This post was written in collaboration with our friends at Plan To Eat —an app many of us on the YNAB team have been using for years to help save money on groceries.
If there’s one category in the budget that sometimes turns into an unwieldy monster, it’s groceries. It’s a tough category to rein in—don’t we know! That’s why you might be surprised that there’s a simple practice that will help you gain quite a bit of control in this area.
Two simple words come up over and over when you’re trying to throttle grocery spending: meal planning. There’s a reason you hear about it so often—it holds water! As a general rule, anything that you organize and manage deliberately is going to run better—and that means meal planning. But meal planning has gotten a bit of a bad rap with a few myths that have popped up around this practice. We’ll debunk those real quick and introduce you to a tool many of us here at YNAB use to help with meal planning.
4 Myths of Meal Planning
Myth #1: You have to plan every meal.
Truth: You do not.
Meal planning doesn’t have to include every single breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, or late-night ice cream run. I for one, am cooking for one person. Breakfast and lunch are fairly consistent for me, so I focus on planning for dinner. I cook two dinners a week and eat leftovers. Sound magical? It is! And remember, no matter your family size, you can cook fewer meals by planning for more leftovers.
Myth #2: Meal planning is tedious.
Truth: It doesn’t have to be.
It can be a loose plan of four or five meals you’ll make at some point next week. The other planned-but-unplanned dinners give you some wiggle room where you can eat leftovers when you don’t feel like cooking, and even build in a free pass to eating out if you know there’s a date night or dinner with friends coming up.
Myth #3: Meal planning is time consuming.
Truth: Meal planning saves time.
See point 2 above. Give yourself a break with meal planning—it can be pretty straight forward. Maybe you have two meals that stay in constant rotation: make them easy—like tacos or stir fry. These options come in endless combinations to keep you from getting bored. Now we’re down to just TWO meals that require creativity and brain power.
Here’s a sample weekly menu. It took me all of six minutes. The ones with an asterisk are the only ones that require extra brainpower to plan. And it’s flexible! Maybe Wednesday and Monday swap. Maybe you go out to eat on Friday instead of Saturday. Let your plan bend with your life.
- Monday*: sheet pan breakfast bake.
- Taco Tuesday: Beef. Chicken. Shrimp. Keep this on the weekly rotation. I’ve yet to meet a taco I don’t like.
- Wednesday*: Chili: Let that crockpot be your friend. Or, make it post-work in 45 minutes with an Instant pot recipe.
- Thursday: Leftover Chili. Reheat. Eat.
- Stir Fry-day: Keep staples on hand like rice, chicken, peppers, mushrooms, and sauce and you won’t even need a recipe. But if you do, here’s one to get your started.
- Saturday: Dinner with friends
- Sunday: Leftovers. Good thing you made so much stir fry!
Keep some tasty garnishes around like cilantro or cashews to give those leftovers some pizzazz you can get excited about.
Myth #4: Meal planning isn’t worth the effort
Truth: Meal planning can save a family of four $188 a month* on groceries.
If you haven’t given in to meal planning yet because of the effort, just come up against the reality—meal planning does save money. There’s a reason it keeps coming up in ways to slim down your grocery budget. Anytime you are spending without a plan you are likely to overspend. Awareness gives you information and information gives you power. Planning gives you control.
*A Plan to Eat customer survey in 2017 showed that meal planning reduced monthly food costs from $199 per person to $152 per person.
“But It’s Hard to Meal Plan!”
Part of the rub with meal planning is there are a lot of balls to keep in the air. You’ve got to pick recipes, assign them to days, then go through each recipe to make a big shopping list. Sometimes you reuse ingredients, sometimes you don’t!
Well, we found the app that took this giant headache and smoothed it out onto one single platform: Plan To Eat. It’s a meal-planning app, sure, but it does the heavy lifting of recipe tracking, planning meals, and making a shopping list all rolled into one. Seriously, meal time has never been less stressful. There’s a fair amount of us here at YNAB that could go on and on about the merits of this one little app.
“A few years ago, my family had a sudden reduction in our income. We had to cut our budget back to only the absolute necessities. Plan to Eat and YNAB together made a huge difference in my life around that time. I used YNAB to give every dollar a job, and I was able to maximize those dollars because I used Plan to Eat—along with sales ads—to make sure that I was getting the very best deals at the store.” – Blair, YNAB Support Team
“Being a budgeter as well, I love the ability to tag recipes with keywords. I have a tag “cheap” which reminds me of the less expensive recipes I can make when it’s the end of the month and my YNAB Groceries category is running low.” -Shannon, YNAB Support Team
I’ve been using Plan To Eat for four years. Here’s the basic gist of how it works (or the helpful video if that’s more your style):
- You add recipes to your account. They can be pulled from food blogs, websites, pinterest, or from cookbooks.
- You drag whatever recipes you want to plan onto the built in meal planning calendar.
- Plan to Eat looks at the ingredients of the recipes you’ve planned and turns them into a shopping list.
That looks pretty simple written out in a bullet list, but I have to tell you: This app is super powerful. There’s more features than I can mention here, but these are the biggest game changers:
Add Recipes in Bulk
You can add recipes yourself, one ingredient at a time. But the good folks at Plan To Eat know that’s tedious. So they’ve built in a few ways to add them.
My personal favorite feature is the Recipe Clipper. It’s an extension for Chrome. Look how sweet this is:
That’s it! I’m done. That meal goes straight to my recipe folder in Plan To Eat. It’s so simple! I use this feature more than anything else and can bookmark any recipe quickly.
“The first thing that I love about Plan to Eat is the ease at which it imports recipes. With the browser extension, you can quickly “clip” a recipe from any site or blog (and also skip the life story that accompanies so many recipes). If I see something that would appeal to my family I can quickly save it and access it later.” – Chrissy, YNAB Technical Support Manager
You can also friend people within the Plan To Eat system and grab recipes they’ve added, and import certain file types.
I have over 400 recipes stored on the site. I wish I could say I tried them all, but not yet. But I know where to find them quickly when I’m ready!
You can also rate recipes, add comments, scale them, categorize and tag recipes—you have a lot of control here.
“My favorite thing is that I got rid of all my paper recipes everywhere and most of my cookbooks. I sat down a couple years ago and entered/imported them all. Now if I ever wonder where my favorite recipe for pot pie is, I just search Plan to Eat.” – Jen, YNAB Support Team
Click-and-Drag Meal Planning
Once you have your library of recipes, you’re ready to create a meal plan. Just drag a recipe onto the calendar.
As one person cooking for one person, this feature is less critical for me. I typically cook two big meals for the week on Sunday and eat leftovers. But if I’m making something special, I use it because it will drop the ingredients onto the shopping list. This is AWESOME because it ensures that I won’t forget any ingredients when I go to the store.
Our team members who are feeding several people love the drag-and-drop meal planner.
Take Chrissy, for example, who plans her meals a month at a time and does the whole process from her kitchen counter. Wow!
A Consolidated Shopping List
I have three meals on my calendar, so all the ingredients now appear on my shopping list.
From here, you can:
- Change the date range. This screenshot shows a planning range of two weeks, but you can adjust that to one week or one month, whatever you need to match your grocery store jaunts.
- Manage stores. Yep, dreams come true. You can organize what ingredients you get at different stores. You don’t have to—if that feels too tedious (see myth #2), but you can if you want.
- Remove ingredients you have in stock. Your grocery list assumes nothing in the pantry. Before I head to the store, I quickly scan the list and delete anything I already have.
You can also view your list in the store on your mobile device.
“I love the shopping list feature on the mobile app. I can make a meal plan for the week, and then the shopping list is just automatically on my phone.” – Jen, YNAB Support Team
Fabulous, yes? So handy. Simply tap the item name to remove it from your list when you add the item to your cart.
“I use the grocery list and mobile app so I can easily access them while I’m shopping – which has been super helpful when the grocery store is sold out of a key item I need for the recipe, so I can just easily switch out the meal and update the grocery list while I’m out.” – Vida, YNAB Support Team
Start Saving Money on Groceries
Yup, I think this is a fantastic app, and so do many of our other folks here at YNAB. If you’re looking for a way to wrangle your grocery spending, it becomes as painless as possible with Plan to Eat. Check out their free 34-day trial to give it a whirl.