A blue plate with small letter tiles spelling out "meal plan."

The Right Way to Meal Plan

Did you know that there’s a better way to meal plan? If you start by making a list of recipes and then a list of ingredients, you’re probably wasting food and money. Are you one of those people who usually starts your meal plan by browsing through Pinterest or your favorite recipe sites and making a list of the recipes you want to make for the week? Once you have your recipes picked out, do you make a list of all the things that you need to make the recipes before running to the store to buy everything on your list to make these delicious meals for your family? If you answered yes to these two questions, you may be wasting money. You may also be wasting food.

Choosing your recipes then creating your list is not the best way to do this. I will say that having a plan, any plan, is definitely better than wandering through the store and putting random items into your shopping cart because they look good, and you think you’ll use them, but there’s a better way. You can save money, and cut down on food waste by planning your meals for the week using a different technique. Let’s look at the the steps we should take to plan our meals the “right” way.

Menu Board

What’s the best way to meal plan for the week?

In order to ensure that you’re making the best use of your food dollars, while cutting down on food waste, there are a few steps you should take before making that grocery run.

1. Inventory the contents of your refrigerator

The refrigerator is the place where, historically, we have found most of the spoiled food in our house. Before I make a trip to the grocery store, I always look through the refrigerator to see what’s lurking that needs to be used up. Today, when I was looking through the fridge, I noticed that there’s a bell pepper that’s beginning to shrivel, and some celery that’s looking a little old. I also took note of all the condiments in the fridge, so I won’t buy duplicates, and I interrogated all the other members of my household about the three open bottles of barbecue sauce that I found. All of the humans denied it, so the final conclusion is that it must’ve been one of the dogs that did it because the cats don’t like barbecue sauce. I need to use barbecue sauce on one, or more, recipes this week. I also found a package of andouille sausage that was approaching its best by date. Of course there was a jar of pickled red onions in the fridge, and I noticed that it was getting low. Time to make a fresh batch.

Using a notebook that I bought for twenty-five cents at the back to school sale, I wrote a list of the things that I found on the left hand side of the page. I added red onion to the right side of the page where I write my grocery list, leaving the center of the page blank to write down meal ideas.

Organizing a small fridge and freezer--This task doesn't have to be expensive. This small space was organized using containers purchased at the dollar store. PattyCakesPantry.com

2. Check the contents of your freezer

After I checked the fridge, I looked in the freezer to see what stuck out to me. I have a large freezer in the garage, but the fridge freezer tends to be a catch all for small amounts of leftover items. The things that suck out to me on this day, was a partial bag of Pillsbury frozen biscuits, a partial bag of french toast sticks, and a bag with four frozen buffalo chicken tenders in it. I added these items to the list in my notebook.

3. See what’s in the pantry

After looking at the fridge and freezer, I went through the pantry. I discovered a partial package of corn tortillas as well as a partial package of flour tortillas. There were lots of dried bean, rice, and pasta. I discovered a jar of salsa that was a few days past its best by date. I also had a partial bag of potatoes that probably wouldn’t last much longer if we didn’t use them up. I added what I found to the list in the notebook.

I’m sure that some of you are wondering why I am using the food in my pantry instead of stockpiling it. The reason is that you’re supposed to rotate through your food storage. Use it and replace it in order to keep things fresh. “Eat what you store, and store what you eat” is a great philosophy to follow.

our 12 favorite cenned vegetables

4. See what’s on sale this week

Even if you don’t get those sale flyers for your local grocery store in your mail each week, you can view them on-line at the company’s website. I am fortunate to have 5 different grocery stores within a 7 mile radius of my home. Most of the time, I shop at a discount store or an employee owned grocery store for my weekly trip, but occasionally, I’ll deviate if there’s something good on sale at one of the other stores. This week, my local Kroger affiliate has the following deals that seemed like good things to use to create meals and add to my grocery list for the week.

  • cucumbers 4/$1.00
  • cantaloupe $0.39/lb
  • fresh corn 5/$2.00
  • bell peppers 3/$0.99
  • jicama $0.49/lb
  • pork ribs $1.99/lb
  • queso fresco $1.99/pkg
  • kroger shredded cheese or block cheese (6-8oz pkg) 3/$5.00
  • kroger brand salad dressings $0.99/16oz bottle
  • kellog’s cereal 3/$5.00
A notebook, hand written shopping list, cell phone and assorted color pens sit on a white countertop.

5. Plan your meals for the week and make your grocery list

There are two steps that I take when planning my meals for the week. First, I look at the list I made to see what I have that needs to be used up, and I plug those items into my meals early in the week. I try to plan accompaniments to these meals based on what’s on sale. I have a lot of things that I know how to make, so most of the time I just come up with ideas using my meal repertoire, but if you’re new to cooking, this may be a bit more difficult. Don’t feel bad, every cook started out at the same place. There are some wonderful sites where you can plug in ingredients to find recipes.

Sites where you can plug in ingredients you have on hand to get recipes.

What am I making this week?

Based on the things that I found in my fridge, freezer, and pantry, as well as what’s on sale at my local Kroger affiliate, I plan to make the following things this week.

  • Red Beans and Rice because it will use up the bell pepper, celery, and andouille sausage that were in the fridge and freezer. I have plenty of spices, beans, and rice in the pantry already, so I don’t have to buy anything except maybe some fresh garlic.
  • Breakfast for dinner would be a great way to use up those few biscuits and the french toast sticks that are in the freezer. We have plenty of eggs thanks to our chickens and quail, so the only thing I will need to purchase for this is some fresh fruit and some breakfast meat like bacon or sausage. Cantaloupe is on sale at the store, so I’m going to serve cantaloupe with this.
  • Buffalo chicken tacos are another great idea for dinner because I already have those frozen buffalo chicken tenders as well as some tortillas. We can top these with shredded, or crumbled, cheese, lettuce, diced tomato, some salsa, and a splash of either ranch or blue cheese dressing. Cheese is on sale this week, and so are the salad dressings. I will also have to pick up some lettuce and tomatoes at the store. The tacos would go well with a cucumber and jicama salad, and since both of those items are on sale this week, it won’t cost a lot of money to put it together.

I have three dinner meals planned, already, and I have plans to use the things that need to be used up quickly. At this point in my meal planning process, I like to check in with my family to see what they think about what I’m making and to ask them if there’s anything that they would like to have in the coming week. On this week, Bus Boy suggested grilled or barbecued meat, Sue Chef wanted ribs, and Food Critic requested a pasta dish of some sort. Baker’s Man said he would like “Food.” He’s easy. I already had three meals planned that contained food, so he was covered. When I told everyone what we were having for dinner, two of the three children stated that they don’t want buffalo chicken tacos, so that night I decided to also serve quesadillas for those who didn’t want the tacos. I already had all of the ingredients on my shopping list that I would need to make quesadillas. If I mixed some ranch dressing with some of the salsa I discovered in my pantry, I could even make a dipping sauce for the quesadillas.

Now, it was time to finish the meal plan for the week and the grocery list.

Dr Pepper Ribs steaming after being broiled
  • Baked rigatoni would meet the requirements for a pasta dish for Food Critic, and bell peppers were on sale this week. I added bell peppers, Italian sausage and onions to the list. I already had rigatoni, jars of pasta sauce, and cans of tomato sauce in the pantry. I would need to buy Mozzarella and Parmesan cheese, but they were on sale. This would go well with a side salad, but I already had salad ingredients and dressings on the list. (That’s a good tip for saving money. Try to use the same ingredients for more than one meal–the lettuce and tomato purchased to be used on the tacos can also be used for salads on a different night. I can also add some of the cucumber along with shredded carrot, and green onions to make it more exciting. I added carrots and green onions to my list.)
  • Slow Cooker Ribs that we finished under the broiler would make Sue Chef’s mouth happy. I asked what she wanted as sides, and she proclaimed corn (on sale this week, though not the best price of the season) and cucumber and tomato salad. (Cucumbers are also on sale.) She made a special request that I don’t use a lot of onions in it because they’re not her favorite. I decided to use the bottled barbecue sauce rather than make it from scratch since there were three open bottles in the fridge, but I still needed a bottle of “Dr. Pepper” for the marinade. I may buy store brand if it’s cheaper. I won’t use all of the Dr. Pepper for the ribs, so I might pick up some vanilla ice cream to make floats for dessert one night, too. (Dr. Pepper and vanilla ice cream were added to the list.)
  • Oven Roasted BBQ Chicken Thighs with Carrots and Potatoes is a great way to use up those potatoes that are going to go bad if neglected, and I can cut larger carrots into chunks and use under the chicken thighs. This will also be another way to use up some more of that barbecue sauce. I am really hoping to get down to only one opened bottle of barbecue sauce in the fridge by the end of the week. We can serve this meal with some sliced cucumbers or cantaloupe pieces, too.
Oven Roasted Barbecued Chicken with Rainbow Carrots and Potatoes

I usually only plan for six meals in a week, because we usually have leftovers to eat for dinner one night. I usually take leftovers for lunch, and the children will eat some of them, too, but we usually still have enough leftover for a leftover night. If, for some reason, we don’t have any leftovers, we can always make grilled cheese sandwiches or linguini with white clam sauce. (I always have the ingredients on hand for that.)

Now that I have the dinner meals planned out, I need to look at what else we will need for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and I can add those to the list. My children don’t eat a lot of cereal, but looking at the weekly ad, they have boxes of cereal on sale for 3/$5.00. Maybe I should surprise them, and pick up some cereal for this week. Food Critic likes frozen waffles with peanut butter for breakfast, Baker’s man loves oatmeal as does Bus Boy. I mostly eat breakfast on the run, so I like bagels for breakfast. If I pick up some bananas, extra cantaloupe, and some other fruit that’s not to expensive, we can all have a piece of fruit with breakfast. On the weekend, I either make pancakes or French toast. We have all of the ingredients for pancakes, but I might pick up a loaf of Texas toast for French toast. Leftovers of either of those can also be reheated during the week for breakfasts. I can also reserve a few slices of the Texas toast, to make garlic bread to go with the baked rigatoni.

Grilled Chicken Caesar salad on a plate.  The salad is tossed with dressing, and grilled chicken is arranged on top of the salad.
A child sized portion of Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad is smaller than the adult portion, made with only 1 cup of lettuce and a smaller portion of chicken meat. If you’re feeding children and adults, this salad recipe will serve more than four.

Lunches are almost always leftovers for me and Baker’s Man. Sue Chef likes to take snack type foods for lunch–cheese and crackers with fruit or a salad with some meat on top. I already have salad fixings on the list, cheese, and we have crackers in the pantry. Food Critic likes to take leftovers for lunch, but also likes crackers and cheese, too. Busy Boy is my pickiest eater. He will eat celery and peanut butter, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, grilled cheese, and quesadillas. His favorite food in the whole world is potatoes, but these don’t pack well for lunch. He also likes carrot sticks, cucumber slices, and celery with ranch dip, and he will eat fruit. I have peanut butter in the pantry, and jelly in the fridge, but I will pick up some fresh celery that’s suitable for eating raw unlike the stuff in my fridge that’s going to be used in the red beans and rice. I think that pretty much takes care of my meal plan for the week as well as my grocery list. My notebook page was organized like this. Except it was written in my sloppy handwriting.

Things I have on hand

A slightly shriveled red bell pepper.  The skin is wrinkled, but the pepper isn't moldy , yet.
  • Bell pepper
  • Celery
  • Pickled red onions
  • Andouille sausage
  • Buffalo chicken tenders
  • French toast sticks
  • Biscuits
  • Barbecue sauce
  • Rice
  • Beans
  • Salsa
  • Pasta sauce
  • Tomato sauce
  • Pasta
  • Potatoes
  • Corn tortillas
  • Flour tortillas
  • Peanut Butter
  • Crackers
  • Jelly
  • Popcorn
Popped popcorn and unpopped popcorn kernels scattered  on a white countertop.

Meals to Make

Dinner Ideas

  • Red beans and rice
  • Breakfast for dinner (french toast sticks, biscuits, eggs, sausage, and melon)
  • Buffalo chicken tacos with cucumber jicama salad
  • Bbq ribs with corn on the cob and cucumber/tomato salad
  • Baked BBQ chicken thighs with potatoes and carrots
  • Baked Rigatoni with green salad and garlic bread

Breakfast Ideas

  • Waffles with Peanut Butter
  • Bagels
  • French Toast
  • Pancakes
  • Cereal
  • Oatmeal

Lunch Ideas

  • Leftovers
  • Crackers and cheese and Fruit
  • Peanut Butter and Jelly
  • Peanut Butter and Celery
  • Veggies and Ranch
  • Quesadillas
  • Grilled Cheese
  • Fresh Fruit
  • Yogurt

Snacks

  • Popcorn
  • Crackers and cheese
  • Veggies and Dip
  • Fruit
  • PB and Bananas on Ritz
  • Yogurt

Grocery List

Produce Section

  • Garlic
  • Cantaloupes X 3
  • Corn on the cob
  • Carrots
  • Romaine hearts
  • Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Jicama
  • Bell peppers
  • Red onion
  • Yellow or white onions
  • Green onions
  • Bananas
  • Fresh celery
  • Cheap fruit for snacks or lunch

Meat Department

  • Ribs
  • Chicken Thighs
  • Italian Sausage
  • Bacon or Breakfast Sausage

Dairy/Deli

  • MIlk
  • Cheese (tacos, quesadillas, rigatoni)
  • Cream Cheese
  • Yogurt

Down the Aisles

  • Bread
  • Texas Toast
  • Bagels
  • Salad Dressing (ranch, blue cheese, Italian)
  • 2 liter Dr. Pepper
  • Cereal and Oats

Frozen Food

  • Frozen Waffles
  • Vanilla ice cream

In prioritizing the order in which we eat these meals, I will prepare the red beans and rice first in order to prevent the bell pepper and celery from going bad. The BBQ chicken will be the second meal of the week because the potatoes need to be used up quickly, too. It doesn’t really matter what day we have the other meals. None of their ingredients are super critical as far as spoilage. Meals planned and groceries listed, it’s time to go to the next step.

A sales display full of romain hearts

6. Go to the grocery store with your list in hand and pick up what you need.

Now that I’ve made my list, it’s time to go to the store and pick up what we need for the week. I usually put my grocery list into my cell phone because I don’t usually misplace it in the store, and I rarely leave the house without it. I have both forgotten my grocery list and lost it in the store in the last year. Having it on my phone helps ensure I have it with me. Having the list helps keep me on budget.

I also know that by organizing my meal plan for the week using the steps I’ve outlined here, I’ve saved money, and I won’t have things sit in the fridge or pantry that go to waste. I’ll even have some wiggle room in my budget because I anticipate that this weeks groceries will only cost around $70. That leaves around fourteen dollars in my budget for the week that I haven’t spent which means that if I see some pantry staples on sale at a good price, I can pick them up and add them to my stockpile. For instance, I might pick up a couple extra bottles of salad dressing for the pantry. Italian dressing and Catalina, or French, dressing make great marinades for meat, and $0.99 is an excellent price.

A two photo collage.  The top photo is of a blue plate with letter tiles arranged on top.  The tiles have a light background and the letters are written in black.  The letters spell "meal plan."  The bottom photo is of a spiral notebook, a grocery list, a samsung phone in a blue case, and 4 brightly colored sharpie markers.  Across the middle of the collage, dividing the two pictures is a banner which reads "The best way to meal plan to save money and decrease waste."

Bonus Tip: Try to limit grocery shopping to once a week.

Another money saving tip that’s really helped our family’s grocery budget is that we only go grocery shopping once a week. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s impossible to go into the grocery store and walk out with only one item. I’ve only done it once in my adult life. There’s a reason that staples like milk and eggs are located in the back of the store. If you forget something, or if you run out of something, I suggest you do what we do–make do, and do without, until your next trip to the store.

I hope this information on meal planning will help you to save money on groceries and help to cut down on the food waste in your kitchen. This method has definitely helped us to save money on groceries while still feeding our family nutritious meals, so I strongly recommend that you give it a try.

Was this information about meal planning new to you? Is this how you plan your meals and make your grocery list? Do you think these steps would help you save money on groceries? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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4 thoughts on “The Right Way to Meal Plan

    1. Angie, I agree. Breakfast is good at any time of day. It’s also pretty fast to make, too. Breakfast for dinner is my favorite thing to make when I’ve been working late.

  1. Happy I read until the end, so many great tips to save money and don’t waste food. I tend to buy too much, I’m very optimistic with my time and always think I will cook more. So checking what’s in the fridge first is great advice. I have to put it into practice!

    1. Natalia, it took me a long time to finally realize that I needed to check my fridge first. I wasted so much money meal planning until I learned to start by checking to see what I already had. I know it will help you, too. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment.

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