Meal Planning for Beginners Guide

Find Out How to Make Eating Healthy Easier.

I talk a lot about meal planning. That’s because it’s without a doubt one of the most foundational concepts for a healthy lifestyle. Yes, it is possible to be healthy without meal planning, but it’s incredibly difficult and more than likely, a much more expensive way of doing things. My guess is that you don’t have space for that. You are busy, you don’t have an unlimited budget and you certainly don’t have unlimited time and energy. That’s where meal planning comes in. The concept is based on deciding ahead of time every meal that your family is going to have for at least three to four days but preferably the entire week. If you’re just starting out with living a healthy lifestyle or are ready to find out how to make eating healthy easier, then this step-by-step meal planning for beginners’ guide is for you.

***Note, you’ll probably want to plan to spend about an hour on getting your system in place. If that seems like too much, remember that this investment of time up front will help reduce the amount of time that you spend on weekly meal planning and will help to reduce food costs on a regular basis.

Photo of meal planning calendar and woman filling out meal planning calendar as examples of meal planning for beginners.

Step 1: Create a List of Regular Meals

Meal planning for beginners starts with creating a list of your favorite meals or at least meals that you and your family eat regularly. Here’s the way that I do this:

  • Create a spreadsheet with a column for Meals, Ingredients, Cost and Recipe. The simplest way is to use Google Sheets so that you can call it up on your phone wherever you are.
  • In the Meals column, make a list of 10-14 meals that your family eats regularly and/or loves. (If you don’t have 10-14 good foundational meals, see Step 2.) Be sure and leave 5-10 rows between each meal. You can also include the recipe’s website link or indicate the cookbook and page number where it can be found in the Recipe column. Different tabs for breakfast, lunch and snacks can also be created.
  • Then create a list of every ingredient in each meal. Do this in the Ingredients column using the empty rows between each meal.
  • Finally, figure out the average cost for each meal. I do this in the Cost column by including the usual price for each ingredient. For spices and items that I know I don’t use all at once, I come up with the general cost of the amount needed for that specific recipe. At the end of the recipe entry, I put “Total:” in the Meal column and then over in the Cost column, I total up the cost of all the ingredients.
  • It’s helpful to make a note of any recipes that use partial ingredients that may spoil quickly such as ½ can of diced tomatoes or ½ of an onion. That way you can easily know which recipes would be good to make in the same week to cut down on food waste as much as possible.

Step 2: Find Good Recipe Resources

If you don’t have 10-14 foundational meals that you can call on quickly when you’re planning your meals for the week, you’ll need to find at least three good recipe resources that you know won’t let you down. It may take a bit of trial and error to find these, but my bet is that you probably already have them even if you don’t realize it. These are the websites, blogs, and cookbooks that you regularly go to because you know that they have things that your family will eat. If you need suggestions for possible resources, feel free to use some or all of what I consider to be the 5 Best Healthy Food Blogs and the 7 Best Vegan Recipe Blogs and Websites.

As you find new meals to add to your repertoire, simply include them with the list that you’ve already started. This list is going to be the foundation for your weekly meal planning.

Step 3: Create a Meal Planning Template

After you’ve found your basic meals that you can rotate through every couple of weeks, it’s time to create your Meal Planning Template. Again, I do this in Google Sheets in the following way:

  • Have columns labeled Meal, Day of the Week, Recipe, Cost of Meal and Recipe Notes.
  • In the Meal column, have sections that are labeled Dinner, Lunch, Breakfast and Snacks.

Step 4: Fill in the Meal Planning Template

If you have your list of meals that you can refer to, filling in your meal planning template for the week is fairly easy. At this point, it’s just picking and choosing from the list that you’ve already created and maybe adding a new meal every now and then.

  • Cost-saving tip: Think about what foods are in season and look at your grocery store sales circular at the beginning of this step. Choose the meals from your list that use foods that are in season or on sale to keep costs as low as possible.
  • I create a new tab for each week within the same spreadsheet so that I can easily go back and remember what we had the previous week or two weeks before.
  • I would advise having a meal template for each year. Any longer than that gets too cumbersome to scroll through all of the tabs.
  • At the end of the list, you can calculate what your general cost for meals for the week will be by putting “Total:” in the Meal column and then over in the Cost of Meal column, totaling up the cost of all of the meals. That way, if it doesn’t fit within your budget for the week, you can go back and make adjustments.

Step 5: Use Meal Planner to Make Grocery List

Once you have your meal planner filled in, making your grocery list for the week is a snap. Simply, look at the ingredients’ list for each meal, check to see whether you already have it in stock or if you need to add it to the list. If you don’t have a good grocery list template that you use, you’re welcome to access my free Food Inventory and Shopping List template here or check out some of my other favorite meal planning tools.

Bottom Line on Meal Planning for Beginners

The bottom line on meal planning for beginners is that it will take some time and effort to get your system in place. Once you’ve done that though, the time and money savings and health benefits that you will reap from it will make it more than worth your while


Buying Food During a Crisis

Meal Planning to Stay Healthy and to Keep Costs and Stress as Low as Possible.

One thing that many of us are learning firsthand these days is that buying food during a crisis can be more than a little complicated. Grocery shopping for healthy food on a budget is what I do, but if you’re like me and don’t usually keep a lot of extra food in the house, it’s clear that a different approach is needed.

To help with that, I went to a couple of experts and called on tactics that I’ve used in the past but had let go of along the way. Between us all, some pretty sound strategies emerged for buying food during a crisis that I have now implemented. I wanted to share them with you because they’ve already started making a difference for my family in keeping us as healthy as possible while lowering costs and stress.

Please Note: I earn from qualifying purchases made through some of the links included in this post. You can read my disclosure policy here.

Take an Inventory of What You Have

At this point, your pantry and freezer may be fairly full of certain types of food, but do you really know what you have? If your answer is anything less than a resounding “yes!” you need to take inventory. It’s one of the crucial first steps to buying food during a crisis.

Inventory Process

My husband and I did this recently, and it was eye-opening to say the least. We went through the pantry, the fridge, the freezer, the cleaning products and regularly-used household items (such as light bulbs). Literally everything in those categories was listed. How many of each item and whether we would need more to get us through the next month. This was definitely a helpful exercise because we found things that we forgot we had, and I realized that we had less of some things than I thought.

If you don’t have a spouse or partner to help, enlist an older child or send your starter list to a neighbor or friend. They can be on speaker phone calling things out to you. The whole process could take take several hours, but I guarantee it will be well worth it. See below in the resources section to access the free Food Inventory and Shopping List Template that we came up with.

Image of 2 bowls of vegetables sitting on table as example of planning basic dinners

Plan 30 Basic Dinners for the Next Month

Elise New

This idea came from Elise New over at The Frugal Farm Wife. Because Elise lives on a farm, going to the grocery store many times a week isn’t convenient for her family. She’s such a great resource because her family already implements many strategies that would help during a crisis. She says that she likes to have a big list on hand of 30 potential dinners for the month. That way, she can stock those ingredients, draw from that list for her weekly meal plan, and it doesn’t take a lot of time or brain power.

Since you may have random ingredients around that you found during your inventory, this is also a chance to think about how you can incorporate what you already have into meals for the next month. Let’s face it, in preparing for our current situation, most of us have already spent much more than we usually do on groceries. Now, it’s time to pull it all together so that we can actually use what we have and not have to spend as much for a while. Since we’re now thinking in terms of meal planning for a month or at least two to three weeks instead of a week at a time, it’s okay to start using what we have on hand.

Registered Dietician Kim Barrier says that for some of her dinner options, she’s trying to double the recipes or choose dishes that make many servings so that there are leftovers to reheat for lunches. That’s important when planning out food for the next month – remember to include breakfasts, lunches and snacks as well as dinners.

Image of woman's hands pushing grocery cart in store as she does one larger shopping trip for the month

Do One Larger Shopping Trip for the Month

This will include stocking up as much as possible on the food you’ll need for your meals, as well as any household or cleaning items that you’ll need for the month. When buying food during a crisis, it’s fine to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, but you’re just not going to be able to rely on them as much as you may normally. Buying more storable foods is going to be the way to go. That includes beans, nut butters or sunflower seed butter, brown rice, whole wheat and bean pastas, oats, nuts and seeds.

Keep Canned and Frozen Vegetables and Meat on Hand

Kim Barrier, RD

Kim Barrier and Elise New both suggest keeping a good supply of canned tomatoes and frozen vegetables on hand as well. Kim reminds us that frozen and canned vegetables are just as nutritious if not more so in some situations than fresh. Fresh fruits and vegetables start losing some of their nutrients once picked, so the longer they’re in transport to the grocery and/or sit in the produce section the more they lose. Kim says that “frozen fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, are picked at peak season and immediately processed, which locks in the nutrients.” 

Canned vegetables are also picked at peak season and canned. “If you were to compare the amount of nutrients you would get from fresh, frozen or canned foods you would find the difference is only a matter of a few percentage points for most nutrients.” In fact, Kim adds, “Some things even increase with canning. For example, lycopene, the phytonutrient found in tomatoes that might help prevent some cancers, is only released when the tomatoes are cooked.”

Elise urges everyone not to forget about freezing meat or buying meat that’s already frozen, which is often cheaper than buying fresh. While you don’t want to hoard more than your family is going to eat in a month, buying meat and freezing it lets you take advantage of sales that are still going on. Elise says that holds true for other items on a whole foods diet as well. Vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, garlic and onions store well for a while and make a good base for a number of soups, stews, casseroles and other dishes. So, if you find these items and they’re on sale, stock up. 

Image of frozen vegetables in grocery store that are good when buying food during a crisis

Do Smaller Shopping Trips Once Every 1-2 Weeks When Buying Food During a Crisis

The main goal with buying food during a crisis (or any time for that matter) is to reduce your shopping trips to once every 1-2 weeks. This will reduce the stress of feeling like you should constantly be looking for food, and it will ease the strain on your pocketbook since every time you go in the store, you’ll usually pick up more than what you went in for. Since you will have done the bulk of your shopping in your larger trip, this trip is just to get any milk or fresh foods that you can’t do without.

Money-Saving Tip

To save money, Elise suggests keeping an eye out for produce that has been taken out of the regular displays and marked down because it’s about to go bad. If you also notice employees removing produce from the displays, ask them what they’re going to do with it or if you can just have it. Many stores are happy to deeply discount or giveaway food that they were going to have to throw out anyway. You won’t know unless you ask.

During regular times, Elise recommends getting to know your stores and when they tend to have sales and mark down produce and meat on a regular basis. While many of the stores still honor their sales during a crisis, stocking routines and procedures are probably different than they usually are so this may be difficult to do until things get back to normal.

image of online grocery ordering which is good when buying food during a crisis

Online Shopping and Curbside Delivery

Elise is a strong believer in online shopping and curbside delivery with your grocery store because it limits everyone’s exposure to germs. I highly recommend that before you sign up and pay the initial fee for one of these services, be sure to call the store and find out if pickups will be able to start immediately or if there’s a delay because of the current situation. If there is, you may still want to try it anyway, but it’s important to know what you can and cannot count on before you sign up.

Image of brown eggs sitting in a carton.
Photo by Monserrat Soldu from Pexels

More of Elise’s Tips for Buying Food During a Crisis

  • Learn how to use what’s left in the produce section or on the shelves. This will help you to stick with your one large and limited smaller shopping trips a month. If you’re looking for canned beans and you can only find dry, learn how to cook dry beans.
  • Look outside the grocery store. Take eggs for example – if egg prices at the store are getting high, check with your local farmers. Chances are that if you buy eggs from pasture-raised chickens, you’ll probably get the eggs from the farmer cheaper than you will from the store.
  • Keep looking at weekly sales flyers because many stores still honor them for the items that they have in stock.
  • Use your planned meals as a guide but be flexible in the way that you fix them if an ingredient isn’t available or if something comparable is on sale. If a recipe calls for zucchini, can yellow squash be substituted instead?
  • Make your own condiments. It’s almost always cheaper to buy the ingredients to make healthier versions of condiments than it is to buy them.

** My note based on my experience and discussion with Elise – Make desserts and “treat” foods from scratch as much as possible. Doing this limits the amount in the house at any one time, and it’s also a lot less expensive!

Image of Food Inventory and Shopping List as way to streamline buying food during a crisis

Resources

  • Elise’s Grocery Budget Mastery (affiliate link) is a fantastic resource that walks you through the six essential steps to slashing your grocery budget. It’s served as a valuable reminder of some of the strategies I used to use but let go along the way. I’m definitely using it to tweak some of the less than ideal habits we’ve gotten into.
  • Feel free to access my free Food Inventory and Shopping List template here or through the box at the side of your screen. My husband made the first version of this as a standard spreadsheet years ago, but I’ve found that it’s more useful as a Google sheet so that it’s a live document that I can easily access while I’m shopping.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Choose My Plate program’s resource for food planning during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lean on Your Community

If you try any or all of these steps, feel free to let us know how it’s working for you in the comments below. Also, if you have other strategies that you’re trying, let us know that as well. Whether we’re veteran frugal meal planners or fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants food buyers, we all have something to learn from each other.


Money Saving Tip: Meal Planning

I’m going to make a bold statement here. Meal planning is one of the most abundant, creative things that you can do.

Stick with me on this. Too often we think of meal planning (if we think of it at all) as pure drudgery.

But, if we enter this undertaking with an attitude of abundance and appreciation for the fact that we get to be proactive and in control of what we’re going to put in our bodies for the next week and how much money we spend on that, we can experience a profound mental shift. Meal planning suddenly goes from being a mundane chore to a creative and exciting privilege. What makes it even more wonderful is how much money it saves us along the way!

Photo of grocery cart full of groceries as example of meal planning
Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels

What is Meal Planning

While I walk you through the crucial first steps of meal planning in this video, here’s my definition of it in a nutshell. It’s deciding ahead of time in a very conscious way every meal and snack that you and your family are going to have during the week and then creating your grocery list based on any ingredients that you don’t have to make them.

There are a number of great tools to help with this process (some of which are free) that I look at in more depth here.

A Money-Saving Mental Shift

The key is carving out a set time to sit down and devote your full attention to meal planning. I highly recommend having a steaming cup of your favorite hot drink in hand. This is the time to be inspired and creative – not when you’re rushing home from work and trying to figure out “what’s for dinner tonight?”

The weeks I look at it in a bored and tired way are inevitably the weeks that I forget to include half of the ingredients that I need and end up going back to the store multiple times. As we all know, every trip to the store costs more than what it should because we think of something else that we may need or want at that particular moment.

The really costly part to both our health and our budget is that when we make those middle of the week stops, we’re usually tired, rushed and either emotionally or physically hungry. We’re in a place of lack, not abundance. Unhealthy wants suddenly seem like needs and before you know it, you have half a basket full of things that if you were in a better place, you wouldn’t even think of getting.

I know for a fact that during the weeks that I make multiple unplanned trips to the store, I end up spending $25-$50 more than during the weeks where I plan everything out. That’s not to even mention when we completely throw in the towel and end up eating out because we don’t have what we need. Half the time, we still have to go by the grocery store to get the missing ingredients for something else that we’ll need them for later in the week.

There’s no doubt about it in my book. An open and abundant approach to meal planning is crucial to a healthy lifestyle and a healthy pocketbook. May your next trip with a grocery cart contribute to both!


Peppermint TV: Getting Started With Meal Planning

Meal planning can do wonders for your health and your pocketbook, and it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. I’ll walk you through the crucial first steps in getting started in my Peppermint TV Integrated Wellness Tip of the Week.

 Resources:

Meal Planning Is Associated With Food Variety, Diet Quality and Body Weight Status In A Large Sample Of French Adults

Meal Planning Tips and Tools For Healthy Living

5 Tips For Eating Healthy During Even The Busiest of Weeks



Meal Planning Tips and Tools for Healthy Living

5 Best Meal Planning Tools.

Does the idea of meal planning make you break out in cold sweats or cause your shoulders to tense up? If so, you’re definitely not alone. This is one of those tasks that can cause even the most seemingly together women (or men) to crumble. It doesn’t have to be that way though, and I’m talking to you about it because I strongly believe meal planning is one of the first steps to good nutrition, good health and overall wellness. Real health does at the very least, include a shopping list (made so much simpler these days by some very easy-to-use meal planning tools).

Read More