The Mechanic’s Guide to Meal Planning

almonds berries blackberries and pineapples in a bowl

Every day my routine around food was the same: I would come home exhausted and root around in the fridge, scrounging up something to tide me over. I ate a lot of frozen meals and huge plates of simple chicken and rice, but I knew this wasn’t healthy in the long run.

I talked to my friend about the conundrum and she shared her meal-planning system. She showed me her list on the fridge, neat little squares highlighted in different colors. I admired the diligence but wasn’t sure if it would work for me because I don’t like planning ahead.

I want to be able to say, “I feel like jambalaya today,” and then make jambalaya. Also, my handwriting is way too terrible for fridge-worthy meal plans. However, something had to change, so I decided to give it a shot. If scrawling out a plan for the week could reduce my waste and grocery bill, surely it was worth a bit of extra effort.

almonds berries blackberries and pineapples in a bowl
Could meal planning be the answer for us?

Four steps helped us set some goals, benchmark our spending, and make meal-planning happen. I sat down with Mr. Mechanic to map out our plan.

Set Meal Planning Goals

Here were our goals:

  • Reduce waste – Consumers in North America and Europe waste about 209 to 253 pounds of food per person every year. Have a purpose for everything you buy. It should be in our meal plan, otherwise, we do not need it.
  • Go to the grocery store less – when we started meal planning we shopped once a week. We wanted to cut this to once every two weeks. Shopping less doesn’t only save time, it also takes away the temptation to impulse buy.
  • Reduce meat consumption – reduce environmental impact on the planet, and make meat more of a treat than a meal must-have. This was a goal prior to meal planning, but planning our meals should make this line item easier!
  • Reduce grocery bill!

Benchmark Current Grocery Spending

In order to reduce spending, figure out how much you are spending now. I had no concept of whether we were spending a lot or a little on groceries before writing up this post. What is considered a “high” grocery bill? Are we in dangerous territory or is our spending in an acceptable range?

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports the average grocery bill for a female from 19-50 on a ‘thrifty’ budget spends $164 a month, a male will spend $185. So for our family of 2, I’ll compare our spending to the target of $350 per month. Check out the chart if you want to compare for your family.
  • According to the USDA, Americans spend around 6% of their budget on food on average. Dining out accounts for an additional 5% of their income.  That makes the average food budget 11% of one’s overall income.


Last year I lived in England for 6 months without Mr. Mechanic, so I can look at my bill completely separately over that time. I spent an average of $146 (£114) per month, where the average UK spending is $200-250 (£160-200) for one person.

Together, groceries and restaurants totaled 13.3% of all my expenses. I was lucky to live within walking distance of a Tesco, the English go-to grocery store. I could walk around the corner and get fresh groceries for whatever meal I was planning that day.

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My Personal Capital report. Sign up with that link and we both get $20.

Since my return, Mr. Mechanic and I spent an average of $262 a month, so $100 under the reported $350 ‘frugal’ average. I’m actually not sure how our spending works out so low (aside: is that actually low? I mean, the average does not necessarily mean good, right?) for the both of us. We do not do much couponing or specials-searching to specifically try to bring down our grocery bill; we do buy generic brands and compare price to volume. We don’t put in much more effort than that.

Start Meal Planning

I started by splitting the page down the middle and listing the food we already had in our fridge and then built the meal plan around those things. If you promise not to judge my terrible handwriting, I’ll show you the list we drummed up:

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Week 1 – I told you my handwriting isn’t pretty

We put down the options for breakfast but did not bother planning them much because it does not change day-to-day. We started to plan on Saturday evening, so we did not actually eat pizza all day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (unfortunately).

We got rid of the catastrophe that was mismatched hoarded plastic Tupperware and bought glass tupperware instead. We liked them so much we bought another set. We tried to make big batches on Sunday to cover the rest of the week, but also tried to vary the meals to keep it interesting.

Week 2

Lessons learned

  • Planning makes us more deliberate about healthy eating. It was much easier to see an overall pattern of unhealthy eating when we write out all our meals.
  • Though we started skeptical, we ended up loving not having to think about what to eat. We consulted the list and so expended less mental energy on making decisions.
  • Leave room in the meal plan for leftovers.
  • You can still be spontaneous! You can leave wiggle room to move around which meals you make. Friday nights we left free for if there were any leftovers or if we wanted an end-of-the-week treat (our guilty pleasure is Trader Joe’s Kung Pao Chicken…)
  • Planning is a total pain. It was a drag find the time to sit down to plan and think of recipes for the ingredients we already had. But we found it significantly offset time and mental energy down the line.
  • Update: a few months later I found that our grocery bill had gone down to just $108 a person.

Sample Recipes From Week 3/4

Just for fun, I will share some of the recipes we made in the last couple of weeks. I keep a board on Pinterest of all the interesting meals and reference it while planning.

Sausage and Rice Skillet

Heroin Chicken Recipe

Creamy Coconut Lentil Curry

Best veggie tortellini soup

Vegan crispy kung pao tofu

What about you?

Do you meal plan? What is your process for deciding what to eat?

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  1. I love all the pictures and graphs, it makes for an enjoyable read. At first I thought that $350 a month sounded a lot. Then I did the math and realized that if you buy lunch every day at $10 for 30 days comes to $300 alone. Then add to that a Starbucks treat a couple times a week and you are already at $350 and that is just for one person! Eek! Good job on keeping your meal expenses so low!

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