Written by Donnia Behrends, MS, RD, SNAP-Ed Associate Extension Educator
Am I the only one who has filled a grocery cart with foods for the week, only to come home and still have “nothing” to make for an actual meal for my family? I am guessing I am not the only one that this has happened to, and I am happy to say that I don’t make this mistake very often anymore. With a million things to do and never-enough time to do it, I have come up with a very efficient meal planning and shopping routine that has worked well for my family. It helps me keep grocery costs down and does not make me spend my whole weekend preparing and shopping for the upcoming week. There are five steps that I follow every week. This may seem like a long process, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a very quick process. I spend about 15 minutes, once a week organizing my meals and making my grocery list. The 15 minutes I spend preparing saves me at least that amount of time at the grocery store.
Step 1: Keep a running list of things you run out of during the week.
I keep a sticky note on the fridge or a list on my phone of random groceries and household supplies that I know I’m going to have to pick up when I get a chance to stop at the store. The less often you have to stop at the store, the less money you’ll likely spend on other non-essential items during those impromptu stops.
Step 2: Keep a running list of your family’s favorite meals in an easy-to-find spot.
I find that one of the hardest parts of meal planning is thinking of meal ideas that makes everyone in my family happy. Everyone’s list will look different – I keep mine on my family’s command center and I pull it out each week as I make my grocery list and weekly meal plan. As I find new meals that my family likes, I add those to the list.
Step 3: Make your weekly meal plan.
This step probably makes it seem like I’m way too much of a “planner,” but my weekly meal plan is very simple and flexible. It’s a necessary step to make sure that your grocery list has the items you need and doesn’t include items you already have! My list is a simple list of about 5-7 main meals that my family will eat throughout the week. I never know what meal I’ll make on which night of the week, but I do keep in mind that I have a few quick dinners and a few that take more meal prep time. If I have meal ingredients left from the week before, those meals automatically make the top of the list for the following week, to make sure I use up the ingredients I have on hand.
Step 4: Make your grocery list.
Using your list of meals on the weekly meal plan, make sure you have all of the ingredients you’ll need either in your pantry, refrigerator, freezer, or on the grocery list. Once you have all of the ingredients for your main meals, add in the regular items that your family eats each week, like breakfast items, snack items, lunchbox items, fruits and vegetables, and dairy, plus all of the random items that you ran out of during the week that you’ve been keeping track of in step 1. Confession… I don’t plan fruits and veggies to go with each meal. Instead, I just make sure I have a variety of canned, frozen and fresh fruits and veggies on hand that I can pull out to go with every meal. The fresh items I purchase totally depends upon the season, that means we have a lots of strawberries in the summer, apples in the fall, and citrus in the winter! Caution – GEEK alert!!! Once I have all of my grocery items on a list – I take two extra minutes to re-write my list, organized based on the layout of the store. The categories on my list are produce (fruits and vegetables), deli, meat, dairy, bread, frozen and other. This step seriously saves me at least 10 minutes at the store and probably about 2000 extra steps wandering around for the things I forgot! I like to make my grocery list on Thursday nights, that way I’m totally ready to shop, whenever I get the chance on the weekend.
Step 5: Shop when you can, as quick as you can.
A well-organized grocery list makes the actual trip to the store easy and quick. I try to stick to my list, but I do remain flexible to swap out sale items for other items that may have been on the list. Confession… sometimes when I’m at the grocery store I splurge and buy myself the $3.88 fresh flower bouquet to sit on the table during the week. It’s my own little “reward” for knowing that I’ve saved money at the grocery store by sticking to my list and eating meals at home.
It’s such a good feeling knowing that you’re prepared to tackle a busy week ahead of you. As I prepare the meals that are on my weekly meal plan, I always cross that item off my list. It’s so nice to have a current list of the meals I have on hand as I choose what I’m making for dinner that night – it keeps my scattered-brain more focused! I hope these steps help you make meal planning and grocery shopping for your family a less daunting task. PS – try organizing your list based on the layout of the store, it will change your life!
This post was reviewed by Morgan Hartline MS, RD, LMNT, and Natalie Sehi MS, RD, LMNT. Photos by Donnia Behrends.