Meal planning is a great way to save time and money (and sometimes your sanity). It doesn’t matter if you are planning for just your self, your family, or even a large holiday meal, making a plan will provide an answer to the dreaded, “What’s for dinner?” question when asked. But how complicated is meal planning? Some systems have binders full of menu ideas, worksheets, calendars, etc, but it really doesn’t have to be that hard. Let me show you how I plan for a family of four:
First of all, you should create a grocery budget to help guide you when you go to the store. If you are budgeting, which you should be, then you are going to already know about how much you spend on each shopping trip. If you aren’t budgeting, look at your past expenses to determine how much you normally spend and create a budget (see my tips on creating a budget) that includes your grocery amount. This is a good way to make sure you aren’t spending too much of your income on food that might go to waste.
I go to the grocery store twice a week, at the most. Going shopping (especially these days) is way too much of a chore, so I try to buy enough to last for most of the week. Our main shopping day is Monday, because my husband and I are both off and we go shopping together (having a buddy can make the actual shopping much more bearable). Even if you are going to be ordering your groceries online or to be delivered, you should try to get as much as you can to save you time and money. On Monday, I buy enough for our work week. I am off on Fridays, also, so I will sometimes go shopping again once I plan what we need for the weekend to last until Monday. So, that is our schedule. Now the fun part!
So, I am a planner/calendar type person. I have to write things down and cross things off lists in order to stay organized. The first part of the actual meal planning process begins with my looking at my planner (usually Sunday or Monday morning) and making sure all appointments and obligations are scheduled. I write down if any of my other kids will be visiting for the weekend, if my husband has his Legion meeting, if my daughter and granddaughter have other plans. This way I can see who I will be needing to cook for and when. The typical nights I need to cook dinner during the week are Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Those are the days I shop for first. I am not home Wednesday evenings, and my family makes other plans. On Friday, I will go shopping for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I work Tuesday and Thursday, so I plan easier meals on those days (hot dogs, mac and cheese, broccoli or crock pot meals) and on Mondays and weekends, I plan things that take longer (soups, meatloaf, etc).
The next step is choosing the protein for each day. I really hate having the same thing, even cooked differently, too many times in a row. I think it gets boring. So, yes, even though there are a hundred ways to cook ground beef, I don’t want ground beef every night. So I choose from a variety: poultry, seafood, beef, pork. beans. We try to eat fairly healthy in our home, but there are days when I am too tired to cook some elaborate healthy meal and I will grab some turkey hot dogs or frozen pizza. I also schedule days that I want to order some take out, usually Thursdays, when I am tired from the busy week. If I don’t have a recipe in mind to prepare the protein, I might look up inspiration online or in my cookbooks, if I have time. If not, roasting chicken breasts with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper or air frying some fish is pretty simple and tasty!
Once I have a protein picked out, I start to choose my side dishes. For some reason, I always feel that I need a starch and a vegetable to round out the meal, but I have been trying to have more veggies and less carbs, so it kind of depends on the meal idea. I like seafood paired with rice, or chicken with roasted veggies, so sometimes the side dishes are pretty easy to figure out. As a rule of thumb, I just keep it simple during the week and use the weekends for experimenting with new sides or something adventurous. I write down each meal idea (baked fish, cauliflower rice with canned diced tomatoes, for examples) on the day I am planning it.
(Just a reminder to be flexible with your planning! There are some days that I just don’t want to make what I had planned and I might choose a meal from a different day or order take out that day. Just remember to plan to use any fresh ingredients you bought on another day).
Before I go shopping, I have to make a list. A good rule of thumb is to only buy what is on your list when you go to the store, so be mindful and try to get everything you are going to need.
First thing I do, is look in the pantry, fridge, and freezer for what I already have on hand. If I am planning on making chili, for example, I don’t usually keep meat on hand, so I know I need to buy some ground beef. Then I look in the pantry for beans, tomato sauce, etc. I think of the recipe in my head or look at it if I printed it, and start writing down what I need. If I have enough beans for the chili, I might still decide I need more to keep on hand. I pretty much go through recipe by recipe down the list. Then I start thinking about the other meals throughout the day. Every week I prep eggs for my husbands breakfasts and snacks, so I know I am going to need a couple dozen eggs. I look at the butter, oils, spices, and condiments needed for each meal (I hate making a salad only to find out I don’t have enough dressing!). I check the staples, like coffee, sugar, creamer. I ask my family what fruits and snacks everyone wants. Some weeks my lists are pretty big, but other times I have enough on hand still that all I need are the meats and fresh fruits and vegetables.
At this point, some people suggest reordering your list. If you are new to grocery shopping, this might help. Put all your canned goods together, your refrigerated goods, freezer items, meats, etc. This way you won’t have to go back and forth in the store when you forget something! I pretty much know how the aisles are set up, so I don’t necessarily do this extra step, but it can definitely save time, and I know there have been times when I have to back track to get the fruit snacks I forgot!
Just like Santa, I check my list twice to make sure I didn’t forget anything. At this point, I start thinking about other things I need to add to my list (shampoo, birthday cards, oreos). I want to only buy what is on my list, so I try to be as thorough as possible.
As soon as we get home, we start putting the groceries away. As we go, I might package the chicken in a zip bag so it doesn’t leak all over the fridge (this has happened way too many times). I keep out anything I am going prepare right away (fruit to be washed or eggs that I am going to boil ASAP). I organize the fridge based on what I am using first or what is oldest to be used up. As I am making my eggs, I wash the fruit and maybe chop some veggies if I need something for the whole week (garlic, onion, etc.) and store it well.
Some people will actually make and prepare meats for the week, but I feel I never have time to do that on top of the other things I am getting done. If you do have the time, let’s say you bought a large pack of ground beef, you can brown it all and freeze some of it for later, or go ahead and make the taco meat to be reheated down the road. If there are meats to be marinated, you might think of doing this step now so you don’t forget (like I tend to do).
Remember, meal planning is meant to help you, not stress you out, so if you are feeling stressed or like it is too much work, try to figure out why it is feeling complicated to you. If you don’t like deciding days before what you are going to eat, maybe just keep a few proteins on hand and decide later how you would like to prepare them. In this instance, it would be helpful to have a fully stocked pantry and freezer to be able to make anything when you want it.
Nothing is set in stone!! Meal planning and cooking should be something you look forward to or at least can have some fun with. Once you learn basic cooking skills, you should be able to cook anything with whatever you have on hand. It doesn’t matter if you are only planning for yourself or for your whole family, meal planning will help save you time and money and will cut back on waste by buying only what you need when you need it.
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