Meal Planning: How to get started

I LOVE cooking. I love watching cooking shows, reading cooking blogs, and trying new recipes. Since moving in with the man, I have also learned a lot about gluten free cooking and baking. I find it really fun!

But I’ll be honest. On an average weekday, when we’re getting home late from work, neither of us are feeling overly creative. We are far more likely to give up and order takeout than we are to get home, come up with a meal idea, check if we have all the ingredients, run to the store for what we don’t have, and make it. Planning our meals and shopping ahead of time has saved us a TON of money on pad thai and tacos we didn’t buy and we’re able to have a variety of meals throughout the week. Here are the 5 simple steps that we follow to plan our weekly meals.

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1. Inventory your kitchen

Meal planning is easiest and the most cost-efficient when you are using the ingredients that you already have in your kitchen, and it reduces food waste. Check your pantry, your freezer, and the depths of your fridge. The first time you do this, make a list of everything that you have and stick it on your fridge so that you’ll remember. If you have something that you aren’t sure what to do with, look it up! You’d be surprised how much you can do with a can of chickpeas (check out this super yummy recipe for roasted chickpeas).

2. Know your go-tos

Although the man could eat gluten free pasta with chicken every night of the week, I prefer to vary things a bit more than that, especially because I often take leftovers for lunch the next day. However, we do have our go-to meals that are fast, easy, and use ingredients that we usually have on hand (like rice, corn tortillas, or cans of tomatoes or beans). Some came from his arsenal, some came from mine. Most are naturally gluten free, some include substitutions like pasta. Examples in our house include: turkey chili, tacos, stir fry with chicken or shrimp, gluten free pasta with chicken, tilapia with rice and beans, and sausage and peppers.

Usually at least 4 nights of the week have these go-tos on rotation. They have enough possibilities for variation that we don’t get bored (Pasta with tomato sauce? Pesto? Garlic-infused olive oil? Mac and cheese?) so we’re usually pretty happy with them.

3. Plan your week

We take about 10 minutes on a weekend morning to plot our meals for the entire week. It’s based on what we have going on that week, how late we anticipate working, and what we feel like eating. Usually 4 days are go-tos, 1 day is leftovers, 1 day is a new recipe or something we don’t make often, and 1 day we plan to go out. Our week might look something like this:

Because we buy meat at Costco and freeze it, we are able to vary the protein we use throughout the week. Otherwise I would plan on one, maybe two types of protein to buy for the week and to use in various ways. We write it on a whiteboard in the kitchen and stick to it. Sometimes things happen during the week that cause us to switch things around, but since we shop once on Sundays we know that we have the ingredients on hand for all of these recipes, so we still don’t have to think too hard!

Don’t forget about those mysterious ingredients that you found during your inventory. Now is the time to hop on Pinterest and find something yummy to make with it!

4. Make your list

List out every ingredient that you will need for every recipe, and don’t forget to list what you will need for breakfast and lunch too. Double check what you already have in your kitchen and finalize your shopping list. Be sure to include how much you need for an item (it’s a bummer to buy one can of tomatoes to find out that you actually need two cans). Each week I also look at what staples we are starting to run out of, including spices, rice, pasta, beans, etc. Although I may not buy them during that week’s shop, I am always on the lookout for sales for the things we use most often.

Before you head to the store, make sure you check the Ibotta app. Ibotta gives you cash back on certain purchases, for free! Don’t fall into the trap of buying things that you don’t need just because you’ll get cash back (remember, stick to the list!) but you may find that you’ll get money by choosing a certain brand over another, or sometimes there are deals on any brand of an item.

5. Stick to your list and shop once!

This is far harder than making the list. You may need to be strong (I’m talking to myself here) but only buy what is on the list! You’ve already planned out your entire week, so that list has everything that you will need. If you follow the list and you stick to the meals you planned, you will only have to shop once during the week, which is guaranteed to save you money.

As a bonus tip, have a snack before you go to avoid impulse buys from hunger (again, definitely talking to myself here).

I allow myself one exception to this rule, which is when nonperishable staples are on sale, especially those that are expensive (for us it’s mostly gluten free products like pasta, crackers, flour, and bread, but also coffee and some other staples). For instance, we are picky about sodium and sugar in food, and the BEST tomato sauce is Rao’s Homemade. It is really expensive though, ranging from $7-$10 per jar depending on where you shop, so we rarely buy it. However, one day they were over 50% off, so I bought…a few…and I adjusted the next week’s budget accordingly.

That’s it! Those are the basic steps to start meal planning and saving on your grocery bill. Inventory your kitchen, know your go-tos, plan your week, make your list, and stick to your list and shop once!

What’s your favorite go-to meal? Tell me in the comments.


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