5 Easy Meal Planning Strategies for Beginners
Most of us spend way more money on food than is necessary. Did you know that your food expense is one of the easiest ones to control? For a lot of people, it’s the second biggest expenditure, right after their mortgage or rent.
Food is delicious and all, but you don’t even get to keep it.
The great news is that it’s rather simple to lower this big expense. With just a bit of planning, you could find yourself spending hundreds less per month on food.
Meal planning means you won’t be scrambling at the last minute to decide what to have for dinner. You won’t have to run through the drive thru or order pizza. You’re already prepared!
If you think ‘meal planning’ is some complicated process best left to full-time homemakers with fancy binders, read on to find 5 super simple methods. One of them is bound to work for you!
5 Easy Meal Planning Strategies for Beginners
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This post may contain affiliate links. You can view my full disclosure policy here.
1. Classic style
This is traditionally what people think of when they think of meal planning. Once you check out your schedule for the week, decide how many dinners you will need to cook.
If you have a collection of cookbooks and recipes already, search through them and pick out the ones you’d like to make this week. Check your pantry, fridge, and freezer to see which of the ingredients you already have. Add all the rest to your grocery list.
If you don’t have a recipe collection, do a quick search online or on Pinterest for recipes. Or try some of these 10 cheap and easy meal ideas that anyone can make, even if you suck at cooking.
You can assign meals to certain days, or just buy the ingredients to have on hand, and decide each day what to make.
This method will save you money compared to going out to eat. But if you pick complicated recipes full of expensive ingredients, you won’t recognize as much savings as you could.
2. Savvy sale shopper
If you really want to save some serious money, plan your meals around what’s on sale that week. If there are several grocery stores in your area, compare their sales fliers. Choose the one with the best prices that week.
Every week, each store has what’s called loss leaders. Those are the most deeply discounted items (often meat and produce) that they know will get people into the store. They hope you’ll buy a ton of full-priced items too.
Related: Here are 5 quick and easy tips to save massive amounts on groceries.
As a savvy shopper, you know to take advantage of those loss leaders, and plan your meals around them. If chicken breasts are on sale, plan to make oven chicken fajitas, chicken kebobs, and slow cooker bbq pulled chicken, for example. If ground beef is on sale, you could make tacos, sloppy joes, and spaghetti that week.
Or stock up on that deeply discounted meat and use a Foodsaver to keep it fresh indefinitely.
Your side dishes can be planned based on what’s on sale as well. Shopping the sales is the perfect way to rack up tons of savings. I am an avid couponer who saves a lot of money on groceries each week, but the majority of my savings always comes from the sale prices, not the coupons.
UPDATE: I wanted to make sure that meal planning could be simple and streamlined for you. So I put together a list of cheap and easy meal ideas that anyone can make, plus step by step instructions for how to make them. Regardless of your cooking skills, these quick and simple meals will have dinner on the table in no time!
3. Pantry use-up
This is the perfect method if you’re having a no-spend week. Or if your bank account is especially low.
Your pantry and freezer can be a gold mine. You may have a week’s worth of dinner recipes already in your house. Do an inventory of what you already have, and get creative if the meals ideas aren’t readily apparent.
Check out the Supercook website. You simply enter the ingredients you have on hand, and it comes up with a variety of recipes you can make with them. How convenient is that!
I also really like the Dinner Spinner app from AllRecipes. Just choose what type of dish (main, appetizer, side, etc.), the ingredient you’re using, and ‘ready in’ (20 min, slow cooker, etc.), and it comes up with recipes for you. I put in Main Dish, Chicken, and Slow Cooker, and it came up with 178 recipes.
It feels really good to use up what you already have. And you may discover new delicious recipes you’d never considered. You’ll also be able to cut your grocery bill way down for that week! If you really wanted to make it amusing, have a Chopped-style competition to see what creative dishes you or your family can come up with.
4. Theme days
This method is quite fun! Maybe I’m just a sucker for a theme. The idea is to come up with different types of meals you like, and cycle through them.
Here are 20 ideas to choose from:
- Sandwich Night
- Breakfast for dinner
- Pizza Night
- Slow cooker
- Kids choice/Kids cook
- Sheet Pan Supper
- Take Out
- Potluck with friends or family
You could assign a certain theme to specific days (like Meatless Mondays and Taco Tuesdays). Or just try to incorporate one of each theme into your plan on all different days. There are 20 themes listed above, so if you just took one theme per day, you could easily have 20 dinners planned.
5. $5 Meal Plan
What if someone else would plan all your meals and create your weekly shopping list for only $5 a month?
$5 Meal Plan will do just that! If you don’t know where to start, or lack the time or inclination to come up with your own weekly plan, $5 Meal Plan is to the rescue. For only $5 a month, you’ll receive a weekly meal plan delivered to your inbox every Friday.
Each week, you’ll receive five affordable dinner entrees with sides, one lunch, one breakfast, and one random goodie (like a dessert, beverage or snack).
Your weekly menu will include one freezer friendly, one slow-cooker, and one 20 minute meal. They also have a gluten-free option, if that’s best for you.
It also includes a full shopping list! You can just print it all out (or have it on your phone), take it with you to the store, and follow the easy recipe steps.
They also have a drag and drop recipe builder where you can customize your weekly meal plan based on your family’s tastes and preferences.
There are other specialty meal plans to choose from, including 6 weeks of 30-minute, slow cooker, Paleo, or vegetarian meals. There’s something for everyone.
The best part is that $5 Meal Plan is currently offering a 14-day free trial. Check it out here!
BONUS: The Plan-As-You-Go Method
This is a bonus strategy because it’s kind of the antithesis of meal planning. This works well if you keep a fully stocked pantry and freezer, and is often how I decide what meals to make.
Since I’m such an avid couponer and deal seeker, I always have a good stockpile going. I could quite easily come up with 15+ dinner ideas based on what I always keep in the house.
I don’t usually plan meals for an entire week. Instead I think of a few meals at a time and decide a day or two in advance what I’m making each night.
This works for people like me because we always have plenty of food to choose from. If you’re not a person who stocks up on sale items and keeps an abundant stockpile, you’re better off choosing one of the simple methods above.
If you want to learn more about how to coupon and create your own stockpile, check out my How I Saved series here. I post every week about the best deals I find. All the money saved is getting applied to paying our mortgage off in the next 2-3 years.
Well, there are 5 simple methods to start meal planning, even if you are a beginner. You could try a few different strategies, and see which works best for you. I’d love to hear what you decide!
P.S. Interested in learning how to meal plan on a budget? Check out this post!
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How do you like to plan your meals?
Linking up with The Thrifty Couple for Thrifty Thursday
thank you for this free and helpful tool you are so kind to share.
My pleasure, Kari! Thanks so much for commenting!
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