There are a variety of ways to meal plan. I'll give you a few ideas, and then tell you what I do and why. Maybe you're already a pro meal-planner. If so, you're doing way better than I am: way to go! But keep reading anyway; maybe I can provide some ideas and hints for you, too.
Meal Planner #1: The "What looks good?" Shopper
This person goes to the grocery store without a set plan--maybe without a shopping list--and buys whatever food looks good and what they feel like eating. Later, they'll make meals out of what ends up in their fridge.
This is the most expensive way to shop: without a plan or list. If you have an unlimited grocery budget, and if this sounds like you and it works for you, great! Do what works best for you and your family. But with just a little planning, you could save money at the grocery store and have a game plan for future meals--both great things.
Meal Planner #2: The Coupon-Clipper
This person buys groceries based on what they can get 50 cents off, two-for-one, or free with purchase of ___. While this person might end up spending less money than their fellow shoppers, they'll probably end up with a cart of food that's not easily made into a week's worth of meals.
A knack for couponing is best when combined with some planning. Use coupons for the items you normally buy anyway--that's the best way to save money.
Meal Planner #3: The Cookbook-Peruser
This person sits down with a stack of cookbooks each week, picks out recipes they want to try, and then makes a shopping list based on the ingredients they'll need to make those recipes. While this is a wise method of planning, it can end up being expensive depending on what ingredients a recipe calls for. However, for someone who likes having clear directions to follow when cooking, or who doesn't have a lot of experience cooking, this method can be very helpful and time-saving.
Meal Planner #4: The List-Maker
This person writes out their grocery list first, filling it with basic ingredients that can be used for a variety of recipes. Then they figure out what meals can be made with the food they buy, and write a meal plan with those meals. This can be the cheapest way to shop, but it can be tricky to figure out meals based on what's in the fridge and pantry.
I'm most like Meal Planner #4, with a little bit of the others thrown in. I have a "recipe repertoire" of about 40 dishes (covering all 3 meals) that I can make with some basic ingredients. I get those basics every time I shop, and I can make quite a variety of things with the food I try to keep handy. I also don't buy much at all of pre-packed foods--I buy more ingredients than ready-to-eat items. To give you an idea, here's what a "typical" grocery list for me might look like:
- frozen broccoli
- frozen green beans
- brown sugar
- baking soda
- macaroni noodles
- canned tomatoes
- tomato sauce
- 2 cans tuna
- 10 lbs frozen chicken quarters
- 2 lbs ground beef
- 4 lbs tilapia fillets
- barbecue sauce
- ice cream
I don't always buy all these things, because some things only need to be bought once a month or less. Things that last us quite a while are, for example, honey, spices, onions, tea, coffee, cocoa, vanilla, etc. Right now people keep giving us fresh produce and herbs from their gardens, which is great because I've been able to buy less plus I'm getting things I don't normally buy, like fresh parsley and basil.
My point is, with the things I do buy and usually have on hand I can create a lot of different meals. I have a mental list of what I can make and looking at my grocery list I know what meals can come out of it. This is the easiest way for me to keep to a budget, because I don't have to buy fancy ingredients for new recipes, and I can spend about the same every shopping trip because I get basically the same things each time. That's not to say I don't ever use my cookbooks, but I use them more as reference books. If I want to make something specific, I'll look up a recipe for it so I know how to make it.
This is what works with me. I realize everyone has a different lifestyle, budget, and eating preferences, so what works with me might not work with you. But I hope I've given you some ideas that will be useful and might help you save some money.
What kind of meal-planner are you? What method works best for you and your cooking style?