Meal Planning Basics

Wandering the grocery store aimlessly can cost you.

Research says that consumers spend 40 percent more on impulse purchases when they shop without a list. And far too much of that food is probably wasted. The average American family throws out 25 percent of the food they purchase. For a family of four, that means tossing somewhere between $1,365 and $2,275 every year.

There’s a solution: meal planning! By planning meals, your family can cut your grocery bill by hundreds of dollars a month and help eliminate food waste. Planning meals has other benefits too, including:

Happier Cooking: Meal planning helps eliminate the frustration of staring into an empty refrigerator or racing down shopping aisles at the end of a long day. And you will probably have much more energy and enthusiasm for cooking.

Healthier Diet: Planning ahead makes cooking healthy dinners from scratch much easier. Things you may have never done before — soaking and cooking dried beans, making bread or pizza dough or simmering soup in a slow cooker — aren’t that hard when you plan in advance.

More Domestic Harmony: Most families don’t share the same tastes. Some family members may like the same predictable meals week after week; others prefer to mix it up. Planning meals as a family lets everyone have a say in the decision-making. Studies suggest kids who help cook meals are better eaters. Getting them involved with the planning process may further diminish mealtime battles.

More Eating In: Meal planning helps reduce impromptu trips to restaurants and fast food spots, where families spend more money and eat more calories, fat and sodium than they do when preparing food at home. Families can save dining out for special occasions with good planning.

More Family Dinners: Perhaps most importantly, planning meals encourages families to eat together around the dinner table, a ritual shown to keep families healthier and happier.

Meal Planning Made Simple

If you’re new to menu planning, start by planning one week of meals on a day when everyone’s home and you have time to go shopping. Later, you may want to transition to monthly planning to better take advantage of buying in bulk. For the first few meal plans, it’s usually easiest to use pen and paper. Later, you can explore fancier ways to plan if desired.

Gather a few things before you get started:

  • A pen
  • Two blank sheets of paper
  • The weekly sale flyer from the grocery store (usually available in the Sunday newspaper or online)
  • Coupons (if you clip them)
  • Favorite cookbooks or recipes
  • List of vegetables ripe in the home garden or abundant at the farmers’ market (optional)

Limit the Options

When staring at a blank piece of paper and a pile of cookbooks, the options seem endless, and that’s not a good thing. Research suggests people have trouble taking action when there are too many choices. To make picking meals easier and to narrow down options, try one or more of these tactics:

1. Different Days for Different Types of Meals

This method is popular because it reduces options while leaving room for variety. Here’s an example:

  • Monday: Soup
  • Tuesday: Baked potatoes with toppings
  • Wednesday: Pasta
  • Thursday: Grilled meat and salad
  • Friday: Beans and rice
  • Saturday: Mexican
  • Sunday: Stir fry

This format provides a helpful guideline for planning without stifling creativity. You can swap categories or ditch the whole thing when desired.

2. 20 Core Meals

As a family, brainstorm 20 meals you eat often and everyone enjoys. These will be the core meals that usually populate your meal plan. Choose one or two nights a week, perhaps weekends, to experiment with new recipes. Add any favorite new recipes to your list of core meals.

3. Consecutive Meals with the Same Ingredient

Brainstorm ways to use one ingredient for several meals. This method saves cooking time and helps cut food waste. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Roasted Chicken: Chicken breasts, chicken enchiladas, chicken casserole and chicken stock for soup and risotto
  • Bread: Soup and bread, sandwiches, gazpacho and croutons for salad
  • Chili: Chili and corn bread, baked potato topping, whole-wheat nacho topping and Mexican casserole
  • Rice: Stir fry, fried rice, burritos and rice pudding

4. Two Meals in One

Save money and time by planning dinners that double as lunches the next day. This practice works especially well with beans, burritos, soup and other foods that freeze well.

5. Meals from Sales or Seasonal Offerings

Study the supermarket ads to see what’s on sale, or find out what’s fresh at the farmers’ market, then incorporate those foods into the menu. Google is an ally for discovering recipes combining a handful of ingredients.

Using sales flyers or seasonal offerings helps limit the paralysis of too many options, saves money and encourages sourcing food locally.

Plan the Week’s Meals

Once you’ve decided on a method to make meal planning easier, it’s time to plan the specific meals for the coming week. Here’s the simplest way to do it with pen and paper:

1. Make a grid with columns for the days of the week and enough rows for the meals you need to plan for: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

2. Fill in the first meal. Note where you found the recipe, so you don’t have to search through cookbooks or hunt the Internet for it when it’s time to cook.

3. On the other blank piece of paper, list the ingredients you need from the store for the meal, leaving off what’s already in the fridge or pantry. This is your grocery list. Divide this list by where things are located in the store if it makes shopping easier.

4. Repeat this until you’ve planned every meal.

5. Post the menu on the bulletin board, on the refrigerator or in a common area, so everyone knows what’s for dinner.

6. Take the list and go shopping.

Once you get the hang of meal planning, you may want to investigate more efficient ways to do it. A few methods that may work well for tech-savvy people are:

  • Use Evernote (a free organization program) to keep track of menus and recipes.
  • Join Pinterest to store recipes and menu planning ideas.
  • Purchase web-based software or an app specifically designed for menu planning.

Mealtime is powerful. Cooking at home and gathering around the table with family provides countless benefits, and it doesn’t have to be stressful. With a good meal-planning system, it may even become everyone’s favorite part of the day. 

Abby Quillen is a writer, author and gardener. When she’s not writing, she enjoys gardening, walking, bike riding and jotting down the cute things her children say.

Research suggests gathering around the table for a family meal produces big benefits. Kids who share a nightly meal with their parents:

  • Consume more fruits and vegetables
  • Have better eating habits as adults
  • Have bigger vocabularies
  • Score higher on achievement scores
  • Are twice as likely to get As
  • Have fewer medical disorders, such as asthma
  • Exhibit fewer high-risk behaviors as teens like smoking, drug use or eating disorders

About WF Staff

Washington FAMILY Staff

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