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!

Hand writing on weekly meal planner with dinner ideas pages next to it, learning how to meal plan, from Shelf Cooking

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:

  1. Make a list of what ingredients you need to use up.
  2. Find meals that include those ingredients.
  3. Schedule in a leftovers night. 

Let's dive in and talk about the best ways to meal plan successfully β€” the shelf cooking way! Ready?


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!?!


Meal planning printables on a counter, from Shelf Cooking

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 πŸ˜‰
  • 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!
Take me to my meal planning sheets!


Screenshot of Allrecipes.com ingredient search, from Shelf Cooking

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!


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.


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!


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!


Weekly meal planner sheet on a counter with pen, from Shelf Cooking

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!

Weekly meal planner printables from Shelf Cooking
Take me to my free meal planning sheets!


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!


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!

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!

Woman prepping dinner, from Shelf Cooking

Looking for more great ideas?

Now go become a meal planning pro!