Family meal planning basics

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I remember my mom working really hard to plan meals. She had to stay within a really tight grocery budget and going out to eat back then was always a treat, never an automatic option. Needless to say, I don't have those same skills. So I had to set out to learn the basics about meal planning.

Watch the segment now

Meal planning is taking the time each week to literally plan out what your family is going to eat. It can really save you money on food and also can result in healthier meals. All the money-saving experts recommend it as a key component in a goal to spending less on groceries. Most say it will take you about one and a half hours to 2 hours or so to plan out a week's meals. The more you do it the better you'll get at it and it'll probably take you less time than that. Plus, after you get a few weeks of menus under your belt, you can start re-using the ones that worked out.

Meal planning tools

Okay, not really tools! But have these items on hand - favorite cookbooks, the weekly food ads, post-it notes and any coupons (if you use them.)

The meal planning technique

Everyone recommended either printing out from the computer or making your own menu-planning calendar. It's really easy to make one like the one I used on the show. I found a really flexible, but good one at . You can just download and print - it's simple - just type in meal planner when you get to the site and it'll give you a couple of printing options.

Otherwise, just make a grid with meals, days of the week and include a place for "prep for tomorrow," notes and a shopping list. That way all of your needs are on one piece of paper.

First using a big X, just mark out any days or meals that you know you won't be cooking - sports game nights, pizza nights, going to friends or family etc.

Now just start thinking about what you want to make for various meals for the upcoming week. Use the weekly ads to spur thinking about possible recipes that can be made up of on-sale merchandise. Plus, think about using leftovers, or re-working leftovers. Also, look at what you have in your pantry and also any coupons you have. As you plan a meal, be sure to check out your pantry and freezer and only put what you need to purchase on that shopping list.

As you think of a meal or even a specific recipe, use the post-its to mark it in the cookbook where it is found. I also write the book and page for recipes I'll be using on the back of my meal-planning calendar. Then just keep that stack of books or recipes nearby for the week's cooking.

In the Notes section, just write any reminders you'll need. Maybe sales, meal requests, anything like that. In the Prep section - make note of how to package the leftovers for their next use, things that need to be made for the following day, what to take out to be defrosted for the next day or even marinades and such that can help the next day.

Keep adding to that shopping list and get ready to scoot to the store.

Meal planning shopping tips

There were two shopping tips that really relate to meal planning. Number one - if you can, go without the kids. They can add many dollars to your grocery bill if you have weak willpower like myself.

And secondly, go to the store once a week, use items in your pantry and if you use a lot of fresh veggies, fruits etc. Plan a mid-week grocery trip, again with a list, to only pick up fresh ingredients needed for the end of the week.

Meal planning recipe hunt

There is a whole new dynamic for finding recipes these days - one that our mom's didn't have access to - the internet. I know I'm pulling many more recipes from online sources these days than cookbooks.

And these websites are unique in solving a really common problem - when you have an odd collection of ingredients in your home that you don't quite know what to do with. Check out these websites that allow you to simply type in a couple of ingredients that you have on hand and then you can find a list of recipes that can be made with those ingredients. It'll also tell you any ingredients that you need to purchase.

Related meal planning links

> (Free but you'll need to register)

> (Again you'll have to register)

Also, of course check out the

This habit of meal planning can really save big bucks. Especially if you've be pretty random in your cooking plan like I have. And one final tip. When a week is finished, keep your meal plans in a folder or binder so that you can do what I mentioned and start reusing the plan. Let's try to do this together - they say it takes about 6 weeks to make a habit stick - so don't give up too soon. It'll pay off!

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