Easy meal plan structure with free printables!

If you know me, you know I have a love-hate relationship with cooking. The fact that I'm about to have my 3rd kid in 3 years…it's definitely more hate, than love right now.
Whether you love to cook or not, it's one of the easiest ways to either
A) spend your family into oblivion, or
B) save your family thousands throughout the years.

I have nailed down some super simple tips and tricks when it comes to meal planning in my own home, and thought I'd share them with you in case it helps solve some of YOUR dinner budget dilemmas, too!Here's a TV segment I did recently for Studio 5 highlighting my favorite Dinner Budget Dilemma solutions.


Click HERE to watch the video online, or simply click and watch it below:

Easy Meal Planning Ideas to Solve Your Dinner Budget Dilemmas
Single, Student, or Working Professional
DINNER BUDGET DILEMMA: I have no time to cook between working and social life, so I tend to eat out/buy food on the go, which really adds up.
  • Crock-pot, crock-pot, crock-pot!
  • Every week just choose two or three meals to cook, and focus on the crockpot as your main tool. Toss the food in the crockpot before work or class, set it on low, and 8 hours later you have a hot meal ready and waiting for you when you come home.
  • This will encourage you to come home to the food that is cooking (don't want to burn your house down, do you??) rather than run through the drive-through after a long day.
  • If you have roommates, rotate days where you cook for the whole house. That way you have a home-cooked meal every night, but only have to cook 1 or 2 times per week. This will help lessen your grocery bill as well.
  • Schedule time to eat out into your week. Let's be realistic here, people! If you schedule in dinner or lunch with friends 1 or 2 times each week, you'll be able to keep it to a reasonable minimum rather than trying to deprive yourself of eating out and being miserable while your friends all go out without you. No bueno!
  • Dinner idea: Toss chicken breasts (frozen is just fine!) in the crockpot, dump BBQ sauce over it (no need to measure!), cook 8 hours on low, and shred and eat on buns or eat whole with rice or veggies. BBQ chicken in 30 seconds! Other ideas: Baked potatoes in the crock pot, crockpot salsa chicken, or taco soup.
Parent of Young Children
DINNER BUDGET DILEMMA: “By the end of the day I'm so exhausted and my young kids are so cranky, I just don't have the energy to cook, or I look at the clock and it's already 5pm and we need dinner ASAP. So we go for expensive frozen meals or order pizza.”
  • Plan your meals at least 1 week in advance, keep the plan on your fridge where you can see it. Use our printables below and laminate them for ease.
  • Only go to the store 1x per week…no matter what!
  • Price-match at Walmart to cut down on exhausting grocery trips (see how I do all this HERE).
  • When you buy meat, cook it up and freeze it pre-cooked to help speed up the dinner process (ground beef and chicken especially).
  • Set a “theme” for each day of the week. Ex: Monday = Mexican. Tuesday = Tuscan. Wednesday = Chicken, etc. This will make coming up with what's for dinner much easier.
  • Don't go to bed until you know what you're going to make the next day, and take the meat out of the freezer the night before. Use your phone to help you with this; whether it's setting a calendar reminder, or simply keeping a meal list. I like the free app Evernote for making lists.
  • Prep dinner as early as you can in the day so that by dinner time your cooking process is quick and painless.
  • When you cook, double the recipe and freeze 1/2 so you have a stockpile of go-to meals for those extra busy days.
  • Dinner idea: Anything that can be baked in a 9×13 pan (casseroles, lasagna, baked pastas, chicken and rice, etc.). This usually means it can be prepped as early as the night before, and 9×13's are easy to freeze…just stick the lid on, freeze, then pop in the oven – still frozen – when you need a quick meal.
House Full of Teenagers
DINNER BUDGET DILEMMA: “These teenagers eat me out of house and home! My meal budget has tripled, especially when they invite their friends over!”
  • Stock up when things go on sale!
  • Each week plan your meals around what's on sale that week. You can look at store ads that come in the mail (only take note of the front and back pages, the middle isn't worth your time). OR…I prefer to use Deals to Meals because they do it all for you, you can print your shopping list right from the website, and they create meal plans each week that are centered around the items that are on sale that week. It's genius!
  • When there's a good deal, stock up like crazy. Stick the excess in the pantry or freezer so you don't have to run to the store and pay top-dollar every time you need to cook a meal.
  • Budget: $100 per person per month, including toiletries. Set the budget and stick with it! It will force you to focus on cheaper (but still healthy) meals. You can do it, I promise!!! (see how HERE, see how I track that budget HERE)
  • Keep an inventory of what's in your pantry and freezer so you use up what you have before running to the store. See our printables below to help you with this.
  • Dinner idea: Stick to “filler” meals that break down and serve lots of people. Ex: rather than serve everyone single chicken breasts for dinner, chop up chicken breasts and make a stir fry filled with veggies and rice. It will stretch your meat farther, which tends to be the most expensive part of a meal.
DINNER BUDGET DILEMMA: “Now that I'm cooking for just two again, I find myself wasting so much food because we just can't seem to eat it all! We get sick of eating the same leftovers day after day and end up throwing it away. I'm still in the habit of cooking for a big family!”
  • Plan your meals 1 week in advance, and use your leftovers to go toward the next meal. That way you'll use every drop of the food you cook, but you won't notice you're “repurposing” it.
  • When you cook, freeze half so you can have a future meal and keep serving sizes smaller.
  • Use allrecipes.com and search for recipes by ingredient to help you use up what you have. You can also adjust serving size in each recipe and it will automatically adjust to scale it down, if you don't want to make a large meal and freeze the excess.
  • Avoid buying bulk, stick with sale items at smaller stores. We all love Costco, but you'll probably end up wasting more than you save.
  • Dinner idea: Monday night: Rotisserie chicken and potatoes. Tuesday: Use the same chicken, but serve it over rice and pour a creamy sauce over it. Wednesday: Use the same rotisserie leftovers, but chop it up and make chicken enchiladas, and add taco seasoning to the rice to make mexican rice.

Everyone can use all of these tips at ANY stage of life, but hopefully this helps solve some of your sticky dinner budget dilemmas.

Here are some great printables to help!
To download this 2-week meal planner click HERE
To download this monthly meal planner, click HERE.
*Note: At the bottom, set a “theme” for each day of the week. Ex: Monday = Mexican. Tuesday = Italian. Wednesday = Chicken. It will help narrow down your “what should I make…” choices!
To download this freezer inventory click HERE
To download this pantry inventory tracker click HERE
To download this meal planning grocery list, click HERE
See a few of my favorite easy recipes HERE,
and a huge list of 100+ “what to make for dinner?!” ideas HERE.

Remember, grocery shopping/cooking/eating is one of the simplest ways to either SPEND a ton, or SAVE a ton for your family. The decision is yours, do the right thing and be wise with your meals. Good luck! 🙂


  1. I'm having a problem downloading the free pintables. It's says it's an error in google docs. Can you check your end? I'm anxious to use them. Thanks for the great tips.

  2. Oh! These are awesome! I already follow a lot of your ideas, but these printables are just fantastic. We are big crockpot users because there are times when I can't be home for dinner and my husband is in charge of that meal. Again, thanks so much for your printables and advice!

  3. This is great! I love the pintables (esp. the freezer invenory…I'm constantly losing food in the back…lol)!

  4. Thanks for the printables! I like to take a few weekends a year and make a ton of crock pot meals that I can freeze and later use. This makes it difficult budget wise, because you're buying a ton of food for use through different months, but maybe it can be built in during a shorter month. If I have a crock pot meal that has a shorter cooking time, or I know my day will be longer than my meals needs to cook, then I plug my crock pot into a timer (they sell them really cheap at Christmas for your lights). I set my crock pot to low and then just program that timer for when I want it to come on and shut off!

  5. I work all day and have a 4 year old. She is starving as soon as I pick her up, and has a hard time waiting for dinner. I give her veggies or fruit to snack on while I prepare dinner. She’s happy and I’m getting good nutrients into her before she fills up on bread or pasta. Sometimes I’ll even cook dinner the night before, and all I have to do is heat it up.

  6. These are great! Just what I need! One question, what are the circles used for on the pantry inventory sheet?



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