Meal Planning 101: Take Inventory

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Take an inventory of the ingredients you already have to help you make a meal plan that makes good uses of your resources.

There are many ways to approach meal planning. When I was a young newlywed, I just wrote a list of things that sounded good to me. When I shopped, I added to this list, by throwing into the cart whatever looked good as I strolled the grocery aisles.

After all, we had two incomes, no kids, and lots of disposable cash.

This method resulted in a lot of waste. I paid more than I needed to by buying ingredients at full price instead of stocking up on them when they were on sale. Since I overbought, I ended up throwing a lot away. I would forget the vegetables in the crisper until they were unrecognizable goo. I would find baking mixes well past their date because I’d stashed them in the pantry and then neglected to use them.

I had a plan back then. But, it didn’t work well. It didn’t make the best use of our resources and it was wasteful.

I think some of the best meal plans are the ones that use up what you have. I love seeing an empty fridge when it means we’ve been eating things up and not tossing them in the garbage because we neglected to use them in a timely manner.

Take Inventory

So, this week’s assignment in meal planning is to examine the contents of your fridge. You can simply make a list or use this pantry inventory sheet to help you. Write everything down so that you know what you have at your disposal. Do the same thing for the pantry ย and the freezer.

By keeping track of what you have you can make a more workable plan for the week’s meals.

Here’s a snapshot of what I’ve got on hand:

In the fridge

  • 2 pounds sharp cheddar
  • 2 pounds medium cheddar
  • sunbutter
  • 4 eggs
  • 2.5 pounds butter
  • 1 head broccoli
  • 2 heads lettuce (romaine, green leaf)
  • 5 canteloupe
  • 3 avocado
  • half a bunch of celery
  • 2 limes
  • 1 jalapeno
  • 1.5 gallons of milk
  • 1 quart of whipping cream
  • yogurt
  • Asiago cheese
  • pepperoni
  • 5 tortillas
  • cream cheese
  • pickles

In the pantry

  • 3 cans black beans
  • 4 cans chick peas
  • 1 can tuna
  • 1 can chicken
  • rice (Arborio and brown)
  • quinoa
  • couscous (Israeli and whole wheat)
  • pasta
  • taco shells
  • 5 onions
  • chili peppers
  • 1 rice cakes
  • popcorn
  • 2 sauerkraut
  • rice papers
  • 8 cans tomato sauce
  • 8 cans diced toms
  • lots of canned pumpkinย (still!)
  • baking mixes (2 waffles, 1 scone, 1 muffin)
  • cereal
  • oats
  • Saltines
  • dried fruit (cranberries, raisins)
  • nuts and seeds
  • chocolate chips and other baking candy
  • lots of jam!
  • oil
  • spices, herbs, vinegars
  • regular baking staples

In the freezer

  • ice cream
  • maseca
  • butternut squash puree
  • lemon juice
  • pork chops
  • chicken breast
  • pork loin roast
  • pork tenderloin
  • frozen fruit (apples, plums, nectarines)
  • frozen yogurt lumps
  • herbs (lemongrass, thyme, dill, oregano)
  • gravy
  • chicken broth
  • vegetables (spinach, corn, zucchini)
  • beans
  • a few lunch items for work
  • crushed tomatoes
  • marinara sauce
  • mozzarella cheese
  • a few bread halves
  • frozen apples for Oven-Baked Apple Compote
  • Mahi Mahi fish pieces (yes, that’s how Trader Joe’s labeled it)

Now that I have a basic inventory of what I have, I can make the week’s meal plans using what’s already here.

Create meals from what you have.

We pretty much have a lot of proteins on hand, so I shouldn’t have to buy much more except to add variety to our meals. The produce box comes on Wednesday, but I’ll need a few supplies before then. I do plan to shop because the Mother Hubbard feeling makes me feel unprepared. We’ve got some wiggle room in the budget, so it’ll be okay.

Since this is a real live week with real live groceries, here’s my plan:



For the kids:

For the parents:


So, that’s my meal plan for the week, mostly using what we have. But, I do have a list of groceries to pick up as well:

  • milk
  • eggs
  • fruit (bananas, pluots, mangoes)
  • sandwich bread (or bake my own)
  • veg (carrots, cukes, peppers,ย mushrooms, zucchini)
  • potatoes
  • ground beef

But, it’s a relatively short list, and if it weren’t for wanting some variety in our meals, I could probably go with a shorter list.

The overall point here is that if you work from what you have, you’ll have a better workable plan and you’ll make good use of the resources you have.

How do you typically plan meals?

About Jessica Fisher

I believe anyone can prepare delicious meals—no matter their budget.

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  1. harriet says

    Last month we had to buy a new A/C unit ($4000). The car insurance and taxes was due on both cars too. Therefore, we are relying on the stock in the pantry and fridge to get us through for a few weeks. I got out some cookbooks last night and went through them trying to find some new and interesting recipe’s to keep “eating at home” interesting. We are sorta doing the freezer and pantry challenge together this month ๐Ÿ™‚
    I am grateful that I have learned how to stock-up on sale items. My goal today is to take inventory of those items and plan our meals for the next two weeks. Good timing on your post.

  2. victoria says

    Hi Jessica. I have a question about tomato “burnout.” You listed pizza, then pasta, then chili. I often do that too and I’m getting sick of all the tomato based meals. Any ideas on shaking the tomato rut? Thanks!

    • Jessica says

      That’s an interesting question. When I made the plan, I was keeping in mind “pork burnout”. I don’t know that the tomato based meals get to us if the toppings and sides are different enough.

  3. jan says

    I just realized yesterday that my subtle pantry/freezers cleanout MUST be working when we did a quick review for TS Isaac preparation. A moment of anxiety to see not so many canned items but am ok now…your fridge would have done me in though! That baby is B A R E!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. KimH says

    I tend to look at the meat I have in the freezer & then fresh veggies that need to be used up and go from there. Of course, I take inventory of leftovers we already have in the frig.
    This is a week of lots of leftovers. My mom & step-dad were visiting from Tx and we ate well while they were here, having a big family & friend bbq & then just cooking & eating since my mom has always been a real foodie from way back when.
    I cleaned the frig out the day after they left but we still have some odds & ends I’d hate to toss out.

    I’d also love to take a serious inventory of the goods I have in my freezer & pantries but time is at a premium for me right now. I work outside the home, am still gardening, trying to get all my produce put up, have had out of town company for 11 days this month, spent a day taking Senior pictures for a great niece, and a bazillion other events that have taken every moment of my time.
    Yesterday, after the Heartwalk, I came home & took a nap, and did nothing but read email once I woke up. I never take naps. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Inventory… yes.. soon! Thanks for that inventory sheet.. I think I’ll use it.. eventually. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. I do it much like you do, although I don’t always write it out. Perhaps I should on occasion. I plan my menus by looking at the sales, first, and then my pantry. My meals are planned around these two things. I’m doing an eating from the pantry challenge this week as I’ve already used my budget, and want to thank you for all your encouragement, as I do so. You’re amazing, Jessica.

  6. I love meal planning! It makes such an enormous difference to how your week runs. It is terrific to only have to shop once & know that you will have all the things you need to make dinner that week. I like to factor in our after school activities and plan a slow cooker meals for the nights when I know we will be arriving home late and tired! Thanks for all the great tips!

  7. This is great advice. There’s no better way than to “shop at home” first before you go to the food store. That way, you are sure to use up a lot of foods that otherwise would have gone to waste. Plus, you can come up with creative ways to incorporate them into your meal plan ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Kelly says

    Thanks for this series! I’ve been sharing the posts in a meal planning group at CafeMom. This are great tips, especially for beginners.

  9. Amie says

    THANK YOU! Money is tight; school is starting and we are selling our house so we are trying to save every penny. I have a day off and I wanted to bake and came across this before I got started. I immediately went to my freezer and started! Holy Smokes I can feed the 4 of us for probably 2 weeks out of it. I couldn’t believe how much gets pushed to the back or how many bags of biscuits I had with only 1 or 2 biscuits left in the package. I feel so accomplished and it’s only 9am! Thanks again for the spreadsheet and tips!

  10. Brandette W. says

    Hi Jessica! I had a question about the homemade corn tortillas you linked to in this post. I would love to try making them!! I went to our local Walmart tonight to buy the Maseca flour you mentioned, but the bag I found in the mexican aisle was Maseca brand but said for tamales. Is this the right stuff? I didn’t end up buying it because I wasn’t sure if it was. It had recipes on the bag for the masa for tamales and the tamales themselves, but nothing mentioned of corn tortillas. Any ideas or help for a newbie to homemade tortillas? When we lived in southern CA I would have had no problem finding the stuff, but in the middle of farm country in Indiana…not so much I guess.

    • Jessica says

      I bought it at Walmarts in Kansas. Sometimes it was on the flour/baking aisle and sometimes in the Mexican food aisle. I “think” that I have compared those two packages and the ingredients list looked the same. I use the white bag for both tamales and tortillas: But, I can’t tell from the site if the brown bag does in fact have the same ingredients:–masa-for-tamales/3 I bet you could write them and ask.

      • Brandette W. says


        Hmm, I looked both in the mexican aisle which is where I found the brown tamale bag and then I checked the flour aisle as well cuz you never know. Nope, nothing. I am going to check Amazon maybe, see if it is price friendly or not to go that route. I may be able to find it at a mexican grocer, if we still have any open here. We had several in recent time, but the 2 that were relatively close to us closed.
        Thank you for taking the time to answer my question and link the products. I really appreciate that you did that for me!

        • Jessica says

          @Brandette W., oh, honey. I was once a CA-girl stranded in the Mid-west. I did a happy dance in Walmart the day they expanded their Mexican food aisle and started carrying my favorite enchilada sauce (Las Palmas). I’ll do what it takes for my fellow compatriots. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  11. Brandette W. says

    You are too funny! We lived in Southern CA our whole lives, born and raised in the Long Beach & Cerritos areas. We moved to the mid-west right after we got married…been here for 6 years now. There is so much we miss, but so much we love out here too. The ethnic foods is the main thing we miss dearly! So, whenever I can try to experiment and make homemade to replicate the good mexican restaurants back home…I do my own little happy dance let me tell you girl. And yes….Las Palmas rocks! It’s the only brand my Mom ever used for her homemade enchiladas…and still does.

  12. Nicole says

    I love shopping my pantry, freezer and fridge to make meals with before I buy anything! We have had alot of times where we haven’t had very much money just enough to get by. I have then had to make do with what I had! In our family friday nights is left over night we pull everything out of the fridge left over from the weeks meals and heat it up. I get a night off from cooking and nothing goes to waste!

  13. Tamara says

    Just want to confirm that you can definitely use the ‘tamale’ Maseca for making tortillas. In my opinion the the masa will turn out a bit more dry so I’d just take note that you might need to increase the amount of water you use by a smidge.

    • Jessica says

      I have never used the “Maseca for Tamales” (brown bag), so I do not know. I recommended that the previous commenter contact the manufacturer to confirm that they are close enough to work for tortillas. I really don’t know.

  14. Kitty says

    I am going to do my first food inventory. I have ten eggs left out of a carton of 12. Do I count each egg or just the carton? Help!!!!!!

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