Family Meal Planning for Beginners

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For a long time, I struggled with cooking. Not the physical act of cooking, but knowing what to cook, keeping up with what I had on hand, making too many trips to the grocery store– I was riding front seat on the struggle bus.

If this sounds at all familiar, let’s talk about the the process that helped turn this around and got my grocery budget under tighter control.

Meal Planning for Families

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What Is Meal Planning?

What is meal planning? It’s whatever way you organize yourself to prepare meals. It is the plan you make before you shop. It’s the way you manage the food in your home and your grocery budget. It’s all of those things together.

What are the Benefits of Meal Planning

There are so many great reasons to start meal planning. Let’s check them out!

  1. Saves You Money. This reason may seem obvious, but in my opinion it’s definitely one of the top reasons most people meal plan. Planning ahead gives you the opportunity to shop sales, only buy what you need and more!
  2. Saves You Time. I’d like to start with a caveat. When you’ve got your system in place this will save you time. But, you are going to need to figure out what works for you and get that going.
  3. Helps You Eat Healthier. By planning ahead you can avoid spur of them moment drive-thru meals, vending machine options, etc. There’s no reason for you to eat out or that you can’t plan ahead if you have your meal plan in place– giving you far more control over what types of food you are eating.
  4. Helps Reduce Stress. Having a plan can make your day go so much easier. No more pulling your hair our, racking your brain for what to cook at 5:30PM. With a solid plan in place, you can skip the stress and go straight to cooking.
  5. Allows More Variety. When you don’t know what to cook, your default is probably much like mine– I’ll cook something easy, quick, and that we probably eat alot. First, there is nothing wrong with that, but meal planning allows for another option. Wouldn’t it be exciting to try something new?! Maybe come up with a new favorite? Meal planning gives you the choice.
  6. Helps Reduce Amount of Food Waste. There is not too many things that upset me more than throwing food away. I’m so passionate about using up our food, I wrote a whole other post about my clever trick that helps my family eat through our leftovers.

Tips on How to Be Successful with Family Meal Planning

Now, that we’ve covered all the reasons why meal planning is a great idea, let’s talk about how to be successful with it!

Start Small 

Big, sweeping changes in your life can often set you up to fail. Making small steps towards your larger goal will serve you better with a greater chance of success.  Instead of jumping into a whole month of meal planning, consider taking it a week at a time a first to get yourself settled and give yourself time to figure out what works for you and your family.

Make a Master List of Meals

 This will be, hands down, one of the biggest time savers once you get it set up. When I first started meal planning, I created an Excel spreadsheet and made a list of every meal I could think of that I knew my family liked to eat.

Some key things to keep in mind:

  • Organization is your friend. Whether you want to organize it by meal type, ingredients, prep and cook time– doesn’t matter, but organizing it, is highly recommended.
  • Where are you going to store and save your master list? Whether you like spreadsheets too, if it’s pen and paper, a Pinterest board, or even an online recipe book– know where you are keeping this list as you don’t want to lose all of that hard work!
  • Meal journals. Really, this is just a fancy way to talk about recipe notes. If you ever like to dabble with new recipes, this is a handy place to keep track of those recipes: if you liked them, any tweaks you want to make for next time, notes, etc.

Gather Recipes You are Interested in Trying

I don’t know about you, but I get sick of eating the same foods over and over. 

Once a month or so, I search Pinterest for a meal or two that I want to try. The reason that I’m including this point is that there are a few criteria I use to filter what recipes I’m looking for and I thought you might find them helpful as well when you dig through recipes for your meal plan.

Recipe criteria:

  • Common ingredients. No need to buy a whole jar of some expensive spice if you aren’t sure you are ever going to use it again and it’s only to try some recipe.
  • I look for healthy budget friendly foodsThere are certain budget friendly foods I always make sure I have on hand because they are versatile and pretty inexpensive. Things like chicken, eggs, brown rice and spinach  are some of my favorites, but there are definitely more options
  • Something that is family friendly. As much as I adore tuna noodle casserole (#nojudgements) I can’t pay my kids to eat it. While I don’t make meals just for my kids, I certainly consider what meals I can make that I know we will all (for the most part!) enjoy.
  • A meal that has the potential for leftovers. Nothing makes me happier than having food leftover at the end of a meal. I am not a gourmet cook, to be completely honest, I don’t really enjoy cooking, but we’ve got to eat! So, any opportunity where I don’t have to cook another meal I am a real big fan of– leftovers for the win!

Write Your Meal Plan Out

You’ve got your whole master list of meals and maybe a handful of new recipes you are interested in trying. Now, it’s time to plan the plan.

You can write out your meal plan in a couple of different ways. You can use a calendar template, a plain sheet of paper, Google Calendar, or in a meal planning app.

Important step to include here: include your grocery list with the meal plan. It makes things easier when you’re shopping and keeping your meals organized.

What happens if the grocery store is out of a certain ingredient? Wouldn’t it be nice to know what meal that affects and possibly make a switch?

Plan for Every Meal

Don’t forget to plan for all 3 meals of the day. If your family likes to snack– include them. 

This helps with staying on budget and using up leftovers so there’s less food waste.

If it works for your budget, you can still include meals out or ordering in. The point is not that you have to cut out all dinning out, but to keep yourself on track and on budget.

Include Family Activities in Your Meal Planning

Do your kids have weekly practices or after school classes? Want to take a trip to the beach on Sunday?

Don’t forget to account for the meals that will be needed during those activities.

Shop the Sales and What’s Seasonal

I’ve mentioned in my 125 frugal living ideas, that one of my all time favorite apps is Flipp. I can search through circulars for local stores. Holy-time-saver-Batman!

Another option is to search your favorite stores directly. Tons of stores now offer electronic copies of their circulars on their websites.

Lastly, shopping seasonal produce can save you a bundle. When strawberries are in season and I’m paying $2.99/ clamshell, I am living the dream. We’re now in the offseason and the cost has gone up to $6.99. You know who’s got two thumbs and is not eating strawberries this winter? This girl. $4, ya’ll. I just can’t, that’s what I pay for one pound of ground beef.


Shop What You Have on Hand First

 Assuming your pantry/fridge/freezer is organized, (if not, it wouldn’t be a bad idea!) take stock of what you have on hand (and subsequently already spent money on) and use those ingredients to help fill in your meal planning.

Don’t Forget to Plan and Include Leftovers

When you are cooking for your family, chances are good there will be leftovers.

I know many people are not a big fan of leftovers (and by people, I mean my children), but that’s just one (if I’m lucky-two!) meals that I don’t have to shop, pay for or cook.

So. Much. Win!

Double Up on Your Favorites and Freeze Them

 You know what’s better than cooking twice? Cooking once!

My family has a few favorite meals that are absolutely clutch for me; lasagna, beef stew, and pulled pork. These all freeze beautifully and to be honest, making a double batch isn’t any more effort than what I would have made for just for one dinner.

All I have to do when I’m ready to eat them is pop them into the oven or onto the stove to reheat.

Super easy!

So, do yourself a solid and think about what meals that your family loves that you can double up and then freeze!

Plan Less Complicated Meals for Weeknights

The middle of the week may not be the best time to try Sous Vide Chicken. I’m just saying.

I like to save the more time intensive or complicated recipes when I’m not up to my eyeballs with stuff to do. Like helping my daughter with her homework, bath time, or the small mountain of laundry my family seem to accumulate.

Skip Making Multiple Meals

 I am super guilty of doing this when my kids were younger. Turns out I was doing everyone a huge disservice.

You are not a short order cook. There is no need for you to be whipping up 3 different meals for you and everyone else in your house.

With that being said, I too have picky eaters! BUT I try to pick recipes that I know they can and will eat in some variation.

Example: my oldest loves pasta but hates marinara (she loves ketchup, so figure that one out!). So when it’s spaghetti and meatball night, she has her plain noodles, but throws a tiny bit of butter and cheese on her noodles and calls it good.

Did I make anything extra? Nope.

Did we all eat at dinner? Yes. Yes, we did.

Repurpose leftovers

My grandmother is the one who taught me all about this little tip and it’s nothing short of genius. You ready?

She would make spaghetti one night, making this HUGE pot of sauce.

Night’s over and there is a TON of spaghetti sauce leftover. You know what she did??

Next night, she would add beans, and a few spices. BOOM- it’s Chilli night.

Left over Rotisserie chicken can become chicken quesadillas or chicken tacos.

See where I’m going with this? You get two meals with the effort of one (mostly).

This makes my frugal mother’s heart SO HAPPY!

Check in with Your Meal Plan Often

 What are you cooking today? What are you cooking tomorrow? What kind of prep needs to happen for these meals. Does something require marinating? Defrosting?

Checking in daily can help keep your plan on track.

You’ve Got This | Final Thoughts

Food is easily one area where many families find themselves stressing and overspending. With a little planning and work, you can stay on budget, eat well and take the stress out of meal times.

I’d love to hear your meal planning tips and tricks. Please leave them below!

Family Meal Planning


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