A Step-by-Step Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning

Woman cooking in kitchen looking up recipe on tablet

When it comes to family life, making meals that are tasty and filling, keeping your schedule from becoming a nonstop cook-a-thon, and not spending a fortune on groceries at the same time is a tall order.

But meal planning can fix this. Match it with coupons from Ebates and Cash Back, and what you have is a recipe for saving money, saving time, and eating better than before.

So, if you’ve never made a meal plan before, where do you start?

1. Work with what you have. There’s no need to run out and restock your entire kitchen. On the contrary, the idea is to save money and effort, so the best first step is just to stay put. Look through your cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer to see what kind of food you already have. What could you creatively turn into a meal already? If you can’t make a week’s worth of meals with what you already have, what side dishes do you need to complement what you do have? Once you have used up your current selection and are running out of supplies, then you go shopping.

2. Have the “heavy hitters” for the week. If you break up your dinners into two main dishes for the week, you’re accomplishing a few things. You’re making it possible to buy those chicken breasts or lasagna plates in bulk at a lesser price than buying a small one every week for one meal. You’re saving a lot of effort by not making elaborate and different meals every day. And you’re making it possible to have leftover night with the food left in the fridge from the previous day. You can rotate what these meals are every week. Perhaps you’ll have chicken and fish one week, and pasta and burgers the next.

Smiling girl eating fresh berries in kitchen

3. Don’t forget snacks. When the kids need something to munch on before dinner or your blood sugar is a little low, it’s the perfect concoction for messing up a meal plan. You end up making the meal early and are hungry later, or dinner is spoiled and you’ve wasted a lot of food. So make sure to add snacks to your list. Something as small and healthy as a granola bar will take the edge off and give you a boost of energy without upsetting the plan, and the best part is, they’re cheap.

4. Your shopping list is law. Laws don’t bend to the will of a toddler who really wants chicken tenders or a bag of Reese’s that is just dying to jump in your basket. In order for meal planning to actually work, you need to create a shopping list that is highly detailed and non-negotiable. Before you walk out the door, look at each item and decide if there’s a really good reason that it’s there – not just because it looks nice. Not only will this make your family healthier, but you’ll save money by not making impulse purchases. Even better: Your house won’t be full of dishes without sides that end up ruining your entire meal plan when your family feels tempted.

5. Get your calendar involved. Get yourself a new calendar, because when you start meal planning, you’re going to need a schedule. If you’re going out to dinner one evening with the whole family as a treat, then there’s no need to buy extra food to plan for that meal. If you’re having a potluck on Tuesday and are in charge of the casserole, then it’s smart to make that one of your two weekly meals so you can buy the supplies in bulk for less money (Sam’s Club is great for this). Also, by charting out what is being served for each meal every day, it eliminates that snackish feeling and cancels out the craving to just buy pizza instead – which can be both pricey and unhealthy.

Woman shopping with coupons in market

6. Base your meals on sales. Planning meals is a great way to save money, and it becomes even more cost effective if you follow this next step. Browse through the fliers local stores send you to not only gain inspiration for some yummy new dishes to try out, but also to take advantage of the sales to customize the week’s meals. If beef is on sale, then chicken week is out the window – you can have burgers for much less. Browse sites like Ebates to see which stores are offering the best deals, such as Walmart.

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