Meal Planning 101: How I learned to plan, shop, and save

I had to learn how to really stick to a budget while I was in college. That meant I couldn’t go out to eat whenever I wanted, so I learned to cook. But learning to cook also meant learning how to shop and plan for what I was going to eat for the week. However, I soon learned shopping on a budget was not as easy  as I thought. The tips below are things I’ve learned over the last few years that help me save money and time. I wish I could go back and give this list to my college self, but since I can’t do that, I am giving it to you!

Find a grocery store…

1. Pick a grocery store based on location, quality of service/food, and how good their sales are.

I loved Publix while I was in college, but there is not a Publix in Charlotte. So, I started shopping at Harris Teeter because it was close to me. Harris Teeter, like Publix, puts items use regularly on sale. Plus, Harris Teeter will double any coupons less than $1. Location is important because you don’t want to have to drive 20 minutes each week to get to the store. It saves time and gas money if it’s close.

2. Once you pick a store, find out when their sales ad begins and ends each week.

I schedule my meal planning and shopping around this.

3. Sign up for their online rewards program if they have one as well as their normal rewards program.
Harris Teeter gives you extra discounts with their online e-Vic program. For example, this week you can get a dozen eggs for $1.37 (regular price: $1.89) if you have a VIC card. But if you are an e-Vic member too you get a dozen eggs for $ 0.97! You also get access to online store coupons that you can use on top of regular coupons. I know Bi-Lo has a similar system.

4. Buy a Sunday paper.
This is where the most of my savings come from. There are usually coupon ads from SmartSource, RedPlum, or P&G in the paper each week. I am planning on subscribing to the Sunday paper to make it less expensive.

5. Use a coupon website to help you match sale items with available coupons.
I love! She does coupon match-ups to almost every grocery store! This is really helpful and saves a lot of time. If you aren’t familiar with the site she has a tutorial that teaches you how to coupon and save!

Now for the actually meal planning….

1. Cook on sale

I look through the store sales ad and Southern Savers ad to see what is on sale each week. Then I plan my menu around sale items.  I look for sales on items that are the most expensive or items that I use a lot. Also, know what you (& your significant other or family) like to eat! This will keep you from wasting food and will narrow down recipe ideas.


  • Meat is expensive so I plan meals based on what meat is on sale.
  • Once I have my proteins/meats picked out I find recipes that include that meat and have minimal or staple ingredients.
  • Then I look at the produce and grocery items that are on sale. For example, if chicken breasts and brown rice are both on sale I will try to find a recipe that includes both of them and has minimal ingredients. I usually try to make sure 3-4 ingredients in a recipe are on sale to cut costs.
  • Once you have a main dish planned, look for simple side dishes. This can be a vegetable, pasta, rice or whatever you think would go well with a main dish. I usually go for the produce that is on sale ( I bought broccoli this week and plan to roast it). Frozen vegetables are good choices too and they usually go on sale pretty often. Rice is pretty inexpensive so I try to incorporate that into weekly meal plans.


  • Once you plan your dinner meals think about lunches . We normally take sandwiches (can’t go wrong with PB&J) or leftovers for lunch. Look for items like bread, deli meat, and condiments on sale because this will help you keep down costs. If you are cooking for yourself or one other person dinner leftovers are a great idea for lunch. Sometimes I cook extra so we will already have lunch made!


  • For breakfast: oatmeal, cereal, or english muffins are our main choices. I stock up when these items go on sale because we eat them so much. All of these items keep very well in the pantry or freezer so you don’t have to worry about them going bad. My  husband really likes bacon and sausage (who doesn’t?), so I grab these items when they are on sale because they are more expensive. Also, bisquick is very versatile. You can make pancakes with it or use in a dinner dish.


  • These are the last things that make it onto my lists because they aren’t the most important.
  • We eat apples a lot so I normally buy apples that are on sale. Bananas are also inexpensive and make a great snack.
  • Yogurt is another top snack item. I can usually find a brand on sale or find a coupon for it (sometimes both).
  • Popcorn, pretzels, cheese, nuts, etc also make good snacks and they usually go on sale.
  • I usually buy ingredients to make desserts because it is less expensive than buying pre-made ones and you can use the ingredients in other dishes.

Food Staples:

  • These items include: milk, eggs, bread, flour, sugar, oil, grits, oats, canned tomatoes, canned beans, rice, pasta etc. I stock up when staples go on sale because you normally have to pay full price for them.
  • Milk is hard to stock up on but brands like Horizon and Smart Balance last longer. Smart Balance usually puts out coupons so I can get a half gallon for $1-$1.50. A normal half gallon of store brand milk costs 2.60+ and will expire much sooner.
  • At Harris Teeter they usually have one brand of bread for buy 1 get 1 free each week. I use bread every day so if I can get a good price on bread and find a coupon for it, I am one happy girl!

2. Look for items on sale that can be used in multiple dishes.

  • This really helps to cut costs because you reduce the number/variety of ingredients you have to buy. This really helps when you are planning on using fresh produce. Produce expires fairly quickly and is more expensive than shelf stable ingredients.
  • For example: I see that green bell peppers are on sale for $0.69 each and a 3lb bag of onions is on sale for $1.99. I will try to plan out more than one meal that uses both ingredients. Two recipes that come to mind are chili and fajitas. These are both great low cost meals that use green bell peppers and onions. This helps me cut waste and spend less!

Now for the shopping….

1. Stick to your list!

  • Once you plan out a list gather all the coupons to go with it. Take your list and coupons to the store. Now, stick to your list! You will save by not reaching for that extra item that you didn’t plan to buy.
  • I find it helpful to write down the price of an item next to it so I can add up my total before I shop. This helps me stay on budget!

2. Don’t tune-out while you check-out!

  • Sometimes, items don’t ring up at the sale price. By keeping a watchful eye at the register you avoid paying full price.
  • Don’t forget your coupons. I always hand mine to the cashier so I don’t forget them and he/she doesn’t forget to scan them.

3. Make one trip

  • I pick one day out of the week to do my grocery shopping. I know if I go to the store mulitple times a week I will spend more money because I am more likely to buy things I don’t need.
  • Shopping once saves you time.
  • Sometimes I go to two grocery stores if they are both having great sales…but only if the sales are too good to miss!

Now for the cooking…

1. Know your schedule

  • Don’t plan a more complicated meal on a really busy day. On Wednesdays, we have about 1 hour to prep, cook, eat, and clean-up. I plan to make the quickest meal on this day. I usually have extra time on the weekends so this is when I try new recipes or cook ones that require more time.

2. Find recipes that are easy, but equally tasty.

  • This will save you time during the week and ensure food doesn’t go to waste!
  • Have go-to recipes. I keep a little file of recipes that I use multiple times each month. This helps me plan quickly. I also already know the steps and how long each take.

3. Write down comments about the meal after you cook it.

  • This helps me to avoid cooking something again, that we didn’t care for the first time.
  • If you develop a tip or trick while cooking the meal write it down so you can use it next time.
  • Write down if it was good for leftover or froze well.
  • Write down any changes/substitutions you made to the recipe and if it worked well.

I hope you find this helpful. I know meal planning and cooking can seem daunting, but it gets easier the more you do it!

Finding joy in feeding those I love,

The Southern Bee