How To Successfully Ditch Meal Planning For Good (But Still Save Time & Money)

Ditch meal planning?  Have you lost your mind?????  These are likely your first thoughts when reading the title.  I adore meal planning.  I've even used it to pay off our credit card debt.  So why in the world am I suggesting you ditch it?

The reality is, meal planning is not for everyone.  I've heard from some who have been frustrated in trying to make meal planning work.  They either couldn't incorporate it into their week, found it too daunting to figure out how to even start, or did not like it.  No one should feel pressured to adopt a typical meal planning structure if it's not comfortable for them.  And you certainly shouldn't feel like a failure if you can't make it work.  So, today we'll take a look at a way to ditch meal planning but still work within a grocery budget.  Sounds like a win-win, right?

Why is meal planning such a hot topic?  Because cooking at home is a staple for frugal living and having some sort of a plan ensures you are only purchasing what you need which maximizes your grocery budget, saves time, and eliminates food waste.  It also answers that often asked question "what's for dinner?" every single night of the week.

Before I started a more frugal, simple journey I didn't think about the cost of groceries.  That is, until after I'd shopped, when it was too late.  And then my thoughts were something like "man, groceries are EXPENSIVE".  It never struck me that I could actually start controlling that cost.  Oh boy, I was naïve.....  Revolutionizing the way we eat took quite a bit of time and effort.  And I have to credit meal planning for keeping us on track.

But sometimes you don't want so much structure.  Instead, being allowed to make decisions the night before so you can cook what you're hungry for.  So I decided to try something different.

Who Is This Right For?
If you typically cook from a decently stocked pantry and/or eat a lot of the same meals on repeat, this will work perfectly for you.  If, instead, you like to try a lot of new recipes, or don't have a handful of recipes you cycle through, it could be expensive and frustrating to give this a go.

If you happen to struggle with figuring out meal ideas when looking at a refrigerator of food, maybe keep a list of tried and true recipes that you know can be made with what you have on hand.  This way, when you're in a hurry and trying to figure out what to cook you've got a list of ideas at your fingertips.

I did something similar last summer with vegetables.  I began making the same couple recipes for each veggie as it was ready for picking.  Then, my husband started  saying "why don't we ever have X, or, could you make Y next time?"  I had completely forgotten about some of the ways I'd prepared them, so, I decided to make a list of all the ways I've made each veggie, providing me a list I could glance at before making dinner.

How I Successfully Ditched Meal Planning
Last summer, when our garden was producing prolifically, I decided to ditch meal planning.  It was the easiest time for me to give this a go because so much of our food came from our own garden.  I learned a lot about how I cook, what we eat, and focused more on shopping to stock my pantry and not to purchase items specifically for that week's meals.  I also became more creative in order to use what we had on hand.

What I came to realize is that we really do typically use many of the same ingredients throughout the week.  This was a great realization because I was able to see that if I opted not to meal plan, and instead shopped to restock my pantry (+ a set number of veggies, fruit, meat & dairy) I could make most of our recipes, or some version of them.  The key is not over- or under-buying the perishables each week.

Two Quick Time Saving Tips
One thing that can also make meals easier regardless of your method is to implement a MYO night every week.  If you have kids at home and they are old enough, one make-your-own night could be a real lifesaver.  You could theme it (MYO Pizza, MYO Grain Bowl, etc.) or just leave it as a MYO and everyone works with the ingredients that are found.  This is also the perfect night for miscellaneous leftovers to be eaten up.

And a second tactic is to have back-up in the freezer.  Whether it's frozen pizza, freezer meals, or something else, this can be a huge help on nights when you forgot to take something out or just can't figure out what to cook.  Instead of resorting to expensive take-out, you can have dinner on the table in the same amount of time at a much cheaper cost (and usually healthier too).

Stocking Necessities (a.k.a. a capsule pantry)
We aren't talking about a pantry stocked with 6 months worth of groceries.  We also aren't talking about trying to anticipate any one-off ingredient you may need.  Instead, this speaks to stocking the main ingredients you use that are shelf stable.  Think grains, pasta, canned tomatoes, frozen veggies, spices, etc.

For example, I keep the same boxed, bagged, canned, dairy, non-dairy, and frozen ingredients (includes meat) on hand pretty much year-round.  What tends to fluctuate (based on season) is our fresh fruit and fresh veggies.  So I do 2 things: I keep an ongoing grocery list that I add to when I run out of or am almost out of a regular pantry/fridge/freezer item, and, I add any one-off ingredients if Jay requests or I am hungry for something that calls for a different ingredient.  Now, instead of a formal meal plan, I can shop to stock up on necessities and add in a set number of weekly perishables that I work into meals.

It allows me to decide that day, or (preferably so I can defrost meat) the night before, what I will be cooking.  If you focus on creating meals that consist of a protein, veggies, fruit, grain or starchy veg and a sauce, then you can make any number of meals based on this.  Shop according to what is in season and what is on sale.

The key with this is to remain flexible if you're missing an ingredient you usually use in a dish.

Cook Once Eat All Week
This is a technique that has really intrigued me but I've found this harder to do.  I can see how it would be a timesaver though, so I haven't given up.  It does take some pre-planning but you simply have to figure out the base ingredients you'll cook and then you can re-invent using them all week into whatever you're hungry for.  It's similar to the method above where you purchase simple ingredients but it takes it a step further to cooking those ingredients so you don't have to cook every night.  You can also cook three times and eat all week - cook 3 base meals (+ extras) and use the extras to create leftover meals for the remaining 4 days of the week.

The potential downfall is if you are not able to use up everything you made ahead you could end up with waste.  I think the key would be to keep an eye on what you've got in the refrigerator and make sure to incorporate it into lunches if it won't be used up with dinners.

Life Is Too Short To Stress Out Over Cooking
It took me a while to learn that every meal doesn't need to be a huge production.  It also took me a while to learn that we're quite satisfied rotating the same recipes over and over.  Almost all of my recipes that I now cook take 40 minutes or less of actual hands-on cooking time.  And we love these dishes!  When I forget to buy something, defrost something, or run out of time to make an actual meal, well, then we eat something from the freezer, sandwiches and soup, or breakfast for dinner.  And so far, we've lived through it just fine.

Regardless of how you go about it, the key is to cut grocery shopping down to one day per week (or less) in order to save time and money, reduce or (ideally) completely eliminate kitchen waste, and to create meals at home that are both healthy and budget friendly.

I would love to hear from you - what is your method for weekly meals?


  1. I'm a big believer in making double to freeze like spag bol, butter chicken, curries etc which are a regular in our household. Prepping food is also going to be front and centre this year and I need to get the lettuce and herbs growing in the garden as it's been so hot here as it's summer. Weeding then planting is on the agenda. Great tips in your post. Kathy A, Brisbane, Australia

  2. I've made my life much easier by giving up my role as chief cook. The boys now prepare their own meals, and it's helping my son learn how to take care of himself, so it's a win-win-win!

    I make sure there are cooked veggies in the fridge each week, and they prepare their own meat or breakfasts.

    We eat mostly the same thing all the time, but rotate out seasonal veggies and fruits just as you do.


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