Let's talk about meal planning! Spend time doing this each week and learn how to meal plan successfully to help you save time and money!
This is the basis of shelf cooking and it's a bit of an interesting concept taking the world by storm! We're talking about meal planning with what you already have in stock in your fabulous kitchen.
Now you have all this great food and it’s all organized and inventoried, what do you do with it? You plan your meals, of course!
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Most people plan meals backward. The most cost-effective way to meal plan, and the basis for shelf cooking, involves three simple steps:
- Make a list of what ingredients you need to use up.
- Find meals that include those ingredients.
- Schedule in a leftovers night.
Let's dive in and talk about the best ways to meal plan successfully — the shelf cooking way! Ready?
THE PURPOSE OF MEAL PLANNING
Let's start out by talking about why we even do this madness in the first place. If done right, meal planning will save you time and money! Plan your meals around what you have and by shopping sales, and your budget will thank you! If you plan your meals to make sure nothing goes to waste, then you're saving even more money.
It also saves time as you can prep multiple meals in one sitting and you don't spend an excessive amount of time flipping through cookbooks and browsing Pinterest every day. Your planning is done already!
Meal planning also helps relieve the stress that comes around dinner time if you haven't already decided what to feed the little ones at your feet… or the bigger ones clamoring “what's for dinner!?” the second they walk in the door each day!
Not only that, it helps you make better, smarter, healthier food choices for you and your family! Are you sold, yet!?!
HOW TO MEAL PLAN
When you sit down at the table, ready to meal plan, here are a few things that we suggest you have on hand to make the most of your time!
- Pantry, fridge, and freezer inventory printables, completely filled out
- Meal planning sheet, workbook, or planner – something to record what meals you are wanting to make throughout the week
- Shopping list – either a physical paper list, notes on your phone, or a meal planning app on your phone you use to record what you need to pick up at the grocery store this week
- Pen or pencil – this is kind of obvious, but we thought we'd include it just in case 😉
- Laptop or phone to look up recipes using ingredients you already have
- Dinner ideas list to help you add family favorites to your meal plan!
As we've said before, a lot of people do this backward. They find the recipes they like and then make a list of ingredients they need. We're going to go ahead and flip the script!
Look at your inventory sheet. What items need to be used up first? Start with your fridge, because that's where things are most likely going to go bad the quickest. When you determine items that need to be used up, look at your dinner ideas list to see if there are some meals that would use those ingredients up.
Use other resources to find recipes as well. We highly recommend using AllRecipes.com (#notsponsored) to find meals using specific ingredients. You can actually search for the ingredients you have and it will find recipes that include them! Genius!
HOW TO INCLUDE A VARIETY OF MEALS
One of the biggest issues people have when it comes to meal planning is that they want a variety of meals each week. This often takes a lot of time… which is something we're trying to avoid.
SET THEMED NIGHTS
We've put together several lists of dinner ideas that will help you as you are brainstorming meals. These lists are organized into categories to make it a little easier to incorporate a variety into your meal plan.
Just remember to allow for some flexibility. If you set a theme or category for each night, that has to be secondary to using up the ingredients you have on hand! If you get in the habit of keeping your pantry stocked with staples, you'll be able to make this happen! Don't forget to keep your themes simple and broad so that they can incorporate a variety of meals!
DOUBLE AND FREEZE
One of the best ways we know of to save time and money is to double and freeze. If you have easy meals you can pull out of the freezer each week, it saves you time and allows you to add variety without buying any extra ingredients. Each week plan at least one meal that you can double and freeze for later in the month!
You'll thank me when you have a crazy night and all you have to do is pull out a delicious home-cooked meal in the morning and place it in the oven or crockpot and its ready come dinner time!
MEAL PLANNING SHEET
Keep it simple folks. Find a system that works for you. A small dry erase board in your kitchen, a command center with a meal planning calendar, a meal planning app on your phone… whatever works for you! But we've found that the simpler it is, the more likely you are to stick to it.
Don't have a system in place yet? No worries. We've created a few sheets to help you meal plan! Keep these in your planner for easy access as you're planning your week. This way you'll make sure to avoid planning dinners that take a lot of time to prep on nights where you aren't even home!
We suggest meal planning weekly as that allows you to keep tabs on what you have on hand. If you plan too far in advance, you might let things slip through the cracks and end up wasting food!
CREATE A SHOPPING LIST
If you want to save money on groceries, the number one thing you want to do is make a shopping list and stick to it! Don't buy things you don't need! If you know you need a splurge item to be able to leave the store on good terms (Peanut M&Ms, anyone?), put it on your list. Next, make sure that your shopping list focuses on items that are on sale!
When you do go shopping, remember to be smart about what you buy! Check out our hacks for shopping on a budget and don't forget to follow these shopping tips for success!
Our biggest tip to save money is to only go shopping once each week! If you forget something, you can wait six days to pick it up next week… that's definitely motivation to be thorough with your planning. This not only saves time, but money too! The more you're in a store, the more likely you are to be tempted to buy snacks and treats that you don't need!
MEAL PLANNING BASICS
Those are the basics. The way you plan meals will depend on your individual situation. Each one has a dilemma, and we're going to help you see the solutions to that dilemma!
- Tips for Meal Planning for One – Single folks, this one is for you! Whether you're in college or you're a little older, we're giving you tips for how to plan meals for one.
- Meal Planning for Two Tips – Newlywed couples, empty-nesters, and roommates will benefit from these tips!
- Tips for Meal Planning with Young Children – We know that they can be picky, so we have some great ideas to help combat that!
- Meal Planning with Teenagers Tips – Yes! We know it's a little different with the never-ending pit that is a teen's stomach.
- Cooking Together – Why Family Meal Prep Matters! – Take the stress off just one person doing the planning, prepping, and cooking! It's time to have the whole family come together to help. Everybody eats, after all!
Alright, well there you have it! Now that you know how to meal plan, what's stopping you? Let us know if you have any tried-and-true methods in the comments below!
Looking for more great ideas?
- Before you add an ingredient to your grocery list, see if you can find a substitution for it that you already have at home!
- You can never go wrong with a quick and easy dinner idea, and we've got 40 of 'em for you to look through!
- We've got some awesome cooking hacks that will rock your shelf cooking world!
Now go become a meal planning pro!
My kids are all older (11-21). One of their chores each week is that they have an assigned cooking day. For that day they have to plan and prepare the meals. It’s so hard to coordinate with them to meal plan each weekend because they are so busy. I have always planned, and had them help plan, at least a month of meals in advance, and I usually cycle a month worth of menus once or twice before we do a new one. Hmm…I like your approach to meal planning and I’m just trying to think how to make this work with older kids, where the mom isn’t supervising all the meal prep anymore. Loving what I’m learning on your site!
Have them help you to keep an inventory going for the fridge, freezer, and pantry! This will allow them to easily see what food you have in order to meal plan. Whoever is cooking that day is in charge of updating the inventory sheet (either when they take food out to cook or add food to the freezer, that way it’s always up to date. And they can rotate who is in charge of adding food to the sheet when you bring food home from the store. Try it out and let us know how it goes! 🙂
I’m excited to go through this with my husband and work on planning better together. 🙂
These are great ideas – looking forward to working through my pantry this Shelftember!
Great help as always! Love you!
I’m so excited to give this a try! It’s something I’ve been attempting to do for a while, but with no success. 😅 However, there’s some great tips in here that I think will help a great deal!
Love the tip to double and freeze!
One of our favorites!
Thanks for this explanation and the great resource! Definitely going to put them to good use!
I learned many similar tricks as a child from my mom growing up in a large family but following you for the last few years has taken everything to the next level and beyond even still! I absolutely love it!
Loved the tip about theme nights! With three kids in sports, meal planning is the only thing keeping us from eating out every night. I often get stuck on what to do but after utilizing the themed nights it really helps me to keep fresh ideas and not get in the same boring routine my kids hate!
That’s so great! Glad it helped!!