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My Meal Planning Guide [+ free meal planning printables]

When I meal plan, EVERYTHING is better. I save money (sometimes as much as 50%), the dinner time hustle is 100x easier, and I never have to hear the dreaded “what’s for dinner” question.

So, I want to share how I meal plan for the week sharing what it looks like, how much it saves me, etc.

Step One: Kitchen Inventory

So my meal planning always starts in my kitchen. The first thing I do is take stock of what I already have. Skipping this step is pretty much the biggest meal planning mistake you can make. It’s super important for a few reasons:

  1. If you’re good about stocking up on things in bulk or when they are on sale, it can save you a lot. BUT, if you’re bad about remember to use up those things, then it’s wasted food and wasted money. A weekly kitchen inventory reminds you of what you have and ensures you use it up.
  2. Using items already in your kitchen adds $0 to your week’s grocery budget. That’s a win all around.
  3. You can make sure you don’t fall into the trap of buying something full price because you need it for a meal this week only to get home and realize you already had it. Which we ALL can agree is the worst.

So, I just write down everything I have that I could use for this week’s meals. I have some free printables you can download including my kitchen inventory checklist, and the meal planning print out I use, etc.

Download my meal planning printables:

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Step Two: Plan Around What You Have

Once I have a list of what I already have, I sit down to plan out the meals, starting around what I already have. For example, I have ground turkey in my freezer right now that I had bought when it was on sale. So, I could make chili or tacos. But, I also see I already have diced tomatoes and beans, so chili is a clear winner here. This is why taking the inventory is so helpful!

Step Three: Fill in the Blanks with the Flyer

Next, it’s time to fill in the blanks. Usually, I grab my store’s weekly flyer. The best deals are usually on the front and back of the flyer, the inside is a lot of fluff. So I spend the majority of my time scanning the main pages.

TIP: Ingredient Sharing

If I’m going to buy something for one meal and I know I won’t use it all up, I try to think of another meal I can have that will use it. Say I’m making Greek chicken. I’ll buy a pack of chicken breasts, but I won’t use them all up for just my husband and me, so I’m also going to make a chicken cobb salad. And, the chicken cobb salad has bacon, so we’ll also do BLTs to use up all the bacon.

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If I can’t ingredient share I make sure to freeze things so I can use them one of the next weeks. For me, I can always tell how successful my meal planning was by two factors

  1. Did I come in at or under budget and
  2. Did I have to throw away any food that wasn’t eaten or went bad?

Step Four: Stick to Your List!

Now it’s time to actually go to the store. Hands down the biggest money suck from my groceries is if I stray from my list and start buying extras. This is why meal planning is so important, I know exactly what I need and can avoid the rest. I make sure I stick right to my list and don’t buy anything if it’s not on it.

Step Five: Put it on the Calendar and Commit

I’d say this is the part of meal planning where a lot of people fall short. Making the plan and buying the stuff is one thing, but sometimes committing to those meals is hard.

So, I start by writing the meals we’re having that week up on our calendar that hangs in our kitchen. This way I always know what we’re having each day and don’t have to struggle to remember or forget about one of the meals I had planned.

The beautiful thing about meal prepping is there’s no guessing. I know what’s coming on what days, and can be prepared for it.

And, how about when Tuesday comes and it says chili but you don’t want it? For us, we buy groceries 1x a week. If I don’t want something or Michael doesn’t it… we just suck it up. It’s part of making meal planning work. We eat it and know that we can change our choices for next week. It forces both of us to be active members of planning the meals so we know we’ll like what’s planned for the week because we’ve both been stuck with meals we didn’t want.

TIP: Have Back-Ups

We always keep a frozen pizza in the freezer. This way if something happens like some produce goes bad too quickly or an ingredient was missed, we have a cheap backup dinner to make for that night.

We also have a backup menu for the entire week. It includes just simple easy dinners we both like. This way if grocery shopping day arrives and we forgot to meal plan, that’s our default menu for the week.

Download my meal planning printables:

I have some free printables you can download including my kitchen inventory checklist, and the meal planning print out I use, etc.

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Watch the FULL Meal Planning Video

Your Meal Planning FAQs

What do you do in the event of an “emergency”?

Like I said, we always have a frozen pizza in the freezer as a just in case. It’s not the most exciting, but it’s our backup. We also usually always have stuff for a ham and cheese grinders. Either way, we have 1-2 backups that are just boring but we both know they are the default. We also usually budget takeout for 2-3x a month, so that can be a default too.

Frozen meal planning tips?

I don’t have a huge freezer so right now I don’t do TONS of freezer meals. But, if I make something that does freeze well, I often just make 2 at the time and throw it in the freezer. It’s an easy way to make a little freezer stash. I do it mostly for Miles’ foods like pancakes, pastas, etc.

Do you plan breakfast and lunch, too?

Only on weekends when we’ll be eating together. Otherwise, Michael, Miles and I eat mostly the same breakfasts during the weekdays so I don’t need to plan it.

Do you pre-cook things and just warm them up?

I don’t pre-cook much, but I will pre-prep things such as chop veggies, make marinades and sauces, prep a crockpot meal, etc. There are some things I will pre-cook like rice, pasta, roasted veggies, etc. I usually try to think about what takes the most time and pre-prepare those things.

Do you plan/cook/shop with your husband, or does just one of you do it?

My husband and I plan together, then I cook and shop. If we forget to plan together I use our backup meal plan I talked about in step 6.

Do you use coupons?

Nope. As I talk about in the video, I find that the time I spend couponing doesn’t save me enough to make it worth it (for groceries at least, I do use them elsewhere like craft stores and clothing shopping).

How do you find time to cook?

It’s hard! I stick with quick prep meals or things I can prepare ahead of time like on Sundays. I also plan my meals around my days. On the days I don’t have as busy of a day and I know I can spare 30 minutes of Miles’ nap I might do a little bit harder of a meal and maybe prep a crockpot meal for another day that I know I’ll have no time. Crockpot meals are my favorite for busy days because you can prep and even freeze it and then just dump and go.

How do you make sure you use up all the fresh ingredients you bought?

This is why I utilize ingredient sharing. If I’m going to buy something for one meal and I know I won’t use it all up for that meal and I know I can’t save it for the next week, I make sure to think of another meal I can have that will use it to ensure it gets used.