Simple, delicious recipes and helpful tips.

Meal Planning Made Simple

For a beginner, making a meal planning schedule can be totally overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be!

Have you tried meal planning before, only to end up spending even more on groceries? Worse yet, you probably didn’t stick to your meal plan and ended up throwing away perfectly good groceries that went bad before you could use them.

Keep reading to find out all my tips on meal planning easily and effectively.

meal planner with toast and juice

What is Meal Planning?

First, let’s talk about what meal planning is. Meal planning is simply scheduling your meals ahead of time. Instead of buying groceries a little at a time, making random trips for an ingredient or two every time you decide to make something at the last minute, you’ll plan a whole week’s worth of meals all at once, get everything you need in one trip and then relax, knowing what’s for dinner every time someone asks.

*Heads up. This post may contain affiliate links. If you click one and make a purchase, I might make a small commission at no extra charge to you.

Meal PLANNING vs. Meal PREPPING

The two are often confused but are significantly different. Meal planning is simply that. Planning. Meal prepping is taking it up another level and actually preparing your meals for, say, a whole week all at once. Then you divide them into individual portions and store them until you’re ready to eat them. Can you do both? Absolutely! 

Meal Planning the WRONG Way

Before I tell you all my tips for meal planning successfully, let’s talk about how not to do it. The way I used to go about meal planning – and how most people do it – was to go straight to Google or Pinterest, make a list of recipes that looked good and then check to see which ingredients I needed to buy.

That’s the wrong way to meal plan! You’ll spend so much more on groceries and end up wasting more food this way.

If you want to save money and stop throwing food away, keep reading.

Use What You Have

Okay, listen up! Here’s where you want to start every single time. Grab a note pad and open your fridge.

Check Items That Will Spoil First

First, check all your produce. What needs to be used up first? For example, spinach doesn’t last very long so if I have half a container of baby spinach, I can include salad as a side one evening or have a salad for lunch.

Do you have carrots and celery? Great! You can make soup. Half a head of lettuce and a tomato that’s a couple weeks old already? Taco night! You get the idea.

Next, move on to meat and other perishables like cheese and milk. If you have some deli meat but you’re out of sandwich bread, put bread on your grocery list so you can have sandwiches and not waste the meat. There’s plenty of ways to eat deli meat. Sandwiches are just one idea.

Find Recipes

As you’re looking through what needs to be used up, plan some recipes around that. If you’re somewhat of a proficient cook, you’ll already have some recipes in mind that include some of these ingredients. If you don’t have any idea what to make with what you have, hit up Google and Pinterest for ideas.

Be careful searching for recipes that include only one ingredient you have. If you can, try to find recipes that include several things you already have. This can take some practice, but keep at it and you’ll be able to plan out a whole week’s worth of meals in no time.

search for recipes on Pinterest

Make a Plan

Now that you have a few meal ideas for the week, it’s time to make your meal plan. If you haven’t subscribed to Tasty Sunrise yet, make sure you do! You’ll get our FREE Meal Plan Printable Download just for signing up. Don’t worry, I don’t spam your inbox. You’ll get weekly recipes and posts like this that hopefully offer meal inspiration and make your life a bit easier. 

Okay, this is the fun part. Sit down and start with day one. Let’s say you do your grocery shopping on Sunday, so you’ll start your meal plan with Monday. Plan something for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Keep in mind how much food you’ll be making and if you’ll have leftovers.

Will you have leftover steak but no more potatoes? Put tortillas on your grocery list and plan quesadillas for lunch the next day. Use up your leftovers any way you can!

Plan According to Your Life and Schedule

This requires a little extra effort, but that’s why it’s called meal planning. So what am I talking about? Here’s an example.

I have a standing appointment at 4:45pm every Wednesday. The boys and I usually don’t get home until around 5:45 or 6. My youngest usually goes to bed by 7, which means his bedtime routine needs to start absolutely no later than 6:30. You see how tricky this can get? I have about 15 minutes, max, to get dinner on the table.

When I make my weekly meal plan, I know that Wednesday needs to be either a day for leftovers or a day to eat out. (By the way, it’s totally okay to plan a take out day!) I usually have one or two recipes a week that make more than enough for a second day, so I’ll plan on cooking one of those on Tuesday. If I get my meal plan completed without a recipe like that, then Wednesday will be our day to eat out. 

Buy Extra

“You said I’d be saving money, right?” Yes! By throwing away less food and using what you have, you’ll actually purchase fewer groceries overall. I promise! But when things like meat and canned goods go on sale, buy as much as your budget will allow and your freezer will hold.

The reason for this is when you make a meal plan, you already have some ingredients on hand, rather than needing to buy everything. You get those items at a cheaper price, which saves you money in the long run. If you wait until you want to make tacos to buy ground beef, you may have to pay full price for it.

Be Consistent

The longer you keep up with a weekly meal plan, the more you’ll benefit. You’ll slowly use up lots of things you already have, and the extra things you buy (because they were on sale) are things you know you’ll use. I use things like canned tomato sauce and canned beans pretty frequently, so I stock up on those. They don’t typically go on sale, but it’s a cheap item to add to my grocery list. If I know I’m coming in under budget for the week, I can add on one or two cans of something or even a pound of ground beef to stash in the freezer.

Shopping this way comes in handy when I need to make a trip to Costco. Since I rarely get out of Costco for less than $200, stocking up on regular groceries when they’re on sale means there will be some weeks when I don’t need to buy much.

When I know we’re running low on diapers and it’s time for a trip to Costco, I can try to plan some meals that include those cans of beans or tomato sauce or frozen ground beef. That saves me even more money that particular week and balances the expense of bulk buying.

Practice Makes Perfect

It doesn’t take much practice to meal plan effectively, but the longer you do it, the more savings you’ll see. Not just that, but you’ll get faster at it.

When I first started meal planning routinely, we started eating out less. Planning meals meant we cooked at home more. Since I always knew the answer to the question, “what’s for dinner,” it was easier to cook.

You know how sometimes you just can’t decide what to cook so you end up eating out instead because that’s just easier? Meal planning eliminates that. We spend so much less on take out now than we did before. So not only have we cut our grocery bill significantly, but we’ve cut our overall food costs by about half. Amazing!

Tips for Making Meal Planning Work for You Even More

1. Make a master list

This is a genius tip I got from a dear friend of mine, Jessica, from Paper Terrace. If you’re into anything crafty, check out her YouTube channel

I keep my master list on my phone, because I’m more likely to have it handy whenever I remember something I want to add to it. Your master list is a collection of recipes that you make regularly. As you try new recipes and like them, add them to your master list. Then, when you’re making your meal plan and stumped for what to cook that week, you can reference your master list for ideas. Sometimes I don’t need the master list and other times, I sit down to make my meal plan and draw a complete blank. It’s the modern day version of a recipe box. 

2. Don’t Always Count on Leftovers from New Recipes

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but in general, every time you plan a recipe that you’ve never made before, plan on cooking another meal the next day. Of course, if your recipe makes a huge pot of soup or chili, then you will probably have leftovers, BUT, keep in mind that there’s a chance you may not like it the new recipe. 

If you do like it, you can have your leftovers the next day and your meal plan just gets shifted forward. If you end up with a couple of meals with leftovers that you didn’t expect to have, then that’s two meals you can roll over to the following week. You already bought groceries for them so you’ll spend less that week. If you plan on having leftovers and then don’t, you’ll come up short or end up eating out an extra day. It’s not the end of the world, just something to keep in mind, especially if you want to stick to a tight budget.

3. Check Your Meal Plan Twice a Day

I check my meal plan every night before bed, that way if I need to pull something out of the freezer, I can make sure it gets done. It’s so frustrating to realize the chicken you wanted to make for dinner is still frozen solid. Also, make sure you are checking the day or two following because large cuts of meat like pot roast or whole chickens need to be taken out of the freezer a couple of days in advance.

Setting out everything for breakfast the next morning can also make your mornings go so much smoother. Oats, vanilla, dried fruit, baking powder, cutting board, baking dish, utensils, or whatever you might need that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. 

I also check my meal plan every morning, in case there’s anything else I might need to prep for lunch or dinner. It’s easy to just glance at it while I’m cooking breakfast so I can stay on top of things. Part of meal planning is to be prepared, and you need to prepare for each meal, sometimes several hours or a day in advance. I do want to stress that, while I know this might sound a bit overwhelming, it’s something that will become an easy habit over time. Just do the best you can but don’t stress yourself out.

A Meal Plan Should Be Flexible

Don’t get too hung up on sticking exactly to your meal plan. Life happens and things don’t always go according to plan. It’s okay! Not to mention, you never know if you’re going to be in the mood for what you planned. Occasionally I plan something for dinner one night and when that day comes around, it just doesn’t sound good anymore. If you can switch things around, go for it!

I really hope this has been helpful for you. Please let me know in the comments! Do you already follow a meal plan? Have any questions or additional tips? I’d love to hear from you!

2 Responses

  1. This was so helpful! I find that I’ve wasted loads of food as life has been ultra busy lately for me and I’ve fallen off the meal planning bandwagon but this has helped me want to climb back on! I especially loved the idea of the master list because oftentimes I draw a blank when thinking of “what’s for dinner” even though I’ve got countless recipes somewhere in my head. Thanks!

  2. This has been crazy helpful to me!!! I’m horrible at meal planning so of course I subscribed to get your awesome meal planner sheet!! Thanks SO much!!!

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Jen Tiffany, Oklahoma girl, mom, creator of Tasty Sunrise recipes.

Hey, I’m Jen.

I’m a photographer and food blogger from Oklahoma. I love to cook and share great food with family and friends. Oh, and I do love to eat, too!