Simple Meal Planning for Beginners

This is something a bit different from what I normally post here, but I want to start sharing more "lifestyle"-type things and I figured this was a good way to start!

So, this summer has been a very a-typical one for me. Instead of going back to my family home, I stayed on campus to work for my university. While housing was provided for us as part of the job, I had no meal plan like I do during the school year, so I had to buy food and actually cook for myself! And that's where meal-planning came in. If there's one thing I get anxious about, it's money. I knew from the very beginning that I would need to come up with a plan to help me stick to my budget and be sure I had the right food in the right amounts to make meals every day.

Since the summer is nearing its end and my system definitely worked for my needs while still being extremely easy to use and keep up with, I wanted to share my method and tips so that maybe others in a similar situation can do the same.

First of all, let me give you a quick rundown of what I did. I didn't use any fancy apps or programs, just the Notes app that came with my iPhone. I kept two lists: one that I made new each week to plan out lunches and dinners (on the left) and one that I just updated each week with my grocery list (on the right).

Honestly, you can pretty much tell everything you need to know just from those screenshots!

Towards the end of one week, I would make up the list for the next and start fiddling with meals. I didn't bother with breakfasts; I'd just buy a box of Pop Tarts or cereal and pretty much eat the same thing every day until I ran out. Lunches tended to be sandwiches or other simple meals, or leftovers from the previous day. For dinners, I tried to work in more filling items, side dishes, and vegetables.

I would start out by putting in a few meals that I could make with the food I already had on hand. I paid close attention to when things were set to expire and making sure to use those items up first. And then I would come up with new things to fill in the rest of the spaces.

I tended to stick to one main protein for each week. I could get several meals out of a pound of ground meat or a pack of chicken strips, and those were usually the most expensive things on my list.

Once I had filled in all the spaces for the week, I would start adding whatever I needed to buy to my shopping list. My meals were all pretty simple, and I didn't really try many new-to-me things, so it was easy to just do this part mentally, without help from written recipes. If the list looked short for a particular week, I would throw in one or two "splurge" items - one week I got some cookie dough, another week I got some sour cream and onion soup mix to make dip. I also tried to keep some snacks around, so I would add those to the list if I was getting low, and I bought a new half-gallon of milk every week.

And that's pretty much it! I went shopping once a week and tried not to purchase food at any other times, although I will admit that there were plenty of instances in which I ignored my plans and went out to eat with friends! But mostly, I tried my best to stick to the plan, so that I could stick to my budget.

Some of my favorite meals I made this summer:
  • rice dressing (rice and ground meat), cornbread, and steamed vegetables
  • breakfast tacos (with eggs, bacon, cheese, and salsa)
  • cheese quesadillas (with refried beans and salsa)
  • nachos (taco meat, refried beans, and cheese)
  • grilled cheese and tomato soup

I also made a lot of pasta and many, many ham or peanut butter sandwiches. Overall, I'm really happy with how organized I was able to be with this stuff. It helped keep my budget (and my money-related anxiety) under control, and I also felt like I was able to eat decently, even though this was my first time truly being on my own.

Do you meal-plan? What's your system like?


Beth Burleson Swartz said...

My situation is different than yours--I have 2 college age kids that are in and out--but I use Allrecipes.com to plan my menu and list. There are some good menus based on using leftovers, and with trial and error you can learn to eat well, and healthy, and stay on a budget. :)

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