Why a Meal Plan?
I love meal planning because it takes the guesswork out of my day and answers the tired question: “What do you want for dinner?” before it’s even asked! It’s a terrible feeling, getting to the end of your day, and realizing that:
- You have no energy to cook anything and
- There’s nothing in your fridge to work with anyway!
At this point, I either order in or drive-thru AGAIN, much to the horror of my wallet. The following quote rings true:
“He who fails to plan is planning to fail.”Winston Churchill
You’re here because you’re ready to make a plan, and I’m ready to tell you how! Let’s jump right in.
I learned meal planning at a young age, thanks to my frugal mother. Learning to cook and the cost of food were great life lessons that have helped me in adulthood, and I’m happy to share my expertise today. Know that you will make mistakes as you fine-tune your menu planning system. You will go over budget at times, and that’s okay. In the end, you will learn invaluable skills to maximize your money and your time.
Meal Planning Saves You Money and Time
The average meal out costs anywhere between $7 to $17. I know I tend to spend at least $12 when I grab dinner at Chipotle or Noodles & Company. The numbers do a lot of talking when you realize that a home-cooked meal can cost as little as $1 per serving. That’s a spending difference of hundreds of dollars per month! Knowing what you’re going to eat every day will help you avoid the temptation to throw in the towel and grab a burger.
While it might seem faster to go through the drive-thru, it’s really not. Many meals can be prepared in 15 minutes, which is about the same amount of time to get a fast-food meal. Meal planning also allows you to meal PREP, which is a huge time saver for your week. Let me assure you that no meal out is faster than a meal that’s ready in your fridge!
Common Meal Planning Mistakes
1. Expensive Ingredients
It might seem all well and good to plan on eating steak and salmon all week, that is, until you learn the price of those meats! It’s also easy to spend on unique ingredients like shiitake mushrooms, almond butter, frozen fruits, tahini, and gluten-free flours. Getting familiar with price tags at your grocery store will be super helpful in your quest to save some dollars. More on that later!
2. Choosing complicated recipes
Humans are funny creatures. We like to make things far more complicated for ourselves rather than keep it simple. If you are just starting out with cooking at home, I implore you – start simple! Nothing will be more discouraging than biting off more than you can chew (pun intended). Be kind to yourself and avoid the temptation to conquer French cooking in an afternoon!
3. Cooking small portions
In some cases, bigger truly is better – and nothing is better than loads of delicious leftovers to munch on all week. Cooking in more substantial portions takes some practice to learn, but you’ll thank yourself later when you’re not starting up the stove for the tenth time in a week. It takes the same amount of time to cook a double recipe as it does a single batch, so make the smart choice and make extra!
4. Failure to improvise
You’re not always going to have a full fridge or a full wallet. As you learn to cook, it’s essential to learn how to improvise with the ingredients you have. There’s nearly always something you can drum up – and if you’re single, then, hey, no one’s judging you! Sometimes, I’ll have an egg, some almonds, and some olives for dinner. It’s not fancy, but it’s a lot cheaper than take-out!
How to Make a Meal Plan
Make a Master List of Meals
The first step in organizing your week-long menu is to create a master list of meals. Consider this list your meal arsenal, your meal bank, or your meal pool. These are either meals you already know how to make or meals that you want to learn how to make. Create a Pinterest board or make a folder with your recipes and meal ideas. These should include breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Schedule Out Your Meals
Create a calendar (digital or paper) where you can pencil in your meals for the next fourteen days. It’s good to get in the habit of planning two weeks ahead, rather than just one because it will save you trips to the store and money on items you don’t need. Keep leftovers in mind as you are planning. As a single person, you only may need to cook a few meals a week to fill all your slots!
A few notes here. Don’t overestimate your energy levels. Don’t plan for a different meal every night when you can easily make batches of a few meals. Avoid complicated, multi-pan meals that will require a lot of clean up. You are meal planning to save yourself stress, not create more!
Also, keep in mind that it’s okay to plan for meals out. If you know that Wednesday is when you go for lunch with the girls at work, pencil it into your calendar. We want to avoid eating out because of disorganization, not eating out ever. Remember, meal planning as a habit is a marathon, not a spring.
Draft Your List of Ingredients
Now that you have your meals scheduled for the next two weeks take out your notebook and write down all the necessary ingredients. This step is crucial because it’s discouraging to return home from the store without the things you need. Double-check your list for the spices, dry goods, produce, and meats you will need. Keep in mind that it’s cheaper to plan meals with similar ingredients (chicken fajitas and stir fry, for instance), so overlap where you can.
If you have a membership to Sam’s Club or Costco, take note of the items you can buy in bulk! Usually, products you can freeze are cheaper to buy in large quantities like meat and cheese.
Bring your printed list with you to the store. If you prefer to keep your list in your notes on your phone, that works too! As you shop, write down the price of each ingredient when you put it in your basket. This practice will help familiarize you with the cost of certain foods and help you plan cost-effective meals in the future.
Calculate your total before going to check out. If you have gone over your grocery budget, you can make changes to your basket before heading to the cash register! Don’t just toss items out of your basket. This will result in you not having what you need for your meals and heading to the drive-thru! Instead, swap an expensive item (like fresh crab) for a cheaper substitute like imitation crab or frozen shrimp.
By noting each item’s price, you will be able to keep an eye out for sale prices of the same ingredients in the future!
Trial and Error
Like any new venture, you will have to adjust and improve your menu planning as you go. For example, you will learn to take note of recipe portions. Some recipes produce large amounts of food, and others barely enough for two. That’s great! You’ll learn how to adjust your recipes to make the amount you need.
As you get familiar with meal costs, you might take some of your more expensive recipes off of the roster. In the same way, you’ll figure out which meals you like better than others (and which you enjoy cooking more than others!) Know that you will probably have a few disasters in your kitchen from time to time. I know I have! Learn from the experience and keep improving.
Prep for Success
As a single person or as a couple, meal prep is everything – and it can be easy! (I say single or couple because meal prepping for families requires a lot more time and effort. The payoff isn’t as impactful when preparing family meals.) Meal prepping can be as simple as making a giant batch of potato soup to eat all week or cooking up a few meals at once!
Make sure to buy plenty of glass storage ware for portioning out your servings. A side bonus of meal prepping is that it helps you keep your portion control to a healthy size! Fill up your containers with delicious food and pop them in the fridge. There’s nothing better than knowing you have food for the week ready to grab and go!
Frequently Asked Questions
I don’t know how to cook. Where do I start?
The great news about cooking is that it’s a skill that can be learned with time and practice just like anything else. The even better news? It doesn’t have to be involved! Pinterest is chock full of easy recipes for beginners, and YouTube has some great tutorial channels as well. If all else fails, you can always start with crockpot meals! With one pot, a few ingredients, and the “cook” dial, crockpot meals are the epitome of easy cooking.
There are also tons of meals you can make without ever turning on the stove! Try out different salad recipes for a week to get your feet wet. You can also invite a friend over and have them teach you a meal (I know I love to show my friends my favorite recipes!). If you’re still intimidated, challenge yourself to just cook one meal this week. Just one!
Consistent baby steps are the key to building confidence in the kitchen.
Any tips for meal planning and healthy eating?
Anyone who has tried eating whole foods for a sustained amount of time knows the hard truth: eating healthy is expensive! When meal planning your healthy menu, watch out for seasonal fruits and vegetables on sale. No reason to make strawberry chia pudding when it’s peach season! Build your menu around the produce season to save a few dollars.
A fun DIY project that will save you some money is to grow your own herbs! It just takes a couple hours to put together an indoor herb garden, so you can pick your own rather than buying over-priced bundles from the store. Plus, you’re saving plastic!
Finally, stay away from overpriced health food stores. They sell the same fruits and vegetables as most places but at twice the cost. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s do not give you the most value for your buck, so stick with cheaper farmers’ markets like Sprouts. They have a great selection of free-range meats and organic produce for a reasonable price.