What’s for dinner? That’s a question I used to asked myself every night when I got home from work. I searched the pantry and refrigerator to find ingredients to throw together for dinner. That was before I started to meal plan. Now, I have dinner on the table in under 30 minutes, and I save thousands of dollars a year on groceries. Find out how you can meal plan to save time and money, too.
Why I Meal Plan
As a full time third grade teacher and mother of 2, my life is busy enough without worrying about food. I used to wake up at 5:30 to get breakfast ready for the kids and to pack lunches. Again, I was digging through the cabinets and refrigerator to see what we had that I could throw together.
When I got home from a long day at work around 4:30, I still had to make dinner, give my kids a bath, play for a little bit, put them to bed, and work on some school work. Dinner used to take at least an hour to prepare. I had to decide what I was making, find all the of the ingredients, and make the food. Some nights it took even longer when my daughter just wanted to be held or my son wanted me to play with him.
I love cooking, but it got to the point where I just dreaded making meals. I started picking up food on the way home from work, and we went out for dinner far more often. That saved me from searching for food to make each evening, but it was awful for our budget. Each time we went to a restaurant, it cost at least $40. We couldn’t even get out of a drive-thru for under $25.
The Need for a Change
That went on for an entire school year. When summer arrived, I knew I had to make some changes. I was couponing to save money at the grocery store, but I was spending more than ever by eating out several times a week. We also weren’t eating the healthiest foods. I wanted more control over what we were eating and to know what ingredients were being used. Plus, I missed spending time in the kitchen.
That’s when I decided to make a meal plan for the week. I was already finding deals in the weekly circular and using coupons at the grocery store. What if I found recipes that used those ingredients to create a weekly meal plan? It was worth a shot. I knew I would have some extra time to experiment with it over the summer, so I gave it a try.
Steps to Creating a Money-Saving Meal Plan
#1 – Get a copy of your grocery store’s weekly circular. You can get a hard copy in the newspaper or at the grocery store, or you can look at the circular online. Search through it for the best deals. Add those items to your grocery list. For more tips on writing your grocery list, check out my post Making a List and Checking It Twice.
#2 – Look for dinner recipes that use those ingredients and other items you already have in the pantry or refrigerator. I find most of my recipes on Pinterest. However, I also enjoy looking through cooking magazines and cookbooks.
#3 – Use the meals you find to fill in your Weekly Meal Planner. At the bottom of this post, you can download the meal planner I use each week.
#4 – Fill in your breakfast and lunch meal ideas based on the week’s sales.
#5 – Add any extra items to your grocery list that you need.
#6 – Look through your coupons for any that match the items on your grocery list. For more tips on using coupons to save money, check out my post Does Couponing Really Save Money?
#7 (optional) – Make your meals over the weekend to save time during the busy work week. Check out my post Kid-Friendly Make-Ahead Meals to see an example of the dinners I made last weekend. Now, all I have to do is pop them in the oven when I get home from work, and dinner is ready.
How Much Time Does It Take to Make a Meal Plan?
I’ll admit it. At first, this whole process took me a while. Finding the recipes that my family would like and that used the ingredients that were on sale was the most time-consuming part. However, once you find some good recipes that everyone likes, you can reuse them when the same ingredients go on sale. I spent that first summer of meal planning finding recipes we enjoyed. I organized my boards on Pinterest by ingredient, so I could quickly find the recipes I needed.
The new school year started, and the craziness began again. I was worried I wouldn’t have enough time to meal plan with all of the lesson planning, soccer practices, and homework that needed to be done. However, I was determined to make it work. All summer we had enjoyed healthy, home-cooked meals. We were also able to save more money, because we cut back on eating out, and I was getting even better deals at the grocery store. I wasn’t willing to let that end.
The new weekly circular for my grocery store goes into effect on Thursday, so I decided to do my meal planning that night after my kids went to bed. That way I would have my list made and my meals planned before my grocery store trip Saturday morning. At first, I wasn’t able to get it all done in one night. I ended up spending some time Friday night planning my grocery store trip, too. Over time, it’s gotten faster and easier, though. Now, I put the TV on Thursday night and watch two shows On-Demand. (How to Get Away with Murder and the Blacklist are both on past my bedtime, so I catch up on the previous week.) In those two hours, I’m able to find deals, make my grocery list, meal plan, and get my coupons ready.
Save More Time with Make-Ahead Meals
Saturday morning, I go to the grocery store before my kids wake up. Then, I spend the morning preparing all of our meals for the week. It usually takes about two more hours to have everything ready. However, it saves so much time during the busy workweek. I actually have time at night to play with my kids while dinner is cooking. Breakfasts and lunches are already planned. Using a meal plan has made my life a lot less stressful. You can find some of my weekly make-ahead meals in my posts Super Saucy Make-Ahead Meals, Rainy Day Make-Ahead Meals, and Kid-Friendly Make-Ahead Meals.