What's Your Style of Meal Planning?

by Katy on March 20, 2009 · 29 comments

El PatoWhen I read about frugality, one tip that I see repeated over and over is weekly menu planning. And yes, I see the appeal of knowing that Sunday is pot roast, Monday is spaghetti, and Tuesday is pizza. But I don’t buy it. I consider myself to be the Queen Empress of frugal cooking, yet weekly menu planning ends up being more expensive for me because I find myself planning complicated meals instead of working with what I already have on hand. And incorporating leftovers that are needing to get used up becomes more difficult if the menu is unyielding.

What gives?

I rarely shop for individual meals, but to stock the pantry and refrigerator. By utilizing this method, I’m able to prepare almost endless varieties of meals based on how much time I have and what we’re in the mood for. (I don’t work full time, and I’m aware that this affords me the luxury to be a bit more casual about meal preparation.)

Foods that I try and always keep on hand:

  • Dried beans, such as pinto, black beans and lentils.
  • Onions, potatoes and garlic.
  • Eggs, milk, butter and sour cream.
  • Cereals such as raisin bran and Cheerios.
  • Shredded mozzarella, bleu cheese and blocks of nice local cheddar cheese.
  • Tortilla mix, bread, dried pastas.
  • Individually frozen chicken breasts, (even though I complain mightily about my husband buying them.)
  • Frozen corn and peas.
  • Canned tomatoes, peanut butter, pumpkin puree, condensed milk, and El Pato tomato sauce in the yellow can. (Which is the best hot sauce and comes in a lovely small tin, perfect for avoidance of food waste.
  • Fours, sugar, cornmeal, baking soda and powder.
  • A single box of S&W brand Japanese curry.
  • Brown and white rice.
  • Romaine lettuce that I have washed and chopped, and is stored in the salad spinner.
  • Homemade salad dressing.
  • Chocolate chips. (This above all else is vitally important!)
  • I also buy fruits and vegetables based on what’s in season and on sale.

I really do feel that I save money employing this dinner prep flexibility, but I still hear from readers who say they save money and avoid food waste by planning out their meals.

Are you a meticulous planner or a what-do-I-have-the-ingredients-for style of chef? Maybe a little of both? Please share your meal planning ideas in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeanne March 21, 2009 at 5:14 am

I plan, but mostly just so I know what to defrost. I can’t understand not planning at least the main meal, ie something made with chicken, etc. How in the world do you defrost it? I’ve used the microwave, but everything tastes rubbery if I use it to defrost. Blah.

I list the main item for the meal but do cook creatively. For example, the menu just has “chicken” for Tuesday. I have a roast chicken. I usually make baked potatoes with it, but if stuffing is on sale, I may add that instead. I don’t go crazy planning, but I do need to know the main item. This also keeps us from eating beef three days in a row, or chicken, or whatever.

I’d say my menu planning is a combination of planning and creativity. I do like to cook a new dish at least once every two weeks, to expand the recipes my family will enjoy. These require planning, since often they will need an ingredient I don’t usually keep on hand. I mark recipes to try and also missing ingredients; when they go on sale, or are in season and coming in from the garden in basket loads, I can easily find the recipes and make the dishes.

We are each unique people. I know some cooks who can’t plan – it just stifles them. My own mom was much more of a planner than I, down to knowing exactly what side dishes and desserts would be made every night. The trick is to find a happy, frugal and delicious medium.


Jinger March 21, 2009 at 5:57 am

I have kind of a set series of main dishes that my 20 year old and I like and I plan my meals around them. Then I like to try new recipes as well and add them to our meal plan, if we both like the recipe. In my older age, I have become a more adventurous cook, using fresh herbs and other ingredients that add flavor and zing to meals. Our favorites are: Ellie Krieger’s roasted veggie tart with a cornmeal crust, Barefoot Contessa’s pasta, pesto and peas, homemade pizza, and my sister’s easy enchiladas with homemade chili.


Cyndi March 21, 2009 at 6:00 am

One thing to keep in mind is that not everyone is as comfortable in the kitchen as you obviously are. Having a plan keeps them from running to the nearest take-out 🙂 I think this plan becomes less rigid for most people over time as they become more confident.


steplikeagiant March 21, 2009 at 6:30 am

We eat basically the same general things on the same night each week, but they change with what’s available at the farmer’s market. I keep the same staples on hand and buy in bulk.

M, W, F is soup/stew (from the freezer) with grain.

Tues is homemade veggie patties (from the freezer) from the okara left from making soymilk with some starch and some veggie.

Thurs is beans, veg and grain.

Sat is pasta night.

Sunday is eggs, peas & mash.

We both have nuts, oats and fruit for breakfast everyday and some combo of leftovers/salad for lunch everyday.

Works for us to loosely meal plan. We cook big batches of pasta sauce, veggie burgers, soup/stew and beans and then freeze. The rest is fresh from farmer’s market or staples from the pantry.


Jackie March 21, 2009 at 7:14 am

I always plan the week’s meals the weekend before.

This starts with looking at what is already on hand in the fridge, freezer and pantry. Then I check out the grocery sales fliers.

So my weekly grocery shopping entails filling in a few missing ingredients and fresh staples.

I would say my style of meal planning is like Jeanne’s, a combination of planning and creativity.


Shymom March 21, 2009 at 8:03 am

We eat from our pantry a lot, too, but I still plan. Using a combination of what I have in the pantry, what is on sale and what the kids say they want for dinner. I plan 7 dinners, but generally don’t plan on which day I am going to serve them.

I also try to keep in mind what activities are happening (fast-pitch softball season is starting) and have super easy meals, or crock-pot meals for those nights.


Kat March 21, 2009 at 10:13 am

Despite rarely planning meals and putting off grocery shopping as long as possible I usually have everything I need to make dinner… even if I have to improvise around a missing ingredient.


Kristen@The Frugal Girl March 21, 2009 at 10:27 am

Planning is a huge time and money saver for me, but I don’t do it like you were talking about…the only regulars on our menu are pizza on Fridays and breakfast for dinner on Sundays. Other than that, there’s no rhyme, reason, or pattern to what I plan. I try to keep it interesting and varied.


Meg from FruWiki March 21, 2009 at 11:18 am

I’m like you, Katy.

I rarely plan meals much in advance and I rarely use recipes, except as a general guide. Usually, I just throw together stuff I have. My meals tend to be simple and based on what things I usually have on hand. I rely on old favorites with some variations more than exciting new recipes.

And like you, I generally just restock the pantry and buy whatever fresh foods look good and are priced right when I go the grocery store. In fact, my pantry list doesn’t look much different from yours.


tam March 21, 2009 at 11:23 am

For us, it’s a combination of three things: what produce is on sale, a few staple dishes (homemade pizza, stir fry, pasta) and what our work/fun schedule is that particular week. If I know it’s a week where we’re both working/going out, then I won’t buy as much. Otherwise, I would say I plan half the week’s meals, then forage in the pantry for bean/grain dishes the other part of the week.

Lunches are pretty planned out. It’s just easier that way.


Angela March 21, 2009 at 4:19 pm

I’m definitely in the “somewhere in between” category. In my opinion, only really good cooks can just stock up and plan no meals. My college roommate and still best friend was like that. I used to joke that she could cook up a gourmet meal out of an onion and some mustard.

My brother also possesses some of that talent. I however, do not. So most of the good meals I make have come from recipes, even if I made up the recipe myself.

But still, I never plan more than two or three meals a week, because the food will just go to waste. We’ll usually have leftovers at least once if I’ve made soup or chili, and we’ll go out to eat or eat at a friend’s once or twice, and the rest of the time we do what I call a “potpourri,” which is usually odds and ends from Trader Joe’s.

The items I keep on hand are similar to Katy’s, although not quite as extensive (we don’t have kids). But we do always have the chocolate chips- I eat them as a snack, and you never know when you’ll need to bake a batch of Toll House cookies. We always have those ingredients on hand!

Jinger- any chance you could give a link to those recipes you mentioned as your favorites? They all sounded delicious…


Meg from FruWiki March 21, 2009 at 4:53 pm

In response to Angela’s comment: “In my opinion, only really good cooks can just stock up and plan no meals.”

Them and particularly simply eaters 😀 I happen to be the latter (I’m definitely not that great a cook, lol). And I happened to be married to a guy who would eat the same type of meal (like pizza) daily for weeks or even months.


christy March 21, 2009 at 6:02 pm

This post is so timely! I just made the conscious decision to stop planning my meals and just keep items on hand that we need and use often and make the meals based on our needs on a given day. I am finding that I am spending less and am able to make more meals with just those items that we already have.


Gerard March 21, 2009 at 6:16 pm

We end up using a combo of what I call ‘pantry pride’ meals and also menu planning.

I love to cook, and yes, I do make complex stuff fairly often. The ingredients are not inexpensive, but often they are a good value, because I love to eat as well.

We rarely go out to eat, because the food is not really that appealing, since I insist that, if I am going out, I get something that I can’t make or that is done so much better than I can make it.

I have also found that the dented can store has a disproportionate amount of wierd gourmet stuff in it.

With the preplanned meals, there are often leftovers, making for some good lunches. That is an added bonus, provided one has not bought excess perishable lunch meat etc.

For us to take our food shopping and preparation to the next level, we need to look at spoilage/waste and discards. I am already finding that by reducing my time at my day job, I can open the fridge and create a meal or menu by adding a few purchases to what is already there.

Katy- you may be interested in some of the culinary textbooks like “On Food” or the ‘New Professional Chef’ that have chapters on calculating per portion costs and include looking at trim on meat and veggies. Plus , they are COOL.

Did I mention that I love food and cooking?


Nancy March 21, 2009 at 7:06 pm

I do make out a rough menu for the month, including leftovers, but this is flexible rather than a day by day thing. I have my pantry inventoried and keep the list updated, do one big shop a month with one or two quick trips for milk or cream for the coffee. I pick whatever meal hits my fancy the night before so that I can thaw it. I usually make a big batch or whatever I cook and freeze it for meals later in the month or even the next month. This really works well for me, because it’s pretty spontaneous and rarely boring.


marlo March 21, 2009 at 7:14 pm

hey katy,
you’re on a roll- posts for the past week or so have been wonderful. thank you!

i have been doing an accidental experiment with planning vs. improv meals. recently we’ve been trying to plan our meals at a family meeting, then i buy all the ingredients we need.

before that we just made whatever worked after buying a few items we knew we’d need for certain dishes. it also helped to have a few things we always eat that rotate slightly throughout the year.

when we started planning our food bill went up a lot, especially when we didn’t have time to cook all the amazing things we were going to make. relying on standard meals when we’re busy is very helpful for us.

thanks again for your blog. it’s inspiring!


Pennie March 21, 2009 at 10:48 pm

Yes, Katy, thanks so very much for your most timely and always thoughtful blog! I forget sometimes how much work it must be for you, changing the world one non-consumer at a time. 🙂

As with Jeanne and many others, meal budgeting and “planning” to me blends creativity with a certain amount of structure–I scan the week’s sales flyers to see what solid purchases can be made for our pantry stock, and then always make it a point to formulate an idea of what i want to prepare that night for dinner in advance (no later than the morning of that day). Experience has taught me that not having this wee bit of pre-planning is pure folly; if I wait until the last minute it is difficult to impossible to cook from scratch and serve a well-thought out and healthy meal on time.

This pre-emptive step allows me to set something out to unthaw (if necessary), check leftovers to come up with one or two creative dishes incorporating these odds and ends, start something early such as yeast dough that may call for a rise time, or put on the crock pot if I expect to be away for the day.

Often times my best source of creative ideas are the leftovers themselves. I try to connect each day’s leftovers with tomorrow’s dinner meal like a string of pearls, i.e. 1 cup of tomato sauce left over from the stuffed green pepper rice mixture preparation the day before gives me the idea to use it up making lasagna the next night, and the 1/2 c of corn left over from the lasagna meal’s side vegetable leads me to adding it to the baked cornbread that compliments the next day’s chili, and the left-over chili goes into the next night’s cheesy chili-bean burritos, and the remaining grated cheese goes in the next night’s veggie omelets, and the left-over chopped veggies from the omelets gets added to the next night’s pot of soup, and the leftover biscuits served with the soup get utilized the next night as shortcakes under fresh strawberries and cream for dessert…and so it goes all month!

It’s a great system for me because i can consistently use up all of my leftovers and am able to offer a menu that is both inexpensive, prepared from scratch, and also one that offers a lot of flexibility and variety from week to week.

Note: If you’re new to scratch cooking, keep several cookbooks laying around, so that if you get stuck for ideas (what can I do with a cup of corn anyways?) just flip through a few of them to find a good recipe for a cassorole or side dish that calls for what you have. Obviously the internet is a great way to come up with fast suggestions and recipes, too. And always keep a well-stocked pantry of basic “scratch” ingredients for the type of foods that your family enjoys eating, so that you don’t always have to run to the store for that one missing ingredient in a found recipe. 🙂


Tara Morrison March 22, 2009 at 8:46 am

I buy staples but also buy on sale..from the weekly circular or reduced for quick sale. I plan my meals though, on Sundays I look in my pantry and freezer for inspiration. Unlike you I try to avoid buy cuts of chicken and buy whole cheaper chickens and process them my self and I get a carcass for homemade stock. We have beans ,an egg centered meal and pasta at least once a week. Having young children makes menu planning a necessity for me.


Pat March 22, 2009 at 9:16 am

Yes, I am a planner too. I actually post my 2-week menu plans on our frig for the family to see. But I also use my freezer list (yep I keep track of that stuff too) when planning out my menu. I check what is on-sale, what I already have and thumb thru my cookbooks for what can be created using these items. It only takes about 30 minutes a week. I also include at least one Leftover Day in the 2-week time frame. Our food waste is way down using this method.


tammy March 22, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Because it’s just the two of us, meals are sometimes one thing for Boyfriend and another for me. So I don’t have to “plan” meals. I shop once a week on Wednesday mornings when the local market marks down. Our weekly meals revolve around whatever is on sale, and what I have in the freezer. Tonight was Polenta Bolognese. Ground sirloin, sweet italian sausage, tomato sauce, sauteed celery and roasted red peppers over cheese polenta with a sprinkle of feta cheese. I served it with split cornbread triangles with cheese. It was GREAT!
Katy, you always raise thought provoking questions!


Lisa March 22, 2009 at 7:29 pm

I do a bit of a hybrid of meal planning and cooking based on staple items. We have a pretty standard menu of recipes that we eat but sometimes it is fun to plan a new meal, especially when guest come over. I recently found a site called plan to eat that so far is really helping the planning and shopping part of cooking that, at least for me, is often a pain. It’s not really a website to find recipes, just a place to add your own recipes and plan your meals. The shopping list is particularly helpful because it adds up all the ingredients of your recipes that you’ve planned and categorizes them by grocery categories. Anyway… the website is http://www.plantoeat.com and it is free right now.


Charlotte March 22, 2009 at 7:34 pm

I’m the most ridiculous planner there can be. I have a google spreadsheet with my menu plans for the next 8 weeks. Every two weeks, I rotate the first two weeks down to the bottom and print the plan for the next two weeks.

This may sound excessive, but for me it’s a godsend. I have lots of things that I love to cook, but before menu plans, I would never be able to think of what I want to cook. Then I switched to planning a week ahead, which was a bit better, but while building the spreadsheet to contain all my menu-ideas, I figured I might as well have all the menus set. And this way, menu-planning takes barely longer than it takes to walk to the printer.

Having said that, what I plan is usually the main dish (meat or other protein-source.) Side-dishes are kept open, and I see what I have available in the fridge. This way, I’m not bound to buying things that are not in season or looking ratty at the store.


growingsage March 22, 2009 at 9:26 pm

We use the book “Saving Dinner the Vegetarian Way.” Comes with weekly meal plans and shopping lists. Piece of cake!


glenn March 22, 2009 at 9:48 pm

As a big foodie, I always appreciate Mark Bittman’s simple and tasty recommendations in his NY Times column, The Minimalist. He put together some pantry suggestions for the new year, some of which apply to to this thread:


Kathy March 23, 2009 at 9:22 am

There’s just my husband and myself. I’m a “what’s in the pantry/cabinet/freezer” cook, as was my mom (back when she cooked!)–although I include items she wouldn’t touch. Neither of us minds leftovers. Sometimes I serve these as is and sometimes they’re re-made into a new dish. I always keep on hand foods to fix quickly for nights when we’re too tired or time is too short. The only meal we “plan” is for a once-a-month potluck with friends. Otherwise, shopping is to replenish what’s been used, to buy seasonal fruits and veggies, to stock up on staples on sale, or to get specific ingredients for the potluck.


Jeanine March 23, 2009 at 11:33 am

I’m not the cook in the family, but I am the shopper and the meal planner. My DH will come home from work, and stare into the fridge as if a meal will just amass itself onto the stove.

I shop the sales on the Fri/Sat/Sun, and plan from there.

I make a for real list…Monday-Breakfast. Grits, Eggs, Toast, Etc.

Tuesday, Beef Stroganoff, Green Beans, etc.

Because if I don’t, he will call me at work at 5:25 and say….”What’s for dinner? You didn’t leave the list.” And usually…that’s when we head out to eat. It’s only taken me about seven days of forgetting…to stop forgetting.


Tina March 24, 2009 at 2:01 pm

I used to make a list of everything I was going to cook in a set time period (two weeks, usually), and then I would make a grocery list based on the ingredients. It’s much looser now– I don’t really even make a list– I have been cooking for a long enough time that now I go grocery shopping once a month and just lay in staples. I can cook quite a lot from those staples, and that’s pretty much what I do all month. I might plan a few days ahead for defrosting purposes.

I don’t even bother with a written shopping list any more. I am really struck how much my monthly shopping list looks your list, Katy (except bleu cheese– barf). There are a few additional items I’d add — oatmeal and wheat farina, dried milk, olive oil, tortillas, cabbage, carrots, and celery, parmesan cheese, and buttermilk. We always have a big-ass jug of pancake syrup too. I have a chest freezer for bread from the bread store, and meat on sale– every month we pretty predictably will eat one roasting chicken, one ham, a pound of bacon, and two or three pounds of hamburger. How I use the meat depends on what I’m in the mood for, but I will get about 15 meals out of those.

I try to avoid the grocery store as much as possible the rest of the month except for milk, eggs, and beer, and to pick up loss leaders. Grocery stores are dangerous to my wallet. I find myself wandering the aisles in a daze, picking up things I don’t really need. It’s like the twilight zone.


robbiekay February 2, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Thank you, Katy, for proving to us that we can still be frugal without a weekly meal plan! I tried meal planning and it drove me nuts: trying to figure out how many servings each dish would produce and how many lunches and dinners that came out to and then what to pair with it and how our schedules played into that, etc. So I just kind of gave up. Then a few months back I read a book that suggests you just come up with fourteen meals and keep on hand the items that you need for those. That is more doable for me. I have also been inspired by TheFrugalGirl’s menu plans because they are so simple, yet apparently effective for her and her family. (I’ve even been tempted to just steal her menu plans for the week–lol!)


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