Meal planning always seemed so complicated to me. It took too much time and required too much decision making. So I minimized the process and came up with my own minimalist meal plan system. For a long time, I felt guilty for not meticulously planning my family’s meals. I’d heard every reason that I should have a meal plan. It saves you money. You waste less food. You’re more likely to eat healthfully. You’re less likely to eat out. And on and on. I get it. It’s probably a good idea.
The problem with typical meal planning
The problem was that any time I sat down to create a meal plan, I always felt exhausted afterward. There were just so many decisions to make. I’d spend time googling recipes and searching Pinterest for the perfect one-pot meals. It just took too long to be sustainable. Then I’d make a grocery list, one that felt a mile long. I’d go to the store, buy my groceries, and be shocked to see that I spent MORE money, not less. And by the end of the week, I’d have a fridge full of food that was going bad. Not good.
My default meal plan
So after a week or two, I’d switch to my default meal planning mode. That meant no plan. No list. Fly by the seat of my pants. And I was happy with that, most of the time. We spent less money and wasted less food than when I did the meal plan. But there was always that guilt. Plus I knew we were still spending more and wasting more than we needed to, but I wasn’t sure what kind of meal planning would work for our family.
The simple meal planning method
Then this summer happened. We decided about a week in advance that we were going to go on a two-week road trip to see our families. And we had a fridge, freezer, and pantry full of food. I knew I’d have to use what would go bad, and that would take planning. So I grabbed paper and pen and opened the fridge and jotted down anything I could see that was going to go bad. I took the list to the table and wrote down a meal for each item. I didn’t google or browse Pinterest, I just wrote down the first thing that came to mind. When possible, I tried to use two items in one meal. After each item was accounted for, I wrote down what I’d need to buy to complete each meal. Guess what? It was only about 5 items long. Certainly, there were other things I’d need, like milk, bread, and other essentials. But this was a much shorter list than the mile-long one I usually get out of meal planning. And the whole process took less than 10 minutes. I was thrilled. When I did my shopping, I spent less than usual on groceries. And while I did still have to throw some things out before we left, it wasn’t what I’d done in the past. That felt really good. When we got home, I continued my meal plan this way. I’ve found that it works beautifully on a week to week basis. I’ve crunched the numbers from one week to another and on average this meal planning method is saving us about 25% per week. I was spending around $100 a week on food and household supplies for our family of 4, and now we’re coming in at around $75 each week. Huge savings! The only issue we ran into was that we were eating fewer vegetables with our meals. So I added a veggie/side dish column to my planning sheet. That way I’m reminded to add veggies to meals that don’t naturally have them.
Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash
Questions about simple meal planning
Do you assign meals to days?
No, not really. I prefer the freedom of choice that day. It’s how I’m wired. But you might like the freedom of not having to choose. In that case, assign away! If something is going to go bad in the next day or two, though, I do make a note to make that first.
Just five dinners? What about the other two days?
We usually end up with enough leftovers to eat leftovers at least once or twice each week. We might also go out to eat once every week or two. And some nights it’s easiest to just throw a frozen pizza in the oven or cook chicken nuggets and tater tots in the air fryer. I’ve found that having 5 dinners planned is enough structure to allow us to eat cheap, balanced meals most of the time without having a lot of extra food that goes bad by the end of the week.
What about breakfast and lunch?
I always make sure to have staples on hand for breakfast: cereal, eggs, bread, yogurt, fresh and frozen fruit, pancake mix, hash browns, sausage, oats, things like that. We take it day by day. We almost always eat leftovers for lunch. For days that we don’t, I keep supplies for quesadillas, PB&J, mac and cheese, and ramen on hand. Not our healthiest options, but we deviate from leftovers so rarely that I don’t worry about it.
What about snacks?
I barely plan dinners, so I definitely don’t plan snacks. I keep plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables on hand to snack on. We also buy nuts in bulk and keep a box of graham crackers in the pantry.
I’ve broken it down to a few easy steps so you can give it a try!
Write down your favorite easy meals
- This step is optional but can be extremely helpful. I’ve done this in the past while using other meal planning methods (namely this one by the Minimal Mom), so I haven’t done it recently. But if you’re really drawing a blank on what to put in your meal plan, write down at least 10 of your family’s favorite meals that you can cook without too much energy or brainpower.
Make a list of at least 5 foods you need to use soon
- These don’t need to be foods that will be the main part of a meal. If you need to use tomatoes, write down tomatoes. That counts. You’ll use that to inspire one meal this week.
- If you can’t get up to 5 by looking in your fridge (I suspect that you can), open your freezer or pantry next. One of those is bound to have something.
- Don’t spend too long on this step. It doesn’t need to be completely thorough. Don’t feel like you need to write down everything in your fridge. Just write down the things that are going to go bad the soonest and go from there.
Pick a meal for each of the foods on your list
- Jot down the first thing that comes to mind when you see that food. For tomatoes, you might write down tacos, BLTs, omelet, or grilled chicken salad. Stick mostly to meals that are simple and come together quickly.
Make a shopping list
- Write down any ingredients that you don’t have on hand and need to pick up at the store. As you build a simple minimalist pantry supply that corresponds to your family’s eating preferences (more to come on that in a future post), you’ll find that you don’t have much on your list from week to week.
Buy your groceries and execute your meal plan
- Bring those groceries home and tuck them away. You’re ready for the week!
Sign up below for a simple meal planning template that follows these steps! I’ve also included a sample meal plan, with each section filled out to get you started.