Here are some easy meal planning ideas to help you save money and time! Many people find planning meals daunting but meal planning can actually be easy! These tips and ideas will help you get started!
We get so many questions over and over about meals and meal planning. While I was looking up something to answer one reader’s question about meal planning, I came across some notes I had written years ago from a class I had taken.
This statement I wrote is clear, simple and pretty much covers everything you need to know when preparing a meal.
Meal Planning 101
Meals should be planned, be regular, be on time, taste good, be nutritious, fit within your budget, smell good and be attractive.
It might help to write this statement out and keep it in your kitchen somewhere or with your coupons and meal planning things. Then, as you plan your meals, you can go quickly go over the list and see if your meal satisfies all or most of these points.
If you remember the above statement, that is all you really need to know about meal planning but I decided to add a little detail to it to give you some ideas about what that statement means.
Planned – Meal planning helps to save money and eliminates the last minute stress of wondering “What am I making tonight for dinner?!” This is the key to all meal planning and probably will save you more money than anything else. If you plan at least a week’s worth of menus. At least plan the night before or that morning what you will have.
Regular – We often know we need nutritious meals but sometimes don’t realize that having meals on a regular basis really helps our digestive system function better. That means part of good meal planning is picking a time to have dinner close to the same time each day.
Having regular meals also helps our families emotionally. We are built to like consistency in our lives, especially children. There is something comforting in knowing no matter what frustrating things happened throughout the day, when your family arrives home, there is one constant in their lives – dinner. If you don’t think this is true, try it for a week or two. Then stop doing it and see how your family reacts. Make setting a regular meal time part of your meal planning.
On time – Getting meals prepared on time can be a little tricky for new cooks. It takes a little practice but you can learn to do it. Start preparing the food that will take the longest to cook first. Then work on the next longest and so on. Also, do as much ahead of time as possible. This goes for everyone. Brand new cooks may want to set the table long before even beginning the meal because it is one less thing to deal with but later, with practice, you can usually set the table while you are waiting for something to cook on the stove. With practice, you will also get to the point where you can toss a salad while you are waiting for the potatoes to cook but this all comes with time. While you are learning, keep your meals simple and composed of just a few easy dishes.
Taste Good – Pick foods your family likes and learn to cook them. I know this can be a meal planning challenge for some of us. Some people have a harder time learning to cook than others in the same way that some are better at gardening or sewing but you really need to try the best you can to learn some basics.
It may take a little work but you need to find foods that taste good. You may have to try different brands and varieties of the food. This may mean learning things like being fresh doesn’t always mean something tastes better. Most of the time I can’t tell any difference when I use frozen or fresh broccoli in my cooked foods but I can tell a difference between the brands of frozen broccoli I buy. To save money, use frozen foods if you can’t tell a difference and use the savings to buy fresh foods where you really can tell a difference.
Be nutritious – I have touched on this a lot in other articles but basically this means you need to learn about nutrients and what your family needs. Study. We grab anything that has organic or healthy written on the label but many of us couldn’t tell you what main foods are more rich in iron or vitamin B. If you are that concerned about your family’s health and insist that you must eat organic, at least learn how many calories and what nutrients are in the food. Read a book or do some research on the Internet. Don’t just read labels.
Fit your budget – This is simple. You may want to have steak for dinner but your budget only allows chicken, so chicken it is. Staying within your budget when meal planning will help you avoid overspending.
Smell Good – You truly use all of your senses when you eat. If your family can’t get the food past their noses, it won’t make it into their mouths. Also, food smells have a strong impact on people emotionally, especially when the smells are connected with home and family. Consider how often you hear an adult talk about memories of home and half of the time they mention some smell they remember.
Be Attractive – Like I mentioned above, we use all of our senses. If the meal doesn’t look good or looks “gross”, they won’t eat it. This should be an important consideration in your meal planning. Don’t forget to use lots of different colored food. Not only does this help with eye appeal but it also is an easy way to know you are giving your family a more nutritionally balanced meal. Many different colors means well balanced. Don’t forget to use different shapes and textures of food, too.
Meal planning is one of those jobs we tend to let go because we don’t consider them as important or as pressing as other things– kind of like folding clothes and putting them away. We can get them washed and dried but not folded and put away. But doing these things and following through with them can really make our lives easier and get rid of a lot of stress and always saves us money.
Rethink some things in your life that you are letting slide including your meal planning. You might be surprised a what a difference changing a few things will make.
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I have your book about meal planning, along with 3 others that you put out, and when I read in the meal planning book about having different colors of food at a meal, I was really impressed. I never thought of that before, but it makes prefect sense. To see whites, greens, yellows, reds, etc., at a meal is visually appealing, instead of having the whole meal one color. That was a creative suggestion that I think about a lot and of course, use. It really does make a diffence in being satisfied.
I agree that there are numerous benefits to cooking in a planful manner. I am pretty good at putting a meal together from whatever I have on hand, but if you wait until the 11th hour to do this, it is stress provoking.
In fact, think today about the dinner you are going to have tomorrow. That way you won’t find yourself serving late because you couldn’t think of what to make, or because you were lacking an ingredient, or it took longer than expected.
ps – is there a particular section of this website for users to list recipes and other cooking/baking resources? I have things I’d like to share from time to time.
When we were growing up my mother always had a bowl in the freezer. when ever there was left over vegs. no matter what or how small she would add them to the bowl. When the bowl was full it was time for veg. beef soup. she would use a small roast, or left over roast, add a few fresh veg. like cabbage or her canned tomatoes and the bowl of left over vegs. In a canning pot everything would go with any handy broth. When we had a little extra money or good sales she would use more fresh stuff but when money was tight or prices were high it had very little fresh. No matter how it was made my mother made the best veg soup ever.
The best soup is made from leftovers! You cannot duplicate all those little bits of vegetables and the perfectly seasoned broths. I like to use V8 juice to thin the broth if needed. If there isn’t enough leftover meat the small can of plain corned beef is great added to the soup. I keep some on hand.
Yes a perfect way to save those veggies too is to keep a container in the freezer and put any leftover veggies you have in it. When the container is full make soup and you have a meal that is almost free.
To make sure meals are healthy and balanced my registered dietitian recommended visually cutting your plates into quarters and filling one quarter with meat/protein and one quarter with starch (rice, pasta, bread, potatoes). The other half fill with fruits, veggies or a combination of the two (we usually do half and half). Then only allow refills on the fruit/veggie half – they’re lower in calories, more filling and generally healthier. This is of course if you don’t use sauces or cheese on your veggies. :) Just by following this and reducing the size of my snacks I lost 7 lbs last year!
I’m going to recommend this page to a friend who is new to this whole “cooking at home” thing. I’m always amaized that people aren’t taught this stuff since my Mom made such a point of teaching me…
luann my mother called her soup day before grocery day or clean out the crisper soup.
all the unused vegetables went into the pot with either chicken or stewing beef. Even after 34 years of marriage I still can’t make my soup taste as good as hers.
When I get groceries I don’t plan meals.
With arthritis in my hands and fibro in the rest of my body I plan things according to how I feel the day I am cooking.
I buy the peeled carrots so I don’t have to peel and chop them.
I buy the little bags of those small potatoes.
I buy the family size packages of meats and then freeze them individually.
with those 3 things in the house I can put together a meal with no great strain.
a few potatoes, carrots and some type of meat in tin foil in the oven. toss a salad toast some french bread and dinner is ready and I am still able to function.
with frozen vegetables you can make stew that is colourful and tasty. cook the meat potatoes and carrots and about 10 minutes before you serve it from the slow cooker add some frozen corn, frozen beans or peas. They just have to be heated through. So the colour isn’t cooked out of them. But the stew still has the all day cooking taste.
I rarely use frozen prepared things but I do keep a package of chicken fingers in the freezer for nights nobody is particularly hungry and we just have the munchies. roasted potatoes sweet and regular a couple egg rolls and chicken fingers. I call this meal a scrappy meal.
Grandma, I too have fibro and osteoarthritis. Doesn’t everyone buy the little carrots all ready to use? LOL Noticed you mentioned freezing meats and I have this new trick. I use the little flip over the top sandwich bags and put my things individually in a freezer bag. I like to put about 1/2 pound of ground beef and mash it out to form a square. This thaws much quicker and allows you to adjust the amount needed much easier than if it were all the same size. I do plan my meals.
My spreadsheet Menus has all the beef, pork, fish, or other types of meals I serve. On another sheet I have listings for several weeks. This allows me to cut and paste meals and to be aware if something has been served recently. Mama loves that I have designated days, such as Sunday is special, Monday is stir fry, Tuesday is sandwiches with soup, salad, or fries (includes burgers and hot dogs), Wednesdays is experiments, Thursday is thrifty, Friday is fish, and Saturday is fun. In another post I wrote that I buy groceries online from Walmart every two weeks. By staying out of the grocery store you can save money and avoid the work involved with a big grocery shopping, perfect!
To improve the flavour of chicken soup add 1/2 tsp yellow curry powder to a small-to-medium size pot of chicken stock or 1 tsp to a large pot of chicken stock. I don’t know why it makes a difference but it does. You get more of a Lipton-y flavour that way without all that excess salt.
most of the time I keep meals healthy following the Canada food guide.
BUT sometimes you just want junk food but not all the additives.
this is what I came up with.
chicken balls.take a couple breast or thighs cut them into bite size pieces.
fish like for fish and chips cut them into 1″ cubes.
small mushrooms or quartered large ones.
broccoli cut bite size zucchini the same and onions either chunks or rings.
make a batter for them with pancake batter or I like tempura batter either is great.
start with the vegetables dip them then deep fry them. As they drain move onto the fish. Finally do the chicken.
While these are being done have roasting french fries in the oven.
I serve this with coleslaw lots of pickles and olives and have dipping sauces.
sweet and sour, plum sauce, tai spicy sauce.
ketchup and honey mustard.
Grizzly Bear MOm
Wanting to save money, I began tracking all the money I spent. The great majority of it was spent eating out. Since outside food is made from fat and sugar, and super sized, I realized this was what caused my weigh problem. Now for the good of my weight and retirement, I eat from home more. Thanks for continually reminding us.
I am totally with you on the paper towel issue. I use rags almost exclusively. They do a much better job and are more eco-friendly. I get my rages from old towels. Sometimes these are my old towels and sometimes I find these at yard sales and thrift shops. Nothing like it!
I made Sheila’s Ham Noodle recipe last night and it is very good. Comfort food for a cold day.
My mother always served peas when she served fish. the potatoes are white the fish is just off white even french fries are the same colour as the fish.
So a spoonful of green peas made the dish nicer to look at.
To this day I like peas with fish.
My husband is not a big vegetable eater if they are cooked so my salads make up the colour at the meal. Salads and a plate of fresh vegetables.
When mom made our favourite creamed tuna fish on toast she always tossed peas into the mixture. I have made it without the peas but it just isn’t the same.
Colour goes a long way to the appeal of the dish. Kids eat better with lots of different things on the plate. they feel they are getting a better choice the brighter things are.
In the nursing home I found that when meals were served the stews were ok but if it was meatloaf mashed potatoes and a colourful vegetable they ate better.
I live with my parents and help out with the groceries from time to time.
One way we save on so much meat is that I butcher the poultry and beef cuts myself. Every time the meat department makes a cut, you can figure that one extra cut costs about $1.00. Buy in bulk when you can afford to do it.
Steaks can be cut from chuck roast. I got six steaks for $11.00. Chicken quarters are 35cents a pound. I even remove the bone from the chicken quarters for more versatile cooking. The bones and skin are made into broth. I get about a gallon.
I happen to like soup, so this is a plus for me. The little pug gets the leftover chicken meat and gristle for food.
my brother’s girlfriend always has a pot of soup/stew in the fridge .. and she has several crockpots too …
all they have to do is add the salad and rolls and iced tea and voila! dinner is on ..
and good news, her food bill is soo low that any excess she would have spent on food goes into a piggy bank and they take several cruises (all day or weekend ones) from time to time …
i asked for some recipes and she said just vegi’s, broth of choice and meat (if you have or want it) .. and bc they have rolls/bread, she doesnt add any potatoes, rice or noodles … too much starch …
both of their cholesterol levels have lowered alot, they are practically off their blood pressure meds and he is not considered on the borderline of being diabetic anymore .. (altho his intake of chocolate has to be monitored .. he loves chocolate) .. and she has even lost weight ..
i told hubby we are definitely going on this diet .. all he wants is nothing but vegi’s and some fruits/berries/nuts and very very lean meat (only 2 or 3 oz, organic) and well bc i like broth and bread (i love bread) this will work for me …
our son (who still lives with us) can either eat like us or well buy and fix his own foods .. he said he will do half and half .. half of eating like us and the other half of cooking his own meals (which is fine with me) .. :D …
thanks for posting this .. :D
OAMC or cooking for the freezer has been very useful for me.
Instead of jumping in over your head by spending the whole weekend fixing a months worth of meals, just cook double batches of freezer-friendly dishes when you prepare dinner. Enchiladas, lasagna, sloppy joes, most soups, meatloaf, many casseroles, etc are examples. There are several cookbooks dedicated to freeze-ahead cooking. Plus a Google search turns up lots of recipes and sites with tips and examples of cooking sessions for free!
I also have a couple of last minute options for those days when I find myself approaching 5pm and realize I have forgotten about what to make for dinner. Frozen chicken patties, Tuna Helper, Tuna Burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, frozen skillet dinners, etc. I need to make an emergency list of ideas instead of trying to keep this all in my head.
My basic meal plan formula is one meat (or protein), one carb/starch dish (potatoes, bread, rice, noodles, etc), and a vegetable (fresh, frozen, canned, raw, salad)or occasionally substitute fruit. Combinations count! I especially like to make recipes that include all 3.
For any of you interested in meal planning check out our Menus e books. I have pages of ideas and how to’s (sp?) when it comes to grocery shopping and menu planning. You really will save so much and more then what you paid for it the first time you plan a menu or go shopping. So if you need even more help you might check them out.
Maybe it was the way I was brought up but I cannot get food to taste as good from the freezer (casseroles pastas) to taste as good. My family agrees and I simply make each meal as required.
It is more cost effective for us. I don’t feed the dog next door with stuff we don’t eat.
Well it paid off this weekend. A friend of mine due to back problems has been confined to almost complete bed rest. Her husband is trying to cope with burgers and hot dogs since they can be done in the microwave.
Such a healthy tasty diet.
When I got off the phone with her I grabbed a chicken from the freezer put it in a pot of water and spices then chopped up some carrots got rice measured out. When the chicken was cooked I added the rice and carrots to the stock then added back in some of the cooked chicken meat. Let it simmer for about 10 min then turned it off and let the hot water cook the rice and carrots. This morning I measured it out into zip lock bags and have 6 cups of chicken rice soup. Now I have a pot of stock and more chicken which I will thicken with vegetables and gravy and have about the same amount of either stew or chicken pot pie.
They do not know how long she will be in this condition but I will help out with healthy light meals until she is back on her feet.
I also made a leafy salad with croutons to add to it with dressing.
If anyone can suggest some other meals that can be zapped and are easy to eat while practically lying flat would be greatly appreciated.
Also sending her movies and talking books to keep her from being bored. She says you can’t crochet lying flat as it is too hard on the arms.
I guess cooking from a freezer is a good idea for some but I am just not organized in that way. More fun for me from scratch.
I hate food from the freezer. I will freeze meat etc. but to warm up a casserole…Yuck!!! Usually they are watery and have a freezer taste, even if I do wrap it well.
I second your comment about casserole’s from the freezer, YUCK! What I do instead is freeze key ingredients…like spaghetti sauce and meatballs….It doesn’t take very long to boil some pasta while you are heating the sauce and meatballs….15-20 minutes spaghetti and meatballs and salad…I do this with a lot of items….You guys have mentioned this before too….cut up veggies, onions, even meats..these can save a bundle of time later. Have a great day!
Bea like you I freeze things separate.
If I make rice I freeze enough so that days that I am rushed I can toss it in the pan add some sort of meat soy sauce some green onions and a handful of peas. nice side dish of fried rice.
I keep a bag of oriental vegetables frozen for quick stir fries.
They go with almost any type of meat with a bit of oyster sauce and that with the fried rice plus a couple homemade egg rolls and you have a really quick meal that is tasty enough for company.
I discovered a new thing to make and keep in the freezer this weekend.
take mashed potatoes left overs mix in egg and cracker crumbs salt pepper and cheese if you want. drop a tsp onto cookie sheets don’t need to be greased. bake for 10 min or until a nice colour. they are good this way but I had some left and the next night I was making fish and chips and my husband dropped the potatoe puffs into the hot oil. cooked them for 5 min and they were delicious. I have to find out if the fried ones can be frozen and then just reheated in the oven.
He has decided they are better than french fries and they are a lot cheaper and 12 makes a nice snack for late night munchies.
He likes ketchup to dip them in but they are good with just salt. though I put a sprinkle of vinegar on mine.
They are healthier than chips or fries and are not greasy at all.
i usually do this .. i make a pot of ziti’s or spaghetti for one nite .. and for the leftovers i put them in little bags … (i get the produce bags from the market and use those bags … i usually grab a bunch of them and put the bunch in another bag and tie the bag) …
and the leftovers i re-heat in the microwave (add a dab of butter or some more sauce) or if its alot, i add more sauce, ricotta or vegis, heat in oven for 10 mins and then take out and top with shredded cheese and heat again until the cheese is melted..
i too do not like to pre-freeze meals and then take out .. esp if its with pasta/rice or potatoes …
now i have taken beef and cooked in some gravy with onions, carrots and celery and have frozen that .. then when i want to make the stew/soup, i cook the potatoes that nite and add to the mixture and heat all together .. add a salad and bread ..
thanks for the recipe grandma .. this looks good :D
Have you tried freezing the casserole before you bake it? I do this with stuffed pepper casserole and goulash. I let it thaw completely first, give it a good stir and top with cheese before putting it in the oven. Any extra liquid should bake out.
As far as freezing foods, I too usually freeze items separately. When I cook rice, I freeze it in meal-sized portions in freezer Ziploc bags. When I take it out, I poke small holes in the bag with a sharp knife, then put the bag in a pot of boiling water for 5-7 minutes. It tastes fresh cooked, just add whatever seasonings you like. And when I make chili or soup, I make plenty extra and freeze it. If you use really thick freezer bags, you can just pour the cooled soup or chili into a bag. If not try using butter tubs, or other bowls.
When it’s cold outside, I usually try to bake foods more. The extra heat from the oven is a nice by-product! In the summer, we use the grill a lot or cook more in the crockpot, to not heat up the kitchen and the rest of the house. I bake a couple of packages of chicken breast (from a sale purchase) in the oven in the winter and crockpot in the summer. Then, I package it in freezer bags in portions for our family. I cut up the chicken before freezing, to make casseroles or soups with chicken chunks. I also cook large amounts of hamburger at one time and repackage to freezer bags for later use for spaghetti sauce, casseroles, tacos, sloppy joes and anything else I make with hamburger. When we grill out, I always have my husband grill more than we need, then I freeze it for later use. Meat seems to take the longest to cook, so with that stage already done, meals are quick to make.
I was wondering if you knew of where I could get coupons to save money on food using organic produce.
I like the idea of a tossed salad w/ dinner, but what if it’s only you and one child? Thanks.
I live by myself so I know what you mean but fixing a salad for 1or 2 isn’t much different then for a family of 4. I keep a head of lettuce in the crisper and tear off and wash what I need for each meal. I keep it wrapped in it’s original plastic wrapper that it came in and it lasts quite awhile for me. So I don’t get tired of using it in salads I put it on a sandwich or even lay a leaf or two under a pear for a “mini” fruit salad.
You can get the baby carrots to add to a salad and I either get a small Roma tomato or cut a large tomato in half and use part for my salad and the rest on a sandwich or another salad the next day. If you are worried about not using the fixin’s for a salad up fast enough think of other ways to use them. Like the carrots by themselves for a snacked, cooked to go with a roast one night. You can slice the tomatoes to eat alone. Green peppers can be used in salads, casseroles or stews and soups. I have even in the past just placed a chunk of lettuce on a plate with dressing on it.
That is part of meal planning. It really is no different then making a salad for more people you just make less.
I actually do a combination of things – freeze unprepared meat, freeze sauces, especially spaghetti sauce with either ground beef or not, and occasionally prepared dishes. My husband likes almost anything I prepare and freeze later in the week or month for lunch. He likes to go in my “freezer deli” where I have placed single servings of meals in Pyrex dishes. He can then take what he wants, does not eat out, and we don’t have to eat the same leftovers night after night. I agree with some, that I don’t like many things as frozen leftovers. But there are a few, and so I try to keep those in the rotation, and hubby graciously leaves those for me. The prepared spaghetti sauce with ground beef is also great to pull out and use on top of stuffed shells or make into lasagna. I also stuff an entire box of shells, freeze them into a greased cake pan, and place 12 in a food saver bag to be baked off with sauce for a quick dinner. Some of my favorite re-freezables are chili, Chicken Bowtie Pasta, Chicken Couscous, Lasagna, to name a few.
I started many years back when gas prices were almost 5 dollars a gallon.We only own one car. We would go food shopping once a week. Take full inventory of my kithen and plan meals for the entire week. I would shop at stores like Aldis or Walmart . And if we ran out of an item well had to wait til Saturday. It kept my food budget within our amount. And it prevented wasting gas to run out to the stores during the week. Also I would shop early in the mornings to avoid the crowds long lines at the check out .
Lori Alayne Weber Miller
I make homemade pico de gallo with fresh tomatoes, peppers, onions(even Measures) garlic (2 cloves) 1/2 cup white vinegar lime(1) and cilantro a bunch and it keeps well in tupperware in the frig. I add a scoop to eggs for huevos rancheros or a scoop to salads for taco salad. Kids eat it with tortilla chips etc it is packed with vitamins. It keeps really well for two weeks. when it gets two weeks old I throw whatever is left in with a pot of chili. I make pot roast most Sundays and immediately convert the leftovers to beef barley soup by adding a can of green beans and sweet corn Juice and all a can of diced stewed tomatoes 2 stalks of celery and one onion and 1/2 cup pearl barley and let simmer for 45 minutes
Menus are just as essential as grocery shopping. Knowing what you plan to cook when alleviates some of the stress associated with getting dinner on the table. When my children were young and I had to work it was a common thing for me to do some of my meal prep on Saturday.
One post I read brought back memories of a cookbook. It was based on the DOLDOLO menu plan. D was for preparing a meat and planning on using leftovers on the night designated L. The O was for one meat meals or main dishes. By taking that large chicken and having planned leftovers it justifies the higher price of a larger chicken, which is of course meatier. By planning, you remember to put the carcass in the crock pot for a few hours for a rich broth. It is much easier to have a dinner when the meat is already prepared. I have rinsed the gravy off a roast and fixed beef and broccoli for a healthy meal.