Meal planning helps you eat well and save time and money. More time for you and more money for other things. Cooking will only get in the way of enjoying life if you let it.
Meal Planning in a Nutshell
- Make a master list of your favourite foods (e.g. meat, fruit, vegetables, dairy, etc)
- Make a master list of your favourite meals (e.g. chicken caesar salad, lasagne).
- Know your budget (e.g. £35 week for one person).
- Find affordable recipes for your favourite foods/meals (e.g. chicken stir fry with pineapple).
- Make a shopping list and stick to it.
- Prepare your food each day, batch cook when you can and enjoy leftovers.
Meal Planning with Your Favourite Foods (List)
Before you start your meal planning, make a master list of what food you like to eat. Include home cooked and restaurant favourites. This will help with food shopping and finding suitable recipes. You only have to do this once. Your list will provide inspiration when you’re not sure what you feel like eating or what recipe to search for.
Type it, write it or take a photo of it. You can fold a piece of paper in half to make 2 or more columns. This way it’s all on the one page and fits nicely in the one photo. Here’s some categories to help you make your list:
Fruit & Vegetables
- Higher-carbohydrate vegetables grow below ground (e.g. carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions).
- Lower carbohydrate fruits and vegetables grow above ground (e.g. lettuce, cabbage, spinach, zucchini, mushrooms, peppers, beans, peas, tomatoes, avocados, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, corn).
- Preserved are great for the cupboard and freezer (e.g. tinned tomatoes, bottle of jalapeños, packet of frozen corn).
- Fresh (e.g. apples, oranges, bananas, lemons, limes, grapes, kiwi fruit)
- Preserved (e.g. tinned pineapple, dried sultanas, frozen raspberries).
Herbs & Spices
- Fresh (e.g. garlic, parsley, coriander, basil)
- Dried (salt, pepper, chilli, paprika, garlic, ginger, cumin, oregano, curry power).
- Milk, yoghurt (e.g. plain or flavoured), cream, sour cream, cheese (e.g. cheddar, feta, ricotta, cream cheese).
- Chicken, fish (fresh or frozen), pork (including bacon), beef, lamb, venison, etc.
- Eggs, nuts (e.g. almonds, peanuts), seeds (e.g. sesame, chia), pulses (e.g. edible seeds like lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas).
- Rice, cereals, flours (e.g. chickpea, corn, wheat)
Fats & Oils
- Butter, ghee (clarified butter), vegetable oil, etc.
- Processed foods (e.g. frozen fruit and vegetables), long-life milks (e.g. coconut, almond, oat), bread and crackers, sandwich spreads (e.g. peanut butter, Vegemite, jam, honey).
Junk & Less Healthy Food
- You might want to treat yourself. Everything in moderation they say.
- Remember that even healthy foods can lose their nutritional value if they are processed, packaged and preserved.
- Beware food additives (e.g. colours, preservatives, antioxidants, sweeteners, flavour enhancers, emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickeners, gelling agents).
- Learn what the food additive numbers mean on the ingredients list.
Meal Planning with Your Favourite Meals (List)
- List your favourite meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And favourite snacks.
- You will probably surprise yourself with how many recipes you already know or want to search for.
- Keep adding to this list over the years. Eventually, you will have hundreds of favourites to choose from when planning your weekly shop. If you are cooking for others, you can share your list with them and they can help plan (if you want to).
Meal Planning on a Budget
- If your food budget is £35 a week (about $70 AUD / $50 USD), you’ll have an average of £5 a day to spend on food. With planning this is absolutely achievable.
- As a family of four, we spend on average £120-£150 week on food and groceries. I admit we do get economies of scale, by buying in bulk and being able to extend a recipe easily by adding something, even if it’s some bread on the side.
Meal Planning: £35 Week
Read our article Meal Planning on a Budget: £35 Week for a complete 7 day Meal Plan for a £35 weekly budget.
Finding Recipes for Your Meal Plan
- Whether you have a collection of recipes already or not, you will probably search online or buy recipe books to find and try more recipes.
- If you search online to find a recipe, remember to save the link and/or take a screenshot.
- Take photos of your food creation and send it yourself via email with a link to the recipe and any notes (e.g. use 1 cup of cream instead)
- Search for recipes that serve one or two people (unless you’re cooking for a family).
10 Popular Recipe Sites & Links
In no particular order, these sites make it easy to search for foods by ingredient or recipe name. Make meal planning simple by checking some of these out:
- Supercook – https://www.supercook.com/#/recipes
- My Recipes – https://www.myrecipes.com/ingredients
- All Recipes – https://www.allrecipes.com/
- Recipe Land – https://recipeland.com/recipes/by_ingredient
- Food – https://www.food.com/
- Taste – https://www.taste.com.au/
- Simply Recipes – https://www.simplyrecipes.com/
- Food Gawker – https://foodgawker.com/
- Better Homes & Gardens – https://www.bhg.com/recipes/
- BBC Good Food – https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes
- Tesco Recipes – https://realfood.tesco.com/recipes.html
- Delicious – https://www.deliciousmagazine.co.uk/recipes
Meal Planning Essentials
- Plan your meals for a week or more (e.g. breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for 7 days).
- Schedule your meals to fit in with your lifestyle (e.g. more time consuming recipes like a lasagne on day’s off and quick meals like chicken and salad on busy days).
- Once you have a collection of recipes that you like, and are good at preparing, the process will get easier and faster.
Once you’ve decided on the recipes you’re going to shop for, review the number of servings and examine the ingredients:
- Generally speaking, you can rely on the number of serves in a recipe or on the packaging of processed food. If the recipe says that it serves 4, then that should make 4 meals.
- You can reduce or increase the number of serves by making adjustments to the recipe.
- Double the ingredients to make twice as many serves or extend it by adding additional ingredients. For example you can increase the serves (and leftovers) to a tomato sauce for pasta by adding chicken, or by adding extra ham and eggs to a Caesar salad.
- Once you’ve tried a recipe, you’ll know if you want to use it again and if it was under or over in its estimation of serving sizes. If you have a healthy appetite, you might want to eat 2 serves.
- If you are preparing meals to eat and to store for leftovers, you might want to adjust the number of serves (by tweaking the recipe and ingredients).
If a recipe calls for expensive ingredients, substitute or leave it out. If you’re unsure if you can leave it out or what to substitute an ingredient with, do a web search (e.g. beef stroganoff without sour cream).
- Swap out a dinner recipe with a breakfast or lunch meal (e.g. bacon and eggs, toasted sandwich, fruit salad and yoghurt).
- Reduce, swap or cut out the meat in a recipe (e.g. less minced beef, substitute steak with chicken or fish, enjoy a vegetable sauce with rice or pasta).
Make any adjustments to the recipe and then add these final ingredients and quantities to your shopping list.
Meal Planning: Healthy Food Limits
- Do you know how much protein you should be aiming for each day? What about the maximum recommended amount of salt or fat?
- Consider healthy food limits and nutritional information on the labels of processed food when selecting recipes and shopping for ingredients. For example, if you want a high fat/carb comfort-meal (e.g. macaroni and cheese with bacon), you might want to add a lower fat/carb meal the next day. If you’re buying a ready-made mac ’n cheese, balance tasty with healthy whenever you can.
According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), daily reference intakes (not meant to be targets) for adults doing an average amount of physical activity are:
- Energy: 8,400kJ / 2,000kcal
- Total fats: less than 70g
- Saturates: less than 20g
- Carbohydrate: at least 260g
- Total sugars: 90g (including from milk, fruit, added sugar)
- Protein: 50g
- Salt: less than 6g
If you have special dietary requirements (e.g. health condition, seeking to change your body weight, do more or less than average physical activity) your healthy limits may differ. This is simply advice from the NHS on eating well.
- Make a shopping list with all of the ingredients you need (e.g. use a notes App on your phone, write it on a magnetic whiteboard and take a photo, write on paper).
- Check your pantry, fridge and freezer and remove/cross out anything on the list that you already have.
- Finalise your shopping list. Remember to add standalone food items (e.g. box of cereal) and any non-food items (e.g. toiletries).
- Take your shopping list with you and stick to it.
Shopping Tricks & Traps
- Eat before you go shopping. You’re less likely to find yourself in a supermarket with a rumbling stomach, buying expensive convenience food and forgetting the essentials.
- Don’t forget to take your shopping list with you!
- Avoid unplanned trips to the shops. These can be expensive and time consuming. If you wander the aisles looking for things, buying by a gut-feeling or guessing what you think you need, you may end up with too much or too little.
- Avoid unplanned ‘top-up’ shops. These can be expensive. If you forget something, and need to go back to the shops, it is highly likely that ‘just milk’ turns into something more.
- Write up a shopping list as you plan your meals. Use a magnetic whiteboard on your fridge (about £4 from ASDA) and add things throughout the week. Take a photo on your phone. Or use a written list and keep it in your wallet.
- Stick to your shopping list. If it’s not on your list, ask yourself if you really need it. If you do, you might have to do without something else. If you really do want something, at the risk of blowing your budget, is there a different brand or smaller size? For example, if you really feel like a fruit salad but can’t afford all the ingredients, is there a ready-made, affordable fruit salad.
- Save money and be environmentally friendly. Take your own shopping bags so you don’t have to buy new ones each time. Build up a collection of strong and large, multi-use bags. The ones with nicer handles that you can carry comfortably. You can also get multi-use fresh produce bags for fruits and vegetables. They go straight from the store to your fridge.
- Buy in bulk. Instead of buying 300 grams of beef mince or an individual chicken fillet, buy a kilo or two and freeze smaller portions in freezer bags (£4 for pack of 50 / 8p each). You might also shop with someone else and split the bill. When you do your meal planning, consider food you want for a month. Save money when you buy enough chicken to last for a month instead of a week.
- Don’t assume that the bigger size is always cheaper. Sometimes two smaller items are cheaper than one larger item of the same product/brand. And sometimes the item on special is still more expensive than the size/brand that is not on special.
- Know how to unit price. This is essential to help you to compare different brands and sizes of similar items based on their cost per weight. For example, by working out how much something is per 100g, you can calculate which one is more expensive. You don’t have to be a math’s genius. Use the calculator on your phone or look for a shelf label with the information on it.
- Consider the quality, features and your previous experiences. If you’ve already tried a food/product – did you like it? If you didn’t like the consistency or flavour, you will probably want to try another brand. If a different brand is on special, it’s a great time to try it.
- Get to know your favourite brands and shop at competitors. Go to various store’s online specials for the week and see who is selling it for less. There’s nothing worse than buying something for a lot more and then seeing the same item at a different store for a lot less.
- Vary where you shop depending on what you are buying. You might want to bulk-buy something or are looking for something particular for a recipe.
In the UK, I shop at Tesco, ASDA, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Aldi, Lidl, and sometimes M&S. It depends what I’m buying. I like the honey at M&S. Sainsbury’s doesn’t sell Vegemite. The cling-film refills I use are only at ASDA. Tesco gives me the biggest range of fresh produce. Aldi and Lidl have great prices on essentials, including fresh produce and meat.
- Look for special/discount price tags. They’re usually in brighter colours. Buying products at the end of supermarket aisles is not always cheaper. Check out similar items in the aisle it is usually in.
- Quality check your items before putting them in your trolley. Check if eggs are broken, milk is leaking, cans are dented, boxes are damaged. The food inside may not be fresh or you may end up with less than you paid for. Really annoying, when you don’t have what you need for a recipe. Fresh fruits and vegetables smell, feel, and look good (usually, sometimes it’s just born ugly). If fruits and veggies are on clearance prices, they will usually only last a day or two. Only buy these items if you are going to use it immediately.
- Buy a range of fresh, frozen and canned. If you can’t get to the shops for a week or two, a tin of tomatoes with spaghetti or a tin of beans on toast will do. Frozen fish is often fresher as it’s snap frozen shortly after being caught. Remember most tinned foods have a high salt content. Look for reduced salt or no salt versions.
- Don’t skip meals. If you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, you’re more likely to feel satisfied after a regular sized portion of food. If you skip meals, you’ll probably want larger portions when you do get to eat. When you do your meal planning, make sure you include breakfast food. You can always use this for dinner food (e.g. bacon and egg roll). If you are starving when dinner-time arrives (because you haven’t eaten breakfast and/or lunch) you may end up eating for two – two people and two meals. You need to pace yourself and make sure your groceries last the week (or whatever time they were meant to last for). Unplanned top-up shops cost money and you may find yourself blowing your budget in no time.
- Arrange items in your trolley. If you are buying food and groceries (e.g. toilet paper, shampoo, tin-foil), put the essentials in the shopping trolley first and keep a note of how much those items are. If you put anything in your trolley that you think you can do without, keep it together and load it onto the checkout last. If you need to remove something to keep to budget, just don’t scan it. If it’s a perishable, like milk or meat, remember to tell a staff member so they can return it to the fridge for you. They’re 99% grateful when you do this.
- While shopping, keep a running total. Use a gadget supplied by the supermarket to help you keep a running total. Or, type the price into a note on your mobile phone or write it down. Just add it up from time to time and if you are approaching your budget you might want to start removing some items you have in there already and be mindful of what else you are putting into your trolley.
- At the checkout, watch what items scan at. Humans and machines make mistakes. Checkout staff can double-scan or choose the wrong category for things. For example, if you see bananas scanned in as avocados, ask why! A specials tag may not have been removed from a shelf and that expensive bottle of coffee is no longer 50% off.
- Check your receipt. Are there there are any items you don’t recognise. Are there multiple items when you only bought a single? Check the scanned prices for individual items, sub-totals, discounts and the final total. If anything is incorrect, go straight to the service desk and query it.
- Take everything with you. Make sure you take all of your items from the checkout. Don’t leave anything in or under the trolley.
- Getting your groceries home. If you walked to the shops, you may want to grab an Uber/taxi home. If you are going to be catching the bus or a train, know the timetable. No good just missing the bus or train and risking the freshness of your shopping. Frozen items melt and dairy products perish if they are not maintained at fridge/freezer temperature. An important part of meal planning is transport planning. What day will you shop and how will you get your food home.
We didn’t have a car for the first two years in Scotland. I’d often walk to the shops and time my bus ride home. I’d sometimes walk home if the groceries weren’t too heavy. I’d deliberately buy a lot of bulky (e.g. toilet paper) and heavy products (e.g. tins, potatoes) every second week and pay for a taxi. These days I often buy a few things and take them home on the train and leave a big shop for every other week.
Food Preparation & Cooking
Prepare your food each day or batch cook some recipes so they are partially or totally ready to eat:
- Cook spaghetti sauce for pasta, pizza bases and in a toasted sandwiches
- Roast a lot of potato, carrot, sweet potato and onion together. Eat them with meat, rice or blend them to make soup. Enjoy them for breakfast.
- Put leftovers in the fridge or freezer and eat them as soon as possible. Guide to storing food and leftovers.
Ready. Set. Go!
- Your turn. Good luck. Meal planning gets easier and quicker with practice.
- Remember, I’ve created an example Meal Plan for 1 week for £35.
- If you’ve got any questions or thoughts, please share them in the comments below.