Meal Planning: A Simple Approach for Beginners

Meal Planning: A Simple Approach for Beginners

Chalk Board with Meal

I used to believe that Meal Planning meant grocery shopping for the week and pre-portioning everything in to Pinterest worthy matching containers. I found that this approach work for several reasons. Primarily I found it overly complicated, inflexible and I would get bored.  I discovered that by Friday I wasn’t really interested in having that Chicken that I prepared on Monday.

How do I start a Meal Plan?

The best way to start a meal plan is to identify perishable items that will expire within the next week and build your meals around those items. plan.  This includes fresh produce, meat, dairy, and items such as broth that are marked “use within 7 days after opening”.  

Also consider your goals when you start meal planning. Is your goal to save more money by not eating out? Is your goal to save money by not wasting food? Do you want to lose weight by becoming more  conscious about your eating habits?

The Trick to Simplifying Meal Planning

Woman Looking in Fridge
Start Your Plan by looking in your Fridge

Have you ever opened the refrigerator door, stared at a refrigerator full of food for a few moments and then exclaimed “There’s nothing Eat! “.  Hungry and ready to eat… you ordered takeout or pulled out a processed meal because you wanted something quick and easy.  My goal with meal planning is to avoid this scenario because this usually ends with expired food being tossed in the trash because I never got around to making. This can easily cause hundreds of dollars of food waste.  

I’ve found that planning meals one to two days in advance prevents this scenario from playing out on a regular basis. Instead of looking at my fridge full of food and seeing Nothing to Eat”,  I see a fridge with some organic chicken , onions, and peppers that I can use to make into a stir fry. I know I can  make it in one pan for easy cleanup and get it on the table in less than an hour. I know this because I looked in the fridge two days ago took inventory and planned my meal 2 days ago.  That pricey organic chicken has been saved from the trash can saving your money.  Meals prepared at home tend to be healthier than meals prepared by restaurant so bonus points for

I’ve found the trick to simplifying meal planning is to plan meals no more than one to two days in advance. Planning beyond that does not leave room for any flexibility.

Start Brainstorming Meal Ideas and write down the Ingredients

Now that you have an idea of the perishables that you have on hand that you will use  in your meals, start brainstorming meal ideas. Do you have a ground beef in the fridge that you were hoping to transform into spaghetti and meatballs? Head to the pantry and make sure you have all the spices you need for your favorite recipe and a box  of Spaghetti to make the meal come together.

Having a meal planned only to discover that you do not have everything you need can be extremely frustrating. Avoid this by making a list of ingredients and anything you don’t currently have in your kitchen, add it to the grocery list.

Why I decided to simplify my Meal Planning routine

Planning for an entire week didn’t allow for much flexibility. If a friend invited me over for dinner, or a co-worker treated the team to lunch all my meticulous meal planning went out the window. A more common scenario is that I would plan to have leftovers for a lunch or dinner but my Husband really enjoyed the meal and there were no leftovers.

I found that I got discouraged if I didn’t have my meals for the week laid out by Sunday. It turned it in to an all or nothing approach and I would get frustrated when I didn’t have time on Sunday to go to the grocery store.  Now if Sunday night comes around and I haven’t had the opportunity to shop for groceries I  raid the freezer and thaw something to cook for Monday. Sometimes I order groceries online so that they are dropped off after work on Monday and I have what I need for meals on Tuesday and Wednesday.  In order words I keep moving forward. This iterative approach to meal planning works out well for me. Using it has helped me save money on wasted food. Rarely do items expire in my pantry or do I throw food out. This is a vast improvement  as I estimate I was easily throwing away hundreds of dollars every year.

Wash and Prep Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Ahead of Time to get a head start on Meal Planning

Grapes are a big hit in my house…only when I wash them though. If I don’t wash the entire bag of grapes shortly after we come home from the store, no one touches them.  Same with cucumbers, they end up in the trash unless I peel and slice them.

Include Stocking and Raiding your Fridge as part of your Meal Plan

We love Avocados, but it is hard to predict when they will be ripe and ready to eat. If an Avocado is ripe to perfection, but we don’t get a chance to use it, we freeze it.  These work Great in Smoothies!  We do the same for berries, grapes and bananas.

Sometimes I have been too ambitious with meal planning and stocked up on too much meat and ended up placing it in the freezer. When brainstorming meals ideas don’t forget to check the freezer! Have you ever gotten a great deal on meat only to freeze it and forget about it? The good think about meal planning one to  days in advance is that you have more than enough time to thaw it in refrigerator, so that it will be

Including Eating out as part of a Meal Plan can save $$$$

If you find you have one day out of the week that is more hectic than usual. Maybe the kids have a playoff game that goes late into the evening or you have to stay at work late for a meeting.  It’s okay to plan to eat out. Since you decided to eat out one or two days in advance, you have the opportunity to look for coupons, promo codes, or specials that restaurants in your area may offer.

My husband took a class after work while my son was still an infant and I was also working full time. I tried to plan meals in advance, but it was just way too much for me to cook, tend to the baby, wash all his bottles , wash all my pump parts, clean up the kitchen, give the baby a bath, and pack him up for the next day without any help.  We decided we would order in or grab take out on the night he had his class.  Since we knew in advance we were ordering in, we kept our eyes peeled for restaurant deals. Sometimes these were promo codes for apps like Uber Eats, coupons we clipped from the Sunday paper, or buy one get one deals delivered to our inbox.

Related Questions

How to Meal Plan for One?

To meal plan for one, separate large packages of meat in to smaller portions. Freeze and use the meat for meals later. Alternatively you can make a large batch of foods that freeze well such as soup or stews and freeze them in portions for later. For perishable ingredients that don’t freeze well. Try to find recipes that use similar ingredients in different ways.

How do you plan for the week on a budget?

If you are meal planning on a budget, start planning with items already in your fridge and pantry to avoid waste. Plan your weekly menu around items that you already have on hand, and sale items that have coupons.  To  save money stock up on items that you use frequently when they are on sale.

Mimi D.

Mimi D is the creator of Dream Plan Smile. An NYC native, she is a wife and mom with a passion for crafting. She holds a Bachelor's in Engineering and a Master's in Project Management. In her current role as a working wife and mom, she is getting a crash course in budgeting, planning, & organization.

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