A Beginner’s Guide to Menu Planning


imagesAfter two years of our journey to get out of debt and pare down my expenses, my wife and I have found that we have mastered our budget.


We have cut our grocery bill down significantly over the past year for our family of four, but we decided this week to one-up ourselves and menu plan for one week.

I have read that menu planning saves hours of time, energy, money, and headaches, but I haven’t been interested in trying it until now.  Our daily lives are about to get crazy, as I’m sure is the same for all of you readers.  I love cooking, but it has fallen by the wayside over the past couple years.  I love following recipes as long as the ingredients are at my fingertips, so the time is ripe for menu planning.

What is menu planning?

Menu planning is when you plan ahead of time what meals you’ll cook.  Pretty straightforward, right?

What are the benefits?

  • You can extract a grocery list from your menu choices.
  • Because you buy only what you need, less food is wasted.
  • You know exactly what you are going to eat for the week in advance.
  • Cooking is more enjoyable because you are totally prepared.
  • You’ll have an interesting menu for the week due to good preparedness.
  • It’s healthier, since you aren’t going out to eat.
  • It’s cheaper (you eat out less and you only buy what you need).

Start by planning for one week only.

Since we are experimenting right now, we are planning just a week at a time.  We may go for two weeks if this works.
I recommend menu planning at least a week at a time, and not going farther in advance than a month. This way, you’ve got enough menus planned to make it worth your while, yet not so scheduled that it becomes too big a chore.  Right now, we are testing out different menus, hoping we find at least ten good meals to rotate.

What’s the process?

You can use Google Calendar to plan your menus – it’s streamlined with Gmail, so you can have it email your day’s menu and recipes each morning.  My wife and I are simply using paper and pencil now.

The steps:

1. We sat down and decided which meals we wanted to eat this week.  I used the Epicurious app, since every recipe I clicked imported into a shopping list into my phone.

2. We went shopping for all the items in the shopping list on the phone.  We spent much less money than we ever have for food in one week (about $150 as opposed to $200+).  If you coupon, I am sure you can save more.

3. We decided which meals we would have on which days and marked them on our calendar.  I kept the recipes on my phone, of course.  Our dinner menu for the week:

Monday:  Turkey Spinach Sliders

Tuesday: Chicken Breasts with Prosciutto and Sage

Wednesday: Pasta with Sausage and Beans

Thursday: Grilled Salmon with Lime Butter Sauce

Friday: Japchae (Asian Sweet Potato Noodles with Beef)

4. Lunches are left-overs from the previous evening!  Breakfasts rotate between fruit, cereal, and oatmeal.

We have some classic standbys that we make as sides – salads, steamed broccoli, kale, etc..

We only plan our dinners. Again, lunches are almost always leftovers.

So far, menu planning is working out extremely well!  We are thrilled at the money we are saving, too.  We like eating very healthy; otherwise we could easily coupon, buy crappy food, and live on $60 a week…but screw that.  We look at the extra money spent on food as investing in our health.  Plus, cooking has become fun again!

Please leave any menu planning tips you have in the comment section below!  We need some advice!



  1. I menu plan every week! We usually build in one day of leftovers for dinner because we also buy food for lunches, too. To streamline it even further, I write my grocery list (also on paper) in order of where things are in the store, and the menu on the back of the paper, which goes on the fridge for the week. The hardest part is figuring out our schedules for the week, but I love being able to control what I’m eating and never have to throw something together for dinner or stop by the store when I’m tired after work. Let us know how it goes!

  2. Tony! This does save a shitload! Tammy and I plan every meal, BLD, every week M-Th. Then we do a bit of eating out on the weekend because we saved so damn much during the week and we LOVE eating out and chatting it up. Cooking on Sunday or Friday and stuffing it all in the fridge for M-Th makes dining easy, quick and pleasurable. We only eat what is delicious, easy and cheap and it is the same each week. It’s automated really and rather than being bored with our meals, we are racing home or down stairs to gobble them every freakin’ meal!

    Oh, and like Joy, we use a list in a Word doc that we print on a 1/2 sheet and just circle items that are needed for that week. Then we breeze through the grocery store in about 15-20 even if it’s busy;) Have a mega-tasty Wednesday!!!
    cj recently posted…Extremely Important PrioritiesMy Profile

  3. Using the google calendar is a great idea, I will definitely try it.
    For now I have been using Evernote to store some recipe, it make very easy when I have an ingredient to find out a recipe that use it. But writing down ingredients is still a manual operation… Maybe I should try the Epicurious app :)
    Julien @ cashsnail recently posted…Socialized health insuranceMy Profile

    • Evernote works really well, too. If you have everything else on Google Cal you can set it just to show menus. The Epicurious app is great, but I am sure there are many more!

  4. Remember to also plan your planned menus using fruit and veg etc that are in season……..go to farmers’ markets also, the REAL farmers’ markets, not some of the “fancy” ones with all the “non- local” stuff………… also plan around what is on sale in your market’s weekly circular.
    If there is a special sale on beef or chicken, use that to stock your freezer.
    Prep items yourself – why pay extra per pound for beef stew cubes for example ?
    Packaged stew meat is a great convenience for making stews and chili, but if you want more consistent sizing and want to know for sure what kinds of beef cuts are being used, it’s best to cut your own.
    Chicken ? Why pay extra for a”cut-up” chicken ? in about 3 minutes (tops) you can cut your own up AND have back /neck etc to throw in the freezer to make stock later…………if you just need breasts for this week”s recipe, then freeze the legs, thighs, wings for the NEXT week !
    Find that one stray carrot and half an onion etc that have been “hanging around”? Into the stock pot or freezer to use for stock later………..once you’ve made the stock you can freeze THAT in serving size portions or in ice cube trays (put in baggy when frozen) to add to stock/sauces etc……………
    Be realistic about what everybody will eat also ………….it’s not “cheap” if it is something that doesn’t make everybody want to sit down to a family meal together !

  5. Creating a week-long meal plan is the key. If you know what kind of meals you are going to be making it’s easier to do grocery shopping and not buy something you don’t need. I normally get flyers for 2-3 grocery stores in the area and see what is on sale and sometimes plan my meals around the products I can buy fairly inexpensive. It saves lots of money and we always eat great and healthy.
    Elena @ Hilarious Jokes recently posted…In-Depth Diet-to-Go Review: Is there Any Truth to Diet Meal Plans?My Profile

  6. We did this for about two years but have not done it in the last several months. I loved it! It saved us loads of money, bother and stress. Also, I got into the habit of cooking more than we need so we always have frozen meals – they are just cooked by us and full of good ness.
    maria@moneyprinciple recently posted…Job Applications: Please Enter Your Name, Address and Life Story BelowMy Profile

  7. I don’t like to drop links in others comments but here’s my guide. I’m a fanatical meal planner and have reduced my food bill by 50% over three years and also now have negligible waste most weeks!

    Good luck!
    Jo@simplybeingmum recently posted…Food Waste Friday / My First TimeMy Profile

  8. I was interested to read this as I’ve been meaning to meal plan. Food is one of our bigger expenses. I have to say though that our usual expenditure on food equals your reduced one. Why? Because we are primarily vegetarian!
    Can I encourage you guys to have at least one vegetarian meal a week?
    Make a vegetarian Japchae with tofu and broccoli or pasta with marinara sauce.
    It is healthier too!!

    • Sounds like you are doing extremely well with your food budget (Or maybe it is that we were awful with it!). Great idea about going vegetarian. My wife will love that!

  9. Menu planning is the best, for saving money and reducing food waste. I try to do it as frequently as possible but I find it uncomfortable in the heat to cook in the summer, so we more often than not just make sandwiches or bbq. We try to ensure nothing goes bad by planning our menu around one ingredient – say we buy a bunch of spinach, we’ll make spinach enchiladas, and then spinach paninis, and then a spinach salad so we use it up.
    Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter recently posted…How Much is Your Commute Costing You?My Profile


  1. […] @ We Only Do This Once writes A Beginner’s Guide to Menu Planning – After two years of our journey to get out of debt and pare down my expenses, my wife and I […]

  2. […] @ We Only Do This Once writes A Beginner’s Guide to Menu Planning – After two years of our journey to get out of debt and pare down my expenses, my wife and I […]

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