Meal Plans Kick Grocery Lists’ A$$

meal plan

When my wife and I got serious about finishing our debt repayment once and for good, we knew that we had to come up with some big savings. Like Ramit Sethi says, there is no point trying to nickel and dime yourself to savings by picking Dunkin Donuts over Starbucks; you are better off focusing on big things like saving money on cars and groceries.

We were already paying off our cars, so we chose the food budget. Rather than analyze what types of food we were eating, and whether this brand or this combination of choices would save you 25 cents, my wife started simple – she made a meal plan, not a grocery list.

Get out of the grocery list mindset.


A grocery list is simply you sitting down with a piece of paper and trying to think of the foods and ingredients you need and want.

Do you see the problem with this?

When you sit down and just try to think about what foods and ingredients you need, your mind starts to wander and your brain starts to get crazy. You add weird things like pomegranate and exotic cooking oils. Spices. These are the type of shopping trips that result in $200 and $300 grocery bills.

If you instead make a list of the meals you want for the week, you can then see what you have and don’t have, and base your shopping off of that.

So how did we put this into action?

First, my wife made a list of three weeks worth of dinners, 21 for anyone counting. She then chose 7 for the upcoming week, checked the pantry and refrigerator to see what we had and what was missing. She then made a note of what we needed on her meal plan, took it with her to the store, and shopped for only one week.

Aha, you say! She did make a shopping list.

Well, Einstein, maybe she did, but she made a meal plan first, so that’s what I’m going with.

Seriously, though. This works.

Together, we decided that the maximum we could spend in a week at the grocery store was $200 (note: my brother was living with us at the time, and he has a healthy appetite). I was so eager for us to meet the number that I told my wife any money under the $200 she doesn’t spend, she gets to spend the next week on whatever she wants.

I was skeptical at first that she would make it, but in her first time trying it, she only spent $150. Since then, the average has been closer to $150/week.

And you know what?

She got into saving money and was so proud of herself that she stopped taking the incentive money. She wanted it to go towards debt repayment.

This was the point when we truly got on the same page as a married couple.

Now you may be thinking that this would lead to a lack of meal variety, but in fact, the opposite has happened. Since we stopped eating red meat and ground beef, the variety of our meals, anchored around chicken and pork, has improved.

So there you have it. If you want to free up some real money to get out of debt, give yourself a big win and throw out your grocery list and trade it for a meal plan.

 

Some Tips on Making This Work
  • Try to plan 3 weeks of meals at once to ensure variety, but only shop for them weekly
  • Make one meal a soup early in the week. Cook extra, freeze, and have again at the end of the week.
  • Consider making one dinner a week without meat, like Cheese Tortelini. Meatless Monday! Meat is expensive and bad for the environment.
  • Instead of worrying about finding the best deal on soda, just stop drinking soda. It’s bad for you and beverages like that are a budget killer.
  • If on the last day of the week you are running low on food, get creative. There’s no shame in hot dogs wrapped in tortillas with cheese.

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35 Comments
  1. This is a great idea, and one that I haven’t implemented yet. It simply comes down to planning ahead for me, which I’m not great at when it comes to meals.

    Aside from saving money, using this plan can definitely help you eat healthier, too.
    Jeffrey recently posted..Help! I’m Not Investing!My Profile

    • Yeah, the lack of planning definitely caused us to spend more than we should. Based on yesterday’s grocery trip, my wife says she can do two weeks on $150 now.

  2. This is how I create my grocery list. I’m not one of those creative cooks who can look at a bunch of ingredients and throw a meal together. I need recipes and a plan. So I pick our meals for the week, then record what ingredients I need to pick up at the supermarket (after inspecting my pantry, fridge and freezer first). This keeps me on budget.

    I don’t plan more than one week at a time because it’s too unmanageable for me but for those who are so inclined, it’s definitely a huge time and money saver.
    Jana @ Daily Money Shot recently posted..Sometimes, one has to be enoughMy Profile

  3. My wife and I do the same thing! We start by making a list of meals we want to make, then list what we need to make them. Finally we fill in any snacks or household items we need. Grocery lists SUCK, Meal plans ROCK! :)
    Travis @Debtchronicles recently posted..Blog RebootMy Profile

    • Travis-glad to hear other people are doing this with success. Groceries are the first place I’d advise most people to look for real savings.

      If you can start with your needs and control your wants, you win. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  4. Great tips. We have been meal planning for over a year now and we love it. At the end of each month we sit down and plan the meals for the next month. Then we write down the groceries we need for these recipes. We then go shopping every two weeks. It works out really well and is a huge time saver.
    Miss T @ Prairie Eco-Thrifter recently posted..Insuring Your Car: Online Car Insurance vs. Insurance AgentMy Profile

    • Thanks for stopping by, Miss T. It’s really a great way to take charge of one’s life, by putting yourself into a proactive, rather than reactive, position.

  5. We do the same thing. I know when we don’t menu plan and shop with a list we spend way more money and considering Australia doesn’t have coupons and groceries care way more expensive here it is just plain stupid to not have a plan.

    Thanks for sharing your tips.
    Kylie Ofiu recently posted..What are your values?My Profile

    • Kylie – so glad to have a real celebrity stop by! I didn’t know Australia doesn’t have coupons. Again, delighted to see you and thanks for reading and taking the time to weigh in.

  6. Meal planning is a definite source of savings and also a stress-reliever for me. With four kids, it can get nuts around here if I don’t have a plan. Although, I have been known to give them cereal for dinner on occasion!

    Just found your site and like your stuff. I am a fellow Yakezie challenger. Hope to read great things from you!
    Pam at MoneyTrail recently posted..Pam’s Picks: Mowing Grass, Playing with Trains & Watching CartoonsMy Profile

    • Ha! The cereal for dinner is a known trick in our household, especially when we are a day away from grocery day and want to stay on budget. Glad to meet another challenger.

      • studentsI dont want to be rude, but Who is buying baked chkiecn??? I think the same one who can not cook o.O . I live in hostel and food cost me less whe i go eat to cantine than buying my own and cook it in the kitchen.

  7. Great way to go about saving grocery money!! Thanks for sharing! I’m working on writing down our favorite hotdog and ramen creative recipes over at our website; we budget our grocery money money and a few times I would run over earlier in the month and need those creative recipes! Right now we’re using e-meals (www.e-mealz.com) for our dinners, which is just like what your wife is doing. It’s $5/month for a list of menus and a shopping list that corresponds with it, and it’s saving me about 25% off our budget, plus time at the grocery store since the list is arranged by gorcery departments. The meal plan grocery plan is a great way to save money!!
    Diane recently posted..WW: Make Someone’s DayMy Profile

    • Thanks Diane – I’ve heard good things about E-Meals. For lunch, I like a cup of Ramen with a packet of tuna. Sometimes we’ll snack on hotdogs wrapped in tortillas with cheese.

  8. YES! You have got to think ahead to what meals you’ll make, and then shop around that. Bonus points for choosing meals with ingredients you already have on hand, or choosing things that are on sale.

    It took me awhile to get this figured out, too. I’d fill my cart with things, and get home and still have nothing to eat. It was silly, and expensive.
    Kacie recently posted..Friday roundup, cute baby, and new disclosure policyMy Profile

    • That’s the worst part – spending $100 and putting it all away, then feeling like you didn’t buy anything. Thanks for reading!

  9. At my house, we try to stock up on staples maybe once a quarter, and then fill in with fresh produce and dairy once or twice weekly. Having a stash of pasta, rice, canned soups and beans, frozen veggies, meats, and stock makes it easier to plan meals around a few basic ingredients.
    MLISunderstanding recently posted..Month-by-Month Phone PlansMy Profile

    • I’d actually like to eventually end up at a system like this because it’s a good way to always have enough food in case of long-term power outage, emergency, etc. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. My husband & I also recently started planning for meals and making our grocery list based off that! If you two are looking for more ideas, I’d recommend checking out Pinterest.com- they have so many awesome meal ideas that I don’t even have to look for long before we’ve got 10 meals picked out! I wrote a post about Pinterest if you want to check out some of the meals we’ve enjoyed. Well done on shaving off some costs & paying down debt!
    Jessica @ Budget For Health recently posted..How we lived off of 37% of our income over the past 6 months (Part 3 of 3)My Profile

    • Thanks for sharing. I’m thinking about working some meal ideas and recipes (courtesy of the wife) into the posting here. I’ll definitely check out your site and that post.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  11. The older I get the more I realize that setting a meal plan and then shopping appropriately is definitely the way to go. I haven’t gone as far as 3 weeks of scheduling in advance (usually just do 1 week), but I’m going to give this a try as it would probably improve variety. Thanks for the tips.

    • We find it easier to plan and shop one week at a time. If you do feel you are having the same meals over again, planning out two weeks at a time (but not necessarily shopping for two, unless you want to), can help with that. Thanks for visiting!

  12. I will consider this plan with my wife tonight. Looking forward to having the same results.
    Alex @ Automated Forex Trading Blog recently posted..Looking Ahead at Forex Trading in 2012My Profile

    • Glad to see you are interested in trying it. Shopping weekly helps us buy only what we need, and planning the meals in advance sure helps a lot. Let us know if you try it, and how it works

  13. Our meal planning has turned into a science that should take place in an evil space base or mountain lair. We have a list of different types of recipes, a list of what’s in season, and then we look at what’s on sale in the grocery store and make our seasonal weekly meal plans. I also keep an eye out for really good sales, especially on proteins and “give myself permission” to stock up or adjust the plan on the fly, as long as I’m still sticking to a basic plan.
    Andi @ MealPlanRescue recently posted..Thank God for New CookwareMy Profile

  14. Seriously, though, this works. Or did you say that? You got me thinkin’. Good job. Comprehensive, yet easy & enjoyable to read.

  15. Hi there! I came across this article last night and was really excited about it. I am a newlywed and was really discouraged because we were lacking ideas for dinner and had to make at least 3 trips to the store every week. We tried this idea today and shopped for the entire week. Our grocery bill was only $20.82 today, and I look forward to implementing this idea more often. Thank you! :o)

    • That’s a great story! Glad it worked out for you. It’s the biggest way we saved money to get out of debt. Thanks for reading.

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