Adventures in Meal Planning

July 14, 2012

I’ve never been exceptional at meal planning. Just when I think I have a good system in place, something throws off my routine and I’m out of the zone! There are SEVERAL different ways to meal plan, but I’ve been eying this technique from my friend Helen Jane (aka my meal planning guru) and thought I’d give it a go. I like that it’s pretty simple and makes a BIG impact!  The trick is…sticking with it! But we’ll talk about that later.

STEP 1:  Compile a list of all of your tried & true meals.  Bonus points for healthy/easy meals that you can use as leftovers for a new meal the following day!

Get the input of your family to see what they’re craving during the week. This can be dangerous.

STEP 2: Survey your fridge & freezer. See what’s in there! Figure out what day you will grocery shop for the week and meal plan around that.

Go through the pantry/cupboards to see what you have in there too. I keep a post-it notepad on the wall of my pantry so I can write down what I need for groceries the next time I go shopping. It’s handy!

The pantry is where I find all my “filler” for weeknight meals. Pasta, rice, spices, canned goods, soups etc.  It’s nice to see what you can use as a base for your dinners or as a meal accessories.


STEP 3:  Get our your planning sheet!

Create a template on your computer of all of the days of the week. I just used Microsoft Word and one of my favorite fonts to make it look cool. You could totally write it out by hand…I just feel like having a template makes it more legit. It helps get me in the organizing zone.



-What events are happening this week? Will you be out for dinner?

-What fruits & vegetables needs to be used ASAP?

-What day of the week do you go grocery shopping?

-Which days of the week will you NEED to make an easy meal?  Mondays are hard.

-Which days of the week do you have more time to enjoy cooking? Sundays are fun!

-What do you already have in your fridge/freezer to access?

-How long can items last in the fridge to use for another recipe?

-How can you use leftovers for your next meal?

When I was planning out my grocery shopping for this particular week, I wanted to use a bunch of things I already had in our freezer. I highlighted everything that needed to be defrosted in pink. It lets me know what I need to do for the next day.

Now make your grocery shopping list (another post entirely!) and get to shopping.

I followed this particular meal plan for a week.

How did it go??!

Not too bad! I still could use some work. 


-It’s going to take a lot of practice! The activity of meal planning isn’t necessarily easy and it requires some time. I need to carve out a good half hour to figure out meals/grocery planning each week. Last week was super busy and I wasn’t home much for dinner so I didn’t really meal plan. I could see how much my life was affected by not having a meal plan!

-If I don’t make something I intend to make on the night I intended to make it, it’s OK. The world won’t end.
Life is busy and things come up, so I can’t stress out if things don’t go according to planned. If I end up making something else on a different night, who cares! As long as I’m not wasting food, that’s all that matters.


-Having an outline of the week is WAAAAAY better than not having an outline.

Do you meal plan? Do you have any tips or tricks? Let’s discuss!


41 comments on “Adventures in Meal Planning

  1. This is great!
    Well done, you meal-planner you.

    Like I said, I aim for 60% meal planning execution and I don’t beat myself up if we don’t make it.

    Meal planning wins!

  2. My fiance and I have been meal planning for months now. It saves us time and money. We found out that instead of running to the grocery store a couple nights a week, we would only go once a week. It majorly cut down on unnecessary spending and food going to waste.

    Yay for meal planning!

  3. i was doing okay at meal planning, but the helen jane method has brought me to the next level ever since you linked to it on ‘i love lists friday’. the key missing step for me was your Step #2 above. taking stock of what i already have/is going bad/needs to be used and basing a few meals around that has made me a smarter meal planner and cut down on food waste for real. the biggest benefit is that by being so prepared i need one trip to the grocery store on the weekend, and have eliminated all the little stops during the week. love that!

    • Tracy Mar 14, 2012

      yes!!! and in turn you’re keeping your fridge in check/clean since you’re using what you have first!

  4. Ha! Mondays are hard!

    If I’m meal planning, I usually plan for less days than there actually are because something inevitably comes up or I get a strong urge to make something else. There’s always something in the pantry if we’re short a meal.

    • Tracy Mar 14, 2012

      Interesting! So what do you if you don’t make something on your list?

    • I do the same thing as Shauna – plan for less meals. I usually sketch out three days worth of meals, which usually end up filling up most of the week (If I don’t make the lasagna Thursday, I’ll make it Friday). I use the “unplanned” meal days to use up leftovers from the pantry/other meals. So, for example if I make a roast, then I’ll always chop that up to make soup the next day or maybe frittata. I’m not very good at meal planning, but this is my way of getting my toes wet (I was actually inspired to start trying after HomefriesU this fall – you gals were such an inspiration).

      • Tracy Mar 22, 2012

        The best thing to do is find whatever works for you! When you have to add making stuff for your food blog into the equation, it gets a little sketchy, huh?!

  5. Thanks for the inspiration – I don’t meal plan, just go from what I feel like or recipes I’ve been inspired by blogs (ahem, Shutterbean) to do. I really, really need to start doing this, as it’s costing me way too much money!

  6. So good! I am excited to see how meal planning works out for you. I have been doing this since December 2011 and it has worked wonders for our schedule, budget, and health. I am thinking about posting something similar on my blog, once time permits. I’ll give it a vegetarian point of view :)


    P.S. Mondays are hard!!

  7. My sister recently gave me a great tip for meal planning – she uses a 2012 diary, a week to a page, and uses it both to plan the family’s meals for the upcoming week, and also to note which meals were successful, and where the recipes came from. That way, she can flip back through when looking for ideas and be reminded of ‘winner’ meals, as well as where she found the inspiration. I’m giving it a try, and so far it’s working well!

    • Tracy Mar 14, 2012

      Oooh! A dedicated calendar/diary. I like this!

  8. When we have a solid meal plan for the week, everything else seems to fall into place. :)

    We run a separate rotation for lunch and dinner so we can save our dinner leftovers for the following night (instead of taking them for lunch) and enjoy a night off. It works out great!

    For example, I don’t have to cook anything tonight! We’re having last night’s butternut squash soup for dinner and I had shredded taco meat (made in my Crock-Pot) for lunch today.

  9. I have a dry erase board that is set up like a monthly calendar. I plan out the whole month with simple meals. I look ahead and bu most of what I need at Costco. I also try to keep ingredients on hand to make favorite recipes, if I feel like changing it to make it easier. If I change the menu for that day, I make sure to write it down, so I get a good idea what the meals looked like at the end of the month. I don’t plan anything for the weekend, as that usually means trying new recipes and eating out.

  10. I love having a weekly meal plan, it makes grocery shopping more focused, and there is less waste!

  11. I love and (no affiliations)! The former for ease of recipe storage and fabulous shopping list creation. The latter for ideas for healthy meals to freeze, especially the whole foods menu. As an Aussie, I cannot access lots of the pre-prepared ingredients, but the whole foods menu is from scratch (which is also the way I like to cook).

  12. Shannan Mar 14, 2012

    I am a pretty organized person but for some reason I have a roadblock to meal planning. I often get caught up looking through cookbooks and never actually choose anything (I try to cook one new recipe a week). One thing that has helped is limiting myself to only use one magazine or cookbook per week for meal planning – just grab one from my shelf and only use those recipes (plus our usual favorites). Another tip is to recycle your menu plans – wait a couple of weeks then do the same week again. A calendar diary would be great for this.

  13. I try to plan meals, But every time I do it, I don’t want to make what I’ve planned, even if its something I love. I guess I don’t like being told what to do, even by myself.

  14. When I food shop I buy a variety of meat, poultry and pork – usually the same things to freeze. Then I go to my favorite produce store and buy a variety of produce. But I don’t meal plan ahead in the written form. I just make sure I have a lot of food so that I can be inspired from either my cookbooks or online. But maybe THIS WEEK, I will actually write out a menu for the week and TRY to make it happen! It will be a GREAT challenge for me! Your blogs always inspire me!

    • Tracy Mar 15, 2012

      That’s how I did it for a LONG time and then I ended up with too much food…and sometimes I had NO MOTIVATION to figure out what to eat. So we would go out cuz I felt to tired to be bothered and then I had wasted food! I hope this helps you!

  15. My dad does the cooking in my family, and his lists are two-columned: the day by day plan on the left and a skinnier column for the grocery list on the right. Also, it’s always good to take a look at the grocery store ads to see what’s on sale/be able to improvise based on what’s in season and looks good in the produce department!

  16. So helpful! I just moved back to the U.S. from Spain. As a newlywed – who never ate on the insane Spanish schedule – i.e. never cooked dinner for my husband in Spain – I hope to settle into cooking for my Spain man now that we are Stateside. Will be referring back here for sure. Thank you!

  17. Stephanie Mar 15, 2012

    This couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m on Week 2 of meal planning and even though it’s daunting, I love that we’re using up what we have (we have a CSA share) and we are eating better. Sure, picky toddler may not like it, but at least he’s getting exposure to new things, even if he eventually just eats another TJ’s chicken nugget.

  18. Elaine Mar 15, 2012

    What always bothered me about meal planning was assigning a night to each meal. What if Thursday comes around and I don’t want spaghetti, or whatever I’ve put down? So I write five meals down but don’t assign a night (leftovers or dinner out on the other nights). And I do it in a regular old college ruled notebook so it’s easy to look back and see what we’ve had. Plus I can use a page in the back for a shopping list.

  19. Amanda Barkey Mar 15, 2012

    Good job girl! You have the best printing ever… mine looks like chicken scratch! So, I’ve been meal planning for a long time and Im so proud that you are too… its hard to get used to at first but its so worth it. NOW I am even planning on a Wed- Wed schedule because the weekly ads come in on Tuesdays and I meal plan by whats on sale that our family likes to eat. THATS a challenge but its a money saver for sure and since I’m a stay at home mom it makes me feel like I’m contributing! :)

  20. Rahana Mar 16, 2012

    Hi, love this! I just started meal planning and use a pad made by the same people that make the ‘All Out Of’s’ (so happy we finally get these in New Zealand). Once I’ve used it up though I’ll definitely be making my own. I plan lunches too by trying to cook meals that work as leftovers, my man and I were spending way too much on bought lunch and random frivolous shopping. I find having pizza night later in the week is a great way to use up stuff I have in the fridge. I also tend to theme a little and plan around recipes from a different country for a week, it forces me to try new things and also helps use up ingredients – no more jar of Harissa or half used blocks of feta lurking at the back of the fridge! Mondays are totally hard so I tend to make two dinners on a Sunday. Thanks for posting this, I enjoy being nosy about what other people eat in their day to day life so loved reading the meal plan up there, sounds delicious :)

  21. Elise Mar 16, 2012

    I DO meal plan! I compete in figure competitions/bodybuilding so my meal plan is the exact same everyday for three weeks. It definitely takes planning since I eat all things as leftovers but the science is in making enough that won’t go bad…cooked chicken and beef lasts longer than cooked fish :)
    P.S. Tracy I read yours and Joy’s blogs like they’re food porn! It all looks soooo good and is described so well I live vicariously, then mark all the recipes I want to make and save them for my cheat meals!

  22. I’ve been meal planning since Jan 2011 when my husband was made redundant and we needed to budget/save money. I cut out from magazine/print out from the web the recipes I want to try and keep them in a binder. Then I just go through the binder before I go shopping and take out the recipes for the week.
    I have a magnetic board with menu & shopping list notes that sticks on the fridge so I can see what’s what. I mark frozen items with an ‘F’ to remind me they need to be defrosted (perhaps I should highlight them though!).

  23. shannon Mar 16, 2012

    Hi Tracy-
    Thought of you when I ran across this blog– just photos of things organized neatly…. brilliant!

  24. I’ve been meal planning for as long as I’ve been married. I love it! I didn’t realize until about a year ago that not everyone loves to plan like I do. I find it fun. And, now I do it as part of my job, super YAY!

  25. Meal planning is a big thing with me too! I tend to cook for the whole week on Sundays, so I need to really have a game plan because weeknights I get home hungry and ready to eat right then. No time for quick weeknight meals! Generally. 😉

    I joined a CSA about a year ago. I was nervous, thinking it would be hard to work in all this produce I didn’t have any control over choosing. What’s in my box is what I get. It’s actually been really great! Rather than choosing what to cook from the ether, I instead think about what my produce is that week (you can even look up what you’re getting at the beginning of the week, so it’s not a surprise), and form my meals around it. I’ve dreamed up cauliflower soups, broccoli pesto sauces, citrus curds, beet casseroles. It’s fun to try and find recipes that really highlight the ingredient, though I also will just slice up an apple to eat it or roast some broccoli. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it’s fun when it is! And it gets me using produce in different ways. Yesterday I made some colcannon with blanched kale mixed in. I saw I had some carrot greens and mizuna in the bin, so I went ahead and blanched that and threw it in too. You can’t really pinpoint the individual greens, but the flavor all together is dang tasty. :)

    Also, since I’m such a visual person, I’ve found Pinterest is a great place for me to organize my recipes. That way when I want inspiration I can just check a board. :)

  26. this is amazing! I’ve been trying to get better with this!


  27. Another thing I do is keep an ongoing list of what’s in the deep freezer. We try to empty it out a few times a year. At this point, we scan through it and try to come up with meals that fit what we have ingredients for. It’s a fun process and we’ve come up with new great meals!

  28. I just started a blog about being an artist, and funny enough, one of my 1st posts was about my new learned “menu planning” and how it helps me soooo much w/ time management. Then I ran across your site with more excellent ideas! I’m going to add your link to that post! Great stuff. Thanks.

  29. Laura Adams Mar 27, 2012

    I’ve been thinking about meal-planning for a while now, simply because we always have food around that I don’t know what to do with (like 4 different kinds of noodles). I’ve written down your tips and pulled out my Moleskin planner to give this a shot. I’d love to not worry at 5 each day about “what’s for dinner.” And saving money on groceries and trips is great too! Thanks Tracy!

  30. Bridget Apr 12, 2012

    I’ve been meal planning since my husband and I got married and I LOVE it. Each Saturday I look at what we have already, what is in the weekly ad for our local supermarket, and look at their online coupons. Based on those two factors I plan four meals for the week, but I don’t assign the meals to any particular night. Now this is where it gets a little high-strung: I make my shopping list in a word document, then put in order of where things are in the supermarket. It makes shopping so much faster and easier! All I have to do is print my list and coupons and go. During the week I try to make the meals with lots of perishable goods first. We do well with just those four meals because we eat out once per week and have leftovers on the other two nights. Overall It saves us tons of money and time.

  31. I love this! I dont generally meal plan but have a list of meals i could make out of what i have. I always have a list of everything in the freezer, fridge and store cupboards (which makes it easier for shopping) and from this i can pick and choose what to make from each key item i buy each week!

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