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Guest Post: How I Save Money by Planning a Menu


photo by jen maiser

Guest Post by Karen

It’s a popular refrain sung by all who would be truly frugal: “If you want to save money, you must menu-plan!” There’s no getting around it—it does require thought and… well, planning. But like any discipline, it’s well worth the effort!

If you’ve been following MoneySavingMom for any length of time, then you probably already understand the “why’s” for menu-planning. Nevertheless, a little review never hurts!

Some of the perks of a menu plan:

1. You save yourself a daily headache by knowing in advance what’s for dinner (truthfully, the biggest draw for me!).

2. You give your budget a break from all the “pick-up-a-few-things” stops at the grocer or convenience store.

3. You save time and money at the grocer when you do go shopping, because you’ve got a plan!

4. You spend far less dining out or picking up takeout.

We’re probably all in the same boat as to the “why” of menu-planning. But surely some of us simply haven’t a clue as to the “how.” Do I get stuff on sale and make a menu from that? Use what I have and shop for the rest? Plan my menu and then shop?

It can be overwhelming at first, for sure! Everyone approaches it differently; what works for me may not work for you.

However, I’ve experimented and played around over the years, and here’s what I currently do:


1) Take inventory of existing food items. This is my first priority—using what I already have (another hard-and-fast frugal rule!). This includes any meats, beverages, dessert items, everything. I try to come up with meals that I could put together with what I already have and I’m always surprised at how far my pantry actually stretches!


2) While I’m completing step 1, I also make a note of what meals I could make, if only I had _____________. Many times, I lack something very inexpensive, such as a can of cream soup, or a stick of margarine. I jot those items down, and my grocery list is underway!


3) Check and compare sale fliers and coupons. I shop at only two grocery stores now; I found I was spending what little I saved on gas for all the trips! Plus, I have 2 small kiddos. I’d swap a couple dollars for time and energy any day!

Often, the sale ads jog my memory about a coupon I have stashed or a favorite meal I’ve forgotten about. And I try to ask the hubby whether there’s something special he’d like to eat that week. He appreciates that, and he’s usually ready with an answer!


4) Once I’ve got 10-12 meals written down, I slot them into my calendar. For me, this takes up the most time, but I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful. I use a whiteboard, and I plan meals according to the specific days’ events.

For example, my husband is home for dinner only three days per week, so I plan the nicest meals for those evenings. Wednesday night is a church night, which means planning something quick and easy. On Sundays we uphold a
time-honored family tradition: Nacho Night! And I always designate one night as “Leftover Smorgasbord Night.” This practice also helps to achieve variety; no one wants rice three nights in a row!

In addition, planning out my meals forces me to be a good steward with what I have. If I don’t plan carefully, my 3-pound bag of salad greens that was on sale will certainly wilt and rot, wasting money! Instead, I’ll plan a nice big dinner salad
(with chicken, per the husband’s request!) for Tuesday, spaghetti and
a side salad for Wednesday, and then I’ll have a sandwich and salad
for lunch on Thursday.

5) After double-checking the menu plan and grocery list, making sure nothing has been forgotten, it is time for The Big Shop. I make sure I’ve got my shopping list, any related coupons, and a full belly. (Really! You’ll spend less if you’re not ravenous!)

I feel good about grocery shopping when I’ve thought through my menu intelligently. And the best part? No more feelings of panic or
frustration when the husband asks, “What’s on the menu tonight?”

When she’s not fussing over her 2 sweet girlies (and when is that, exactly?), Karen writes about a little of everything at

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  • Katie H. says:

    What a great post. I love planning my menus. I actually plan a month at a time. I find that it helps me take better advantage of the store sales (i.e. I know that in two weeks we’re having tacos for dinner, so I’ll buy that BOGO taco kit while it’s on sale today.). Another thing that’s really helped me is my “FAVE MEALS” list. I have a list of about 35 dinners broken down into categories: Crock Pot, Company, Grill, Freeze ahead, etc…and they’re all things that are tried and true dinners we love that use ingredients we typically have most of on hand. This keeps me from wracking my brain or searching the internet for hours (!) for a recipe I may or may not like. I do still try new recipes occasionally and it’s always a thrill to add a new dinner to the FAVE MEALS list! This little list has worked wonders with my menu planning. I hope it helps someone else, too!

  • Kathy K. says:

    Thanks for the outline! What is your recipe for Nacho Night? It sounds like a great idea and a good substitute for Pizza Night. Not that my diet will really permit too much cheese and tortilla chips, but I am sure you have something a bit healthier! Thanks.

  • Great reminders…I just did a creative meal planning post about doing it with friends…makes some misery much more fun. 🙂

  • Charity says:

    I love meal planning it’s so fun and you are right about it saving a headache trying to figure out an hour before dinner what you gonna have. I have slipped on my meal menus being no matter how frugal I have been wee have a NO money being we have a LOAD of bills and just enough money comming in to cover the bills only. Thank you for the encouragement and this post.

  • Esther says:

    This is exactly what we do and it saves so much time and energy!! I’ve noticed that meal planning cuts down on stress in the evenings significantly allowing for more quality time with our family.

  • tracy says:

    I’m a firm believer of planning as well. It is a lifesaver and you’d be surprised of how creative you can be w/ your pantry.

  • Brandy says:

    Menu planning has saved me tons of headaches. I know what I need to defrost,chop or buy ahead of time. Not to mention the money we save by cooking instead of take out…and it’s always nicer on the waistline when you eat at home too!

  • Sarah J. says:

    I don’t menu plan exactly. I plan what I have in my house to make for quick/easy meals. Over time, I’ve managed to get my house in order and I can have most meals ready in under 20 minutes and many times as little as 10 minutes. I’ve taken advantage of those great rolling sales on General Mills items.
    More info on how I do it here:

  • Honey says:

    Very helpful post. I just have one question. I now have a FULL extra freezer. The problem is I have been noticing that it needs to be defrosted. What do I do with the food while I defrost? Or do others just try to deplete their stock pile first? Or should I try to empty my regular freezer before so I can play switcheroo? I think I need to do this before winter is up-maybe find a super cold night and put it in a cooler on the back deck…I need advice here ladies!!! Thanks!! (I’d love to have a frost free, but this one is a large upright that was given to us…)

  • Cate says:

    I LOVE menu planning! It’s one of my favorite things to do, and I’m not even kidding. I love to cook, so I get a huge kick out of planning new recipes to try (or even old ones that I know we love). It also helps me make sure we’re getting enough fruits and vegetables.

  • katya says:

    wow, great to see you hear, Karen!!!!!

    nice post, go mrs. Templin : )

    totally agree

    thanks for the tips


  • Rochelle Wilkerson says:

    I just wanted to say that there’s a great website called It sends out a weekly email with a week’s worth of menus, recipes and a grocery list COMPLETELY FREE! You can also look through archives of menus on the site.
    I used to be a “hamburger helper queen” because I didn’t know how to cook very many foods. This has really helped me alot!

    Hope it helps someone else.


  • Lana says:

    That’s great! I just started doing this last week because I have a lot of food in my pantry and don’t use it. I just keep buying more and more!- Great post!

  • Michele says:

    Great post. I find that not only does planning ones dinners save money, but planning other things as well – trips to museums, parks, etc. Anytime I plan in advance I am able to take advantage of discounts, coupons, being prepared, etc. And most things that we do last minute cost more.

  • Blakely says:

    I love meal planning. It is so helpful. Thanks for the post you have made me think of ways to work on my meal plan.

  • Brittany says:

    Now the trick is to remember your grocery list when you leave for the store! 🙂

  • Jenny says:

    Planning menus has been a huge part in decreasing the amount of money that we spent on food each month. Plus it is so nice to know what to fix and also know that I don’t have to run to the store to get any ingredients. It is also amazing how far I can stretch some of the items in my pantry to make meals last an extra couple of days if we need to.

  • Kristia says:

    Menu planning has helped me stay within my budget better than anything else I do. Because we eat alot of organic foods & fresh produce and not alot of processed foods, I don’t find alot of food coupons that I can use. I only recently got serious about menu planning within the last few months and I have not gone over my budget since and I actually have some $$ left over, which never happened before. I review the sales flyer and my recipe binder and plan my weekly menu around that.

  • angie says:

    For me, the biggest advantage to menu planning is that my meals tend to be more nutritious. Cooking healthy foods sometimes takes a little more effort, and it’s more likely to happen if I plan ahead.

  • I am a total believer in menu planning! I cannot imagine having to stare into my fridge or pantry and come up with a meal to feed my family! I plan breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for several weeks at a time.

    I plan my meals based on grocery store sales combined with coupons and save tons! Here it is step-by-step:

    1. Using my grocery store sale flyer, I refer to my Make-a-Menu binder for family favorites and recipes to try that use meats that are on sale.
    2. I make sure that all the ingredients are on the shopping list.
    3. After shopping, I prep and freeze the main ingredients , and add the meals to my menu.
    4. I add the meals to my menu calendar, which is on my fridge.
    5. On Sundays, I put all the dry ingredients for the week’s menu in my Make-a-Menu Box, I put the fridge ingredients in the fridge box, and the freezer items in the freezer box. If I’m missing an ingredient, I add it to my grocery list.
    6. The week starts, and I’m on auto pilot!

    Good luck & keep cookin’ and lovin’!!

    ~ Menu Maker Mom

  • Carrie says:

    This is one frugal thing that I have just never gotten. I’m glad it works for other people. But for me, I just don’t see the problem with basing the night’s meal around whatever I already have in the fridge or freezer. If I can’t think of anything that uses beef shanks and broccoli, I just Google. If I don’t have the ingredients called for on hand, I either improvise or move on to the next recipe. Sure, I might have a use in mind when I pick up Italian sausage on sale — like pizza or lasagna, especially if mozzerella is also on sale — but I don’t feel the need to write that down.

  • Sandy says:

    I was just thinking this morning about doing a 2 week menu plan, which I NEVER do and whaaaalaaaa…I find this when I sign on this morning! I wanted to get started doing this because I care for my 88 year old mom and get very little time away, usually 4 hours a week. I thought doing a 2 week grocery plan would help me to be more organized and then utilize less of the time I get to run my errands on grocery shopping. Well, I did it and I was amazed at how little I bought at the grocery store. I had so much on hand that I never realized could equate to near complete meals. Thanks for the info and suggestions. Now I have 2 weeks to check out some new recipes and get my list together.

  • I have started letting my kids do the menu planning and it is working out well. The also like the feeling of “knowing” what’s for dinner and it has greatly cut down on the confusion and begging for differing meals. We have not gotten past planning a week to ten days in advance but I hope to begin planning and shopping for longer periods.

  • Thank you for the tips! I always appreciate that you have a mix of information rather than just have sales and coupons. It’s a reason why I included you on my tag list today. See the link. Have a great one!

  • Dawn says:

    I love this too! I actually plan for a month because I buy my meat at Sam’s Wholesale and freeze per meal. They are already cheaper than the grocers on meat and I can buy in bulk. I do have to run in now and then to local stores for produce but overall, I save tons of money because I don’t double buy stuff. Your process is pretty much the same as mine. This frees me up to sew for my three year old, stamp/scrapbook, (another saving hobby,) and keep the books for my husbands business. thanks, you encouraged me today-

  • Erika says:

    I like the idea, and I have tried doing this before. However, my husband has a very strong opinion towards what we have for dinner each night. So essentially, I plan for different dinners (and shop the sales), but then I give the options to him and he picks what he wants.

    The bad part with this is that sometimes i don’t use all the fresh produce in time, and I hate wasting food! Plus some meals involve defrosting, and if i didn’t defrost ahead of time it limits the choices. I have tried saying I will come up with the planned menu ahead of time before, and I will pick the menu, but he wants to have a say in what we are having for dinner too and decide the day of.

    Does anyone have a good suggestion that might get him on board with meal planning?

  • I wrote down four months of meals. Each one is seasonal reflecting what is fresh in my garden that season, as well as what things we like to eat during those months (warm things in the winter and cool things in the summer, for example). I can plan my meals from those (all include side dishes too, unless they are a one-dish meal) which really helps me to know what to put with it! I draw my weekly menus from these pre-planned menus, based upon what I have on hand (I never go to the store to get something for a specific meal, but instead plan my weekly meals on what I have on hand).

    I also have a week’s worth of meals (soon to be three weeks’ worth) from things only in my pantry, for when my garden isn’t producing and we cannot add anything from the store.

  • Britt says:

    HA! This cracks me up! Well, not what you had to say…but the timing! I came to MSM to look up a recipe…I was going back and forth “should I menu plan this week, or wing it.” Hmm…a sign? Thanks for the encouragement! God sure does speak to us!

  • Lyn says:

    To Honey – you can expedite cleaning out a freezer by using a hair dryer (just be careful). I find when I do this the food is not out for very long. It depends though on how much ice is built up. If you live in a colder climate you could also box up the freezer food and put it on your porch in a safe place until you are finished.

    To Erika – can you sit down with your dh and ask him if it’s possible to meal plan for the week instead of daily (you could still get his input on what he would like to eat that week).

  • I loved this post on menu planning and linked it to my menu planning Monday post. Check it out on my blog…

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