5 Simple Ways to Menu Plan

Many people I talk to think they are spending too much on groceries every month. Years ago I was in the same position, spending over $800 dollars a month to feed a family of six. My biggest problem, lack of planning. I would go to the store each week with a small list of essentials- milk, diapers, bread and come home with hundreds of dollars worth of food we didn’t need. This food would then sit in my fridge and pantry for weeks because I didn’t have a plan for it.

Then one day, when we decided to get serious about our finances, I realized that even though I didn’t have an income, I could help reduce our spending. The first area I examined (after cutting cable) was the grocery budget. I didn’t have any idea how much I was spending each month, but I was sure I could spend less if I just had a plan.

It was then that I learned about menu planning. I started creating weekly meal plans for my family and shopping lists based on the meal plan. I am sure it is no surprise that my monthly grocery budget was drastically reduced, immediately. Menu planning had another unintended consequence to our family’s budget. We ate out significantly less, thereby saving our family more money and improving our nutrition. Having a meal plan meant less “oh no, it’s 5 o’clock and I don’t know what to make for dinner” moments that resulted in take-out pizza or the drive-thru.

A menu plan meant I was saving money, my family was eating better, and there was less stress at meal times. I sometimes wonder how I went so long without planning. You know what they say,

Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.

If you are struggling in this area, here are 5 Simple Ways to Menu Plan.

Ask Your Family

If you want to have a successful plan, ask your family what they like to eat. If no one is eats what you prepare your menu planning will be in vain. Every few months I poll my family and ask them to list their favorite meals. I try to incorporate their favorites into my weekly plan. While I can’t accommodate every person every week, if they know I am considering their preferences in my planning they are better eaters throughout the week.

Make a Meal List

I have about 40 meals on my list. One afternoon last year I sat down and made a list based on preferences, nutrition, cost, and convenience. Whenever I am having trouble thinking of a meals I go back to my list. Depending on the budget, or other meals I’ve planned, I choose a few off the list. On weeks that I’m really not motivated, I pick all the meals off the list. This list takes the thinking out of planning.

Make a Weekly Outline

For those who follow my Menu Plan Monday posts, you know that I create a meal outline, and I don’t assign meals to specific days of the week. This works well for our family due to my husband’s work schedule and the fact that with 9 people in a house things are always changing. If a doctor’s appointment comes up, that might be a good night for the crock pot meal or if we are going to be home all day I might make the more involved meal on that evening. Being flexible with my meal planning has allowed me to be successful with the implementation of these meals.

Create Themed Meal Nights

If you are really struggling with meal planning consider creating themed nights. For example:

  • Monday: Pasta
  • Tuesday: Ground Beef
  • Wednesday: Chicken
  • Thursday: Mexican
  • Friday: Leftovers
  • Saturday: Breakfast for dinner
  • Sunday: Meatless meal

This works well for families that have a set schedule as well as for families who need a strict routine. I have child who asks what we are having for dinner before he puts the first bite of breakfast in his mouth. Some children do better when they know what to expect and themed nights can really help with mealtime struggles.

Just Do It

The hardest part of menu planning…. getting started. My friend Erin from $5 Dinners has some wonderful free menu planners on her site, I would recommend you download them to help get you going. Then make a plan. Set aside 30 minutes a week (maybe 45 minutes if this is your first time) to create a menu plan and a shopping list. Sometimes you can create a menu plan just by shopping your freezer and pantry, other times you can create a plan based on your weekly sales flyers.

Menu planning is really quite simple and once you start you’ll wonder why you waited so long to begin.

Save Money. Better Nutrition. Less stress. What’s holding you back from menu planning?

This post is linked to Frugal Friday.

This post may contain a link to an affiliate. See my disclosure policy for more information.


  1. Erin says:

    I just started menu planning a few months ago. It has saved us so much money. And my husband likes that we don’t have the daily struggle over deciding what to have for dinner. I don’t know why we weren’t doing this all along! Also, I love that so many bloggers are posting their own menus. It gives us so many new ideas and recipes to try!

  2. Planning is a huge help to me, especially since I don’t enjoy grocery shopping. If I can go into the store w/ a list of exactly what I need for all the meals for the week, I am a happy camper. It’s the actual making of the meals that I struggle with…

  3. Brandy says:

    I would love to see your list of 40 meals just to get some ideas! Great post!

  4. Ashley says:

    I loved this!!! I spend way too much on meals & I am horrible at planning them! GREAT POST! ;)

  5. Anna B says:

    Meal planning has been a God-send for me. Instead of buying ‘I think this might sound good this week’, I buy specific things for meals. I use theme-nights, because I LOVE cookbooks but was having a hard time getting the recipe from the book onto the table! The themes helped me catagorize my recipes and then I can pick one out for each day.

    The thing I struggle with (because I’m still single) is leftovers. I find that one person eating healthfully doesn’t really eat much, and even when I halve the recipe I have leftovers. I only have 1 leftover night a week, and so I struggle to figure out how to eat leftovers and still have a meal plan with variety in it. I don’t want to cook one night, have the leftovers the next two nights, and only end up making 2 recipes a week! I’d go nuts!

    Any suggestions would be appreciated!

    • Lynn says:

      I have two thoughts for you to consider. Oops, hi, my name is Lynn. Anyway, one is to maybe invite a friend to share meals with and/or the cooking plans and duties or just take turns. The other is seeing if the meal will freeze well in the seal-a-meal type things and bring it to work/school for a lunch the next week.

    • Kessa says:

      I kinda do what Lynn suggested, but I make up several different dishes & then freeze them in individual serving sizes – I cook like I am cooking for 6 to 8 people & make at least 6 to 8 different dishes. Then I can just take something out of the freezer for my meals (lunch or dinner). I try to make enough for the whole month. Another thing I do, when I buy veggies (green peppers, broccoli, onions, etc) I cut them up & put them in a single layer on a tray that I put in the freezer until they are frozen (moving them every once in a while, until they are frozen) & then I bag them up – easy to grab just what you need, w/o it all being stuck together. Takes like 20 to 30 minutes to get them frozen enough that they won’t all stick together.

    • Christel C says:

      Why not eat leftovers for lunch and save money there too? That’s what we do! Just because you made it last night doesn’t mean that you have to eat it again the very next day either. Plan your menu so that you have leftovers from Monday night on Wedesday for lunch and so forth. Leftover food is good for several days in the fridge so you shouldn’t get burned out eating the same thing for several days in a row. Also, look at what you can do to change a leftover into something else. For instance, you can make a small roast or chicken with veggies one night and then cut up the leftovers and make them into soup or a pot pie a couple of days later. The possibilies are limitless!

  6. DgsandBjsMom says:

    I personally do not like to menu plan. I buy by the sales and try to always have food on hand. In the back of my head I always know what kind of food a I can make that week. Right now I have pasta, potatoes, french fries, wild rice and white rice on hand. Plus canned and frozen vegetables and at least 2 or 3 types of of meats in the freezer if not more.

    • Anna B says:

      You can meal plan and still use sales – in my town, the sales flyers come out on Weds, I meal-plan on Saturday, shop on Monday after work, and then pick up the next ad on Weds again. :-) I was having company this week and decided on pork loin roast because a store near me was having a great sale on it! :-)

  7. Tonya says:

    I plan menus around the basic meats–ground beef, other beef, chicken, sausage, fish / seafood–plus one meatless (or almost). That’s 6 new meals. Eating leftovers 1x a week AND using some leftovers with something makes 7 meals. We also eat leftovers for lunches regularly or freeze them and have them another week. Saves money and TIME!

  8. Mariposa says:

    Great info and ideas! I just started menu planning when I got married a few months ago. Sometimes I forget though. You have inspired me to take the time to do it! :)

  9. Great tips! I love the idea of asking your family what they want to eat. This takes some of the pressure off. In our home, we started assigning each child a day of the week to pick what we cooked for dinner. My 2 oldest love to flip through my cookbooks and pick something new.

    I wrote up some of my meal planning tips for a class I taught this week here – http://busymommymedia.com/2010/09/menu-planning-basics/

  10. Becky L. says:

    Love the thoughts and I do menu plan and take the list with me when shopping. It’s amazing how much I save. Even though there’s only 3 adults in the house, even penny counts! Thanks and have a great weekend! :0)

  11. Heather says:

    I have a dry erase calendar on the fridge for keeping track of appointments/playdates (i only have 2 kids, so 8×11 is fine) etc. I can see at a glance if we are available when something new comes up. I started writing my dinner plans in green at the bottom of each square. We can quickly know what to expect for dinner and I can quickly move things around as events change. What’s really important for me is the meals that require perishables can be moved to the first of next week, so I know I won’t forget to cook something and end up throwing out rotten perishables.

  12. Carrie says:

    I sit down with the weekly flyers and try and include some of the sales items in my menus. I also look at my schedule for the week and plan simpler meals for the days that I work. On days that I am off I can plan more involved/complex meals because I have more time to put into them.

  13. Kathy says:

    It is great to see that interest is sparking for menu planning. I have been planning menus for years . As a working mom , ( my kids are adults now ) it was the only way to reduce stress and to save money . The whole family was involved with the planning , and when the children got older they started preparing many of the meals . As the children went off to sports activities and college and we were down to just the two us , I had gotten away from planning menus. After a month or so my husband started planning the menus, he said he just couldn’t take the the uncertainty anymore .
    It is much easier now to plan , there are so many websites , magazines that offer such creative ideas. So I encourage everyone to pick up the pen and pad , take the time to plan . You will see that you can feed your family and create wonderful meals , yet save yourself time , stress and money.

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  16. stacey says:

    I planned our families meals for years. Saves money and evening chaos! Lately, I’ve tried an online service called No More To Go. They use fresh ingredients instead of boxed and canned. Have really liked it a lot.

  17. Sian Breslin says:

    Great post! I totally agree with you meal planning has many benefits, I’ve never looked back since I started.
    Happy Cooking Everyone!
    Sian :)

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