If you’ve never meal-planned before, getting started can feel overwhelming. Most of us are doing everything we can just to get through the workweek and actually enjoy the weekend with a minimal amount of house and yard work. Grandiose dreams of meal planning on Sunday afternoons fall by the wayside. No judgement here, I know how busy life can be.
But if you’re anything like me, you’re desiring, more and more, the ability to be a functional adult. I’ve spent too many years being shocked at how much money I spend eating out, how much money I waste on food delivery services, and how much food I throw away because it goes bad. “It doesn’t need to be like this,” I yell out as I shake my fists to the heavens. So, I decided to do something about it. Below, I’ll explain why you should meal plan, and give you the basics you need to get started.
Why Plan Your Meals?
People, you’re on a site called Young & Thrifty. We’re all here because we’re all at least kinda cheap or at least aspiring to be cheap. (Being cheap is fine as long as you don’t alienate your friends. Don’t be that guy/girl.) Any way you slice it, meal-planning can help us save major money, so we can re-direct those funds to our student loans, retirement savings, and/or the occasional trip to warmer locales. How so? By planning out exactly what food you’ll eat for the week and grocery shopping for that food only, you’re avoiding food and money waste, as well as being prepared with a food plan when you’re tired and would otherwise eat take-out. In general, making your food is cheaper than a restaurant, especially for a family.
Aside from having more control over how much money we’re spending on food, there are other benefits to meal planning. For one, you can build your meals into a schedule, which may feel constricting at first but may actually feel freeing with more practice. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll spend less time pacing your kitchen, opening the cupboards 14 times before settling on eating the stale bag of marshmallows for dinner. And, you’ll spend less time at the grocery store.
Making your own food has its own benefits, as well. You get to control the ingredients that are in your food, which is great if you’re allergic or have specific tastes. It’s also a great way to control unhealthy ingredients such as corn syrup, trans fats, nasty preservatives and other chemicals.
Meal-Planning, Step by Step
- Make a list of different meals that you like to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. It doesn’t have to be an all-inclusive list, just enough ideas to get you started. If you’re cooking for a family, you might want to get them involved in the process (or not).
- Check your pantry and fridge to see if you already have ingredients for any of the meal ideas on the list. If you like, you can build your meal plan by starting with what you have
- Pick meals from the list you made in Step One. Create a grid on a piece of paper or on a whiteboard that has spots for each of the meals for every day in a week (or if you’re ambitious, for two weeks or a month). If you need help visualizing, check out a sample meal plan like one of these.
- Make a shopping list for all of the meals on this week’s list. Are there two recipes that share ingredients, simplifying your grocery shopping and allowing you to buy in bulk?
- Go to the grocery store. Resist the temptation to buy what’s not on your list. (As a bonus, having a list saves you major time at the grocery store; you’re not aimlessly wandering aisles wondering if you’ll be eating cheese and crackers for yet another dinner tonight.)
- Stick to your plan!! It can help to have the plan posted somewhere where you’ll see it.
If you can’t stand the thought of meal planning, or you know you won’t stick to a plan anyway, don’t worry. You don’t have to do a full-on meal-by-meal plan to reap the benefits of advanced planning. A good gateway to meal planning is meal prepping; take a Sunday afternoon to make one or two big batch meals that you can then eat for several dinners and lunches throughout the week. For example, I almost always make a big batch of rice and beans and chop up vegetables that I can put onto a salad. You could also cook a large pan of chicken, tofu, or other protein that you can build meals around.
Also, don’t feel like every meal has to be gourmet. For example, I usually eat a salad for lunch, which is pretty easy to make and shop for, but I still like to have it in my plan. Even if you just do eggs for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch, put them into the plan. At a glance, you can see what you’ll be eating for the week and can make adjustments if you’re not getting enough veggies, proteins, and healthy fats. Also, it’s good practice even when you have a simple routine, and you may find that the forethought of meal planning allows you to integrate new recipes and ingredients into your weekly routine.
Recipe Ideas and Resources for Meal Plans
It’s difficult to give specific ideas for meal plans because everyone’s dietary needs vary. Instead, I’ll provide some great resources for meal planning and recipes so that you can find what suits your needs.
The Budget Epicurean is my go-to resource for meal planning. Here are two articles to get you started:
Jen Smith from Saving With Sprunk has an excellent book on meal planning, and it’s only $2.99 USD.
Cooking Light has recipes and allows you to drag and drop recipes into a weekly meal plan.
Prevention Pantry is my favorite food recipe blog because the recipes are filling, healthy, and simple.
What about you? What are your favorite resources? Share them in the comments below!