What is meal planning?
Meal planning is simply how you choose to organize what you will eat for your upcoming meals. And it looks different to different people.
You can plan for all three meals, or just dinner. You can plan for just a week, or an entire month. You can use tried and true recipes or expand your repertoire.
However you choose to do it, meal planning shouldn’t feel like a huge, dreaded chore. It should be something that works for you – something you may even find enjoyable.
Why meal plan?
Why not? Meal planning not only saves time, it saves money. It can mean less money spent on take out, fewer trips to the grocery store, and less time and stress trying to figure out “what’s for dinner?”.
Knowing exactly what you will have for a meal and having the ingredients ready is a life saver. Planning meals around what you already have on hand and what’s on sale can save a heap of money. Plus, meal planning gives you the ability to choose quick and easy meals for the days you won’t have time to cook.
How to create a meal plan that will work for you
The possibilities are endless! Start here and experiment to figure out what works best for you.
1. Make a list of meals
Where to get meal ideas:
Family favorites. Ask each family member to list their top three favorite meals you make at home.
What do you usually make? Write down meals you’ve made over the past week or month.
“Emergency” meals. Find recipes for easy meals with ingredients you always have on hand.
Favorite cookbook. Flip through your favorite cookbook and pull out some ideas. If you don’t have one, I recommend keeping one on hand. Choose a cookbook that has basic recipes, with basic ingredients. You know, recipes that won’t require you to make last minute trips to the store.
Why keep a cookbook when you can find any recipe online? Internet distraction is a huge time suck. When I go look for a recipe online, I look through several websites, read the reviews, compare ingredients, etc. The cookbook saves me time.
Check out websites. If you have extra time and you need ideas, particularly ideas to use specific ingredients, check out Allrecipes or Supercook. Other good recipe sites include Food.com, Delish, Epicurious, and Yummly, just to name a few.
2. Organize your list
Organize your list of meal ideas in a way that makes sense to you. You can organize it by the preparation time, category (pasta, soup, casserole, slow cooker, etc.), meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner) or favorites.
3. Keep recipes together
Keep the recipes for each meal on your list in one place. If they’re online, bookmark and organize the links. If they’re in a cookbook, note the page number on your list of meals. Keep recipe cards in one place, so they are easy to find.
I have a photo album where I keep my favorite, most-used recipe cards. That way I’m not searching through a pile of other recipes to find the one I’m looking for.
4. Plan your meals.
Look at the week ahead (or month, if you prefer) and choose meals for each day that jives with your schedule. That’s the secret to successful meal planning – plan for the days you won’t have time to cook and have backups for the days you just don’t feel like cooking (spaghetti, anyone?).
Put meals on the calendar for each day. Or, simply make a list of what you will eat on each day.
I don’t use a calendar. On Sunday I sit down and make a list of what we will eat Monday – Sunday. And I allow for some flexibility. If I really don’t want to make chili on Monday, I’ll pick a meal from later in the week and make that instead (and make the chili later).
It’s okay to have the same, or similar, meals from week to week, especially if they are meals everyone enjoys. We have pasta at least once a week. And we usually have tacos at least every two weeks.
Sometimes, having a set rotation of meals makes life easier. That way, you don’t even have to think about it. Some people make Monday pasta night, Tuesday taco night, Wednesday stir-fry night, and so on.
Once again, this is something to experiment with to find what works best for you.
Take stock of what you have on hand, look through all the ingredients for the meals on your meal plan and then head to the store to get what you need for the entire week (or beyond if you plan further out).
Check the sales before heading out. I actually check the store flyers and plan meals mostly around what’s on sale and then fill in with the things I need that aren’t on sale. Since I make the same basic things on a monthly rotation, I usually know what to buy without looking at the recipes.
Bonus meal planning tips:
Save future meals by making extra and freezing the leftovers for one of those “emergency” days. We make extra food at dinner and use the leftovers for lunches the next day.
Prep ahead for the busy days. Always be thinking one day ahead and prep as much of the next day’s meal as you can the day before. I do this when I have really crazy weeks with almost no time to cook. Chop veggies, cook a double batch of ground beef, or shred extra cheese to make meal prep faster and easier.
Do you meal plan? What method works for you?
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