Writing And Using A Meal Plan

get started with meal planning with this guide which breaks down meal planning even for beginners

As I wrote in last weeks "11 Tips for Eating Real Food on a Real Budget", I began cooking & shopping from a monthly meal plan to help stay in my monthly food budget.  Although it seems overwhelming initially, it really is a timesaver.  You'll make fewer trips to the grocery store & only purchase what you need.  No more throwing away veggies you forgot you had purchased!

If you've never written or worked from a meal plan before, I highly recommend starting with a weekly plan.  Working a month or so with a weekly meal plan will help you find a 2-week & then a monthly plan manageable.

Making a list of your dishes, I believe, is one of the first things you should do to make the process much easier.  I simply made a list of the dishes in my repertoire & divided them by meal type.  I used:  breakfast, lunch, main dish poultry, main dish pork, main dish beef, main dish seafood, main dish meatless, side dish carb, side dish veg & dessert as my categories.  Although I can write a good portion of my menu without consulting the list, when I get stuck, it's a lifesaver.  It also prevents me from writing the same things over and over.

Steps Leading Up To Writing A Meal Plan

1. Take Stock Of Your Pantry
If there's anything that should be used up soon, make sure to incorporate it into your menu.  The same goes with items you previously stocked up on during a great sale.

2.  Take the Week's/Month's Activities In Consideration
Take a look at your family planner.  Use 30 minutes or less meals or crockpot meals for days you'll be running late. 

3.  Make The Week/2-Week/Month Meal Plan
Armed with your meal list, family planner & a list of any items you need to incorporate, sit down & make a meal plan.  Have a separate piece of paper to write a shopping list at the same time.  Refer back to the recipe if you can't remember all the ingredients.

Things To Take Into Consideration When Making A Meal Plan

1. I now like to make things easier for myself by using the same dinner protein on the same days week after week, i.e.  Sundays = beef, Mondays = fish or meatless, Tuesdays = chicken, Wednesdays = pork, Thursdays = chicken, Fridays = beef and Saturdays = fish or chicken.  This makes it easier for planning recipes, but also for planning how to use leftovers.  When I first started I did not use this method but have since found it very helpful.

2.  I like to try incorporating a few new dishes into each month's menu plan.  I decide ahead of time which recipes I'd like to try and then work them into the meal plan.

3.  If you are preparing a meal that you know freezes well {i.e. pancakes, waffles, chicken pot pie, etc.}, why not double the meal when preparing it & freeze the excess?  Work the frozen leftover into the meal plan later in the month.

4.  If you are purchasing a specific product for a meal and will have perishable leftovers {i.e. a jar of salsa that you only need half of or a can of chilies that you only need a few of, half a can of coconut milk, etc.}, write another meal into the meal plan that allows you to use up the remainder before it's "use by" date.

5.  Be flexible.  If you have tacos on the menu for this Thursday but no one really feels like tacos, then trade it for a dish next week.

6.  You could write in 2 extra meals - make-ahead meals that can be frozen, in the event you need something quick and that doesn't require prep.  If the meals aren't utilized, write them into the first 2 weeks of the next month.  Next month you'll do the same and each month thereafter.  This way you have meals prepared for the evenings where you unexpectedly have something come up and/or you've got 2 meals prepared for next month!

Do You Use Coupons?

I get this question all the time and the simple answer is, I don't use a lot of coupons.  Most coupons I see are for products we just don't use and as I become better at preparing sauces, mixes & condiments from scratch, this narrows down the coupons available even more.

We get the paper delivered so I get the Sunday coupons.  I would not likely purchase a paper specifically for the coupons because we don't use enough.  We only have 1 store that doubles coupons, and they limit the amount they double.  This makes it even more difficult to save a large amount of money.  I do, however, subscribe to a few of the free online coupon databases {i.e. Coupon Mom}. 

I clip coupons for some cereals, paper products, toiletry products and any food items we would typically eat.  We don't eat much cereal so I have set my dollar amount that I am willing to pay for a box at under $1.00.   I watch the weekly flyers {you can download them online} from our local grocery stores and if, with my coupons, I can purchase cereal below $1.00, I will buy all that I have coupons for.  When I come home with bags of Cheerios, the dogs, cat-dog & chickens are all excited.

I save any store coupons that are for products we would use and I pair them, if possible, with manufacturer's coupons.  The store coupons are also the only way I've been able to save on produce.

Then How Do You Save Money?

The meal plan is the first way I save money.  With a meal plan I:  use my leftovers before they go bad by planning them into the week's meals; only shop for the items we are going to use {exception being stocking up - read about that below}; can keep each week's budget as low as I'd like it to be by what I determine for that week's meal choices; I can, freeze & dehydrate fruit and veggies when they are in-season for off-season dishes; we eat seasonally {except for the home canned/frozen items}, purchasing fruit & veggies when they are at their cheapest; and we grow a large portion of the vegetables we consume year-round.

If you can afford a freezer, in the long run it's a huge savings.  There's so many things you can purchase in bulk and store in the freezer, things such as milk {remove about 1 cup to leave room for expansion}, shredded cheese, berries, bread/bagels/muffins, flour, rice, lunch meat, butter, meat, nuts, etc.

As I stated in the section above, I watch the weekly flyers.  My monthly food budget is $400.00.  This amount includes all food, toiletries, paper products, and cat & dog products for the month.  When I first began making meal plans, I worked to get us under the $400.00 per month so I could use the excess money to purchase, in bulk, items that went on sale at a decent discount that we regularly use.  Each month I now spend part of my budget to do exactly this.  With a nicely stocked pantry our monthly budget is no longer tight.

Read "11 Tips For Eating Real Food On A Real Budget" for more money-saving tips.

Putting It All Together

I prepare monthly meal plans which means I also grocery shop the beginning of every month.  This does not, however, mean I do not go to the grocery store throughout the month.  I do make a couple of supplemental trips throughout the month for any perishable items {i.e. milk, veggies, fruit} that I either can't stock up on for a full month or would go bad.

Before going to the grocery store I have already checked out the area sale flyers so I know what, if anything, I'll be stocking up on.  I also take an inventory of my pantry, refrigerator and freezer.  Items I always have on hand {i.e. sugar, honey, rice, flour, oil, butter, canned beans, dried beans, baking soda, etc.} are added to the list if I'm low.  I make sure to have at least a month's worth of these products on hand.

The day that I conduct my monthly grocery shopping I also do my food prep.  Once I get home, if any of the meats will be marinaded, I prepare the marinade{s} and freeze the meat in it.  If any of the meat needs to be chopped up, I do that prior to freezing and label all bags so I know exactly what each is for.  Same goes for veggies.  If I know I'm making stew, I'll peel and chop all but the potatoes and store them in a container in the refrigerator.  On this day, or during this weekend, I also prepare any make-ahead items {i.e. muffin batter, breads/rolls, cookie dough, granola, pizza dough, pie crust, sauces, pancake mix, etc.} that can be stored either in the refrigerator or freezer until needed during the month.  All of this helps make dinner run that much smoother on the day I'm actually cooking it.

There are some things that can only be prepared a week ahead of time.  I utilize Sunday evenings for this.  I bake bread, chop any veggies for that week's meals, prepare lunch items, etc.

A Sample Week Meal Plan

You can choose your style of format for the meal plan - whatever works best for you.  Some prefer a list {as shown below} where others prefer an actual blank calendar that they fill in.  I use a calendar - it hangs on my refrigerator.  My "what's for dinner" asking husband can consult it and see what is planned for dinner.

You can see that I've planned more than one meal to utilize extra's such as leftover chicken, pineapple, grapes, risotto etc.  I have linked to any recipes currently on my cooking blog.  I have also listed some of the recipes below.

Dessert = Blueberry Pie

B - Veggie Omelet, Hashbrowns, Applesauce {canned last year}
L- Chicken & Cheese Quesadillas {with chicken leftover from last week & homemade tortillas}, Homemade Salsa, Tortilla Chips
D- BBQ Beer Can Chicken, Potato Salad, Grilled Squash, Pineapple & Cherry Tomato Kabobs

B - Homefry-Egg saute, Yogurt & Berries
L - BLT Sandwich, Marinated Cucumber Slices & Fruit
D - Grilled Beef Teriyaki, Oven-Baked Risotto, Green Goddess Wedge Salad with Bacon, Cherry Tomatoes & Onion

B - Oatmeal with Banana & Walnuts
L -  Chicken Salad Sandwich {with leftover chicken from Sunday}, Homemade Crackers & Cheese Slices, Berry & Grape Medley, & a Homemade Candy Bar
D - Red Snapper En Papillote w/Pineapple Salsa, Rice, Sautéed Corn & Squash

B - Blueberry Muffins
L - Chicken Salad Sandwich {with leftover chicken from Sunday}, Homemade Crackers & Cheese Slices, Berry & Grape Medley, & a Homemade Candy Bar
D - Chicken Fajitas {with leftover chicken from Sunday & homemade tortillas} with grilled peppers & onions, Salsa Rice

B - Oatmeal with Banana & Walnuts
L - Chicken Salad Sandwich {with leftover chicken from Sunday}, Homemade Crackers & Cheese Slices, Berry & Grape Medley, & a Homemade Candy Bar
D - Grilled Pork Tenderloin w/BBQ Sauce, Risotto Cakes {with leftover Risotto from Sunday}, Grilled Pineapple Spears,  Salad with things picked from the garden & Light Balsamic Vinaigrette

B - Blueberry Muffins
L - Chicken Salad Sandwich {with leftover chicken from Sunday}, Homemade Crackers & Cheese Slices, Berry & Grape Medley, & a Homemade Candy Bar
D - Grilled Chicken Breast with Southwestern Marinade, Southwest Black Beans & Rice, Honey-Glazed Carrots

B - Southwestern Breakfast Cup, Yogurt with Berries
L - Pork Sliders {with leftover Pork Tenderloin from Wednesday & using homemade rolls for the buns}, Corn Salad with Cilantro-Lime Dressing
D - Grilled Burger, Potato Salad, Grilled Corn-On-The-Cob


Homemade Flour Tortillas:  3 cups all-purpose flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 5 Tablespoons shortening or lard.  Combine flour & salt.  Cut in the shortening until the flour forms clumps.  Add 3/4 cup water, mixing until ingredients come together to form a dough.  Knead for a minute or two, until dough seems tender.  Divide into 12 balls {slightly larger than golf balls}.  Cover with clean, damp cloth and let rest 20 minutes at room temp.  Heat ungreased skillet over medium-high heat.  Roll each ball to a 6-8 inch circle.  Place in skillet 30 seconds - 1 minute, or until it starts to turn brown in patches.  Flip & cook the other side.  **These do not keep - make them the day you'll be using them**

Homemade Salsa:  2 cups chopped tomatoes, 1/3 cup chopped onion, 1 Tablespoon chopped jalapeno, 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, 1/2 teaspoon salt - mixed together in a bowl and let sit, in the refrigerator, at least 2 hours.

Grilled Squash, Pineapple & Cherry Tomato Kabobs:  Cut the pineapple & summer squash in chunks roughly the size of the tomatoes.  Thread each onto kabob skewers and place over the grill {direct heat}.  Watch carefully, turning as each side becomes cooked & before charring.

Grilled Beef Teriyaki:  Teriyaki Marinade1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup honey or sugar, 1 Tablespoon mirin or white wine, 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger, 1 garlic clove, minced, 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Mix all ingredients together.  Set a couple of Tablespoons of the marinade aside to brush on the meat after it has been grilled if desired.  Marinade beef flank steak or beef of preference for at least 4 hours prior to grilling.

Green Goddess Dressing:  1/2 cup buttermilk, 1/2 cup mayo, 6 Tablespoons sour cream, 1 Tablespoon minced red onion, 1 Tablespoon minced fresh parsley, 1 Tablespoon minced fresh dill, 1 minced garlic clove, 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, pinch sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper.  Whisk.  Store in the refrigerator and whisk before using.

Chicken Salad:  chopped leftover chicken, grapes & walnuts, mixed with a small amount of mayo.

Homemade Candy Bar:  I use this candy bar form.  I scatter the form with dried fruit & nuts, then melt chocolate and pour over the fruit & nuts.  When it's cooled and firm, remove from the mold.  Store in a sealed baggie or container.

Red Snapper En Papillote:  2 Red Snapper fillets, 1 large tomato, salt & pepper to taste, 4 fresh basil leaves, 1 Tablespoon olive oil.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cut two 1-foot squares of parchment paper.  In the middle of each place a piece of fish, 1-2 slices tomato, salt & pepper,  two basil leaves, and a drizzle of olive oil.  Fold over the parchment to seal packages and place in baking dish or on baking sheet.  Bake 20 minutes, or until fish is white, opaque & flaky.

Pineapple Salsa:  4 spears grilled pineapple, 4 rounds grilled red onion, 1/2 Tablespoon fresh minced chili {jalapeno is what I usually use}, 1/2 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice, 1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice, 2 Tablespoons minced fresh basil, salt & pepper to taste.  Chop the pineapple into bite-sized chunks {saving any juice that comes out}.  Mince the onion.  In a medium bowl, stir together the pineapple & juice, onion, chili, lemon juice, lime juice, basil and season with salt & pepper.  Let sit at least 5 minutes.

Sauteed Corn & Squash:  Dice the Squash into about 1/2 inch chunks.  Place corn in a saucepan and enough water to cover.  Bring to a boil over high, reduce heat to medium and simmer for 10-15 minutes for fresh or 4 minutes for frozen.  Add the diced squash and continue a low boil for 2-3 minutes.  Strain off the water, add 1-2 Tablespoons butter and place back over medium heat, uncovered.  Allow to saute for 5 minutes.  Season with salt & pepper.  Serve.

Salsa Rice:  1 1/2 Tablespoon vegetable or olive oil, 1 1/2 cups rice, 1 cup bottled tomato salsa, 1 3/4 cups chicken broth, salt to taste.  Saute the rice in the oil over medium heat, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes.  Add the salsa, chicken broth & salt (1/4-1/2 teaspoon).  Stir.  Let mixture come to a full boil then either cover pan and bake 20 min. in a 350 degree oven or pour into a rice cooker and cook.

Light Balsamic Vinaigrette: 1/4 cup olive oil, 3 Tablespoons white balsamic vinegar, 2 teaspoons minced red onion, 2 teaspoons dijon mustard, 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh oregano {half for dried}, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper.  Whisk.  Store in the refrigerator, shake or whisk before using.

Grilled Chicken Breasts with Southwestern Marinade:  Southwestern Marinade 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 2 Tablespoons minced fresh cilantro, 3 garlic cloves, minced, 1 chipotle chili in adobo sauce, minced {these can be stored in the freezer, frozen separately on a cookie sheet then placed in a freezer bag, once the can has been opened}, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon chili powder.  Mix all ingredients together in a bowl.  Set a couple Tablespoons of the marinade aside to brush on the meat after it has been grilled if desired.  Marinade the chicken breasts in the remaining sauce for at least 4 hours.  Grill.

Southwest Black Beans & Rice:  same as "Salsa Rice" but I add 1 small onion, chopped, sauteed with the rice.  Add 1 cup black beans & 1 cup corn {un-thawed if frozen} when the salsa is added.  Add 1/4 cup minced cilantro after the rice has been cooked, stirring it in to evenly distribute.

Honey-Glazed Carrots:  1 lb. carrots, peeled & sliced into coins, 1/2 cup chicken broth, 3 Tablespoons honey, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 Tablespoon butter.  Combine carrot coins, broth, 1 Tablespoon honey & salt in non-stick skillet.  Cover & bring to boil - boil until tender, about 5 min.  Uncover, return to boil to reduce liquid down to 2 Tablespoons, about 2 minutes.  Stir in butter & remaining honey.  Continue cooking 3 minutes until carrots are glazed.

See Also: A Meal Planning Update


  1. Oh my! This is awesome! I really need to get in gear. I feel like I do so well, and then life gets busy, but with school starting soon, I'll need to. I love the idea of shopping only once a month for the main things. That would be so nice and save so much time!
    Preparing for a month sounds overwhelming to me right now, so I should stick to weekly or every 2 wks for now. I think my biggest problem is thinking of that many recipes for the whole month! I do about the same as you do for the coupons too. We get a few weekly free newspapers that have coupons in them. Like you, as I'm trying to make more things from scratch, I'm using mainly coupons for our toiletries and other things I do typically make from scratch. My couponing has cut down tremondously, but I like that! This is just what I needed to read today! :)

  2. Wow! You are SO organized! I love your system and that you are sure to not only try new recipes each and every month, but that nothing goes to waste.
    What a great resource.

  3. Mary - I'm so happy it gave inspiration for the week. Yes, you really should try to jump from weekly to 2 weeks for your meal plan. It's so nice to not have to plan or shop every week. :)

    Daisy - thank you - I try. Yes, I hate things going to waste so I work very hard at ensuring things don't. :)

  4. Oh Staci, you are my organizational guru! So much good information. Really makes me think about my far more slapdash approach to meal planning, I sit down on Monday morning and plan that week's meals before heading out to shop. Then at the end of the week when the Amish market and farmer's market are open I shop for fresh and organic. I do buy organic milk at the supermarket, because we don't use much and it lasts a lot longer. So much good information in this post. Thanks!

  5. You know I love this post already!! Thank you so much for sharing with all of us over at the Homeacre Hop!!

    Mary :)


Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on this post!