Frugal Menu Planning

Whether you call it Menu Planning or Meal Planning, writing out a week’s worth of meal ideas can save money, time, and stress levels – if done correctly.

Yes, really. If you plan meals around a fancy new recipe or what sounds good to you with no thought to sales or what’s already in your house you will not save money, because you will be buying the items whether they are on sale or not. Plus there will probably be a lot of waste if you really did have items in your house that needed to be used.

So, what’s the best way to plan a menu?

Look at what’s already in your freezer and pantry and plan from there. You can add what is on sale that week, but that takes extra time, so I find it quickest and easiest to plan our menu based on what I already have (other than the produce, etc., that I buy regularly each week). Then I’m not committed to having to shop to get the items for that week’s meals.

The best part for me, though, is knowing what is for dinner each night – it takes away all that 4:30 pm stress that comes with the question “what should I make for dinner?”

Of course, making a menu doesn’t mean it’s written in stone. Feel free to ditch a meal if you find it’s not going to work that night (but have some easy pantry meals to fall back on- unless you get a surprise night out- woot!). I like to change it up every now and then, but not as much as I like the comfort in knowing something is planned versus the times when I haven’t had a menu planned.

Another bonus I’m discovering is that a menu seems to allow me the ability (time? thought?) to plan some new recipes I’d like to try. I don’t know why, but when I don’t plan, we just seem to have the same old things (tacos, spaghetti, etc.), I guess because they are easy to remember.

Weekly plan or monthly? Whatever works for you! I plan only for dinners, as everyone makes their own breakfasts around here (except for the weekends), and lunches are usually leftovers for the adults and sandwiches for the kids. I just make sure I have items for these general meals on hand.

Ready? Give it a try!

5 Steps To Easy and Frugal Dinner Meal Planning:

1. Get your calendar.

  • Download and print a free calendar for the month (I like Calendars That Work) or just type the days of the week in a word processing program to print out. 
  • If you’re comfortable with a calendar program like Google Calendars or iCal, use that. 
  • Feeling crafty? There’s lots of cute menu board ideas out there whether it’s dry erase or chalk – Google search is your friend here.
2. Look at your family’s activity calendar.
  • Note the nights you’ll be coming in late and plan to have quick meals or slow cooker meals on those nights.
  • Plan take-along meals for any kids sports or activities that happen at the dinner hour.
  • Obviously, note the nights you won’t be eating at home!

3. Plan with what you have. Use a paper list or a quick mental run-down- whatever works for you.

  • Look in the freezer for items to use, including meats and vegetables. If there’s a lot, or there’s a need to clean out the freezer, I make a list.
  • Check the pantry, too, making a note of staples you might need to pick up (pasta, etc.)
  • To really help minimize waste, check all the nooks and crannies of the fridge and plan meals to use up all the vegetables and any leftovers (a soup meal is great for this!)

4. Assign a certain theme or ingredient to each day.

  • This is optional, but it really helps the meal planning go quicker- especially in the beginning when you’re still figuring out this whole planning thing!
  • You don’t have to always plan exactly to the theme, but it can serve as a starting point for finding a meal. 
  • It’s also a really good way to stick to a goal you have for your family like eating a meatless meal or adding more beans or fish to your diet.
  • Here’s an example:

Monday– Meatless Monday
Tuesday– International (i.e., tacos or curry)
Wednesday– Beans
Thursday– Chicken
Friday– Fish/Vegetarian
Saturday– alternate with Pizza and Burgers
Sunday– Free (leftovers, quick meal of pasta, or eat out- in other words, flexible!)

5. Start filling in each day with meals.

  • Start with things that your family likes. If it helps, make a list of “family favorite meals” and keep it with your menu planning things, adding to it as you find new meals.
  • Another way to record what your family likes and what you’ve served is to keep all your past menus in a binder (this is what I do). After awhile, you’ll have a super resource that’s easy to look through for ideas. It also aids in cooking seasonally, as you’ve got a record of what you ate for every month of the year. 
  • Plan for any new recipes as well. I find it takes more time to plan with new recipes new, so I keep it to only one or two a week and if it’s a busy time, there might not be any new items on our menu that week.

That’s it! Once you get your system down, it should only takes about 10 minutes to plan a week’s worth of dinners. It may take longer if there are some new recipes you want to try or have a lot of ingredients to use up, but that’s fine occasionally- and actually one of the good reasons to have a plan!

Here’s a sample menu to give you an idea:

Monday – Vegetable and cheese panini (aka, grilled cheese!) on homemade bread; oven roasted potatoes; vegetable try

Tuesday – Soft Tacos

WednesdaySausage and Lentil Stew; Artisan Bread; vegetables and ranch dip

ThursdayMaple Mustard Chicken; Grandma’s Tasty Rice; sauteed green beans; green salad

Friday- Hoisin Baked Salmon on Soba Noodles

SaturdayHomemade Pizza

Sunday – Spaghetti made with Roasted Tomato Sauce (from the freezer)

Do you plan your meals?






  1. Michele Laughlin says

    Yes, I plan meals….I am opting for a no-oil, no dairy vegan diet for me for Lent so I REALLY had to plan meals for the next 6 weeks! My husband is not doing the same diet that I am for Lent, so I had to come up with meals for dinner for six weeks that will feed both of us! Not easy but thankfully, I still have a full freezer and pantry from our 2013 garden :) We’ll see how it goes! I just use a ‘table’ in Google Docs as my planning feature. LOVE your suggestions and recipes! I would love to see what you could come up with Jami if you did no oil, no dairy vegan meals!

    • says

      Ah, Michelle – you are a better woman than I! :) The diet you describe is pretty much my nightmare, ha! Though I do see how having your stock of produce would make this easier. Your tip to use a G doc table for something like this is a good one! I use a Google Calendar now – I’ve gone paperless and I love how easy it is to drag and drop the meals that we’ve switched out or didn’t get to. I also like how easy it is to look at previous months and duplicate any meals I want to repeat. Not sure why the switch from paper took so long. 😉

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