Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How to Make a Weekly Dinner Plan (and Save $$ While Doing It!)

Lately I've been feeling a bit under the weather and haven't been updating this thing as much as I would like, but I have quite a few ideas floating around and I'm planning on completing those soon. In the meantime, I thought I'd share something that has made my life lately a whole lot easier. It looks like a daunting post, but bear with me, it's worth it (and there are freebies at the end)!

I'm a big organizer. I like lists, I like to plan, and I'm never a really big fan of last minute change. But even though these are things I tend to do on a regular basis, sometimes my other half kicks in and I get tired of all the planning and list making, so I throw caution to the wind and fly by the seat of my pants. This usually works for about a week or two and then I panic as the first half kicks back in and says "What are you doing?!" It's a vicious cycle.

When it comes to making dinner, I usually enjoy it. I truly don't mind cooking (and love baking!) and I like trying out new things. But for the majority of the last nine months (since I got married!), I was uncharacteristically lax in planning and usually decided what we were having for dinner while we were walking around the grocery store. The problem with this approach was how much stress it produced. I was never really sure upon leaving the store how many meals we had for the coming week and I always felt like we weren't buying enough food. Not to mention I always felt like we were buying the same things week to week. Pork and chicken. Pork and chicken. As a result, we ended up spending way too much on groceries. It also caused an increase in our eating out habits, because if we didn't have enough food to make a full meal on a particular night, it was a lot easier to just get in the car and pick a restaurant. And now, a demonstration!


These screen captions are from an online tool called Mint, which makes looking at your spending habits a breeze.

These are the last three months expenses in terms of food and dining, back when I was winging it. Interestingly the smallest grocery bill is in May, but due to our high restaurant total, May has the highest overall total out of all three months. Just goes to show that you might feel like you're saving money by spending less on groceries but then you forget to account for all of the eating out you do.

The beginning of July is when I started planning out all of our meals. For a brief second I considered using one of those online services where they pick your meals and make your grocery lists, but then I remembered that a big point to this was save money and it also didn't seem like a complicated process. Turns out, I was right - it's actually very simple and super easy. I sit down every Saturday or Sunday and plan out five meals for the week. Why don't I plan seven meals? For a couple of reasons. We have a standing dinner date at my Dad's house every Sunday night, which knocks one meal off the list. I also leave off one more meal because inevitably something will come up during the week (my Mom invites us out/over to dinner, we have something going on at night and eat something super quick and simple in place of a big meal, etc) and that way we just shift the meals by a day and we're not left with extra food that goes uneaten. Even if we eat all five meals during the week, Saturday is a good day to make use of leftovers.

I usually do a mix of family favorites with one or two new things thrown in. Sometimes the new recipes work out, and sometimes they don't. The newest one that was a hit:
From Rachel Ray's Book of 10
So delicious. Charles loved the soup and actually ate most of the salad with the chicken - bonus! Our meals usually range from baked chicken, pot roast, tacos (or anything that resembles tex mex, including quesadillas), pasta and a few others. Since there's only two of us, I don't make huge side dishes or have too many components to the meal plan. Dinner usually consists of the main dish, a vegetable (corn on the cob, green beans and broccoli are the ones we most frequent), fruit, and rolls, if the main dish isn't too starchy.

Once I decide on five different meals, I assign them to each day of the week, taking into account any evening plans we need to work around and making any needed changes. For instance, we take a Financial Peace University class on Mondays from 7pm-9pm. Since Charles doesn't get home until 6:30, we don't have time to eat prior to leaving, so a pot roast is a great choice for us because it's ready as soon as we get home. I also make a grocery list at this point, including only what the recipes call for, enough fruit & veggies for the week, and any other staples we might be out of (bread, milk, etc).

This method suddenly makes grocery shopping 1. much quicker, 2. much less stressful, and 3. not the once dreaded errand of the week. Added bonus: I no longer forget to buy things since I'm following a specific list, which cuts down on extra trips to the store. While our cart might look a bit empty upon checkout, I'm at ease because I know we have enough food to carry us through all our dinners, lunches and snacks. And the best part? It's so much cheaper. We cut our fast food bill this month down to $30 (I caved and dragged the husband to Chipotle when I was having a foul day) and have so far only spent $150 on groceries. Since it's not quite the end of July, we do have one more shopping trip to make to finish out this month's meals. Based on the past two grocery trips, which were each under $75, worst case we top out at $215 on groceries, plus the $30 in fast food (I'm making sure that won't increase & hopefully it won't even be a category next month!), which brings us to a grand total of...


That's $154 less than June, $210 less than April and $232 less than May! I love how being a nerd can actually help me save money. Power to the planners! For the future, I'll be happy with $300/month or less, which is $75/ week in groceries and no eating out. If we come in under that budget, then I'll feel much better about treating ourselves to a dinner out with the extra cash. No stress, no guilty feelings and continually saving money is the. best. ever.

Up until now I've just been writing my lists/meal plans on notebook paper. For this post though, and also for me from now on, I quickly came up with two formatted sheets - one dinner plan and one grocery list, which I'll post here and you can download for your own use, should you be so inclined. They're much more fun :)

Download the Dinner Plan here and the Grocery List here! They're pretty straightforward and I even included Saturday and Sunday options on the dinner plan in case anyone wants to plan for those days as well. Once you fill out the meal planner, pin it up on the fridge for easy access and for a quick and easy look at what's for dinner that night. It's also nice because the husband can take a look, since I have a bad habit of not actually telling him what I've been planning for the week!

And finally we've reached the end...props if you made it all the way through (and many thanks!). I'll leave you with a few tips that I've discovered through doing this for a few weeks:

  • Try to alternate same-meat dishes (or meals with a common component) so that you aren't having chicken three nights in a row
  • Don't be afraid to move things around to fit your sporadic schedule (or your food cravings), even if you've already written them down for specific days
  • If you're feeling adventurous, plan out two weeks of meals in the same day so that you can take a week off. Just make sure to look over your grocery list before you go the second week and amend it with anything you've run out of in the mean time
  • If you're considering multiple dishes that use a couple of the same ingredients that might go bad after a week (chicken broth, fresh herbs, etc), be sure to schedule them close together to get the most out of your groceries
  • Check the dates on the meat you buy - if it expires before the day you've scheduled to cook it, make sure to freeze it until you need it (I made this mistake with $9 baby back ribs...not fun!)
As I continue to do this, I might post an update post in a few months to report on the progress we've made, any subsequent tips I've picked up, and - hopefully - how much we continue to save with this method of preparing meals. Until then, I hope you find this as useful as I have!


  1. Have I mentioned that you're crazy amazing?

  2. I think you have the wrong vocation. You need to be a researcher. You're amazing at it!