading about how you menu plan. We use google docs to plan the menu and check the sales, since I don’t really do the coupons (too much time spent in the store trying to find the EXACT item the coupon will work on). My husband participates and he can check/change everything on the spread sheet. We both take our respective lists to a different grocery store on the same day.

    I’d love hear what some of your blog followers do (or would like to do) to keep their lunches easy, healthy, fast and cheap. Personally, we (just my husband and I) cook extra for dinner and have left overs for lunch. I’d like to know what others do, since I wouldn’t mind incorporating a bit more variety. I love reading your posts and comments.

  11. I can relate about the potential for making meal planning more complicated than it needs to be. For me, it’s really about finding enough recipes to cover the week and the those days that I want to cook, drafting up the shopping list and writing this all down on paper.

    Those few minutes of doing this every week saves me even more time of having to figure out what to cook or forgetting to buy something at the grocery.

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