Mastering Meal Planning: Time and Money-Savings Tips for Beginners

by Reader Contributors

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You want to save money, time and stress when it comes to meal planning. Our frugal readers share their best tips for beginners looking to master meal planning.

Dear Dollar Stretcher,
We are a family of five, and I am trying to get better at meal planning, both to save us some money and to reduce the stress of trying to get meals on the table each day. I seem to have a hard time knowing what I am going to cook from day to day. If my mother did any type of meal planning, she never shared it with me. Sadly, I no longer have her here to ask her for help. Can experienced meal planners offer up their tips and suggestions for us beginners looking to master meal planning? I would greatly appreciate any advice.

Tips for Mastering Meal Planning?

Meal planning is a tool commonly used by our frugal readers,so we asked them to share their most time and cost-effective meal planning tips. If you are new to meal planning, you are sure to find several tips below that can help you master meal planning.

7-Day Meal Planning

Once a week, you should sit down and just think about what you want to serve for dinner each night for the next seven nights. Make a list of those dishes and then make your shopping list. If you don’t know how to start, designate one night for pasta, one night for beef, one night for a meatless meal, one night for leftovers, one night for chicken, one night for pizza, one night for a slow cooker meal, etc.

Write the information on your calendar or in a notebook. I started doing this when I got my first apartment 30 years ago and I still do it to this day. I don’t like to have to think when I come home from work. By figuring it all out ahead of time, I know that I will have whatever ingredients I need when I get home.

When Mastering Meal Planning, Start with Protein!

The usual meal planning advice is to start with your protein and then add a starch and a vegetable or two or a salad. Dessert can and should be fruit most of the time.

Protein comes from almost everything we eat. You will save money and improve your health if your protein is often from beans or other plants. The simple meals you can prepare are fast, excellent, and inexpensive.

For example, choose any green, such as spinach or collards, saute with onion and garlic, add pepper and cumin to taste, add a can of chickpeas (or other beans, rinsed first), and serve over brown rice. A salad on the side completes the meal.

Another option is to rinse a can of black-eyed peas, add them to a can of chopped tomatoes, add Cajun seasoning, chopped onion and green peppers, and serve over rice. Add okra if you enjoy it. This is a great, quick version of Jambalaya.

These are just two easy meals you can make in minutes.

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What Are Your Priorities?

There are several ways to start with meal planning, depending on your priorities.

If your priority is variety, then you might want to start by planning based on your protein. You may plan one beef, one pork, one chicken, one fish, and one vegetarian meal for each week or some variation that works for your dietary needs. Make one of those meals a roast or a large quantity meal so that it can be spread out to use leftovers for a sixth meal. If you usually eat out once a week, then this will be fine. If you never eat out, then you may want to plan an additional meal that uses a type of ground meat, for example. Step two would be to decide on what kind of dishes to make for each of those categories, which one will be your roast meal, and what you want to make with the leftovers. Because variety is key, you should use the internet and your cookbooks or magazines to try new recipes or variations each week. Keep track of which ones the family likes so you can use them again. Once the recipes are chosen, decide which day to make each based on your family’s schedule versus the time commitment needed or simply assign one night to each protein and repeat from week to week in the same order.

If budget is your main concern, a second type of planning is to use your flyers to see what meats are on sale and then plan meals around each of those. (See How to Read Your Grocery Ad Like an Insider.) In this case, if your family is okay with it, you may want to plan for two vegetarian meals because vegetarian meals are quite often cheaper than meat-based meals and two meals with the cheapest meat you can get that week. You can either use old favorite recipes or search out new options on the internet.

A tip for making meal planning easier over time is that once you have determined a recipe to be a favorite, put it on a special sheet somewhere that you can access when planning meals so you can use it to choose recipes in the future. Eventually, your goal would be to have a month of recipes you know everyone likes and can use to help pick things and make the planning side easier.

Save Your Dinner with Meal Planning

My favorite choice is the cookbook Saving Dinner by Leanne Ely for great tasting, healthy, in-season meals. The author sets up a week’s worth of recipes at a time with a grocery list at the front. She chooses recipes that take advantage of the produce that is cheapest at each time of year, and if a recipe requires prep the day or morning before the meal, the author adds that information into the previous recipe so you can look in one place for your meal and your prep for that day. You can also get Saving Dinner the Vegetarian Way in a vegetarian version and Saving Dinner the Low-Carb Way if you’re watching carbs.
Candice from MN

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Fun Meal Planning With Themes

I have done meal planning several different ways over the years. Using themes has worked well as I assigned a type of food to each evening. For example, Monday was Mexican night, so I chose from tacos, burritos, etc. Tuesday was burger night and encompassed beef, turkey, veggie, or fish. Wednesday was pasta night, so I made spaghetti with sauce, macaroni and cheese, tuna casserole, etc. I also had a salad night, a soup with side night, a breakfast for dinner night, and finally, a leftovers night served as a smorgasbord. Your themes can be whatever your family prefers!

Shop Your Pantry, Freezer, and Refrigerator First!

The night before I grocery shop, I “shop” my pantry, refrigerator, and freezer for ingredients that should be used up along with the grocery ad from our paper. I plan for dinners, and we eat standard items for breakfast and lunch, or leftovers for lunch. I plan seven dinners for the next week around in-house and sale items and post the list on my refrigerator. I try to list things we always like, but every couple of weeks, I add a new recipe just to try it. I add ingredients for the meals on the list that I don’t have to my grocery list.

During the week, I look at the list in the evening and choose what to make for dinner the next day (in time to thaw anything frozen). That way, I feel freer in my choice and not locked into a meal I don’t feel like for the next day. Although the choices get narrower as the week goes along, I rarely have trouble making the items on the list sometime during the week, and our food gets used and cycled while it’s fresh.

Stick to Family Favorites

Making a meal plan can be simple if we choose foods that our families love. Just as we wear 20% of our clothing 80% of the time, we eat the same foods 80% of the time. Therefore, in planning meals, stick to your family favorites. Start slowly by doing one week at a time and then when you are happy with those meals, begin doing two weeks at a time. By the time you get to week three, you may begin to notice that you want to repeat some meals. Go ahead and do it. Most of us can’t remember what we ate three days ago, much less three weeks ago.

Before you plan your menus, take the time to write down your family’s favorite meats, vegetables, salads, and desserts. Once you have that done, check your local grocery ads and plan out your meals by what is on sale. Resist something that is on sale but not on your family’s favorite food list. Buying something on sale and not using it is just another way of wasting money.

Don’t forget to plan for leftovers. We all get carried away sometimes when we cook, so having a second meal planned using the same ingredients will help your grocery budget go further. Save the carcass of the roasted chicken and make soup by making bone broth and removing all the meat from the bones. Add some vegetables and a few spices, and you will have another meal without spending any more money.

Plan ahead as far as you can. Know what your family will eat without waste and know your budget. Then, keep track of both for future reference.

One Meat for Two Meals Meal Planning Tip

I start with the local grocery ads. I pick two to three proteins that are on sale. I also look at produce and frozen foods.

I always cook meat three times a week and make extra for the rest of the week. I also look for recipes for my slow cooker that I can leave all day and have a meal ready when I get home. I prep my slow cooker meal the night before and put it in the fridge. In the morning, I pull it out quickly.

For example, I may prepare a whole chicken in the slow cooker on Sunday. On Tuesday, I make quesadillas with the leftover child. I also brown hamburger for two meals. Make chili out of it for Monday night and a casserole on Thursday. On Wednesday, I may make pork loin. On Friday, I would then make Thai pork wraps. Saturday is always clean out the fridge day and prep.

Think of how to use the meat in two different meals, look at sales, and look at your schedule to see which nights you need to have the meal ready and which nights you can do a little cooking. Also, plan that you are using the prepared meats within a couple of days.

The Freezer Is Your Friend

Whenever you cook, make multiple family portions and freeze some for later. Soups, stews, chilies, and casseroles freeze well. In addition, you can prep in bulk and freeze many meats in marinades or rubs, which gives you future meals and drastically cuts down on dinner prep time.

Simple, Popular Tips for Mastering Meal Planning

Several simple and popular ways to use as a starting point for meal planning:

  1. Use the sale ads delivered free to most homes weekly (or in a store app/email). Working from those not only saves money but also prompts ideas and a starting point, as well as encourages stocking up.
  2. Building on that, consider how many meals can be prepared from one sale item. For instance, if ground beef is on sale, buying a family pack allows for a meatloaf (and side dishes), meatballs and pasta, burgers and fries, chili, etc. Browning a portion and then draining and freezing it saves time and effort for quick meals later.
  3. Find a calendar of seasonal fruits and veggies by searching online. This is when fresh items are at their most abundant and peak of freshness, as well as lowest prices. (See also: 14 Ways to Buy Produce for Less.)


Helpful, Handy Tips

The website has a great deal of very helpful tips that will not only help with your budget but will also help you find ways to keep food from being thrown away!

Meal Planning Starts With a Well-Stocked Pantry

Meal planning can be easy if you know the one trick I learned many years ago! It starts with a well-stocked pantry. By this, I mean having cans of soup, canned meat, spaghetti sauce, spaghetti, canned fruit, rice etc. On a busy night, you can open the soup, fix a grilled cheese sandwich, and open up some fruit. Simple things like that can be fixed quickly and you can stock up when things are on sale. You can also make casseroles and freeze them. Be sure to keep boneless chicken in your freezer. It is super easy to fix and then you can add some rice (from your pantry) and fix a salad. It’s easy if your pantry is well stocked.

Reviewed September 2023

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