The Easy Way to Meal Plan

Easy Menu PlanningThere are three types of people: Those rare few who can go to the grocery store without a list or meal plan and end up with enough food to feed their family for a week or two; those (more common) folks who have no list or plan and buy willy-nilly and end up a few days later with "nothing to eat;" and those who make a meal plan, write a grocery list and are assured their family will have plenty to eat for several weeks.

I am the latter, and I have to say that learning to meal plan and shop accordingly has been a huge sanity saver - not to mention money-saver - for me. But I also know an awful lot of people find meal planning "impossible." They've read Internet articles telling them how to do it, but somehow when they sit down to try it for themselves, they just can't wrap their minds around it.

I admit that picking enough interesting meals for two weeks isn't my favorite thing...but over the years, I've developed a simple method of doing so. This method has many benefits, including:

* Solving the annoying problem of "what to fix" each night.
* Making my life less stressful.
* Saving money because we don't end up eating out.
* Saving money because we don't waste food.

Menu planning benefits everyone in our family, and it makes us better stewards of the money and time God has given us.

How to Make an Easy Meal Plan:

1. The day before I go shopping (which is usually the day before payday), I sit down with two pieces of paper, a pen, and my cookbooks. 

I mostly rely on a binder of recipes I've printed out, but I do have a few cookbooks I use, too. The binder, frankly, makes meal planning easier, because then all the recipes I'm considering are in one place. That said, I do try to incorporate one or two new recipes every few weeks, so I may also hop onto Pinterest (see my boards here), pick out something new, and print the recipe.

2. On one piece of paper, I write numbers - one for each day I need to make dinner. 

Typically, I'm buying for two weeks, so I write the numbers 1 through 14 vertically on the left-hand side of the page.

3. Now I choose a recipe I want to make within that two-week period. I write its name behind one of the numbers. 

It does not matter what number it goes behind or what day I end up cooking it. I am not assigning meals for each day. I am simply choosing meals I will make some time within that two-week period.

4. Next, I read through the ingredients needed to make that meal, and write those ingredients down on the other piece of paper (which will become my shopping list). 

I take the time to look in my cupboards or freezer to see if I already have any of the ingredients on hand, and I only write down ingredients I actually need to buy.

Easy Meal Planning

5. I repeat steps 3 - 4 until I have dinners written down for every day I'm shopping for.

TIP #1: Always include a good handful of quick dinners in your meal plan. This way, on tired days, you know you have something easy to make so you won't succumb to ordering take-out.

6. Now I think about the staple foods we eat for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. For example, for breakfast we often eat sausage and eggs. We have chickens and get eggs from them, so I only write down what I need to buy: "Sausage."

For lunch, my kids usually make sandwiches, so I write down all the ingredients they'll need for that, omitting any ingredients I already have plenty of.

If you prefer, you may make a list for breakfast and lunch, just like the one I suggest making for dinners. (Steps 3 and 4.)

TIP #2: On your shopping list, use tally marks to show how much of any one ingredient you need. For example, write "ground beef, lbs." and then use tally marks to indicate how many pounds you need to buy. Or, write "onions" and let you tally marks show many onions you should purchase.

7. When the shopping list is complete, I post the paper with the numbered dinners on my kitchen's bulletin board. (I used to use magnets to hold it onto the fridge; before that, I tape it to the inside of a cupboard door. The idea is simply to have it in an easy-to-spot location.)

8. Finally, I take the list to the grocery store and cross off items as I put them in my cart. (These days, I use Walmart Pickup, so I'm talking about a virtual cart.)

How to Use the Meal Plan:

During the week, I choose dinners from the numbered list: In the evening, after I clean up the kitchen, I decide what I'm going to make the following night. This way, I can defrost any meat I might need. Remember: I choose whatever meal I want from the list. There are no assigned days for each meal.

TIP #3: Once you've tried this method a few times, you can save yourself even more money by trying to plan meals so ingredients are shared. This way nothing goes to waste, and you actually end up buying less food.

For example, on day one, you might make beef stew (recipe here), which includes fresh slices of celery. A few nights later, you could make sloppy Joes (recipe here) to use up more of that celery so it doesn't go bad in the fridge.

TIP #4: You might notice I didn't mention looking at your grocery store's sales flier while making your meal plan. When you're just starting out, that can seem too overwhelming, so instead I suggest you simply stock up on sale items when you see them at the store. Then the next time you meal plan, be sure to include meals that use those stocked-up ingredients.

As you become more comfortable meal planning, I do definitely recommend you consider what's on sale before you choose meals for your list.

A version of this post originally appeared in January of 2010.


  1. I did this for the first time this week, and when I told my husband, he said: "Finally!" I definitely spent less at the grocery stores when I went... Now as long as my toddler doesn't get a hold of my list, we'll be in good shape. :)

  2. Yay, Liberty! I suggest taping your list of meals to the inside of your pantry door, or the inside of a kitchen cabinet door :)

  3. I, too, need flexibility in my meal planning. This looks like a great organizational tool. I will be giving this a try!

    Visiting from Cafe Mom.