Wait! Don't go! I know many of you either a) have tried and given up on meal planning because it takes way too long or b) have avoided meal planning because. . . well. . . it takes too long. Don't worry - I got you covered! This post will tell you why to plan meals and how to do it, quickly and easily :)
Why Plan Meals?
1. Save money
When you have a plan and stick to it, you can actually save money. I promise. Here's how:
- I don't know about you but when I've spent (a little) time and effort on something, I'm going to stick to it. That means that I don't just throw my hands up and say "eff this! let's order take out!". . . Or at least we do that way less often. And meals you cook are (almost) always cheaper than take out.
- Ever find yourself running through the grocery store, grabbing everything you see like a deranged contestant on Supermarket Sweep? (am I the only one who loved this cheesy game show as a kid?) Well, I can't promise you more self-restraint but I can tell you that having a list, that you thoughtfully prepared, of things you actually need, can help curtail the madness. At least a little bit.
- Ever bought a head of cabbage for a recipe that calls for 1/4 of it? Or a bunch of cilantro for a recipe that only requires 2 tbsp finely chopped? The most effective meal planners can take that into account and include another meal on the schedule to use up the last of the cabbage and cilantro. . . well, maybe not together. . . but I digress.
- Real pro-star meal planners also take advantage of sales, in-season local produce, and incorporate things like "Meatless Mondays" into their plans. All of which can save you even more money!
2. Eat better
Ever actually look at the nutrition labels on frozen or pre-packaged foods? Ever look at the nutritional content of your go-to take out order? It can be truly shocking and a kick in the pants to get cooking. Even the easiest home-cooked meals can have you eating better and feeling better about it. How does meal planning help?
- Finding new recipes and ways to use up extra ingredients can be addictive. . . and enlightening. That extra cilantro from Monday's Meatless Burritos? Why not try an easy stir-fry? Or a curry? Or make up a batch of enchilada sauce to throw in your freezer (making good use of an ingredient that will go to waste and saving yourself from the sodium content of the canned stuff - tastes better too)?
- And trying new things makes us better cooks, better eaters, and lets us push ourselves into new ways of eating - more veggies, less fats. And less last-minute take out.
- Convenience foods. Things like pre-cooked chicken and canned beans have their place. But chicken breasts, seasoned and grilled, and beans cooked at home (in the slow cooker, unless they're red kidney beans!) taste better and cost less. And if you plan ahead, it's easy to incorporate them - grill an extra piece of chicken while prepping tonight's meal for tomorrow's, or throw beans in the slow cooker in the morning to use tonight.
6 Easy Steps to Planning Your Meals:
1. Get Method
Figure out a method that works for you: there are apps you can use on your phone or computer (I'll be sharing my fave with you next week) or printables on all sorts of websites and blogs. You could use pen and paper or put it on your calendar. Have kids old enough to help? Why not put a chalk or dry-erase board in the kitchen with the week's meals and what they can do when they get home to help (ie. Monday - Veggie Taco Soup - stir slow-cooker and turn to "keep warm"; Tuesday - Chicken Divan - defrost 3 chicken breasts)?
2. Be Honest
Not a big cook? Keep it simple and stick to what you're comfortable with and the things you like. You're not going to stick to a meal plan that focuses on fancy three-course meals and ingredients you hate so don't make that plan.
Have a busy week? Put a take out night on the schedule. Knowing Friday night is pizza night might help you get through the rest of the week. Also, planning a few larger meals before your hell night (you know the one - husband works late, Timmy has dance class and Tammy needs to get to basketball practice) can allow you to schedule a "leftover night" where everyone just heats up whatever they like out of the fridge.
3. Start with Fixed Dates
With your calendar or paper or chalkboard or whatever in front of you, start with the dates you can't change. So maybe Wednesday is leftover night and you're going to a family dinner on Sunday. Get those down first.
4. Pick Your Menu
Make a list of two things: what you have in your fridge that needs to be used, and what you feel like eating that week. If you're feeling fancy or looking for bonus points, you can include sale items and what local produce is in season ;)
- If you can use some of those items in your preferred dishes, fantastic! Add them to the plan (and put them earlier in the week so you don't risk losing those ingredients that might go bad).
- Then find some more recipes that will use those items up (sorry! this has to take precedence because throwing out food is not going to save you money!) and add them to the schedule. You can check your cookbooks if you have any (most have an index at the back that lets you find recipes by ingredient) or search online (there are so many awesome food blogs and websites that offer a variety of recipes and tips).
- Try to pick multiple recipes for bulky purchases (a few that call for that bundle of fresh herbs so it doesn't go to waste, for example.
- If you still have room on your calendar, include some of the dishes you haven't added yet.
5. Put Things in Order
- Make sure that your plan begins with meals that will use up perishables you already have.
- The next few meals should include those meals that include perishables you will buy that go bad quickly (like mushrooms).
- And any meals that are "cupboard meals" (only frozen and shelf-stable items) should go last in your schedule.
- Add any extra prep to your plan. For example, if you need to put something in the slow-cooker in the morning, put it on your plan. If you need to cook an extra piece of chicken for tomorrow's meal, put that on the plan. If you're going to use up the leftover herbs from that dish by making a pesto to store in your freezer, put it on the plan. If it's not on the plan, you might forget. If it is, you'll (probably) do it.
I find having things in order (instead of strictly tied to specific days) lets me easily adjust if something comes up - just slide everything to the next day.
6. Go Shopping!
Use your plan to make a grocery list and stick to it!
You can plan one week at a time (my usual) or more than that if you prefer. I have done two week plans as well - I make two grocery lists and schedule the second shop. . . if you use a lot of pantry / frozen items, you might even be able to avoid that. Give it a try! And don't stress. . . meal planning gets easier the more you do it and once you find the method that works for you, it's not a big deal at all.
Until next week, happy shopping!