How to Start Meal Planning So You’ll Actually Stick to It

Prepped meals for Monday through Friday are photographed against a green back drop. In this photo, there is rice, avocado, bell peppers, mushrooms, fish, corn, nuts and seeds.
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Are you reading this story while eating a lunch you packed at home?

Good on you. You don’t need anyone to tell you how much money you can save by preparing meals at home and packing lunches for work or school.

But here’s a question:

How many more sandwiches can you make with the bread you currently have?

If you don’t know the answer, you may wake up one day and realize you only have enough bread for one more sandwich.

So you’ll spend the next few days paying $12 on takeout or delivery — money you didn’t actually plan to spend.

In 2019, the average American consumer spent more than $3,500 a year on “food away from home,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And even amid a year dominated by the pandemic, the cost of food away from home was 3.8% higher in April 2021 compared to the same time last year.

Meal planning can save you from spending extra cash on emergency lunches or late-night takeout. You’ll eat healthier, save money and enjoy your meals a lot more when they’re planned!

How to Start Meal Planning So That It Works

The first thing you need to do is figure out how many meals you’re responsible for making every week.

If it’s just you, your answer might be 21: seven breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Remember to subtract the meals that you don’t typically need — like if your manager buys bagels for everyone on Fridays or you head to your parents for Sunday dinners.

If you have a family, count meals per person — a dinner for three people counts as three dinners, even if you all eat the same thing.

Now start thinking about the meals you make most often: the sandwiches, canned soups, salads and taco nights that make up an average week.

How many meals can you get out of a single loaf of bread? Does a bagged salad usually last for several meals? Or does your family eat the entire bag in one night? And don’t forget to calculate how many meals your go-to dinners actually serve — is there usually enough chicken leftover for another meal?

Once you start getting an idea of how long your food lasts, you can start planning ahead. You can look at a packet of sliced ham and think, “That’s four lunches.”

Once you start translating food into “number of meals,” you’re on your way to meal planning.

At this point, there are two ways to go.

Some people like to plan out every meal in advance: You’ll eat a ham sandwich on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Then you’ll run out of ham and have a peanut butter sandwich on Thursday and your office springs for pizza on Friday.

Other people prefer to think, “Well, I’ve got ham and I’ve got peanut butter, and I know I can make it to the end of the week.”

That’s the point of meal planning, after all: Figuring out how much food you need to buy to make it until your next grocery trip. Once you can do that, you’ll find yourself ordering emergency takeout much less often.

Try a Meal Planning App or Calendar

No need to stress yourself out keeping track of your meal plans — we’ve found easy ways to track your meals — and plan your grocery lists.

Here are a couple apps to consider:

  • $5 Meal Plan sends you a weekly menu of meals that includes five dinner entrees with sides, as well as one lunch and one breakfast. It will also include a “goodie,” which could be a dessert, a beverage or a snack. There’s also an option for gluten-free diets. Cost: Try it free for 14 days, then $5 a month.
  • Plan To Eat features recipes and a drag-and-drop meal planning interface that auto-generates a grocery list. Cost: Try it free for 30 days, then $4.95 a month or $39 a year.

Or stick to the basics with pen and paper or a simple wall calendar — the dry erase kind will let you change plans with an old-school swipe.

Taking Your Meal Plan to the Grocery Store

Once you get to the grocery store, it’s time to put your meal plan in action.

Make a list through a meal plan app or with pen and paper — and buy only what’s on the list.

Meal planning can actually make grocery shopping a lot easier because you know exactly what you’re going to buy and where to find it.

When you start buying the same items repeatedly, you’ll discover the sales cycles at your regular stores. You can then stock up on your favorite items when they go on sale.

Stocking up on sale items also helps you plan ahead and freeze meals for the future. If you can buy in bulk and prep the foods you eat the most often, you’ll save even more.

What about coupons? If you see a great deal on something you buy repeatedly, go for it.

But when you see coupons for items that don’t fit in your meal plan at all, your “savings” will be wasted if you never end up using it.

A woman cuts up vegetables in her kitchen.
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Eating What You Buy (This is Key)

Americans throw away a lot of food.

American households waste nearly 32% of the food they buy, according to a study released in 2020. That amounts to about $240 billion of wasted food.

You don’t want to waste money tossing your groceries into the trash. This means the last step in meal planning is making sure you eat what you buy.

How do you do this? It comes down to not just making a meal plan but sticking to it.

Here are some tips:

  • Pack lunches the night before, so you won’t be “too tired” or “too rushed” in the mornings.
  • Make sure you always eat something different for lunch and dinner. If you make a lasagna, don’t eat it for dinner, then lunch, then dinner again. Break up the lasagna dinners and add variety with sandwiches or soup lunches.
  • Give yourself options. When you prepare your meal plan, tell yourself, “This week, I will eat either a sandwich or a homemade frozen burrito for lunch.” Then, you won’t feel locked down to any specific entree.
  • Prepare the same favorite entrees over and over to help you stick to your plan. You know everyone likes them, how to make them quickly and how long they last.
  • Have dedicated snack food, like almonds and string cheese, so you don’t get hungry and eat one of the entrees you’re saving for later in the week.
  • Use the slow cooker strategically. You’ll save yourself from being “too tired” to cook in the evening if you start cooking in the morning. Add all the ingredients as you’re getting ready for work and school, then set it low and come home to a hot meal.
  • Keep emergency freezer meals. On a hectic night, knowing that you have a ready-to-cook meal in the freezer may be enough to help you avoid the fast food drive-thru.

And be sure to commit to eating foods before they go bad.

This means if you’ve said, “I will eat either a salad or a sliced orange with dinner,” and the lettuce is starting to look a little wilted, commit to eating it first. The oranges will still be there when the lettuce is gone.

You can take your commitment to the next level by taking on the pantry challenge.

Figuring out a meal plan that works for you will probably require a bit of trial and error. So don’t get discouraged if you thought a casserole that would last all week gets eaten in two days and you’re stuck ordering takeout… again!

The more you learn about your household’s eating habits, the better you’ll be able to shape your meal plans and prepare for a full refrigerator stocked with all the food you need.

Nicole Dieker is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.