I remember when my husband and I used to go to the grocery store, before kids. We just picked out things that looked like they might be good to eat that week. Usually I went more than once a week. And, we ate out or fast food rather frequently. Fast forward a few years to more kids, less income and less time. I will not set foot in the grocery store without a list, and not more than once a week unless absolutely necessary.
Meal planning is simply writing down what you are going to eat for the next week ( or two, or the month, however far in advance you want to plan) and then making sure you have everything in your pantry/fridge/freezer to pull it off. I decide what we are eating for dinner for seven days straight and write it down on the back of the grocery list, so it is on the same paper. I then write down seven ideas for lunches and breakfasts. If I need inspiration, I check to see what we already have in the freezer and pantry. I also check with my tried and true recipes, and maybe try a new one. I have been experimenting with recipes in the kitchen for a while now, so I have a spiral notebook where I keep recipes that work. I have a list on a sheet of paper in my pantry of meals we like when I need inspiration. I also have my two favorite cookbooks and my favorite cooking blog to consult.
Is it worth the time it takes to do meal planning? If you know what you are having for dinner, it takes a lot of stress of the daily “what am I going to feed everyone?” during the “witching hour” after nap but before dinner. Plus it saves time and money to only have to hit the store once. And, if you only buy what is on your list, you can pretty much plan to almost the dollar what you will be spending, so meal planning go hand in hand with a grocery budget. So to sum up: meal planning saves time, gas, money, stress and sanity. I feel the trade-off makes it more than worth it.
I also use my meal plan to take advantage of deals offered that week at the stores I shop at: HEB and Sprouts. Their weekly ads are available online. Sprouts new ad previews come out on Tuesday, the ads run Wed-Wed, so sale prices overlap with last week’s ad on Wednesdays for double-ad-Wednesdays, but I never make it there on Wednesdays to take advantage of it. HEB’s ads come out on Wednesday and run through Tuesday the next week. So, I usually make my list off the weekly specials on Wednesdays (today!) and then shop on Thursday or Friday night. I also pull out my coupon binder to see if anything on sale has coupons to make the deal even sweeter. (The binder is also checked for routine items that I have to buy that week anyway, like maybe coffee creamer, cereal or lunch meat.)
Once I have an idea of what is in my freezer and pantry, as well as what is on sale that week, I can plan out meals that we love using the stuff we already have or can buy at a great price. I begin my grocery list with the items we might still need to make those meals, like tomato sauce so we can make spaghetti with the noodles, sauce mix and ground beef I already have on hand. I also usually buy a little extra of the sale items to put back in the pantry for a week when those items are not on sale, like coffee or chicken breasts. Once I have seven days of dinners, lunches and breakfasts planned, I also check on our snack food ingredients, like dry milk for yogurt or oatmeal for granola bars, etc. Lastly, I add items from the grocery list I keep on the fridge, the items we are out of and need to buy even if they are not on sale, like baby formula, flour, milk, etc. The grocery list comes together very quickly once the meal plan has been done.
Then I just have to go down the list and estimate the costs of the items that are not on sale (sale prices are usually in the ads) and I get an idea of what my total will be. If I am over, I might change my meal plan or grocery list so I can spend less. Or if I am under budget, I’ll buy more of the sale items for later or store the extra funds away for weeks when we just cannot help but go over budget. I even write my list in the order of the aisles in the store, so I can go down the list as I move through the store and do not have to zig zag around to find items.
With list and coupons in hand, I head to the store. I rarely buy items not on the list, unless a particular unadvertised sale is too good to pass up and I have the wriggle room that week in the budget. And that brings me to the last benefit of a meal plan and grocery list: you get in and out of the store quickly, buying only from your list.