Meal Planning Strategy – You’re Probably Doing it Backwards

When you’re creating a meal plan, most people start with “what am I going to cook this week”, or “what recipes do I want to make”.


Lots of folks fall into the trap of starting their meal planning process by thinking about what they’re going to make this week or what their family wants to eat.  This is an important step, but this is actually one of the LAST steps!

My recommendation to clients is to start meal planning by looking at what you already have. I mean, you spent the money already and gave this stuff a home, it’s time to use it!  My meal planning strategy starts like this:

  • Fridge inventory (the most perishable items) – decide what needs to be used up ASAP, what condiments/sauces/extras can be used to add flavour and variety?
  • Freezer inventory (I want to clear out space for more meal prep, sale meats, quick meals, etc), what do I have that can supplement my fridge items?
  • Pantry inventory – I use pantry staples to fill in the blanks on the meal plan, and ensure that I have quick items available in case I need them for those days when I just don’t feel like cooking (for example, pasta + sauce + can of beans = super fast meal in a pinch).
  • Other foods (eg breads and “countertop foods”) inventory – these usually go quickly because they’re within sight but still need to be accounted for so you don’t end up with an entire bunch of bad bananas or loaf of mouldy bread that you forgot about.
  • Take a look at sales and loyalty points – I want to maximize my dollars, so I’ll try to use things
  • Build meals and recipes using mostly what I already have
  • What’s missing – once I put the pieces together and find out what’s missing, I start building my grocery list

My goal is to use up as much stuff in the fridge as possible, supplement with items that have been in the freezer for a while or are taking up a lot of valuable space in there, and maintain a good inventory of quick and easy pantry staples to make a meal in a flash.

So let’s say that my inventory looks like this…

  • Fridge: leftover rotisserie chicken, milk, eggs, onions, potatoes, shredded cheese, ½ jar of salsa, various veggies nearing the end of their prime (let’s say peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes and zucchini)
  • Freezer: frozen shrimp, frozen peas and corn, frozen fruit, a pack of ground beef
  • Other: ½ loaf of bread, a few bananas

I’m already starting to think that I could make…

  • Shepherd’s pie with ground beef, frozen peas and corn, mashed potatoes
  • Banana stuffed French toast
  • Smoothies with the frozen fruit and milk
  • Tex mex chicken bowl with leftover roasted chicken, shredded cheese, salsa, sauteed zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, onion (add rice from pantry, if available also add black beans)
  • Stir fried shrimp and veggies (add rice or noodles from the pantry, and maybe I can make a stir fry sauce from various condiments in the fridge/pantry)

I’ve already filled up almost half of my week’s meal plan, and likely don’t even need to go to the store for any extra items to make these meals. And I only looked in the fridge and freezer – if I added my pantry inventory (assuming it’s well-stocked with dried or canned protein choices as well), I could probably add a few more meals here without having to spend a single extra penny or even make a grocery list.

Take inventory first

Let’s take a look first at the fridge and freezer. They’re often packed to the doors with goodies that you can use to plan your meals quickly as well, and, also packed with things that you definitely aren’t going to use anytime soon (or, shouldn’t use if it’s expired!).  Have you ever looked at that super full fridge and still say “I don’t know what to make for dinner”?  Before you order Uber eats, take a look at your fridge and freezer inventory.  A well-stocked fridge, freezer, and pantry will give you all the tools you need to pull together a quick and nutritious meal on those days when you just aren’t feeling it.  Some of my go-to “emergency” meals (the emergency being: I don’t feel like cooking today) include:

  • Grilled cheese sandwiches (if I have spinach and/or roasted red peppers available I toss those in too. Makes it feel bougie and also adds veggies that my kid will actually eat because it’s packaged in a grilled cheese!)
  • Omelette or scrambled eggs (again, I throw in whatever veggies I have on hand in there – peppers, mushrooms, frozen or fresh greens, broccoli…)
  • Pasta with whatever I can muster up on top. This might include tomato sauce (I like to throw in frozen pureed red lentils for protein and extra fibre, and a handful of whatever veggies are on hand. If I thought far enough ahead to have frozen meatballs available, even better), butter and parm with frozen peas and canned tuna, or olive oil with tomatoes and veggies (I’d toss in a can of chickpeas or leftover chicken if I had it as well).

Whenever I do a pantry cleanout, I’m always shocked at how much stuff I have accumulated that ends up getting forgotten about.  It also reminds me about the tasty items and potential for delicious recipes hanging out right at arm’s reach that I can use to make healthy and satisfying meals!

What will you find in your fridge, freezer and cupboards? Use my FREE Pantry, Fridge, and Freezer Inventory worksheets to assess what you’ve already got, and make room for some helpful staples to go in.  When you know what’s inside, you’ll be better equipped to build meals with lots of variety and healthy choices.

Looking for more help to build your family’s meal plan?  I’m here to help!  Book your FREE 15 minute discovery call today to see how I can help your family to feel more confident in the kitchen.


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