Meal Planning for Dummies


My husband and I often reminisce about our saltine crackers with peanut butter days. If we had a particularly good paycheck back then, we’d use bread and feel like total ballers. (Now, my number one priority is meal planning to stretch our grocery budget.) We definitely were not ballers and we were not big pimpin’ in our one-bedroom apartment above a video store. For fun on weekends, we’d look out the window and hope a bar fight would break out across the street because it would be like seeing a live episode of COPS.

So believe me when I say we have never lived largely in all our 16 years together. I’ve just gotten a lot better at budgeting since we’ve started our family.

Meal Planning for Dummies | Duluth Mom

I am in a lot of online mom groups and the question of “how much do you spend on groceries a month” always comes up, almost weekly. My response is no more than $400. That’s my meals and a few stock-up items for a family of six. YES, a family of six. Are we eating steaks regularly? No, but we’re eating healthy meals that give us some leftovers for my husband to eat lunch the next day. I usually get questions on how, and I always say meal planning.

The next thing is people saying they don’t know what they’ll want to eat next Thursday and to that I say- who cares? I don’t either! You also don’t have to be an awesome cook to plan your meals. My husband would tell you I’m not at “Worst Cooks in America” level but you don’t see me hosting parties that involve me preparing a meal everyone has to eat.

I have a process that I use and have been using it for about five years now. My husband doesn’t really get paid every other week; rather he is paid on the 7th and the 21st of every month. Which is great for planning bills but for meals it gets a little dicey. His check on the 21st needs to go a long way and sometimes it is a LOT of days to plan before his next check on the 7th.

Step 1: Pick your meals

I am a visual person so I thrive on lists. I get a piece of paper and write down every day I need to plan a meal. Get the idea of knowing what you want to eat two Wednesdays from now out of your head, it does not matter! I only use the calendar as a guide! Then I assign a meal to each day. Don’t think you’re going to make a meal from scratch every day- that’s crazy. Be realistic. If you know on Tuesdays your kids have activities and you need something quick, plan for it. In our house, Tuesday means breakfast for dinner because it’s cheap, fast, and easy and that’s glorious because we have a lot going on. Weekends I plan for spaghetti, lasagna, things that are messy because I’m more likely able to clean a kid and a high chair on a weekend versus a Monday when I’m dealing with homework and signing things and breaking the cage fight in the living room. If you know you are going to pick up fast food once, plan for it! Just because you menu plan doesn’t mean that is out of your life.

Meal Planning menu | Duluth Mom

Step 2: Write down your ingredients

The number two obstacle a person runs into is not having everything they need in their pantry. The only way I can get around that is to write down EVERY ingredient I will need. As I add a meal to my calendar, I then write down what I need to make that. Forget what you have on hand right now. Add everything, down to salt and pepper. Trust me. Also, if you know your kids eat a lot of granola bars- add it to your list. Add the lunch box items, after-school snacks, classroom snacks, all of it.

Step 3: Check your pantry

Now you’re going to take your list of every ingredient needed and look in your pantry. If you have the ingredient, cross it off that list. Doing it this way helps you visualize your pantry but it also helps you see if you need to replace staple items. There are items I always have extras of (things for spaghetti, for example) just because what IF my kids bring two friends over for dinner? I can make a huge pot of spaghetti easily and with little planning. I also try to have the stuff to make quick cookies, I will use this as a weekend tantrum buster or if I get a bake sale sprung on me, I’m ready. (Yup- I’m that mom, I make cookie mix cookies for the bake sale. Don’t judge me.)

Step 4: SHOP!

You buy ONLY what is on your list. Do you hear me? Say it really loud, you buy ONLY what is on your list. With so many stores doing grocery pickup this temptation is virtually gone and it’s awesome. You buy ONLY what is on your list and look at your total. If you’re buying a lot of snacks, decide what can come off your shopping list. Are your kids going to die if you eliminate after-school snacks? Nope. I promise you, they won’t die. I know our jobs as parents are to basically keep them alive, but snacks do not keep them alive. I speak from experience; all four of mine are still going strong. The magic of grocery pickup is you can see your total as it accumulates, when I’m in the store I’m that nerd with my calculator app on my phone making a tally. Seeing your total change is a really good way to not randomly throw the cookies your hips don’t need into your cart.

Step 5: Eat!

Every day when you wake up and look at your list of to-do’s for the day, find a meal on your list that you want to make. Do what you need to do to prep for it, whether it’s putting it together in a crockpot or just putting the ingredients together on your counter, get it organized. Cross that meal off your list and repeat the next day.

It takes a little work at first but I promise you- you CAN do this. You get used to the process and you will save money! Get your kids involved by suggesting what they want to eat one night. Maybe experiment with one new recipe a week or every two weeks. Once kids understand your quest to save money and be healthier at the same time, they will get on board. Good luck mamas!

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Sara Strand
Sara is a stay home mom (not a regular mom, a “cool” mom) of two teenagers and two elementary grade kids, who is always stressed out because one has their driver's license, one is a free spirit, one is fearless, and one is always in the clouds. In her “free time”, she is a book reviewer, dance mom, true crime podcast junkie, Dateline/Keith Morrison fan club devotee, and an Amniotic Fluid Embolism survivor. Always honest and sometimes funny, you can also find her at her blog, Stranded in Chaos (, where she shares good (and not so good) books, tales from mom life, recovery and life after birth trauma, and livin’ la vida loca after 40ish.