One of the easiest ways to save on your monthly food expense is to create a weekly meal plan. Now, we’re not suggesting you dine-in 100% of the time. What’s the fun in that!? Only that you plan for both options. Cooking is also much healthier than dining out. And if you have kids, it just turns into a time issue as well. Kids gotta eat, when kids gotta eat! #hangry Or maybe that’s just me?
A recent OECD study found that the French spend more than 2 hours a day eating and drinking. That’s twice the amount of time at the table than Americans, Canadians or Mexicans spend. Yet, we’re the ones with the highest obesity rates. So we would argue that it’s more about what we’re eating over here on the North American continent! Another interesting study comparing American eating habits with the French was based on disposable income. US consumers spend 6.1 percent of their disposable income on food, while the French spend 13.6! So to add those studies together, we theorize that we have access to cheaper and unhealthier food – that we scarf down – which is then making us more unhealthy! ;)
So here are a few tips for creating a weekly meal plan and eating the frugal bon vivant way (and quite possibly the French way).
How to meal plan:
Note: First off, we are mostly vegetarian at home. I cook bacon or put chicken or fish in something about once a month. (Husband eats meat going out/lunch, kiddo tries bites of meat occasionally, still prefers veg). Second, we “budget” quite a bit for food. Meaning, while we know how much we spend typically per month on food, groceries is an area I don’t try to skimp or save on too much. (Yes, I’m grateful we have this option). Since we cook mainly vegetarian, it’s also not as expensive to spend the extra on more organic, splurge on extra produce or cheese etc. Third, our toddler isn’t the pickiest eater [usually], [yet], but I do try to make sure there’s always something he can eat. So here’s how I meal plan:
- Use a meal planner. Whether you’re using plain paper, fun notepads, Excel, or an iPhone app – it’s all about recording what you’re going to eat for the week. This year, I’m trying out the Run Fast Eat Slow Meal Planner by Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky. With a few tweaks, it’s working for me. Mainly I added a prep/cook column, so I know what days I actually have more time-intensive cooking vs prep work. I also moved Sunday over to be a combo weekend “day”. I like my week to start on a Monday, especially if I’m meal planning on Sunday. In the past, I used the KnockKnock What To Eat notepads for quite a few years.
- Don’t plan to cook every night. We usually leave 2-3 days free of cooking plans because we know that we’ll be going out or eating leftovers. So write in “takeout” or “leftovers” as needed. The weekend is usually a freebie for us too. We might have a few ideas for things to cook, but for the most part we leave it open.
- Brainstorm: Favorite meals and weekly themes. Even if you’ve been cooking for decades, it can still be tough to decide what to cook for the week. Some people do themes for every weekday, like Taco Tuesday etc. I’ve never been able to keep consistent with that type of plan. I like to leave room for the meals to switch days as needed for flexibility. I do have two consistent ones that work for us though: Leftover Night and Takeout Friday. First, one night a week is leftover night. Usually, this ends up being Wednesday or Thursday. We have leftovers from a previous night or that we’ve already put in the freezer. Sometimes we also just have a random mashup of things that need to get eaten from the fridge. I might also do a small pot of mac and cheese with broccoli or peas, if I know the leftovers are gonna be a hard sell to our toddler. Second, is Takeout Friday, which is exactly as it sounds. We almost always get takeout and cruise into the weekend. In the summer time we’re more likely to go out on Takeout Friday. That leaves 3-4 meal ideas to plan. One of the nice things about keeping a meal planner is you can flip back to previous weeks. “Oh yeah, I guess I do like to eat that”. Some things on heavy rotation lately:
- Roasted butternut squash w/pasta and brown butter sage sauce w/feta
- Black bean veggie tacos w/guac and fixings
- Bowls – Minimalist Baker and Run Fast. Eat Slow have great combo ideas
- Soup w/bread, cheese (also grilled cheese and roasted red pepper tomato soup)
- Veggie fried rice
- Make a “Things to Use Up” List. On Sundays, I usually skim through the fridge and write down what needs to be used up. This is usually fresh stuff like veggies or dairy that needs to be consumed soon. Last week, that list looked like: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, hummus, avocados. Sometimes its a long list, sometimes it’s almost nothing.
- Meal Ideas from the “Things to Use Up” List. Then, I’ll plan out a couple dinners that use up those ingredients. For example: roasted broccoli and roasted Brussels as sides for two different dinners, hummus and carrots as snack or lunch, and avocados will be guac for taco night.
- Brainstorm: Cookbooks, websites, and ask your family. I’ll usually ask if there are any requests, if so I might put it on the list. Otherwise, I look through my previous meal plans or flip through my favorite cookbooks. For the last couple years that’s Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow. Or I go online: Minimalist Baker, Martha Stewart (her Everyday Food Cookbooks and former magazine were great for quick dinners), Bon Appetit, NY Times Cooking. Or I look through a spreadsheet I made while pregnant called – Things We Like to Eat. (Yes, #ihaveaspreadsheetforthat, almost always.)
- Think in Season. One of the reasons we really liked the Everyday Food cookbook originally (also great for new cooks), is that it is organized by season. So you’re not off looking for fresh pumpkins in June, when clearly it’s not peak season yet. Epicurious has a cool Peak Season Map as well.
- Try to match up some ingredients for multiple meals to save money and reduce food waste. For example, this week we’ll be using cilantro, jalapeno & sour cream in several different recipes. This strategy is much more important in winter, when it’s more expensive to get fresh veggies & herbs at the grocery store.
- Don’t do all your shopping at one store. Stock up on staple items at your supermarket like Target, Fred Meyer, Trader Joes, or Costco. Then hit a store you know is going to have great produce and specialty stuff – like New Seasons, Whole Foods, or farmers’ markets (in-season). This is a great strategy to get some organic products too. Shopping 100% at Whole Foods can get pretty spendy.
- Use up all your ingredients – buy less or freeze it. It might take a few weeks to get in the rhythm of using all of the groceries that you’re buying. But stick with it and remember to throw produce that’s about to go south in the freezer for future use. Friends often comment how empty and tidy my fridge is (thanks?!). But over time, I’ve learned how much we can sustain in the fridge without wasting food. All through meal planning and going to the store more frequently. We go to the store for a couple items or get groceries delivered a couple times a week.
- Make a shopping list. When you’re done adding meals to your meal plan, go through your fridge & cupboards to see what items you actually need. This eliminates most of your short trips to the store. We use the free AnyList iPhone app so we have our list on the go and shared access. Previously we used the All Out Of KnockKnock notepads.
- Prep snacks and easy grab and go items for the week. I end up sticking with our meal plan when food is easy to access. Especially with a toddler, I’m not typically going to be peeling and chopping cucumbers for him on the go. But if I’ve already done that on Sunday, it’s as easy as opening the container and plopping a few in his lunch box. I try to do things like wash fruit – cut stems off strawberries, peel and chop cucumber etc ahead of time. Or I make some banana bread or muffins that we can grab throughout the week.
- Note any prep work that will make meals for the week easier. I’m still not that person who’s roasting sheet pans of sweet potatoes and prepping crock pot meals in my freezer. I just can’t maintain that kind of momentum. BUT, what works for me is noting things I can do day-of to make Tonight’s Dinner easier. For example, I might wash and slice Brussel sprouts in the morning when I have a minute. Then I’ll put them back in the fridge so I can just preheat the oven later, throw the Brussels on the sheet pan with some olive oil and salt and put them in the oven.
I’ve found Sundays to be the best day to do a quick meal plan. Although I don’t always go grocery shopping the same day. This helps me feel ready for the week. Meal planning for us is all about keeping the going out to dinner inertia at bay.
Things I’d like to improve on:
- Finding produce without packaging in non-farmers market season (winter!)
- Replacing our single-use snack type things like fig bars etc
How about you? What is your meal plan strategy?
Originally published June 2009. Updated February 2020.