How to Start Meal Planning + Save Money

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Why did I start meal planning?

Until Adriana turned two, when Genny was born, she was with us at the pizzeria all day, every day. Working 12+ hour days and taking care of a toddler can be extremely hard and stressful. In true Sicilian fashion, Adriana ate (and still eats) pasta for lunch almost every day. But I found that I was seriously struggling to plan ahead for dinners. More often than not she would end up eating the same thing three days in a row (hello boiled chicken and veggies!) because it was easy to make in a pinch. Then the mom guilt would set in because I felt like I was failing her and I was worried she would get tired of the same thing every day and would start refusing meals.

I kept a calendar for other things – bills, events, etc. So why didn’t I have one for meals? I found a printable calendar on Google and went to work. I’ve been meal planning our dinners for almost two years now and it has helped me immensely. It has saved me time, stress and even money! Now I want to help you. Keep reading to find out how you can start meal planning and get your FREE Monthly Meal Plan Printable. 

What is meal planning?

When people hear meal planning, they often confuse it with meal prepping, so let me break it down for you. 

Meal PREPPING is when you prepare your meals ahead of time to reheat/re-cook during the week. This is often done for people who are dieting and trying to stay within certain limits. It can also be done by preparing freezer meals ahead that are cooked later on. 

Meal PLANNING is scheduling your meals and the recipes you’ll be using ahead of time. You can use meal plans to create your weekly/bi-weekly/monthly shopping list(s) which can help you save both time and money.

How do I start meal planning?

When I first decided to meal plan our dinners I was totally lost. I knew what my end goal was but I wasn’t sure how to get there. There were times that I planned a certain dinner and ended up not making it because I didn’t actually look at what I needed to make it. I wasn’t coordinating my groceries with what I was planning. It was a mess. Now that I’ve been doing it longer I’ve worked out the kinks. 

So here’s what you need to do:

The first thing you need to do is make a list of dinners that you already know your family likes. Next, find some new recipes that you want to try out. Maybe you’ve been saving them on Pinterest, but just didn’t have the right time to incorporate it. Now’s the time. When you’re jotting down meals, make a note of how often you want to eat it. I also make a note if I need to use any certain appliances (CrockPot, InstantPot or Air Fryer) as I might need to start preparing or cooking them earlier. 

I have a rotation. Every Wednesday we have freshly breaded chicken tenders, cooked in the air fryer, every Thursday we have either kielbasa or sausage, and every Saturday we have pizza. Every other Tuesday we have salmon. Once a month, usually on a Sunday, we have Parmesan Crusted Pork Chops, French Dip Sandwiches and CrockPot Ribs. If you would prefer not to repeat meals, that’s totally up to you. This is what we like and what works for us. 

Now that you have your list, we’ve going to put it to use. Print out the free Monthly Meal Plan Calendar here. You’ll need this to map out your meal plan. It includes three different styles. 

Now we’re going to fill in the calendar. Start with your tried and true recipes first and add them. Next you can fill in the empty spots with the new recipes you want to try out. Keep filling until the month is full. And that’s it! You now have your first month of dinners planned out.

As I said earlier, we typically eat pasta for lunch 3-4 times a week. We change it up, but more times than not it’s made with Homemade Marinara Sauce or butter and cheese. I have recently started planning our lunches as well, but I only do those 1-2 weeks ahead. They aren’t extravagant and usually consist of sandwiches, pasta or chicken nuggets & french fries. 

I have included a copy of my weekly meal planner, which has a section for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day plus a notes section for each day and a small grocery slot, in my Meal Plan Bundle. I use the notes section to remind myself if there’s anything I need to pull out of the freezer for the next day’s meal. These bundles are available to purchase here.

We don’t usually eat full breakfasts, mainly just snacking. I keep cereal, granola bars, Pillsbury cinnamon rolls and pancake mix on hand at all times and prepare when requested. 

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How will meal planning save me money?

Before I started meal planning I would do my regular grocery shopping once a week and bulk shopping one to two times a month. Since I didn’t really have a plan, I would buy random things thinking I could try a recipe with it. Most of the time the things I was impulse buying ended up being wasted. With a meal plan you can easily identify what you need and shape your grocery list around it. What’s better is that you can purchase meat and poultry in bulk, which makes it cheaper. And having more on hand means you can shop less frequently. Fewer trips mean fewer impulse buys. 

How do I create my grocery list using my meal plan?

Since you have your meal plan for the month, the grocery list will be a sitch. First, you need to decide how often you want to do your grocery shopping. I do regular trips weekly and bulk items 1-2 times a month. I could change to bi-weekly trips but I prefer having fresh fruits, veggies and breads on hand so that’s why I stick to weekly. An alternate would be doing large trips every two weeks and just short ones weekly for the produce and other essentials that you might be running low on. I keep a notepad on my refrigerator so whenever I notice something is running low I can write it down. Then when I make my grocery list I don’t need to go searching for what I need.

Bulk Shopping:
Look at your recipes and determine which recipes have items that can be purchased in bulk. Meat, poultry, seafood and pasta are all great examples. Add up how much you need for the recipes and then determine if you want to do one or two bulk trips and jot down how much you need for each trip. When you create the actual shopping list make it so that it follows the flow of the store. Backtracking increases the likelihood of impulse buys. 

Weekly and Bi-Weekly Shopping:
Write down the remaining items you need from your meal plan and separate them out between the trips for the upcoming weeks. Add the items from your refrigerator list that are running low. Also add any produce, dairy and eggs that you will need until your next trip. Again, organize the list to follow the flow of the store.

Tip: Do NOT look at your weekly circular unless you are looking for something specific. Do not browse for fun and ignore the signs in the store. I often add things to my list, or to my cart, because it is on sale. These things end up in the trash more often than not.

I started using Instacart since I’ve been home during quarantine and I didn’t want to take the kids into stores. Grocery shopping with kids can be a struggle on any given day, but add in extra stressors of COVID and Instacart has been a lifesaver. I subscribed to Instacart Express, which means I pay $9.99 a month and can order as many times as I want without delivery fees, as long as the order is over $35. If you would prefer, they have an annual plan that is a little cheaper. You do still pay the service fees, but that rate is reduced with the subscription plan. 

I really like Instacart because they have a lot of options. You can check availability for items at multiple places and then make orders based off of who has what. Previously I would go to the grocery store and then have to go to another when they didn’t have something. With Instacart, you can order multiple stores at once. And if something is low or out of stock you can pick replacements. Sometimes it will ask you ahead of time. Other times my Instacart driver has sent me a message asking what I would prefer instead. 

Another reason that this is great is because you can order from stores like Sam’s Club, Costco and the Restaurant Depot without a membership. If you DO have a membership, you can still enter your card info to save some money. 

When I first started ordering it was during the beginning of quarantine and deliveries were taking longer. Now that things have settled down I haven’t had any issue getting things delivered. I usually have them delivered within two hours, but you can choose specific time frames as well.

You can try Instacart Express for FREE for 7 days when you sign up here.

Meal planning and grocery delivery have made my life a lot less stressful by making sure that I know what we are eating that day and being prepared. It has helped me to cut back on unnecessary spending and food waste. Don’t forget to download your FREE Monthly Dinner Meal Planner here. If you want to take meal planning a step further, you can check out my other meal planning printables here. I have put together a bundle that includes recipe cards, grocery lists, weekly meal planners and 13 months of calendars. You can find those here. They’re available in three different designs, too!

I would love to see some of your meal plans and try some new recipes. Share a pic on Instagram and tag me @PigtailsAndPasta. Happy planning and enjoy!

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