This is what works for my family. It may not work for yours. Add to it, take away from it, tweak it to make it work for you!
Step 1. I go through my pantry, freezer, and refrigerator and make a list of things I need to use up.
Step 2. I grab my planning goodies, put my girls down for a nap (or in front of Blue's Clues...) and sit down at the computer in our office to begin my favorite chore!
Step 3. I decide how many meals I am going to need to make for the next 2 weeks. I look to see if there is anything special I need to make or buy (examples: G is star student this week and gets to bring his favorite snack to class on Friday so we are going to make cookies- so I write down which ingredients we need to get for those. We also have Life Group at my house on Mondays and I'll bring a side dish this week so I write down what I'd like to bring for that.)
Step 4. I write down meals I know I'd like to make within the next 2 weeks. If my husband has been asking for a certain meal (his favorite is this) I'll be sure to add that. I have extra spinach left over so I'll pick a dish that will use it up (like this one).
Step 5. I decide on the remaining dinner and lunch dishes I want to make. Almost all of meals are from my favorite food blogger Beth. I browse through her posts and decide on a few. While every meal I make is economical some dishes I know will cost more than others so I try to have a good mix of inexpensive and pricier meals so that I can keep a balanced grocery bill. I write all of the meals down and then pair them with days. On days I know I will be busy (Sundays, Wednesdays, or if I have something extra scheduled) I try to make simple meals. I like to make stews or crock pot meals on Sundays. I love throwing stuff into the crock pot before church and coming home to a delicious-smelling house! I make sure to write the meals on repositionable stickers (the ones I am using in the picture came with my Erin Condren Life Planner and fit perfectly at the bottom). Undoubtedly my meal plan will hit at least one kink and I'll have to switch out one meal for another. Using repositonable stickers ensures that all of my meals will be made, that my planner stays tidy, and that I (mostly) won't be tempted to get take out or fast food (my weakness).
Step 6. I write the grocery list. I split my list up into 5 sections (canned & dry, cold & frozen, meat &poultry, produce, and other). For "other" I keep a list whenever I run out of items/essentials (q-tips, dog food, shampoo etc).
Step 7. I add it all up! I purchase pretty much the same things almost every grocery trip so I am pretty familiar with how much my items will cost. If I am using a new ingredient and am unsure of the price a quick Google search will give me a ballpark figure. I always estimate conservatively so I'll have some "extra" cash at the end of my shopping trip!
Step 8 (and possibly the most important step!). I withdraw cash from an ATM and leave my debit card in the car. I am much less likely to pick up little items here and there if I have a certain amount of money to spend.
This is how we do meals! We have been following this plan for about 2 years now. We're not perfect, nor will we ever be, but meal planning has saved me thousands of dollars over the past few years. You wouldn't know it, but I HATE cooking. I do it because it's the only way I can keep my family's nutritional and budgetary needs on track.
A few tips: When I get home from the grocery store I divide my ground beef into 1lb. increments and freeze them. I cut the fat off of my chicken breasts and divide them into individual Ziploc bags and freeze them. and if I have time I chop up my onions, bell peppers, and whatever other vegetables I'll need chopped and freeze those as well. Doing extra meal prep beforehand keeps my evenings more free and I am way more likely to make dinner if the hard stuff is already done!
I hope this has helped. Comment if you have any questions or tips! How do you meal plan?