Meal Planning for Dummies

For many people, including myself, meal planning can seem like a rather daunting task, especially if you do what I did and started out by looking it up on Pinterest and were terrified by the fancy foods that apparently moms everywhere are making on a daily basis. I once subscribed to a meal planning site where they sent you a suggestion every day but honestly there were so many random ingredients in ever dish  I never had all the things in my house (and sometimes wasn’t even sure what some of the things WERE), and I found a lot of the meal prep to be really time consuming, which doesn’t really work when you may have only 15 or 30 minutes to make dinner.

So while I avoided meal planning for a long time, when the time came that we had to cut our grocery bill in half and it became a necessity, I decided to forget everything I’d read and just come up with some way to do it on my own. I have actually found a pretty straightforward way that really works for me and my family, so perhaps it could work for you too. Or not. But that’s okay, because this is the internet, so you can just roll your eyes and says, ‘Pffft, NOPE!’ and move on to the next blog post.

First, I only plan dinners, because lunch is gonna either be leftovers, sandwiches, mac and cheese or a plate of random things. I never plan breakfast either, because cereal.

The second thing is the amount: I only plan 6 meals. It is inevitable that we are going to be out one day, or end up eating at someone else’s house, or Daddy will be home late so Mommy doesn’t bother cooking and gives the kid’s cereal instead… you get the picture. The freezer is usually stocked with some amount of frozen meat or whatever so I can always pull spaghetti or something else together in a pinch.

Now comes actually thinking of the meals, which was always tough for me. I am not a super creative nor particularly brilliant cook, and though I’m expanding my repertoire, for awhile there were only a few meals I could make from scratch without a recipe.So in the beginning I used a recipe book for inspiration and would flip through it for basic recipes that wouldn’t take me an hour to recreate, and  would include one new or more complex meal into the plan per week (or two if I felt daring and wasn’t busy). I also found that even if I wasn’t going to follow that specific recipe, the picture or the ingredients reminded me of other dishes that I could make.20160704_094045

My other source for inspiration was the weekly grocery store flyer. Basically, if chicken was on sale, I’d say, “Hmm, what can I make with chicken… Oh! Mushrooms are on sale too, let’s do a pasta dish.” And because I didn’t want to end up making the same meals over and over again, I made a list of all the fairly straightforward dinners I could think of, and I just sort of grouped by what meat they use (yeah, we put meat in everything. I have tried a few vegetarian meals, but on my list there’s honestly like only 2 veg dishes because we are carnivores up in here). So for example on my list I put all the ground beef dishes together so when I know I have ground beef to use, I can say, “Hmm, spaghetti, lasagna, korean beef, tacos… etc.” You get the picture.

Then I kind of have mental categories to make sure we aren’t eating potatoes 7 days in a row (although if I’m honest, I would be totally down with that.) I pretty much always have one dish with some form of potato side, one rice dish, one pasta dish, and one super easy meal – often something Mexican like fajitas, tacos or quesadillas, or something straight from the freezer like chicken fingers and fries or a frozen lasagna. This comes in very handy on the day when I planned to make something that required a lot of involvement on my part, and the kids are killing each other. Nope, no chopping and peeling today, thanks, we’re doing a freezer dinner.

At this point, I just write down six meal ideas on a list, adding the ingredients that I don’t already have in the kitchen to my shopping list. I tentatively assign a meal to a particular day, so I can ensure that any fresh meat (vs. stuff I have in the freezer) will get used quicker, or that buns for burgers don’t get eaten when they’re a week old, but I don’t live and die by that as some days I go, “Ha. I’m not peeling a pound of potatoes today. We’re having tacos instead.”. I then think about it a little more thoroughly, based on what activities are happening that week. If I have a recipe that requires an hour to bake, I make a note that it won’t work for a particular day when we are going to be out til 4:30.

To summarize:

  • Choose six meals
  • Inspired by what’s on sale or recipe book
  • Only include one very involved (ie. lots of prep/lots of steps) meal per week, max two
  • Assign days based on using up the stuff that goes bad first and your schedule for the week
  • Eat

Our weekly budget is $130, which includes all our food (lunch, snacks, breakfast) and grooming/household supplies (Shampoo, toilet paper, cleaner, etc). The week in question (meals below)  I spent $115, though I used up a lot of meat that we had on hand from the previous week’s shop (which was, miraculously $86 but involved a huge amount of sweetly priced meat!). This week, though, I spent $171. All evens out to be on budget though.  I am always interested in what other people eat (I really like food, maybe that’s why?) so last week I started taking pictures of our meals and here is what our 7 days looked like, including the portions for our 3 year old M and 16 month old E, and their plates after the fact (no filter, no style, just a picture of our plates before and after):

MONDAY: Salmon (from frozen, because Monday is grocery shopping day and I am exhausted by the end of it), rice & steamed broccoli

This was VERY well received. M ate all his salmon, then asked for more, then moved onto my lap and ate some of mine. He had to have ketchup on it, which is gross, but whatever works. The baby did well too, though I believe most of the rice ended up on his lap.

TUESDAY: Spaghetti Bolognese (that’s fancy talk for ‘meat sauce’. I have a hard time saying “Spaghetti with meat sauce” for some reason), Caesar salad, garlic bread.

Spaghetti is always well received at our place, as evidenced by the leftovers, or lack thereof:

WEDNESDAY: On my meal plan this was supposed to be fajitas but the kid’s don’t usually do well with them so I switched to quesadillas at the last minute (and forgot to take a photo of mine, but you know what a quesadilla looks like). These were beef (easy pre-cooked pack from Superstore), peppers and onions, with homemade guacamole.

For whatever reason M didn’t want to eat his though he’s gobbled these up in the past. It took a lot of coaxing for him to eat 1.5 pieces. The baby did fine although all his guacamole ended up on the floor in the crack of our skirting board.

Floor guac. Not cool.20160706_175902-1

THURSDAY: Chicken & Bacon Alfredo. Should have been with fettuccine but apparently we were out and I didn’t notice. So elbow macaroni to the rescue! Also, the salad was supposed to be a garden salad but the tomatoes were really sad looking and we ate the cucumber earlier in the week because M was really into eating cucumber for a couple days there, which was random. So Caesar salad twice in one week may be overkill but shut up because it’s delicious.

They liked it, that’s all that matters.

Dog liked it too. Should have taken those dishes immediately to the kitchen.


Dog got to the leftovers before I cleaned them up.

FRIDAY: Sweet & Sour Pork on chow mein noodles. Except this ended up IN noodles, not on them, because I followed the ‘boil 2 minutes – do not overcook’ directions on the package and drained them before testing them. Totally not cooked. (Re-read it… it then says boil 3 more minutes. Oops). Luckily there was lots of sweet & sour sauce in the pot so I finished cooking the noodles right in there.

Kids ate acceptably well. Again M had to have ketchup with his, and though the meat wasn’t tough he never eats a lot if it’s big chunks (I did cut it up, but whatever.) I think the baby may have fed some of his to the dogs but I can’t say for sure. He’s sneaky.

SATURDAY: Yeah. This is why I only plan 6 meals. We didn’t get home until 5pm, which is normally the time we eat, and Daddy was working late. I ate chips and guacamole, M had leftover’s from lunch the day before, and I put a random assortment of stuff on the baby’s plate.

Of course Mac ‘n Cheese is always well received, and the baby dumped his plate before I got a picture but I think he ate most of it, minus the avocado, and the dogs probably enjoyed some sausage.

I did actually end up cooking though. Normally Hubs would fend for himself in this situation, but because I knew he was coming home late and would be hungry, I made he and I some food. What was supposed to be a steak meal with grilled peppers wasn’t because I had scheduled steak based on a price-match at Superstore, and they didn’t have any on grocery day, so I just used some beef we had in the freezer with BBQ sauce, boiled potatoes and peas from the freezer.


SUNDAY: BBQ’d chicken  (This sauce I made from scratch), baked potatoes and corn on the cob (unless you’re the baby, then it’s corn not on the cob)

Well received, though much to my dismay M doesn’t love potatoes as much as I do.

And that’s it! Some easy meals like quesadillas or frozen salmon & rice, one more involved one like sweet & sour pork, and then some pretty basic not-too-many-steps-and-didn’t-have-to-think-too-much dishes. Usually I am not cooking 7 days a week like this (we often have pancakes for dinner or something on a weekend day) but it just worked out that I did this week because we were home a lot more than usual.

Are you a meal planner or do you wing it? What are your favorite dishes? What is a hit with the kids? Let me know in the comments below!


4 thoughts on “Meal Planning for Dummies

  1. We say Spaghetti Bolognese because we want people to think we are better cooks than what we truly are…lol I wish I had a budget like yours (well you do have those kiddos at home so i guess it isn’t as huge as it looks to me). I rarely plan for the week. I have my pantry so danged organized now I know what I have and don’t just with a glance (thanks so much to ms organizer here on WP). That sweet and sour pork looked good. I have a sneaky feed-it-to-the-dogs person here but as he is over 60 I can’t call him a baby anymore.


    • Haha. You can still call him a baby he just won’t appreciate it. And $130 is a pretty small budget…. Do you live in the States? It would probably be around $80 maybe…. And your food is cheaper. But we have Canadian bacon so I guess it evens out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Grocery Shopping On the Cheap – Set a Budget & STAY on Budget Every Time | Not A Terrible Mother

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