How to meal plan like a champ

My meal planning and grocery shopping habits are something I really pride myself on. Over the last 3 years, I've worked really hard to maximize efficiency in this area, therefore saving me a lot of time and money. I thought I would share my process and tips to help anyone out who might be struggling in this area. Please feel free to share any additional tricks you have!

Get started.
Take a look at your bank account history and add up all the money you spend on food each month. Factor in your grocery expenses, fast food, coffee, snacks from the gas station, etc. Find the average and use that as a point of comparison for how much you spend while meal planning. This part isn't mandatory but I find it really neat to compare. Commit to 1 month of meal planning. Your comparison results will be skewed if you go off track.

Meal planning
  1. First you need to think about how all the parts of you life, habits, and preferences should factor into your plan. How many people do you need to feed? How many nights do you want to cook? How long will you realistically eat leftovers for? Do you have an obligation one evening that could affect your plan? It's really important to think about all of these things and seriously consider your family's habits. For example, I won't eat leftovers twice. If I plan for that, I always end up going off track because 3 day old food is just not appealing to me. Also, I don't feel like cooking a big meal every night, so I build in an "easy" meal that I can make with my toddler that doesn't take a lot of time (think Grilled cheese and tomato soup). I also enjoy spending Sundays preparing a big meal, so I know that will influence which recipes I choose for the week.
  2. Choose your recipes. It's important to read the instructions and ingredients before adding them to your list. There is nothing more frustrating than getting home ready to make your meal, and realizing it should have been marinated overnight. Also, if you see an ingredient you are not familiar with, check google for substitutes. That way if you get to the store and they don't carry it, you already have an alternative in mind. This happens often with health foods which might only be carried at specialty stores. If you're trying to save money, consider which ingredients (such as meat) will be more costly. Bonus: If you can find recipes that use the same ingredients, this will save you money.
  3. Figure out which recipes will be made which night. I personally plan my healthier meals at the beginning of the week because I'm more motivated. By Friday, I might want some comfort food to take a load off the stress of the week. There is some flexibility to switch around meals by night, but I like to space out my meals so that I'm not eating similar things two nights in a row. If you plan to eat out, be honest with yourself and add it in your plan/budget. Don't plan 7 nights of cooking if you can't stick to it. If you plan a meal and eat out instead, you're wasting money and food. I personally plan 4 nights of real meals, 1 easy night, 1 "fend for yourself night" and 1 night of eating out.
  4. Plan your lunch. Some people meal-prep lunches at night, but I find that takes way too long. I also don't want to meal prep 5 lunches on Sunday that I am sick of by Wednesday. I always make enough dinner to have left overs for both my husband and I for lunch and plan one free day to buy lunch. I would recommend this to anyone on a budget.
  5. Plan your breakfast. The costs of coffee and breakfast sandwiches really add up. A quick, healthy breakfast is not hard to plan. I normally do oatmeal, fruit, eggs or english muffins. I pick one of those things and eat them all week. I will switch it up the following week. Each of these are good for a "grab n go" breakfast.

Make your grocery list
  1. Throughout the week, keep a sticky note on your fridge. Every time you run out of something, write it on the list.
  2. Make a list of all the ingredients from each recipe.
  3. Take inventory. Anything on your list that's already in your pantry you can cross off. If you notice your low on a staple, add it to your list. Don't forget to consider non-food essentials (toilet paper, cleaning supplies, toiletries, etc)
  4. Add all items from your collected list from the past week.
  5. Share your list with family/roommates. They can tell if you if there is something you are forgetting or if they have a request.
  6. Now re-organize your list by department. This is important. It will help you move through the grocery store more efficiently without having to go back for something you missed. I separate mine by: Dry, Frozen, non-food, dairy, bakery, meat, and produce.
Get to the store
  1. Don't forget to grab your coupons!
  2. At the store, stay focused! If it's not on your list, don't buy it. Period. Impulse shopping is no good.
  3. Start with the inner isles. Canned goods, non-food, etc. those are heavier and nothing is worse than having cans on top of tomatoes.
  4. Finish up with bakery, meat and produce. If you are planning healthy meals, this should be the bulk of your cart. Produce is cheap relatively cheap and if you fill your cart with it, you will save money!
  5. Double check that you've crossed everything off your list before you leave!

TIP: Don't forget to buy on sale, but only if it's a smart move. DON'T "buy one get one half off" on perishable items that you won't eat within the week. DO take up good deals on your essentials (rice, frozen vegetables, oils, condiments). Make sure to compare sales. Sometimes the store brand price is already lower than the name brand sale.

There you have it! That's really my entire meal planning and shopping process. From there, all you have to do is start cooking. It takes practice to get it down, but when you've got it figured out, it starts to get easy.

Here are some additional tips I would recommend:
  1. Type your meal plan with links to recipes and save them. When you don't feel like meal planning, you can resort to the archives.
  2. If you don't have a food processor, get one! It's cheap and saves you so much prep time.
  3. Crock pot meals are amazing for those nights you want to get home and just relax. Only problem is you have to prepare them the night before or in the morning.
  4. Sign up for emails from sites like MyFitnessPal or Cooking Light. It's a great place for inspiration.
  5. Plan to have a night that you don't need a recipe for. Grilled chicken and frozen broccoli requires like... zero brainwork. After a long day, that's important.
  6. Remember that cooking is an art! Once you have enough experience in the kitchen, you don't need to spend as much time finding recipes. I'm at the point where I use recipes for inspiration, but I change them depending on my preferences.
  7. Remember to bring your lunch! What's the point in all this if you end up buying lunch everyday anyway?! Seriously, set an alarm on your phone if you have to. But DONT FORGET YOUR LUNCH.
  8. Plan desserts. I have a weakness for cookies. I actually might be addicted. If I plan in a night of cookie baking, it helps me from running to McDonald's at 9pm.
  9. Remember to stay stocked on your pantry staples. This list can help you determine what those are

 - LPT - Life Pro Tips