Meal planning is a topic that comes up frequently in online mom groups. “How do I meal plan?” “Does meal planning save money?” “I have this, this and this in my pantry, what should I make for dinner?” “What is everyone making this week?”

I like meal planning because I don’t like coming home from work and not knowing what to make for dinner. I don’t like resorting to take-out or junk food because “there’s nothing to eat” or I don’t have any meat thawed. Frequent grocery store visits are not high on my bucket list. Finally, I don’t like wasting food.

What is meal planning?

It is just what it sounds like: planning out what you will eat for a set period of time. That may be one week, two weeks, or even an entire month. If that sounds like a lot of work, you’re right, it can be. Pinterest and cook books will become your friends. But just think: you will spend some time up front and save time and money in the long (or short) run.

So, how do I do it?

The first tip I give people who want to meal plan is to start with what you have. Look in your cupboards, freezer and pantry. Meat is expensive, so if you can avoid buying it, that’s great. Actually, if you can avoid buying anything, that’s the best! Maybe you have all (or most) of the ingredients you need for a few meals already.

Remember, meals don’t have to be complicated. You should have vegetables, a grain, and some protein. Do you have some chicken, rice, and a bag of frozen vegetables? There you go! Marinade your chicken with something (salsa is yummy) and you have a great meal. Do you have some frozen fish, potatoes, and a bag of carrots? Make some home-made French fries with the fish, and serve it with steamed or raw carrot sticks. What about macaroni, a can of beans, a can of crushed tomatoes, and some cheese? Toss it all together and you have a pasta-bean-cheesy casserole.

My second piece of advice is to look at your store flyers before you decide what to make. Firstly, maybe you’ll get ideas from the flyer itself. Secondly, you want to shop the sales. Imagine you found a delicious recipe that calls for boneless/skinless chicken thighs, but your favorite store doesn’t have them on sale. You could end up paying twice as much for your meat.

My third piece of advice is to be realistic. If you don’t have time to spend two hours prepping and cooking a meal, don’t plan to. Do have some convenience or ultra-quick meals on hand for those days where life gets in the way.

Isn’t this all too rigid?

It doesn’t have to be. Some people find comfort in having everything planned out and not deviating from the plan. However, it is totally fine to just have a list of X meals and pick one the night before. Admittedly, I do not plan breakfasts and snacks. I simply make sure to have things on hand. But I do kinda-sorta plan school lunches so that I can have enough bread, fruit, yogurt, etc.

Give me an example!

Advice is great and all, but some people need solid, real-world examples to really get it.

Here is what I have planned for the next little bit. My two kids and I are on our own during this time (their dad is away). Full disclosure: I am trying some new things, including some weird vintage recipes!

Using what I already have

  • Falafel: I made these some time ago, but we never ended up eating them. I already have tzatziki, pita bread (which freezes well, by the way) and the falafel themselves. I plan on making pickled turnip to go with it.
  • Egg roll in a bowl: I do have pork chops, but I plan on using my meat grinder to make ground pork.
  • Sausage penne: I have the sausage already.
  • Shepherd’s pie: I have some leftovers frozen from a few weeks ago.
  • Tacos: I have ground beef and shells, and have spices on hand to make seasoning.
  • Pizza and salad: This goes with the “be realistic” advice. Frozen pizza, salad kit, done.

Vintage experiments

  • Tomato aspic and tofu: I’ve never had aspic before, but my kids like Jell-O, so it might be okay? (I’ll let you know…) I like marinating tofu with BBQ sauce and pan-frying slices of it.
  • Ham and banana hollandaise: This is another weird one I’ll be trying. It’s bananas, ham and hollandaise sauce. My kids like both bananas and ham, but they may end up eating it separately.
  • Perfection salad with chicken nuggets: I have the chicken nuggets already, and my kids will eat them. Perfection salad is fruit and veggies suspended in a gelatin mold. It might be weird. I’m willing to risk it, for science.

Well, that’s all I have. What about you? How long do you plan meals for? Do you have any other tips?

Meal planning: how to get started