How to Make a Money-Saving Meal Plan You’ll Actually Stick To

meal planning
Nathan Borror under Creative Commons

I bet some of you are reading this post right now while eating a delicious homemade sandwich you brought to work.

Maybe a little sliced ham, Swiss cheese, the nice Dijon mustard with the little seeds in it?

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

But here’s my question:

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

If you don’t know the answer, you’re going to wake up one day and realize you only have enough bread for one more sandwich — and you aren’t going to be able to make it to the grocery store until Friday.

So you’ll spend the next few days paying $12 to spend your lunch break standing in line waiting for someone else to make you a sandwich — or you’ll have to put together a few sad desk lunches.

The average American spends $2,625 per year on restaurants, according to The Motley Fool. Meal planning can save you from spending extra cash on emergency lunches or late-night takeout. It’ll also save you from pretending two frozen blueberry waffles counts as a “lunch.”

You’ll eat healthier, save money and enjoy your meals a lot more when they’re planned!

How to Make a Meal Plan That Works

The first thing you’re going to 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. Or it might be 20: seven breakfasts, seven dinners and six lunches because your manager always buys pizza for everyone on Fridays.

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?

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 then your boss will bring in pizza on Friday.

Other people like 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

How can you keep track of your meal plan?

I can generally remember mine in my head, but some people use a meal planning app or tool.

Here are a few apps to consider:

  • $5 Meal Plan sends you a weekly menu of meals that cost about $2 a person (they even have a gluten-free version).
  • Plan To Eat features recipes and a drag-and-drop meal planning interface that auto-generates a grocery list.
  • Pepperplate includes recipes and meal planning, as well as a “cook now” function to set up multiple cooking timers for a complex meal.
  • Emeals lets you input your family size, number of meals needed and comes up with the meals for you. All you have to do is go shopping!

Or, go old school with pen and paper or a simple wall calendar.

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.

I find meal planning makes my grocery shopping a lot easier because I know exactly what I’m going to buy and where to find it — and that efficiency helps me save money on groceries.

Since I buy the same items repeatedly, I also know which ones to stock up on when they go on sale. I just bought five packets of deli meat at a super discount. It’s going to make 20 lunches!

Stocking up on sale items also helps you plan ahead and freeze meals for the future. If there’s a way to buy in bulk and prep the foods you eat the most often, do it!

What about coupons? If you see a great deal on something you buy repeatedly, go for it. If you see a great deal on something you consider a treat, like a slightly more expensive brand of cereal, why not?

But when you see coupons for items that don’t fit in your meal plan at all — like for frozen egg rolls, which you probably aren’t going to include in taco night — you should move on and not waste your money or your food.

Which brings us to:

Eating What You Buy

Americans throw away a lot of food.

Over $165 billion of food is wasted each year, around $529 per person, USA Today reports.

You don’t want to waste $529 — or more — 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 knowing what your food plan is and sticking to it.

Here are some tips:

  • Pack your planned lunches the night before, so you won’t be “too tired” 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.

Also: commit to eating foods before they go bad.

This means if you’ve said, “I will eat either a lettuce 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 you’re done.

Figuring out a meal plan that works for you will probably take 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.

Your Turn: Have you tried meal planning? Do you have advice for other meal planners?

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. We would have shared them with you anyway, but a true “penny hoarder” would be a fool not to take the company’s money. 🙂
Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer focusing on personal finance and personal stories. Her work has appeared in The Billfold, The Toast, Yearbook Office, The Write Life and Boing Boing.