The One Hour Project: Plan Your Meals For One Week In Advance

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This post is part of The One Hour Project, in which you can spend just one hour to put your finances in a better place without a big lifestyle change, through frugality or other financial choices.

My wife and I generally plan a week’s worth of dinners at once for several reasons. First, it’s clear to both of us what the dinner plan is well in advance. Second, we’re able to be sure we have everything we need for dinner on hand. Third, it’s way cheaper than even making meals off hand at home – and way, way cheaper than eating out or getting take out.

It only takes an hour to plan it and get the supplies you need on hand, from the moment you’re sitting at home with a piece of paper in front of you to having everything you need for the whole week in your cupboard. Here’s what you do.

Grab the weekly flyer from your favorite grocery store. I get mine with the Sunday paper and in the regular mail. If all else fails, pick up the flyer on your way home from work, but it’s pretty easy to get your hands on one.

When you’re ready to plan, sit down with the flyer, a sheet of paper, and a pen. List the seven days of the week on the paper with enough room under it to list what you’re planning on eating for that meal.

Next, go through that flyer and circle a few on-sale items that seem tasty to you. These will serve as the foundation for your meals for the week – yep, you’ll take advantage of what’s on sale to plan your meals for the week.

When you have the items you like, come up with seven meals using those ingredients. Let’s say hamburger is on sale. You might want to have hamburgers one night and maybe beef tacos another night. Even better, look for meal ideas that use multiples of the ingredients on sale. If you don’t have any bright ideas, use the basic do-it-yourself casserole recipe and find ingredients to match.

Now, when you’ve filled in all seven slots, figure out all the ingredients you’ll need for the meals. List them out if you need to. Then check and see which ingredients you already have on hand. A well stocked kitchen should have most things you need on hand, but at the end of the day, you’re going to want everything at home.

Make up a shopping list of everything you need. List every item that you’ll need for these recipes, nothing more, nothing less. You may want to include some simple items for other meals – I generally encourage fresh fruits and oatmeal for breakfast because they’re relatively cheap, very healthy, and filling.

Then, head out to the store. Stick strictly to that shopping list – get nothing else. When you go through the checkout, look at the number on your receipt at the end and realize that your entire family will eat seven dinners (and maybe even more, including leftovers) for this amount. Of course, it is a bit more because you’ll be using stuff you have at home, but the savings will really be obvious.

Give this a try for one week, and look at that receipt when you’re done at the grocery store. When you realize that is your food bill for the entire week, you’ll feel a lot better about your money.

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20 thoughts on “The One Hour Project: Plan Your Meals For One Week In Advance

  1. You don’t have to use a paper version of the fliers. Most stores make them available online. The Publix flyer goes up on Thursdays and is at http://specials.publix.com/. There is also a flier in Spanish at the same webaddress, which advertises different food. I have a hard time planing out a whole week’s menu in advance, but usually the same ingredients can be recombined into a variety of meals.

  2. Good idea! The only caveat is to be aware that sale items are not necessarily the most frugal options. Supermarkets sometimes put more expensive or exotic items on sale to entice people to buy them, and it may still not be as cheap as something more basic.

  3. This is one of my favorite ideas! I’ve been doing this but for 2 weeks at a time. Every other week I have a big shopping week and then “small” weeks where I just try to pickup fruit, milk and a few things we need. Has been helping us in the budget area when I don’t have to go to every area of the store every week. I also plan snacks and breakfasts now. (Used to just do the evening meal.) I’ve slowly been building up a computerized set of recipes so I can quickly look for ingredients I’ll need for anything.

  4. I do this too. Sort of.

    My method is sitting down on Thursday or Friday and going through cookbooks/searching online. I look for recipes with things that are normally low-priced or call for a lot of things we already have. Then I pick two or three and make up a list of what we’ll need. I go through the cabinets and make sure we don’t already have something.

    Then on Friday/Saturday we buy the ingredients, plus any staples we’re low on. I cook the meals over the weekend and we eat them for lunch/dinner during the week.

    I don’t use the circular much, though I like the idea. Mostly I just try to buy all generic (unless another is cheaper) and if I see a substitute ingredient that’s cheaper than the one I was planning to get, then I’ll get it. If our circular had coupons, I’d probably spend more time with it.

  5. I was amazed when I started this two weeks ago I saved a ton of money because I had a plan. Last week, I didn’t create a menu for the week and I fell back to my old habits blowing my budget for the month and eating at least one meal out almost every day of the week.

    Your post reminded me to plan ahead. I’m also incorporating at least one meal in the week that will make enough so I can freeze individual servings for later.

  6. I’ve done the same thing off and on for several years, but in order to keep the process simple, I recently created an Excel-based “menu planner” for recording the deals, menu and a couple other items to help with store shopping. If anyone’s interested, feel free to look at it at Weekly Menu Planner.xls.

  7. I did this for the first time yesterday, minus the sale flyers. I spent $33.00 for an entire week’s worth of meals for me and my son. :-D This includes breakfast (I don’t eat it), lunches for me (my son eats at the school cafeteria), dinners and snacks.

    Usually, I spend $100, and stuff rots or sits unnecessarily in the pantry. I’m already counting the savings.

  8. I’ve found that meal planning is essential for keeping down the costs of groceries. But, there can also be several pitfalls in focusing solely on store flyers. Even though something’s on sale, there may be less expensive alternatives. For example, chicken thighs are almost always less expensive than the breasts.

    I’ve also learned to plan and shop for 2 or 3 weeks at a time. If I cook from scratch and use frozen produce towards the end of the cycle, my bill is less than half of what it was when I was shopping weekly and I have more time for other things.

  9. This will save a lot of cash but it’s more economical to plan for several weeks or at least to enough staples to last a few weeks. Some things like milk, produce (unless frozen), may need to be bought here and there. I have a little over $100 to spend a month on myself. I go to WalMart because my $ goes farther.

    I buy $40 or $50 worth of staples, milk, bread, and then go back every week or so and get milk or bread. Sometimes I have a few dollars left over. I get a kick out of some people who go to the store, often relying on others for transportation, and get enough for a meal. I’ve been the taxi a few times and, whe I suggest they get enough food to last at least a few days, they just don’t get it.

    It helps to compare unit prices, pick generics when possible. If you can at least figure out what you will eat for the month you will save a lot. Stores have good deals but you really need to watch them. They like to draw people in with good deals but who wants to run around town getting all the deals?

  10. We don’t have kids so it may be different but once every couple of week I cook up a huge back of stew, lentil soup etc and freeze everything into individual portions. This way we both have access to instant meals. We can choose to have it for lunch or dinner depending on what mood were both in. Best part we both don’t need to be in the mood to eat the same thing at night. It also provides an instant meal if we both get home late and our tired.

  11. Great advice! My wife does this and it makes a huge difference in our monthly budget. You can really save allot of money if you plan ahead. And remember to use your coupons every penny adds up.

  12. Before I go for groceries, I try to have a rough plan of what we will have for suppers that week. I also made a list of all the suppers I make (alas, not that long of a list), and I spoke to my husband about how often he would be willing to eat those things. E.g. some things like chile and pizza (homemade) he would happily eat every week. Some things he would prefer to have only once a month. Having that list really helps in thinking of 7 meals. Start by just writing down each meal you make — you can do this on the calendar. At the end of the month, you should have many different meals. You can add as you think of more (or become a better cook!!). I also have a few meals that are easy to put together and for which I always have ingredients on hand (e.g. the aforementioned chile) for those weeks when you can’t think of something for all 7 meals, or you decide to make something easier than what was on your plan.

  13. Awesome post, Trent. I’ve already prepared all of my meals for this coming week, but I’ll try this next week!

    Another place to pick up circulars without buying a newspaper: if you’re in an apartment building like I am, people often leave their newspaper circulars or ad-mailers in the lobby.

  14. For Daydreamer–You mentioned you shop at Wal-mart and do not want to run around to all the other stores. Wal-Mart does match ad prices. If someone is advertising an item for less let them know the price and where. Most Wal-Marts cashiers have the ads from from the other stores. I do this and it works great.

  15. What Margaret does.
    What works in my home is sort of a variation of this theme. At the beginning of the month, I see what we have in the freezer (or my previous months’ menu plan that I didn’t make for some reason.) Then, I add to it the items we have weekly…pizza on Fridays because it’s easy, pasta on the “busy” night of the week (after school activities), roasted chicken or beef or lamb on the weekend when there is more time to be at home, leftovers from that meal the night after, soup night (I try a different variety each week…pea soup, chicken noodle, potato, bean and ham, the options are endless), and of course “leftover buffet” where the odds and ends from the last several nights are put on the table and it’s every person for themselves! Although, since my husband started packing his lunch daily recently, we haven’t been having these evenings often. Anyway, I find that by deciding what meals I’ll be preparing over the next 2-3 weeks, I usually can make one big shopping trip per month, and then go in to a store to buy the odd item that I need plus milk or bread. I don’t read the ads because when I did, I would often be tempted to buy something that we probably shouldn’t eat or items that wouldn’t get eaten. We try to eat organic, natural foods as much as possible, and in the summer have a pretty good amount of veg from my garden to supplement.
    This saves me not only shopping time (when I look back at how I used to shop…I would spend WAY more than this method)but also, prep time…I can look at my menu and pull next night’s or few night’s items out of thefreezer, and it’ll be ready when I need it, instead of that last minute feeling of “AAAHHH I have nothing to eat!” Which leads to eating out…which is not good for the budget…Planning is a GREAT thing

  16. I used to spend $150 per week for my family of 5, before I started planning. Now I spend about $100 per week and we eat better than we did before!

  17. I always find this to be more difficult and costly. I’m pretty good at using lots of ingredients that I already had on hand to create meals, and I’ve pulled together large filling meals at the end of the week when the refrigerator’s empty. Not to mention, I already buy only the food that’s on sale in the ad. You can do almost anything so long as you have plenty of spices on hand. The times when I’ve had basically no food left have inspired me to create some interesting dishes from staples and spices.

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