meal planning 101

one thing i believe we all have control over is how we spend our money. how we spend our money, for the most part, can allow us or prevent us from living our precious lives to the fullest.  another thing i believe in is food. good food shared with others. often times, when the topic of good food is brought up, people find it hard to believe that the nutritious meal in front of them is affordable. but i promise you, it can be.

a lot of you have asked how i provide good food for my family at such an inexpensive cost. simply put- i plan. although i am not an expert by any means, i want to share my form of meal planning with you. let's begin.

1. set a budget.

our family spends $75 a week. when we first began meal planning a little over three years ago, we spent a bit more. over the years, though, we have found ways to cut costs. i know our budget will increase as we add little ones, but for now we spend at most $300 a month. 

i want to mention a few disclaimers before you get the idea that we are starving- we don't eat all organic. we purchase as many organic fruits & vegetables as we can, but at this time our budget doesn't allow for us to eat exclusively organic. additionally, we have chickens who provide for our daily eggs. lastly, we farm & grow a large amount of our own food. this saves us huge amounts of money. we have a freezer full of beef & pork from the farm & we grow vegetables year 'round in our backyard garden.

2. assess what you do have.

before i ever begin to plan out our meals, i thoroughly search our fridge, pantry and cupboards for foods that might make the perfect ingredients for a healthy meal. those two carrots? perfect for a vegetable soup. the extra black beans from this week? delicious on a tortilla with salsa for lunch. i also like to know if we have items, like milk, that we need to use before it expires. i hate to waste food so this speaks to my frugal spirit.

3. check your schedule

my sweetie & i always discuss our schedule before i ever begin planning our meals. if i know we have a commitment on a particular evening or that day looks to be extra busy, i will plan an easy meal such as frozen soup or prepare something in the crock pot the morning of. 

additionally, there's nothing more frustrating than not communicating with your family and realizing you are hosting a guest that evening or expected to bring a dish to an event after you do your grocery shopping for the week. the extra planning doesn't seem as worthwhile if you're visiting the grocery store once again.

4. plan your menu

using as much of what you have already on hand in your fridge & pantry, plan your menu. some plan for the entire month, but i like the creative rhythm of planning our menus every week. i usually plan my meals on sunday & grocery shop before work on monday. 

when i am planning, i gather my favorite cookbooks (here, here and here), my meal plan notepad, my grocery list, and my family planner. i map out our week, including evening events, and write them on my meal plan. i then choose seasonal, healthy recipes that create a balanced meal with few ingredients. i  write those recipes on my meal plan along with their source & page number. i also write notes such as "thaw soup" or "put beans in crock pot morning of" on each corresponding day. these simple reminders prevent me from forgetting a key ingredient in our meal before the flurry of dinner preparations begin.

just a note- i only plan dinner on our meal plan & always make extra as leftovers for lunch.

5. leave prepared

there's nothing i dislike more than planning my menu & grocery shopping the same day. it's exhausting & leaves me cranky. like i said before, i like to plan my menu slowly on sunday & leave for the grocery store early on monday morning before work, refreshed & fully nourished from breakfast. 

i always take reusable bags. my local food co-op gives 5 cents for every reusable bag used & it's nice to know i'm not filling a landfill with plastic bags. you can pick up a reusable bag at most thrift shops & second-hand stores. 

i also always bring my grocery list & calculator. turn around right away & go back home if you forget those two items. if you forget these two items, it will prevent you from getting everything you need & keeping you on budget. in my case, i use my phone as a calculator. every time i add something to my cart, i take a moment to punch it into my calculator. i keep a running total as i cross each item off the list. this keeps me from splurging on delicious coconut ice cream if i don't have it in the budget. it's a nice reward to know i have an extra $4 in my budget once my grocery list is complete & everything is added up to grab that sweet treat. you know exactly how to spend your money when you keep a watchful eye on where it's going. 

i thought it might be of some interest to you to know what i purchase each week with $75 & a sample of my menu plan. the above photo shows the groceries i purchased the week of valentine's day (not shown are bulk chia seeds). i spent $50 on this load with $25 to spare for our special valentine's day meal & wine.

here is my menu plan for this week:

monday- (make garbanzo beans for lunches) brussels sprouts with dried cranberries & goat cheese over brown rice (pinterest)
tuesday- small group / veggie burgers and roasted sweet potato bites
wednesday- white bean and tomato mushroom soup (whole living) with mini ciabatta rolls
thursday- (thaw chili) long work day for natalie / frozen chili with homemade cornbread and salad
friday & saturday- natalie is out of town / luke's choice
sunday- leftover sunday!

here are a few affordable, whole foods recipes i really love: black bean sweet potato burritos, white bean & mushroom stew, and buttermilk biscuits.

& finally- some tips to answer any questions you might have:

- always write down foods as you run out of them. we keep a market list on our fridge that we add to daily. this saves me a lot of time when i am planning & trying to remember everything that we might have run out of the week before.


- shop seasonally & preserve. we just ran out of our black cherries, peaches & strawberries from this summer's bounty. preserving food, whether it be canning, freezing or drying, saves our family so much money. i usually spend a large part of my summer preserving fresh foods for the winter. i not only enjoy it, but i also find satisfaction in pulling out that bag of frozen green peppers from the freezer for a stew & opening up that delicious jar of sweet applesauce for breakfast. make a mental note of the foods your family enjoys most & keep an eye out for those items at your local farmers' market. they are usually the cheapest & most delicious at the peak of their season. buy more than you usually would & preserve the extra.

- never forget the power of leftovers as another meal. we often thaw soup, stews & chili for a quick meal. i also like to use leftovers from the previous night's dinner for lunches & dinner the next day. i will use extra black beans from one night's taco salad for tomorrow night's vegetable fajitas. tonight's roasted sweet potatoes are a great addition to tomorrow's soup. whole ingredients are affordable & very versatile. 

- avoid pre-packaged food. you have the time, i promise. you will save so much money purchasing a large container of plain yogurt & filling small jars for lunches & quick snacks. top with frozen fruit & you have a delicious treat. i never, ever buy individual packages of pretzels, raisins, etc. i always buy the large package & quickly toss whatever snack food in a bag or to-go container before heading out the door.

i hope this was helpful in easing the stress of balancing health & our budgets. please don't hesitate to ask any questions you might have. i am not an expert, but i truly love sharing what i do know with you.

also, if you have any great ideas for meal planning, i would love to hear them! there's always more room for improvement!


Jess said...

love your ideas! I'd like to focus more on preserving this summer. I, too, will cook big batches of beans and use half this week, freeze the other half for next week. That way I can put the frozen beans on the counter in the morning and by afternoon I'm ready to use them in a soup or for burritos. I usually plan a burrito night followed by a stir-fry night. I'll cook a big batch of brown rice for burrito night then put away half for stir-fry night. That way I just have to saute some veggies and tofu and throw in the brown rice at the end - makes such a quick meal!

We have a budget but often go over. I think it's a great idea to use a calculator as you put things into the basket. I'm going to try that out!

Kaylan said...

We do so much of the same and my favorite cookbooks are More with Less, Simply in Season, and any of the Moosewood collection. We also buy a lot in bulk which saves money. Great post!

jessie said...

natalie, i love the calm feeling i get reading of your meal planning rhythm.. a contrast to how an area in my life that can often feel frantic :) thank you so much for sharing!

Debie Grace said...

Thank you for sharing your ideas. I have never prepared a meal for a week. Even though I would love to, I guess school is just taking too much of my time. Maybe when it's over, I could make a plan! I am excited. :D

P.S. Your letters to chickens <3

rachel said...

thanks for a fabulous post! I am *terrible* at meal-planning. I may check out those cookbooks for more ideas! Our budget is $75/week too--with body care and cleaning ingredients included. (but also free meat and eggs from the farm) But I also budget $15 per week to save up for bulk purchases-- walnuts, beans, steel cut oats, raisins, salt, etc. One of my goals for this year is to preserve--I find it intimidating, but I know I can do it!

danika said...

I love these tips! I just recently {last month{ started meal-planning, and oh my goodness, it makes such a difference, both in our budget & my stress levels! Knowing exactly what I'm going to cook for supper each day {and knowing that we have all the ingredients} has been wonderful. :) I have a small notebook that I've been using to write my weekly menu plans in, so that they're all in one place; this is really helpful when I sit down to make out another menu & can look back on previous weeks for ideas.

Your photos are absolutely beautiful, as always. Visiting your blog is like coming up for a breath of fresh air. Thank you so much for sharing your days with us. :)

Natalie Freeman said...

rachel - our budget also includes body care & home supplies, which makes it oh so tight! that is such a great idea to set aside money for bulk supplies! love that. thanks for sharing!

Natalie Freeman said...

danika- you are too sweet! i am so happy to hear your meal planning! what a great idea to keep a notebook :) sometimes you can find inspiration from what you've made just a week or two ago!

Denise said...

what a wonderful post - thank you for sharing!

Sherri said...

Natalie, I follow you on Instagram and read your blog post often. I stopped by today to read your meal planning routine. I too meal plan and find it makes my life MUCH easier and we do spend less money on groceries bc of it. Life feels hectic if I don't plan our supper meals for the week. I see the difference. Much of my routine is exactly the same as yours.

Stephanie said...

Awesome, thanks for sharing. I have been trying to meal plan. As a stay at home mom I get bored of coming up with food ideas. So thanks for sharing some new cookbooks. Also I would love to know more about your coop, as we are going to build one soon. (If spring ever comes to MN)

Unknown said...

I am working with a group of parents to re-imagine our menu in the CDL. This meal planning post gives me several great ideas that I will bring back to the team. As always, you are very inspirational!

cindy baldwin said...

Here's my alternative to hauling the calculator through the store: When I got married I started meal planning and budgeting as well, but didn't want to do the calculator thing because frankly, shopping exhausts me enough as it is. ;) Instead, I started saving my receipts every time I went grocery shopping, and would refer back to them when I made a new grocery list. Because I could see how much we'd paid for, say, apples, or frozen chicken breasts, or whatever, for the last several grocery trips, I could make a very close estimate as to what we'd be paying that time. By doing that, I could calculate out the total cost of my grocery trip before I even went to the store. Now I've been doing it for so long that I don't even have to look at the receipts... I can pretty much estimate the cost of anything at my regular grocery store by memory. (Obviously produce etc. can fluctuate, which I tend to take into account, but like you I mostly shop seasonally and so I'm usually buying things when they're at their cheapest).

Anyway, I'm not sure if I explained that well enough or not. ;) I blogged about the system in more detail a few years ago:

Julia said...

gah! just wrote a very long comment that got deleted :(

anyways- great tips. one thing to add is buying things in bulk! we save so much money (and wasteful packaging) by purchasing almost all our dry goods (flours, nuts, beans, rice, oats, dried fruit, sugar, etc.) in bulk. you can bring your own jars/containers/bags too! our coop also gives a discount to members for large special orders- we eat a lot of cereal and oatmilk so we buy those by the case- saves money and we don't constantly run out.

one thing i need to get better at is remembering to do things in advance like soak beans and thaw things from the freezer- great idea to write that on the schedule along with the meal ideas!

Linn said...

I do a weekly meal plan most weeks, but I must say that nevertheless you inspired me with this post!

I think we could save some money (and waste less food) with even better planning. I need to fill that freezer, for example...

OhGreenTherapy said...

Thanks for the great ideas and inspiration. We are in "no-spend month" right now where we cut our expenses pretty short. It's a great way to use up what we have and be more mindful of how we spend our money. I love your ideas and those of the other readers!
A quick question because you mentioned preserving green peppers - how do you do it? Whenever I've tried, they turn out mushy. And I'd love to use the abundance we get in the summer year-round. Thanks for any suggestions!

Jacqui said...

Just found your blog through Shanna of Food Loves Writing and so glad I did! Such a happy space you have here. I plan my meals every week, as well -- if I didn't, my husband and I would just end up eating out too much and/or wasting food. I used to write out my menus and lists in a notebook, but have started using my iphone (I love the Buy Me a Pie grocery list app!), which makes it a lot easier to add something to my list as soon as I think of it. I'm terrible at getting things done around the house, but meal planning is one task that I'm proud to say I actually do every week! :)

Ellen said...

I used to plan weekly like you do, but figured out that I can stay within my budget best when I plan out a month at a time. I do a Costco trip once a month to get some staples and then budget about $50-60 per week for other things we need. I usually spend between $300 and $350 a month. I don't get a ton at Costco, but they have a pretty decent organic selection and I get quite a few basics there that really save me a lot of money. Like Cindy said above, I estimate the cost of my list before I go to the store and that has helped me stay within my budget in a huge way! I freeze a lot of stuff, too. I am a teacher, so during the week I am EXHAUSTED after work. I try to get a lot of prep work done on the weekends so that dinners are fairly easy during the week. I chop veggies and throw those into stir fries or egg scrambles--I found that I waste WAY less food that way! I love geeking out about meal planning with people ;)

danielle said...

Thanks to Shari for sending me over to your lovely blog today. This was timely, I used to excruciatingly plan every meal of the week, and since I have returned to school I have fallen out of the habit. Now I will get back in again!! I am so impressed that you manage to stretch $75 so far!

Astrid said...

I loved reading this! Thanks for sharing.

Jenna said...

What a great post! Thank you for all of the tips. My husband's grandmother recently gave me her 1976 edition of the More-with-Less Cookbook. I was happy to see that it has been reissued. I'd love to hear what your favorite recipes from it are - there are so many in the book.

ella said...

Thanks Natalie. this was good to read this morning. Having 1 very selective eater in my family makes the planning challenging but the goal to budget and meal plan is re-inspired.

Lauren said...

Have been wanting to meal plan for a while and this seems to cover some awesome tips for making that happen. Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

What kind of jars are you using here?

Laura said...

This is so great! Thank you! I have been trying to get into organising & being more practical. Thanks so much for explaining it in small steps. That makes it so insightful. Especially since I am the type that can explain abstract material into something very simple, yet when it comes to making grocery lists & organising cupboards, I find myself standing in the kitchen with a bunch of questionmarks above my head.

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