Meal Planning 101: Inventory, Recipes, Prep, and More

Updated on April 16, 2020
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Amanda is a shopper and cook who has gotten meal planning down to a science by learning from her mistakes.

Learn how to save money and grocery shop efficiently by planning meals.
Learn how to save money and grocery shop efficiently by planning meals.

Meal Planning 101

With grocery budgets on the rise and eating out for dinner every other night becoming the trend, we all could use a little help reining it all in. Take control of your grocery budget and your sanity. We're about to go through Meal Planning 101.

Why Just Making a List Doesn't Work

You might be thinking . . . I make a list! I don't need help. I've got this under control. But in reality, you struggle to make dinners that come together every night, and you still eat out more than once a week.

Why is this? We go to the store armed with our list. We feel great about all the healthy choices we put into our carts. Yet, we get home and put it all away in the fridge and the cupboard and completely lose out on the goodies we just bought.

The reason our shopping list betrays us is because we go to the store with a plan, but we don't have one at home. There is no written plan on how to use all of those delicious foods once they are at your house. Inspiration probably won't strike at 6:30 PM on a Friday night as the baby is crying and all you want to do is drink wine and order pizza.

The grocery list is very important to meal planning, but it alone is not enough to make you successful at sticking to your budget and keeping your mealtime sanity in check.

Step 1: Inventory

The first step is to inventory all the food in your house. All of it. Open the cupboards, fridge, and freezer. What's shoved in there behind the two open jars of peanut butter? Is there a lost bag of veggies behind your ice maker? Pull everything out that you can (keep frozen and chilled food at the appropriate temps) and write it down.

Tip: Now is a great time to clean your fridge!

Once inventory is taken, it is best to separate it into categories. Mine look like this:

  • Grains: quinoa, bulgar, rice, oats
  • Pasta
  • Dried Beans
  • Canned goods: beans, veggies, soup
  • Condiments: peanut butter, salad dressing, hot sauce, mustard, jelly
  • Snacks: nuts, crackers
  • Baking: flour, sugar, vanilla, sprinkles
  • Spices
  • Produce: in the fridge and on the counter
  • Frozen veggies
  • Freezer meals: any leftovers in marked containers

Your list may look different than mine, and that's okay! It is the first step in getting this meal-planning thing under control. All lists will look different based on your diet. Another important step when you take inventory is to look for spoilage. Anything that looks or smells disgusting or just a little sour should be tossed.

Step 2: Recipes

Does your family love a certain three or four meals that you cook? Or are they more adventurous and like to try new things on a regular basis? Whatever the case is, making a list of recipes that you know or are comfortable with making is the next step in Meal Planning 101.

My husband and I have about 10 meals that we cook frequently. We like to serve them up and we are very comfortable making them. All of them were made up by one of us and I'm sure your family has some of those as well. Write down on a sheet of paper all the recipes that come to you that you like to make. Just because jambalaya comes to mind doesn't necessarily mean that you and your family like it.

Here is my short list of recipes that we make:

  • Tamale Pie
  • Red Beans and Rice
  • Tacos
  • Caramelized Lentils and Farro
  • Stir Fry
  • Potato Curry
  • Minestrone Soup
  • Seasoned Veggie Bake
  • Roasted Tomato One Pot Pasta

Get that list going! After you've thought of your basic meals—those favorites that your family loves—pull out your cookbooks (or go to your local library or Pinterest). Take a peek at what catches your eye and then dig into the ingredient list. If it seems feasible to you to make that dish without too much fanfare, then jot it down and list out the core ingredients that you don't normally have on hand.

An example would be Loaded Mexican Potatoes by Kristy Turner. We normally have all of those ingredients minus fresh tomatoes. So, in my notebook, I would write out the recipe name (Loaded Mexican Potatoes), the cookbook it is from (But I could NEVER Go Vegan!) and the page number. On the next line, I would put the ingredients I would need to go out of my way to purchase just for this recipe.

Easy, right? So go through those cookbooks that have been gathering dust with your family and pick out some new recipes that have simple ingredients.

Step 3: Staples

Those staples that get you from day to day in the kitchen are what we're talking about here. For us, it is dry beans, rice, frozen veggies, spices, and pasta. For you, it might be frozen chicken, pasta, canned tomato sauce, peanut butter, and milk. It all depends on your diet.

For us, staples are purchased once a month in bulk at our local Aldi. To do this, I have a few things written down:

  • the item
  • the cost
  • how much we use monthly
  • what it regularly goes in (see Step 2: Recipes)

Make a list of the things your family goes through regularly and how often you purchase them. If you know the price, write that down too! You'll also want to note what recipes you use it in as well.

Step 4: Planning

Planning is one of the best words in the world. It gives me calm when I think about planning our meals, planning a date, or even planning a vacation. Now is when we really go to work.

If your family size is small (1–2) or medium (2–4), you should plan your meals to have leftovers. If you have a large family (5 or more), you may not necessarily have leftovers. As I have a small family (married with an infant), we regularly have leftovers since most recipes make 4–6 servings.

With all of the recipes that you have collected, print off a blank calendar for the month. A quick internet search should work. You will fill in that calendar with the recipes you pulled by grouping them by similar ingredients. This is so important! Buying 15 pounds of chicken is more advantageous than buying chicken, pork, and beef all for the same week.

Once you have them grouped by similar ingredients, start filing the calendar in with a pencil. Erasers are your best friend. Start small, doing one week at a time. If you feel brave and truly dedicated, go ahead and fill in the whole month! I do the whole month at one time but I know it is okay for plans to change (that's why it is in pencil!).

When accounting for leftovers, I like to alternate days. A regular week will look like this for us:

  • Monday: Spaghetti with Chickpea Meatballs
  • Tuesday: Curry
  • Wednesday: Spaghetti with Chickpea Meatballs
  • Thursday: Curry
  • Friday: Red Beans and Rice
  • Saturday: Stir Fry
  • Sunday: Red Beans and Rice
  • Monday: Stir Fry

and the pattern repeats.

Step 5: Executing

This is the homestretch. You've made it! There are two parts to executing your perfect meal plan: make a list and stick to the meal plan. That's it. Make your list to include your staples, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks. If you buy only what you need, you'll be golden. I shop on a weekly basis because of all the produce we purchase. I find it is also more budget-friendly, as I can generally catch a new sale each week.


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