Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Meal Planning 101

meal planning 101

Last week as I was planning our meals for this week, I asked a quick question on my Facebook page about meal planning – do you do it?  do you like it?  what are your repeat meals?  I quickly learned that a lot of people either want to plan meals and they don’t know how, they’ve tried it before and it doesn’t work for them, or it’s their favorite part of the week.  While I fall into the latter one, I found out that a lot of you fall into the first two.

The first comment that I received after posting the question was this: “Share your secrets, I have not conquered how to do this yet!

And that got me to thinking that I really should share because there really is no secret!  There are a lot of great posts out there about meal planning but I think that it will look a little bit different for you than it will for me than it will for the next person.

So, here’s where we will start, with a quiz.

  1. How often do you shop for groceries?
  2. Are there any meals that you eat, without fail, each and every week?  Or at least every other week?
  3. How many people are you feeding?
  4. How many nights per week do you eat at home?
  5. What are the staples that you’ll need to buy (baking ingredients, lunch items, snacks, etc.)
  6. What sounds good to me & my family this week? (Ask them!)

If you only shop for groceries once monthly, planning your meals will probably be a little more time intensive, but will only need to be done once per month.  If you shop every week (like I do), you will just need to spend a little time each week to make your plan and make your list.

Here is why I plan out our meals: when Paul and I first got married (I was already blogging) I would do the grocery shopping, but with no direction in mind.  I would buy tons of stuff that we didn’t really need and nothing that we really did need.  OK, not nothing.  But a lot of what I would buy would go to waste or would end up needing to be frozen before it went bad.  I can’t stand wasted food.

So I started playing around with meal planning and it was a definite work in progress for a while.  But once I got the hang of it, it became second nature and now I actually love planning our meals.

The type-A personality in me loves it because it’s an excuse to use another spreadsheet.  The budgeter in me loves it because I don’t (usually!) buy things that are not on my list – an occasional impulse buy is sure to happen though!  The planner in me LOVES not having to stand in front of the fridge every day and wonder what we are having for dinner – it’s already been decided and (most-likely) we have all of the ingredients we’ll need to make it.

Are you convinced yet?

meal planning tips

Here’s what I do:

    1. I set aside time to get it done – I plan meals on Thursdays for the following week (usually Sunday – Saturday.)  I do the grocery shopping on Fridays or Saturdays and I make my grocery list from my meal plan.  I sit down at my computer and open up notebook that houses my grocery lists and open my meal plan spreadsheet (see below). I have a column for the date, what we will eat that night, any blog or freelance assignments that I need to do that day, and what will show up in my blog posts that day.  I plan it all from right here.
    2. Use a tool that will help you like a phone app or ZipList.  The ZipList recipe box allows you to save recipes from ANY website on the internet, and then place them into a meal plan, and then it just spits out your grocery list for you too.  It’s pretty brilliant!  This could be especially useful if you plan meals for multiple weeks in advance!
    3. I open up our calendar and decide how many meals I’ll need to plan and if it will be just me, if Paul will be home etc.  Do we have plans with friends?  Church events in the evenings?  Those nights, no meal is needed so I only plan what we will need.  Ask your family if anything sounds good to them.  Even a food blogger has a hard time deciding what to cook from time to time.  Sometimes Paul has great ideas and he usually brings up recipes that we loved but haven’t had in a long time.  We don’t repeat very many meals in our house!
    4. I visit the websites of my favorite grocery stores to look at the weekly ads.  I shop at Schnuck’s, Gerbes, and Aldi where we currently live; I also buy some staples at Wal Mart and Target.  (If you missed Ali’s Aldi 101 posts last week, make sure to check them out!)  In KC, I shopped at Trader Joe’s probably 85% of the time so I would skip this step unless I knew I needed to go to a different store for something.  I also receive emails from a couple of grocery stores with weekly specials so if something catches my eye, I will keep that in mind for a meal.
    5. I use the ads to determine if there are any “special” meals that we have.  We do not eat meat every night of the week – more like once or twice per week and I try to buy grass fed beef and cage-free, organic chicken when I can.  Since we don’t eat meat all that often, I can justify that splurge. Just use the ads to your advantage when scoping out meals for the week.
    6. Browse recipes! I open up Pinterest, my blog, cookbooks, etc. and do a little looking around at things that I have saved that week.
    7. When I find something I like, I plug it into the spreadsheet and take a look at the actual recipe and make note of ingredients I need to get.  Yesterday I made slow cooker chicken tikka masala for dinner.  I added it to my spreadsheet and knew that I would need.  I knew I would need chicken, diced tomatoes, yogurt and limes so I added them to my grocery list.  I have everything else on hand so no need to buy more rice, garam masala, ginger, etc.  Also, think simple sides like steamed veggies, simple salads, easy-to-prepare grains like rice or quinoa.
    8. And I repeat for the other nights of the week.  I finish off my list by adding butter (a weekly purchase!), yogurt, bread, eggs, lunch meat, cheese, any condiments we need, chips and salsa (we always have on hand!), bananas, etc.
    9. Use the weekends (or a weekday if you work weekends) for prep work.  Clean and chop veggies; prepare casseroles or parts of meals; make homemade stock, etc. and make note of how much work you will need to do on each night of the week.  If you know you’ll be home from work late one night, plan for a simpler meal.

grocery shopping tips

I try to stick to this list at the grocery store.  When I’m tempted by random pasta or produce, I remind myself that I have a plan for the week and if I buy those things, there is a chance they won’t be used and go bad.

All in all, there is no right or wrong way to do it.  This is what works for me.  It is NOT flawless.  Sometimes plans change but I’m human and there is always room for a little error!  Plan your meals in the most effective way for YOU!

I simply love grocery shopping.  Call me crazy if you will but I really enjoy it.  We stick to a monthly budget in our house – for everything, not just groceries!  I do 99% of the grocery shopping in our house and spend $70-80 per week on groceries for the two of us.  That might sound like a lot – but a lot of times I am buying more sugar, butter, eggs, etc. than the average person because of blog and freelance projects.

I know many of you don’t so I would also love to share a few grocery shopping tips for you:

    1. Plan your meals around & buy what is in season.  Buying strawberries in the middle of winter might break the bank.  However, you can probably buy avocados in February for $1 or less.  Win.
    2. Stick to your list and to help with this one, don’t take anyone with you.  Might be easier said than done but we always spend so much more money when Paul goes with me!
    3. Cross things off your list as you go through the store and if you are really type-A, organize the list by grocery store sections…this way you won’t have to backtrack through the store.
    4. Take cash.  I am not kidding.  Take the amount of money you intend to spend for that trip out of the bank and leave your credit cards at home.  This works, people.
    5. Jot down the price of each item as you cross them off your list, especially if you do #4 – this will prevent more impulse buys!
    6. Check the ads. (see above!)
    7. Plan for leftovers.  Make a little more on one night than what you really need and then have some for leftovers the next night – or freeze for a couple weeks down the road.
    8. Stay stocked on pantry staples – and buy these things at stores like Aldi and Wal Mart, they are much less expensive!

48 Responses to “Meal Planning 101”

  1. #
    Ali | Gimme Some Oven — March 5, 2013 @ 7:43 am

    Great post! Love all these tips!!

  2. #
    Robyn | Add a Pinch — March 5, 2013 @ 7:48 am

    Great tips!

  3. #
    Jamie | Thrifty Veggie Mama — March 5, 2013 @ 8:11 am

    Great post Cassie! Last month I started using only cash for grocery shopping and it has really helped. And I’d be lost without a list and a plan!

  4. #
    Cookbook Queen — March 5, 2013 @ 8:16 am

    I LOVE menu planning…especially with kiddos (one of them a baby), it really helps things run more smoothly and cuts down on the pizza ordering and take out. Dinner is a lot less daunting when you have it planned and all the ingredients on hand!

    I shop once a week — on Monday. Monday is kind of a hectic day to do it but it’s nice to have it done for the week. I usually plan one Mexican meal, one pasta dish, one chicken dish, and at least one crock pot meal. Kinda helps me as a loose guide 😉

    Love all your tips here!!

    • Cassie replied: — March 5th, 2013 @ 9:02 am

      I love the idea of planning meals around those themes…sometimes I feel like a need a guide of sorts!

  5. #
    Maria — March 5, 2013 @ 8:17 am

    Great tips! I needed this post:)

  6. #
    Gerry @ foodness gracious — March 5, 2013 @ 8:21 am

    Excellent info and I actually just started this week planning after I seen your FB post 🙂

  7. #
    cassie gallagher — March 5, 2013 @ 8:27 am

    LOVE this post! I started meal planning a few weeks ago and searched for a website/app that would aid but couldn’t find one I liked. I started using a google docs spreadsheet that was working out pretty well, but ziplist fits what I was looking for to the T! The downfall of my spreadsheet was central recipe storage. Thanks so much.

    • Cassie replied: — March 5th, 2013 @ 9:00 am

      I hope you enjoy ZipList, we really do so far, except I still use my spreadsheet too 🙂

  8. #
    Nancy P.@thebittersideofsweet — March 5, 2013 @ 8:28 am

    Great post! Love the tips! Aldi has been our lifesaver some months!

    • Cassie replied: — March 5th, 2013 @ 8:59 am

      I have shopped there a lot more since we moved, it’s really convenient to get there now. I love buying staples there!

  9. #
    Alaina @ Fabtastic Eats — March 5, 2013 @ 8:46 am

    I love menu planning…it makes my nights so much less stressful than they can already be with two little ones..then we’re not standing there debating what to make forever. I definitely spend much more than $70-$80/week and wish I could cut down to that! MY husband would be ecstatic. Im pretty good at sticking to my lists, (for the most part!) So Im not sure where Im going wrong…maybe because its we eat some sort of most of the time. Either way, love the additional tips here..I wish I was as spreadsheet organized as you!

    • Cassie replied: — March 5th, 2013 @ 8:58 am

      You are also feeding two more mouths than I am – that can make a huge difference, especially since they are young! And yes, cutting meat out even one or two days per week can really cut down on the grocery bill!

  10. #
    Tracey — March 5, 2013 @ 8:53 am

    Love this post Cassie! I’ve been meal planning for a little over a year and it’s made my life so much easier and saved us lots of money. What’s not to love? 🙂

    • Cassie replied: — March 5th, 2013 @ 8:59 am

      Yes, I love the money-saving part of it. I don’t feel like I am wasteful with groceries now!

  11. #
    Erin @ Dinners, Dishes and Desserts — March 5, 2013 @ 9:00 am

    Great tips! I meal plan each week, it cuts down on how much I spend and the stress a ton!! This week is clean out the freezer meals 😉

    You are way more organized that I am, I don’t have spreadsheets or anything – maybe I need to rethink my system.

    • Cassie replied: — March 5th, 2013 @ 9:01 am

      I have so much in the freezer right now…maybe next week will be our “clean out the freezer” week. It’s all soups so we need to get rid of them before the weather gets nice!

  12. #
    Anna @ Crunchy Creamy Sweet — March 5, 2013 @ 9:23 am

    I love all the tips, Cassie! We plan our weekly menu on Saturdays and shop on Sundays. Being a mom of three, I find meal planning so helpful. Can’t imagine life without it! 🙂

  13. #
    Chung-Ah | Damn Delicious — March 5, 2013 @ 9:29 am

    Great tips, Cassie! It can definitely be a bit challenging buying groceries for a family of 2, especially when you need particular ingredients for freelance work! It’s even worse when Jason leaves for SF and I’m shopping for 1 and still spending $50-70 a week! The life of a food blogger, right?

  14. #
    Autumn@Good Eats Girl — March 5, 2013 @ 10:22 am

    I love, love, love meal planning! It has saved us so much time and money! It’s also a lifesaver at the end of the long day when I don’t have to worry about what we are going to make for dinner because it is already planned!

  15. #
    Meagan @ A Zesty Bite — March 5, 2013 @ 10:31 am

    I love to meal plan and it helps lower the cost of buying things you “Think” you need when you don’t.

  16. #
    Carla @ Carlas Confections — March 5, 2013 @ 10:34 am

    These are seriously good tips! I love meal planning, but I dont do it as often as I should! I need to implement this more. Thanks for the great tips 😀

  17. #
    katie — March 5, 2013 @ 10:38 am

    Great tips! I agree–If I don’t meal plan I’m lost and I make multiple trips to the grocery store each week which ultimately makes me go over budget!

  18. #
    DB-The Foodie Stuntman — March 5, 2013 @ 10:42 am

    How do you take into account sale items? I like to keep pantry items and then meal plan around what’s on sale that week.

    • Cassie replied: — March 5th, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

      I do a lot of planning meals around what is on sale at my favorite grocery stores. If stew meat is on sale, I will probably add potatoes and carrots to my list for stew that week. This is a big driver for what actually goes onto my menu.

  19. #
    Stephanie @ Girl Versus Dough — March 5, 2013 @ 10:46 am

    These are fantastic tips, Cassie! I usually do meal planning but I have yet to master the coupon prep thing. Definitely bookmarking these tips for next week’s shopping trip!

  20. #
    Whitney — March 5, 2013 @ 10:47 am

    These are great tips! I am just getting back into consistent meal planning after moving from suburbia to the desert (literally). We have an ok-grocery store here in town, but I’ve realized I need to get my planning in gear so I can hit up Trader Joe’s and some of the more extensive grocery stores in the ‘big city’ an hour away when we are there.

    I do have a question – do you assign a value to each of the categories you purchase within your budget? Say, you budget $10 for dairy or $20 for produce, so on and so forth? I’ve become accustomed to just buying what we need in the past, but am on a tighter budget right now and am not sure if I should be breaking it down even further. Just curious …

    • Cassie replied: — March 5th, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

      Hi Whitney, I have never budgeted for certain grocery categories…I would think that it will change so often depending on what is on the menu. I already don’t buy a ton of dairy or meat so I can keep those a little lower, but some weeks it might spike due to a party or freelance project. It might be useful though for someone how buys an good amount of groceries in various categories. I hope this helps!

  21. #
    Jackie @ The Beeroness — March 5, 2013 @ 10:48 am

    These are great ideas. I need to do the cash thing, I’m an impulse buyer when it comes to groceries. Such a good tip 🙂

  22. #
    Mimi @ Culinary Couture — March 5, 2013 @ 11:08 am

    Love this list! I was recently introduced to the “FOOD ON THE TABLE” app, and I have fallen in love with it! You should look into it! It makes life so simple. You pick a meal. It inputs the ingredients on your grocery list AND it puts them in department order. AND it tells you which of those items are on sale, based on the stores that you picked. It’s great!

    • Cassie replied: — March 5th, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

      I will check out that app, thanks for sharing!

  23. #
    Anne @The Cooking Campaign — March 5, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

    I menu plan every week and love it. But I notice that I spend much more with Gilbert comes with me. I should probably start going alone since I’m a big push over when it comes to things he wants.

    • Cassie replied: — March 5th, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

      I know exactly what you mean!! 🙂

  24. #
    Erika — March 5, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

    Ooh Cassie this is such a great list of tips–not to mention inspiration to actually do it! I always spend way, wayyyy too much time & money at the grocery store. Sometimes my boyfriend and I will walk to the grocery store near his place on weekend nights to pick up snacks or whatever and that always leads to really bad impulse buys! But geez–this isn’t meal planning but one thing that has saved me some money is checking my receipt as the cashier rings me up or after I get out of line if they go too fast. I’ve been overcharged many times!

  25. #
    Cthulku — March 5, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

    You had me right up until you said “cash”. I track all my expenses via my credit card, so that’s a no go. Otherwise, lots of good tips in here. I’m very much an improvisational cook, but I’ve been wanting to plan more of my meals — both for dietic and fiscal reasons — and I think that this will help. Thanks!

  26. #
    Laura (Tutti Dolci) — March 5, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

    Love your tips, Cassie! You are so organized!

  27. #
    Bianca @ Confessions of a Chocoholic — March 5, 2013 @ 6:43 pm

    Great post, and super helpful. I’ve been thinking about meal planning but never actually do it haha. You defintiely inspired me to give it a shot!

  28. #
    Deborah — March 5, 2013 @ 9:03 pm

    I am a huge fan of menu planning – love this!!

  29. #
    Holly @ A Year in Wichita — March 5, 2013 @ 9:15 pm

    This is the best meal planning post I’ve read. Your organizational skills are enviable, Cassie! I consider myself fairly organized, but just know that I have such huge respect for those who really have organization down to an art (e.g., you!) Seriously though, you are motivating me to be better with my meal planning. I only do it about 50% of the time, but I NEVER regret it! These tips really inspire me to commit some time and effort! Awesome post!

  30. #
    Jennifer @ Mother Thyme — March 5, 2013 @ 10:57 pm

    This is great Cassie! I love meal planning. I’m glad to hear lately that I’m not alone in my love of Aldi. 🙂 I LOVE your tip paying cash; I definitely need to do that. Thanks for sharing this!

  31. #
    Stephanie @ Salt Is Your Friend — March 6, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    Great tips! I LOVE seeing how other people approach meal planning. I have a strange personality mix… I’m Type A about most things but meal planning isn’t one of them. Yet strangely, my meal planning mirrors yours in ways. I also shop weekly and start with sale ads but I don’t go in with much of plan. I’m usually craving something but I let the sales influence me more than anything. I use Ziplist but most of my personal recipes are in Evernote so I bounce between them. I think a well-stocked pantry is the most important factor for me.

    Great thought-provoking post! Thanks for sharing!!

  32. #
    Melanie @ Nutritious Eats — March 6, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

    I meal plan every week and it’s pretty rare if I don’t at least think about what we’ll be eating during the week. I always tell people just to look through their freezers/pantry first, then just flip through some cookbooks/magazines/blogs and jot down a few ideas. All you need is a few recipes because of leftovers, and incorporating simple things that don’t require a lot of thought. Sound like you are a little more organized than I am!

  33. #
    Shari|Tickled Red — March 6, 2013 @ 9:54 pm

    Printed and being put to good use, love these tips!

  34. #
    Mj — March 6, 2013 @ 11:05 pm

    I spend more like $250 a week for two to eat really healthy. $70 a week for 2 would be HEAVEN A largely protein and produce diet from albertsons is extremely costly.

  35. #
    Valerie — March 7, 2013 @ 8:36 am

    I’m 100% a type-A personality and I LOVE meal planning!

    I really like your tip about writing down the price of the item as you check it off your list in the store. It’s hard for me to leave the store without at least one small impulse buy 🙂

  36. #
    Erin @ Texanerin Baking — March 8, 2013 @ 7:03 am

    Oh wow. I love how organized you are! This is a huge problem for me. With no car, we go shopping basically every day and it’s extremely annoying. Going once a month would be so luxurious. 🙂 Anyway, we basically get fruits and veggies all the time and some meat every now and then and then base our meals off of the meat. So most of our meals don’t match. We just had mushroomless chicken marsala, leftover spicy roasted carrots and Bailey’s fudge for lunch. Very balanced, right? 😉 So yeah, I learned a lot from the post! Thanks for making it.

  37. #
    natalie@thesweetslife — March 10, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

    great post! I already do a lot of this (meal-planning obsessed over here!!) but it’s always nice to have a few reminders about best practices! 🙂


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