Meal Planning: a Pain in the Ass, but Worth It.


I embarked on the complex process of figuring out how to feed myself as an 18-year-old living on my own for the first time in an apartment in south central LA. From ingredients. From groceries. That I bought, myself. With my own money. Sort of.

By some measures, south central LA is a food desert. It certainly was when I was stranded, car-less, in student housing with no student food plan. And even in my second semester when I was able to work out a way to pay the exorbitant monthly parking fees associated with living in any urban area of Southern California, taking a trip to the grocery store (a bare-bones IGA situation about 3 miles from my apartment) proved to be a 3-hour long affair. Three hours, because:

  1. Driving 3 miles on surface streets in LA is a brand of hell that should be reserved for, like, despotic rulers and the people who park at the Pannikin in Encinitas (Pro Tip: don’t Google “worst people on the planet.” I hate my species right now.)
  2. I was 18 and, by default, a moron.
  3. No one had ever taught my moron-ass how to grocery shop, meal plan, or budget for such endeavors.

Even as an actual adult I was still averse to going to the grocery store. I’ve decided in retrospect it was because it reminded me of feeling like a jackass with no direction or plan. And the end result often left me with no actual food. Or else a ton of rotting ingredients shoved to the back of my fridge. So I did what I do: I developed a few systems to help me navigate the grocery store, many of them based on parts of my home management pilgrimage (thanks FlyLady – why does purple have to be your spirit color?).

Grocery Shopping Flowchart

Let’s take a look at some groceries-acquisitions strategies – we’ll call it: “What the Hell Are We Doing About Food in this House?”

These days, because my husband and I have decided to commit to whacking the crap out of the chunk of debt we’ve amassed (because we’re middle-class Americans, and it’s what we do best — amassing, that is, not whacking), we are cooking almost exclusively and avoiding prepared foods as best as we can. But as soon as I can justify it financially, you’d better believe I’m signing up for a meat- and dairy-inclusive CSA box, supplemented with trips to my local fancy-ass butcher and fish-monger, and that every artisanal handcrafted whatever-the-hell vendor at the farmer’s market is going to know me by my inner-circle-only nickname.

Where are you at in your grocery-acquisition strategy season of life? Be honest with yourself – have you been lying to yourself about how you’re totally going to go to the grocery store, but your job and traffic have you so drained by the end of the day that you just can’t do it? If you’re sending yourself to the poor house ordering decent takeout night after night, it may be more cost-effective to get an ingredients delivery service and cook for yourself, because realistically you aren’t going to get to the grocery store with enough regularity for it to count in your budget.

Or maybe you’re like me, and have WAY more time than cash. My grocery shopping strategy is a lean, well-oiled machine involving no fewer than 5 stores and little more than $5. Just kidding. I live in Southern California – I spend WAAAAAAY more than that on food. But less than you’d think. Because I’m poor. In a Southern California way. Which is to say I’m a female sultan by most standards.

But life is frequently going to lean this way: more time often means less money, and vice-versa. Be real about your actual, current life situation, and pick the best strategy for where you are today. You might even grocery shop for a few days, and rely on a prepared option for the rest – a move that can save you from having to clean out a fridge full of decomposing best intentions. Once you have a strategy in place, you can start tweaking it to save time and/or money. But just focusing on and committing to a plan based on real-life circumstances is a necessary step.

Download the What the Hell Are We Doing About Food in This House Flowchart below and follow it to see what your relationship with the grocery store should really be.

Weekly Meal Planning

This is it, kids. This is the silver bullet. Meal planning saves time in the long run, blah, blah… duh. But for real, it does. It’s magic. Just do it.

Download my What the Hell Are We Doing About Dinner in This House Spreadsheet below – not that you couldn’t make this yourself. It’s just that I know you won’t. Because spreadsheets are like the smell of gasoline or newsprint. Some of us hate them… and some of us know we should hate them, but we LOVE them. Don’t act like you don’t know exactly what I’m talking about.

Use the “1-Week Meal Planning” tab: enter your meal ideas at the bottom, and grocery list for these meals in the top portion of the sheet. BONUS POINTS for arranging it according to the actual aisles of your local grocery stores, and making lists for each store on its own dedicated spreadsheet. I’ve provided an example sheet in case none of this rambling is making any sense to you.

Just print out a whack of them and throw them on the fridge for maximum accessibility, divided by store with a post-it or a book dart (those things are sick, trust me – not an affiliate link, I’m just a nerd). Then fill one out in the evenings while watching Real Housewives of Pawtucket on 2x play so you can get it all in before your husband gets out of the shower and catches you watching that shit.

Use familiar recipes that please everyone in your family. You’re creating a meal-planning neuron trench in your brain at the moment. Now is not the time to also undertake healthier eating/training the kids on exotic foods/learning foreign cooking methods. Baby-step it out, folks.

6-Week Meal Planning

Alright, so let’s say you’ve used the meal planning spreadsheet for a few weeks and survived the process, and maybe you’re seeing enough of the benefits of planning that you’re sort of starting to like this system, and it’s actually making your life… easier.


Clearly, then, you need more! Move on to the “6-Week Meal Plan” tab of the spreadsheet and go bananas.

I found that one of the blocks I had to making a weekly meal plan was simply coming up with the stupid ideas for the dumb recipes. So I’d throw a tiny tantrum and chuck my yellow pencil, deciding I’d just wing the next trip to the grocery store. And I’d come crawling back a few weeks later, guts all backed up from consecutive meals consisting of tortillas and cheese in various formations, and work through the pain to get back on track. Then, somewhere on the internet someone mentioned their 6-week meal rotation. DUH. Because this isn’t a freaking Michellin 3-star rated culinary institution, and the rugrats and hubs will eat repeat meals without a whisper of complaint. And, dammit, so will I if it saves my sanity. And by sanity, I mean colon.

Commando Mode

After going a full 6-week rotation using your weekly meal-planning spreadsheet, in combination with your 6-week meal overview, and especially if you went the extra mile and set it up so it reflects your local grocery store’s layout, you’ll be ready to try Commando Mode.

I employ Commando Mode when I burn out on having my shit so pristinely together all the time. Har har. Commando Mode respects the principles of meal planning and budgeting, but can be employed when life gets away from you and meal planning falls to the bottom of your priorities. Because, who gives a shit what’s for dinner when your babies have decided 4am is a reasonable time to wake for the day for 3 days straight? Or what do you do if you’ve been blessed with someone else offering to do the shopping for you and you have to come up with a plan, STAT, or lose the opportunity all together? The What the Hell Are We Doing About Dinner in This House Flowchart shows when Commando Mode can be put into effect, and how to do it.

And that, my lovelies, is it.

There’s a pin on my Home Ec Pinterest board that makes my system here look like an attempt at meal planning in the margins of the Penny Saver with one of those fat toddler crayons. But, dude, that’s exactly what makes sticking to this shit a vague possibility. And it doesn’t matter if you fall off the wagon. You will. You will recommit to menu planning nine-thousand times in your adult life. And that is okay. It’s likely an entry in the “Things You Wish Weren’t True About Yourself” column of life. But if you were to prioritize that column, “Keeps Fucking Up at Menu Planning” is going to fall way, way down near the bottom. Right? Damn skippy.


Now go print this shit out. Meal plan all over it with a toddler crayon. And tell your inner 18-year-old moron stranded in a food desert that with a little practice and just a few falls from the wagon, it’s all going to be just fine.




P.S. What does meal planning look like in your household? Any strategies to share? Any insights about grocery-store trauma from your developmental years? Drop me a comment below – I always want to hear from you!

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