There's nothing fun about the idea of making a weekly meal plan. Personally, it's always been something I've dreaded doing as I hate eating leftovers for the most part. The problem most people face with meal planning is they correlate it with dieting and the "protein/carb/veg" of bodybuilding prep. That's not how to do it and actually enjoy it.
The key with meal plans to both save money and having really delicious meals is planning - which seems obvious but sometimes isn't as intuitive as it could be. Here's what I do to make sure I save the most time, money and flavour possible while making a meal plan for the week. Learning how to meal plan on a budget is one of the most useful tools you can have as a home cook!
Step 1: Take an Inventory
In my opinion, the most important money saving and zero waste tip when it comes to meal prepping or meal planning is "shopping" your kitchen before ever making up a grocery list. This is one of the easiest ways to stick to, or even come in under, your weekly food budget.
This makes sure that you can use what you have first - this also ensures you're less likely to waste food by allowing it to go bad before using it.
One of my favourite resources for this is Supercook - it allows you to track all the foods you have on hand and offers recipe suggestions with ingredients on hand. I like to update it weekly and it's most effective right before you're going grocery shopping as it might help you avoid grocery shopping altogether.
Another cool feature of Supercook is that it offers suggestions where you have most of the ingredients but are maybe missing one or two - which is a great place to start looking for what you might need for your groceries. Quick disclosure that I'm not sponsored by Supercook - it's a tool I genuinely have been using for years and really just love.
For instance, as I write this post I'm planning to go do groceries because we're out of a lot of our staples. We got takeout today because we felt like there was nothing to make. But here is a list of 30,000 recipes we could have made. It can be really helpful and insightful.
Step 2: Pre-Plan Around Flyer Sales
Another resource I use often is an app called Flipp. It has all the local flyers organized in a really comprehensive way. It allows you to browse by store but also search for the desired ingredient. If I have a meal in mind, I'll search for the product I want. If I'm not convinced yet, I'll browse through Flipp to see if I can get inspiration based on what's on sale.
I also check the "secret" sales at Costco. We live in New Brunswick, so I visit Costco East Fan Blog - Secret Weekly Sale Items on Facebook to see what's on sale at Costco as they don't list everything on their flyers. If you don't live on the East Coast of Canada search for your region on Facebook. This page is often instrumental for our meal planning.
Step 3: Tackle the Planning
I'm the kind of person who struggles with leftovers. I know this is a really entitled first world problem but there's something I have a hard time with in terms of both eating the same thing over and over again as well as reheating foods. I do it, but I like to have my meals divided for ease of reheating.
For example, if you're making a dish with a meat and a sauce, keep both separate so you can heat the meat in the air fryer or microwave, and heat the sauce separately without affecting the texture more than absolutely necessary.
In my opinion, the best thing you can do is choose a few different "mix and match" options. My go to is 2 proteins, 2 carbs and 3-4 veggies. I don't do this in a typical low calorie bodybuilding method, but just a nice way to keep everything it's prime when it's time to reheat.
Menu Planning Examples
Now, for me, one of the most fun steps of meal planning is putting everything together. Making a well thought out plan makes me feel like a chef organizing a kitchen. It's just a bonus knowing it helps me stick to my budget.
Choose two proteins that are easy and customizable. I love basics like shredded chicken, pot roast, a whole roasted chicken or taco seasoned ground beef. Another great option is frozen shrimp. You can cook them in about 5 minutes day of so they're super quick and you never have to have "real" leftovers.
Often, there's weeks I would choose something like:
- Instant Pot Shredded Chicken
- Instant Pot Pot Roast Beef and Gravy
- bonus - it has a sauce for the last category
If you don't have an Instant Pot, slow cookers work just as well. The idea is to make this a hands off part of your meal. My hours are variable so I prefer the speediness of the Instant Pot over the slow cooker most days.
Another tip is buying cuts that aren't pre-processed. Here's my guide to using a whole chicken which is super handy for meal planning.
I like to have a mix of vegetables. I sometimes will make individual veggies, but usually I'll just make a huge sheet pan of roasted vegetables. My go to is carrots, onions and Brussels sprouts, I also always have asparagus on hand because it's super quick to cook. I usually don't plan this pre-prep this and cook it nightly coated in salt, pepper and olive oil.. We also ALWAYS have mixed frozen veggies on hand.
In this meal plan, I'd make
- Sheet Pan Roasted Vegetables (use anything in season or on sale)
- Oven Roasted Asparagus
- Bonus: I make Asparagus Ends Soup with the leftover ends for lunches. It keeps really well all week long and reheats really well for work.
- Frozen Veggies (carrots, corn, peas, beans, edamame mix)
- Salad Greens (for smoothies and salads)
- I also always have a batch of bean sprouts growing.
Choose carb options that are most popular for your family. It's incredibly rare at our house to not have a large batch of Jasmine rice on hand. Try and plan your carbs on what is the most versatile with your other choices. Carbs are always cheap. Choose what's on sale and what looks in season.
In this imaginary week, I'd choose:
- Stovetop Jasmine Rice
- Stand Mixer Mashed Potatoes
- OPTIONAL: A good bread, pre sliced and frozen - thawed (toasted) as needed
The biggest problem with sticking to a meal plan is that it's BORING. To fix that, make some "fit all" sauces that can make everything more delicious. This can be a really good salad dressing, gravy or white sauce depending on what you're eating that week.
For this menu, I'd make:
- Avocado Cilantro Lime Dressing
- Gravy (from Roast Beef recipe above)
We're really plain with breakfast. My personal go to is an English muffin breakfast sandwich. Real simple with a fried egg, cheese, tomato and lettuce. Lately, for simplicity and frugality I've been eating egg white oats almost exclusively.
A lot of people skip breakfasts or go really minimal. You know your breakfast habits. For us, this meal plan would include:
- Egg White Oats
- I buy whatever fruit is cheap and in season to top it.
- Grab and go options (fresh fruit that's in season)
Snacks and Sweets
I am 100% not a snacker. I don't love dessert and I don't reach for snacks often. I won't include stuff in this meal plan grocery list, but will just give a few ideas of what we have on hand to satisfy my partner who IS a snacker.
- Ice Cream
- Popcorn Kernels
- Frozen Fruit (for smoothies)
- San Pellegrinos
- In season produce for snacking (snap peas, grapes, berries, oranges, baby carrots)
- Cereal + Milk
Weekly Grocery List for Template Meal Plan
This meal plan is for 2-3 people. If you're a family of 4, double it. If you're a family of two but know one of you eats a lot, maybe double the recipes.
- 2-3 lbs chicken breast, boneless and skinless
- 3-4 lb chuck roast
- 1 carton beef broth
- 3 onions
- 2 heads of garlic
- 2 lbs carrots
- 1 lb brussels sprouts
- 1 bunch asparagus
- frozen mixed veggies
- 1 pack salad greens
- 3lbs potatoes (will have leftovers)
- 2L milk
- 1lb jasmine rice
- 1 avocado
- 1 container greek yogurt OR sour cream
- 1 lime
- 1kg oats (will have leftovers)
- 1 loaf of good bread
- 2 cartons of egg whites
- CUSTOMIZE: snacks + misc your family needs!
- olive oil
- sweetener of choice (honey or maple syrup suggested)
- seasonings of choice, Italian seasoning, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder recommended
Mix and Match Meal Options
Based on the sample grocery list and recipe list I made, here are multiple mixed and matched meals that you can alternate with. If you don't like the proposed plan I made, you can just as easily mix and match with the infographic I made above.
- Shredded Chicken, Roasted Veggies, Jasmine Rice, Avocado Dressing
- Roast Beef, Roasted Veggies, Mashed Potatoes, Gravy
- Salad Greens, Shredded Chicken, Avocado Dressing
- Hot Roast Beef Sandwich (w/ Gravy), Side Salad, Frozen Veggies
- Chicken Fried Rice (+ egg whites, mixed veggies)
- Shredded Chicken, Mashed Potatoes, Gravy, Side Salad
- Roast Beef, Roasted Veggies, Jasmine Rice, Gravy
- Roast Beef, Frozen Veggies, Jasmine Rice, Avocado Dressing
- Asparagus Soup, Side Salad
- Hot Chicken Sandwich (w/ Gravy), Roasted Veggies
- Salad Greens, Roast Beef, Roasted Veggies, Avocado Dressing
- Shredded Chicken, Jasmine Rice, Frozen Veggies, Avocado Dressing
- Chicken Salad Sandwich (Shredded Chicken mixed with Avo Dressing on bread)
Essentially, the combinations are endless. This is, in my opinion, the best way to meal plan to avoid meal fatigue. It also allows your family to take control of leftovers if you're busy, away from home or unable to cook.
Don't sleep on buying snacks. You're way less likely to get takeout if you have accessible and enjoyable snacks on hand. Add any snacks your family loves and gets often to your grocery list to avoid last minute takeout cravings.
Other Meal Planning Tips
Don't Go Overboard with Trying New Recipes
We've all been there - you get ambitious with meal planning and try 5 new recipes in a week. Likely, you either get burnt out or someone in the family doesn't like what's being served. Unless you have a really adventurous family, I recommend just trying 1 or 2 new recipes a week, max. Try incorporating a new recipe, but focus mostly on recipes you know everyone will eat.
The best way to move away from your meal plan is to have a large assortment of recipes that your family hasn't tried yet. It leaves you most open for complaints. When you're planning, you need to be realistic about who's going to eat what.
Have "Emergency" Quick Meals Ready
If you didn't cook enough for your family or they want something else, I love to have really quick meals on hand that can be put together quickly with minimal ingredients. These meals aren't winning any nutrition prizes, but they're cheaper and healthier than takeout.
Some of my favourites include:
- Pancakes for Dinner
- Frozen Pizzas
- Microwave Mac and Cheese
- Frozen Fruit for Smoothies (+ greens, yogurt and milk)
- English Muffin Breakfast Sandwiches (bonus for microwave eggs)
- Cheese and Crackers
- Toast + Anything you have at the house (avocado, pb & banana, tomato + mozzarella)
- Tuna Melt
- "Anything I have in my fridge" salad
- Breakfast for Dinner (Fried Eggs + Bacon + Rice)
- Burrito Bowls
- Grilled Cheese + Canned Tomato Soup
- "Anything I have in my fridge" wraps
- Apples + Peanut Butter
- 4 Ingredient Pesto Pasta
This is, in my opinion, the absolute most important tip. If you bought veggies that are going off before you can get to them, eat them first. If you need to top up on groceries because you've ran out of bread and you're really craving a sandwich - go buy some.
Although the best case scenario for meal planning is to avoid trips to the store - it's cheaper to buy a top up option than an entire takeout meal.
For the first few attempts at meal planning, you'll likely plan too much food, too little food, or try foods you don't like. Roll with it and use the knowledge for next time. There's nothing more important for all aspects of being in the kitchen than being able to roll with the punches.
Have the Proper Equipment
You can get by with just an oven and basic storage options. Personally, some things I think are essential are:
- Meal Prep Containers (I like these, these and these)
- An Instant Pot or Slow Cooker
- An Air Fryer (for reheating leftovers)
- A Blender or Food Processor (for smoothies, soups and sauces)
- My kitchen workhorse is a Vitamix 5200
- A good chef's knife for prep
Have Any Other Tips?
Let me know in the comments below. Be sure to share your meal plan successes on Instagram! I love to see all the delicious foods you guys come up with all week!
A quick note that this isn't a body building meal plan on how to meal plan for weight loss. I'm not a dietician and never want to give weight loss advice. With that being said, there's a chance that having a weekly plan in place may help you lose weight as you'll be avoiding cravings and spur of the moment purchases.