I always recommend pantry-based meal planning for those that are just learning how to meal plan. Really, I’m not totally sure if there’s an official “name” for this type of meal plan – I’ve called it reverse meal planning, pantry-based meal planning, but really it’s just based on shopping your kitchen first.
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There are a number of benefits to meal planning this way, especially for beginners.
- Reduces waste, which makes sure your groceries are in your belly, not in your garbage.
- Saves time. No need to clip coupons, compare grocery ads (though you can if you’d like), etc. Because it gives you a starting point, you’re never meal planning totally from scratch.
- Saves money. You’re starting with what you have first, so fewer items will need to be purchased in any given week – the trip to the store is just meant as a way to “put it all together” and fill in the blanks in the meal plan.
Now that we know why I LOVE this method of meal planning, let’s get onto just how to do it!
Write it All Down
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Take stock of the items in your kitchen (pantry, fridge, freezer) and write it ALL down. And I mean everything. A cup or so of rice? Goes on the list. 2 eggs left? Yup, that too. The idea here is just to see what you’re working with and what meals you can put together from what you have in the kitchen. You can write down spices if you’d like as well, I used to, but I usually already know the spices I have on hand since they don’t run out frequently.
Tip: Use these free kitchen inventory sheets I made just for my readers!
Connect the Dots…
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Which items make a natural fit for a meal? You’ll likely be able to “start” two to three meals just from what you have in your kitchen, while adding things to fill in the blanks to your grocery list (e.g. you have spaghetti and ground beef, but need to pick up spaghetti sauce to make spaghetti and meat sauce).
Some Meal Starting/Pairing Ideas
- Canned items make great soup starters.(e.g. taco soup)
- Protein, Veggie, Starch is my go-to for easy dinners. I can usually find 2/3 of these items in my kitchen at the end of each week.
- A half box of pasta or a small amount of rice that isn’t enough for a main dish would do well in a soup.
The remaining meals can be made up of things you’d like to make this week, as well as reliable meals that you usually work into your rotation. I also recommend working in one meatless meal and/or one soup-based meal, since they’re great budget meals for keeping costs low.
Be sure to write down your meal plan for each day, as well as create a grocery list with all the items you’ll need to buy at the store.
But not All the Way
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“Connect the dots, but not all the way” means go to the store with an open mind and with the idea that your meal plan isn’t 100% final until you come back from the store.
This can be as simple as…
- Swapping a side of fresh green beans (which was on the meal plan) for a bag of salad with a clearance sticker that needs to be eaten within the next day or two.
- Forgoing the $3.99/lb chicken breast (which was on the meal plan) for the drumsticks that are $0.99/lb.
Obviously, this won’t work with every meal on your meal plan. But generally, side dishes (produce) and meats are where you’ll see the most flexibility, and therefore a bigger opportunity for savings. The savings are $1 here and $3 there, but over the course of a couple shopping trips it can add up to a noticeable difference in your grocery budget.
Tip: You’re likely to find the best mark-downs in departments that sell perishable items… so bakery, meat and produce.
Budget in Extra $
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If you can swing it, budget in an extra $5 to $10 into your grocery budget each week to be able to buy marked down items ahead for upcoming weeks. This will allow you to take advantage of unannounced sales, clearance and heavily marked down items.
Over time, this will make it easier to keep your grocery budget on track each week (because you’re buying ahead and not paying full price… so you’re essentially getting more for your money) I usually use this part of my grocery budget on marked down meats since the savings impact my grocery budget the most week to week. If I don’t see any great discounts on meat, I just let the money roll over until I see seriously marked-down prices so I can stock up.
Tip: Stores that I’ve found to typically have great marked down meat prices:
- Wal-Mart (sometimes),
- Harris Teeter
- Winn Dixie
This is in the South-East from my experience living in Florida and North Carolina, so I’m sure there are plenty of other stores to add to the list!
So those are my tips for this style of meal planning. There’s no magic-bullet to meal planning (there are paid services, and if you’re wanting to go that route I recommend checking out this out), even done the easiest way, it will take a bit of time out of your week. But doing it this way, that time is spent figuring out how to use what you have before going out to buy more!
If you have any meal planning tips, please share them below! I always tell my husband you guys are 10x better at this than I am, so I really love hearing your ideas!