Meal planning – we all know we should do it but do we all know how to meal plan? Most of us don’t enjoy it and many avoid it at all costs. Something about the mention of meal planning and we get twitchy. It’s like the mention of ‘budgeting’ when it comes to financial success or ‘eating well and exercising’ when it comes to long term health. We all know we need to do it – but we resist it every chance we can. 

Do you know anyone who actually LIKES meal planning??? I know I don’t and frugal whole food is my business – HA! I try to skip it all the time and it never works out well when I do. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work out well for you either. I’m here today – to make a case for why meal planning is mission-critical and to give you some simple strategies so you can consistently meal plan – week after week. Then, I’m going to share my favorite meal planning tool for those who decide to off-load meal planning completely.  

Before we get started with HOW to meal plan, let’s start with the WHY. 

WHY IS MEAL PLANNING IMPORTANT?

 

If you’ve been around Dinner for a Dollar for any amount of time, you will know that I always start with the why. Because, as a former therapist, I know that creating lasting change in our lives is incredibly difficult. And, unless we have a strong why our chances of successfully implementing our changes are very slim. You simply are not going to create space in your life for meal planning unless you believe it’s important. 

The mission at Dinner for a Dollar is to help you save time, save money, and save energy on a whole-food, plant-rich diet. That’s it. Those 4 things are all I am about. Every single tip and trick I share is with those 4 goals in mind. Most of the tips help you primarily achieve 1 of those.

However, meal planning is the one strategy that hits all 4 equally:

  • eat a whole-food, plant-rich diet
  • save time
  • save money
  • save energy.

It helps you eat well AND save time, money, and energy doing so. That’s why I call meal planning a power habit of healthy living. I believe it is impossible to eat well on a tight budget and a tight schedule without meal planning – you are not going to stumble into it!  

Save time

The average American shops for groceries 1.6 times a week. Through proper meal planning and shopping, you can easily get those trips down to 1 time a week. Cutting out that extra stop each week could save you about an hour per week.  

Save money

how to meal plan to save money and time

When you purchase food with a plan and then eat what you buy, you will save money. 

  1. Purchase food with a plan.
  2. Eat what you buy.
  3. Save money. 

It really is that simple. 

The average American throws away about 25% of the food they buy at an average of $133/mo ($133/mo thrown in the trash each month). If we can reduce your waste by getting you to purchase food with a plan and eat what you buy, you could save about $100/mo just by stopping throwing your food in the trash

The average American also spends $3500 a year on food away from home. That’s almost $300/mo. On average, food away from home is about 3 times the cost of food prepared at home. So, in this case, if the average American cooked meals at home in place of their takeout meals, they would save about $200 a month. Now, I know that sometimes we eat out for pleasure, entertainment, or special occasions.

But, let’s be honest, the majority of the time, we are eating out because we didn’t make a plan for dinner. 

So…if I can help you make a plan to eat at home AND eat the food that you buy, you can cut your food bill by about $300/mo. $300 a month!!! That’s an incredible amount of money for a relatively small change. Simply purchase food with a plan and eat what you buy.  

Save energy. 

I think everyone knows that you save time and money when you meal plan, but I personally think the biggest effect of meal planning is saving energy. I want to spend the most time here because I think this is the biggest benefit of meal planning – and is rarely acknowledged.

If you’ve heard of decision fatigue, you will know where I am going with this.

Decision fatigue is where you get so tired from all the decisions you make each day that you run out of energy to commit to making good decisions and you start making decisions that don’t match your core values.

In the case of meal planning, we may give in to convenience foods, drive through, take out, or simple food that’s not as targeted for our goals as we would like it to be – all because we are too tired to make and implement the hard decisions. 

Let me show you what I mean… 

In our home, we have 6 people who live here. Let’s assume they all eat 3 times a day. That’s 18 meals a day for our family. 18 meals a day times 7 days is 126 meals a week.

126 meals a week happen in our home!!!

 

Isn’t that just staggering?? That’s 126 decisions that I, as the person in charge of food in our home, am responsible for making. 

When I don’t make a predetermined plan for food, it’s not like I get a free pass and don’t have to make food decisions. No. I still have to make all of those same food decisions. I just have to make those 126 decisions individually. 126 food decisions. Every…single…week. Day after day. Several times a day. No wonder we are exhausted by food! That’s a LOT of decisions. 

Conversely…when I make a predetermined meal plan, I sit down – 1 time a week – and make all those decisions at one time. In one single 30-minute time frame, I make all 126 decisions at once. Then, during the week, I NO LONGER have to think about food at all. For 6 more days, I am clear. I have no more decisions to make at all. This frees my energy for other things in my life – rather than thinking about food up to 18 times a day. 

Make no mistake, everyone is meal planning. Every single week. It’s just a matter if you are doing it 1 time a week or 126 times a week.

You just have to choose which method you prefer. I know for me, even though I don’t enjoy meal planning, I would rather meal plan 1 time a week than 126 times a week. I have tried it both ways (many times – crazy face!), and I strongly prefer once a week – I suspect you will too. 

Eat better

how to meal plan to save money and eat better

Lastly, meal planning helps us eat better. It just does. When you sit down, ahead of time, as I mentioned above, and make all your decisions in one setting, you set yourself up to eat better. When you’re fresh, you’re making your best decisions – ones that align with your values and align with your best self. You’re planning that whole-food, plant-rich diet that you’ve decided is the best diet for you and your family. You’re purchasing the ingredients necessary for that. All you need to do each day is implement that great decision you’ve already made. Good meal planning and purposeful shopping won’t put the food on the table, but it puts you ⅔ of the way there – setting yourself up with a greater chance at success. 

If you make your meal decisions ahead of time, you increase your chances of hitting your food goals.   

You are not going to accidentally eat well on a tight budget and a tight schedule. It will *NOT* happen. Without a plan, you will eat worse than you intend to. 

Ok – so we have discussed the WHY. Now you’re like – I get it, Shelly…meal planning is important. Now, let’s talk about…

HOW TO MEAL PLAN!

 

There are lots of ways to meal plan. The exact method you choose isn’t important. The important thing is for you to find a method you like and make it work for you. I’m going to share with you a few methods that I like. Try one. See if it works for you. Tweak it a little if it’s not exactly right or tosses the whole thing and try something else if it doesn’t. 

1. Shop the deals and then plan the meals

I read this quote many years ago and base my meal planning around it. (I’ve looked for the source of this quote and not been able to find them. If you know who said this, please tell me so I can give them credit!) This method of meal planning that will save you the most money. That’s why I recommend this method if saving money on a whole food diet is most important to you. With this type of meal planning, you make your meal plan AFTER you get home from the store.

At the store, you buy your staples and then you focus primarily on buying whatever core ingredients are on sale or clearance.  Then, when you get home, you build your meal plan around what you were able to source on sale. This is a bit more advanced – and works great for those with some experience with cooking.  If this method appeals to you, grab the free chapter from my book, Dinner for a Dollar. The chapter is called Recipe-Free Cooking: Why it’s Important and How to Do it.  That chapter will walk you through how to meal plan this way.

2. Have nightly themes that you repeat week after week.

We use this method in combination with the one above to make our complete meal plan. You can choose any themes you want, but we repeat the following 6 themes in our home: Taco Night, Loaded Baked Potato Night, Soup Night, Salad Night, Oven or Grill Night, and Skillet night. You’ve probably seen Themed Nights recommended before but may resist it because you think it would get boring. But, I have found that if you mix up the protein, starches, veggies, and seasonings, theme nights create a surprising amount of variations.

I like having 6 themes that I rotate because it gives me enough ideas to make it through the week – week after week. This plan works best for people who mostly want to save time and energy on their meal planning efforts because it removes the need for making a new plan all of the time.

3. Make a monthly plan that you repeat month after month.   

how to meal plan to save money and time

Making a monthly plan that you repeat month after month works best for those who primarily want to save time and energy on their whole food life because you do the work to create 1 working menu that your family loves and you repeat it over and over. It isn’t the best option for saving money because you can’t capitalize on sales. But, any meal plan that is consistently implemented is automatically a money saver over having no set plan at all. 

To create a monthly plan that you will repeat month after month, you want to start with a blank, 1-month meal planner. Start by asking each of your family members to list at least 5 of their favorite meals. When I ask my family this question, I make them give me at least 3 original meals that are not repeated by anyone else in the family. So, when I do this, I would automatically have at least 18 dinner ideas. Slot those suggestions throughout the month. 

Then, do a few more exercises to fill in the remaining slots:

  1. Think through any meals you know your family likes, but no one mentioned. Slot those in first.  
  2. Ask others what their family favorites are.  Ask your friends and family OR come over to our group and ask us what our family favorites are. We have got some pretty smart ladies in our group – if I do say so myself – ha!  
  3. Ask around for others’ favorite sites, YT channels, and cookbooks. Start trying 1-2 new recipes a week until you find enough family favorites to fill in your month’s calendar.  

Then, you repeat that plan – month after month – tweaking as you go to make it exactly what your family loves. It’s not as boring as it seems! I think you will find freedom in having your food life put on autopilot. Once you get this down, I suggest creating a shopping list to go with each weeks’ meal plan, and then you have your shopping list on autopilot too! Winner winner chicken dinner. 

We’ve talked about dinner….but….last time I checked, we all eat more than just dinner, right? Seems we are all quite fond of both breakfast and lunch, too. So, what about those?

HOW TO MEAL PLAN FOR BREAKFAST AND LUNCH

 

Breakfast

Breakfast is the one meal I recommend that just about everyone put on auto-pilot – at least for the Monday-Friday shuffle.  Find 2-3 options that meet your food goals and repeat them over and over. If your family likes special breakfasts, plan for those to happen 1-2 times a week, keeping the rest of the days simple and repeatable. To learn more about how to put breakfast on auto-pilot, check out this blog here. It’s written with Back To School in mind, but the principles are good any time of year and apply whether you have kids or not.

Let’s Talk Lunch

Lunchtime planning really depends on a lot of factors – whether you are eating at home or away from home AND whether you have access to a fridge or microwave. So, be sure to tweak these suggestions to fit your families’ unique circumstances. However, whether I am working at home or away from home, stopping to create a full lunchtime solution in the middle of the day is incredibly disruptive to my day and I imagine the same is true for you. This is why I always recommend the following very low-fuss lunchtime options:

    • Leftovers are for Lunch

This is, by far, my #1 solution for planning lunches.

Repeat after me……“Lunch is for leftovers and leftovers are for lunch.” 

Whenever possible, whenever applicable, as often as you are able, serve leftovers for lunch. Nothing will save you more time, money, and energy on lunch planning than this. Double up at night and serve leftovers the next day. 

    • Pot-O-Soup

My 2nd favorite lunchtime strategy is to make a big ole Pot-O-Soup on the weekend and serve it for several days. I will admit, this isn’t my family’s favorite solution, but I make them deal with it because sometimes you have to simplify things to hit your goals. If we want to eat well on a tight budget and a tight schedule, we can’t always eat our absolute favorite things all the time. And that’s ok. 

    • A La Carte

Honestly, options 1 and 2 accounts for most of our lunches. But, I do throw a la carte lunches into my routine 1-2 days a week. A la carte lunches are where everyone grabs individual ingredients and makes a meal out of it. They could grab some lunch meat, raw veggies, pickles, and GF pretzels to make a meal. They could grab some cooked chicken and rice and throw it into a taco or quesadilla. Or they could grab a hard-boiled egg, half an avocado, and an apple with some nuts and dried fruit. I try to keep enough stuff on hand that my family can make an a la carte meal 1-2 times a week. These really come in handy for quick mealtime solutions – lunch OR dinner. 

If your kids have food allergies, and they’re attending school outside the home, check out this blog for 8 allergy-free lunchbox solutions. Bonus points – these work for on-the-go adults with food allergies too! 

MEAL PLANNING HELP!

 

What if you’ve read all of this and you are like, “Shelly! Help! I know meal planning is important, but I simply can’t, won’t, or don’t want to have to meal plan for my family month after month!”

    • Maybe you don’t have the time or energy.
    • Maybe you hate meal planning so much, you just don’t want to do it. 
    • Maybe you have an incredibly complicated food life – with multiple dietary needs or preferences and you simply can’t figure out HOW to create 1 meal plan to accommodate everyone.

If any of this describes you, then I have found the perfect resource for you. 

You all know that I recommend almost nothing – Instant pots, cast iron, a roaster pan, and mason jars. I think that is the extent of products or services I have ever recommended after 2 years in business. A few months ago, I found a meal planning service that is absolutely incredible. Before sharing it with you, I have personally been using it for 2 months and have had a handful of friends use it too.

I’ve had people with multiple, distinct dietary needs in one home use it. I’ve had people who hate cooking and use it. And I’ve had people who like cooking and are very experienced in the kitchen use it. I’ve had very busy work at home moms with multiple kids zoomschooling use it. 100% of the people I have had try it (including me) have loved it and will never go back to doing their own planning (including me!)

So…after all that experimenting…I knew it was time to share it with you. I couldn’t keep it from you any longer. 

Without further delay, I want to introduce you to the best meal planning aid I have ever seen…..

REAL PLANS 

 

Real Plans is a whole-foods, plant-forward meal planning platform. This means that ALL of their meals are whole food and plant-rich. They, of course, offer special menus for all major types of diets like Paleo, Keto, AIP, Vegan, Vegetarian, Mediterranean, Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, and more.

From there, you can further specialize your diet by opting out of any ingredients that you want to avoid (like no use of mushrooms or peppers). After that, you input the cooking tools you have on hand and your cooking preferences.

Then, Real Plans auto-generates a meal plan completely customized to your family. Once this custom meal plan is suggested to you, you can edit it to suit you better or leave it as is. Real Plans takes this custom meal plan and automatically generates a shopping list for you.  (Can we stop for a moment of silence for this one……an auto-generated shopping list….sigh.) AND…AND…. AND….it integrates with InstaCart. So, you can automatically shop with InstaCart directly from your list. Isn’t this just madness? Like freakishly awesome, right? 

If that’s not enough….(this is the part where I say…but wait! There’s more!) 

It’s also completely intuitive and easy to use for those of us (ahem** that’s me) who are low tech. They have excellent customer service with a wide range of availability. (no M-F 9-5 here) 

And their app is incredible for mobile use (including a pantry option that allows you to keep track of your inventory- what??? Yes.) 

And lastly…The price is just perfection. You know me – a stickler for a good deal. 

It’s $14/mo for month to month and only $6/mo when you choose the annual plan. You can stop your service anytime and they offer a 10-day satisfaction guarantee. 

Who is Real Plans perfect for? 

    • It’s perfect for you if you want to meal plan in minutes. 
    • It’s perfect for you If you want someone else to figure out what’s for dinner. 
    • It’s perfect for you if you want an affordable way to offload 126 decisions a month. Think about that. Someone else making 126 decisions a month for you for only $6-$14/mo. Pretty good deal if you ask me. And I am cheap! Heck, I’m so cheap that I wrote the book on cheap! HA!  

If you want to check it learn more about it, click here. Remember, they have a 10-day satisfaction guarantee. If it doesn’t work for you, you can cancel anytime. 

But, I need to ask you this…

What if it DOES work out? What if you never have to decide what’s for dinner again. What if someone else can make 126 decisions a month for you? How awesome that would be. 

Remember that we are all meal planning. It’s just a matter if you are meal planning 1 time a month or 126 times a month. Set aside 1 time a week to make your meal plan. Your time, money, energy, and health will thank you for it! And, if you feel like you just can’t do that, invest $6-$14/mo to have someone else do it for you. It’s a worthy investment! 

 

(This blog contains affiliate links.)