Meal Planning 101
Last week as I was planning our meals for this week, I asked a quick question on my Facebook page about meal planning – do you do it? do you like it? what are your repeat meals? I quickly learned that a lot of people either want to plan meals and they don’t know how, they’ve tried it before and it doesn’t work for them, or it’s their favorite part of the week. While I fall into the latter one, I found out that a lot of you fall into the first two.
The first comment that I received after posting the question was this: “Share your secrets, I have not conquered how to do this yet!”
And that got me to thinking that I really should share because there really is no secret! There are a lot of great posts out there about meal planning but I think that it will look a little bit different for you than it will for me than it will for the next person.
So, here’s where we will start, with a quiz.
- How often do you shop for groceries?
- Are there any meals that you eat, without fail, each and every week? Or at least every other week?
- How many people are you feeding?
- How many nights per week do you eat at home?
- What are the staples that you’ll need to buy (baking ingredients, lunch items, snacks, etc.)
- What sounds good to me & my family this week? (Ask them!)
If you only shop for groceries once monthly, planning your meals will probably be a little more time intensive, but will only need to be done once per month. If you shop every week (like I do), you will just need to spend a little time each week to make your plan and make your list.
Here is why I plan out our meals: when Paul and I first got married (I was already blogging) I would do the grocery shopping, but with no direction in mind. I would buy tons of stuff that we didn’t really need and nothing that we really did need. OK, not nothing. But a lot of what I would buy would go to waste or would end up needing to be frozen before it went bad. I can’t stand wasted food.
So I started playing around with meal planning and it was a definite work in progress for a while. But once I got the hang of it, it became second nature and now I actually love planning our meals.
The type-A personality in me loves it because it’s an excuse to use another spreadsheet. The budgeter in me loves it because I don’t (usually!) buy things that are not on my list – an occasional impulse buy is sure to happen though! The planner in me LOVES not having to stand in front of the fridge every day and wonder what we are having for dinner – it’s already been decided and (most-likely) we have all of the ingredients we’ll need to make it.
Are you convinced yet?
Here’s what I do:
- I set aside time to get it done – I plan meals on Thursdays for the following week (usually Sunday – Saturday.) I do the grocery shopping on Fridays or Saturdays and I make my grocery list from my meal plan. I sit down at my computer and open up notebook that houses my grocery lists and open my meal plan spreadsheet (see below). I have a column for the date, what we will eat that night, any blog or freelance assignments that I need to do that day, and what will show up in my blog posts that day. I plan it all from right here.
- Use a tool that will help you like a phone app or ZipList. The ZipList recipe box allows you to save recipes from ANY website on the internet, and then place them into a meal plan, and then it just spits out your grocery list for you too. It’s pretty brilliant! This could be especially useful if you plan meals for multiple weeks in advance!
- I open up our calendar and decide how many meals I’ll need to plan and if it will be just me, if Paul will be home etc. Do we have plans with friends? Church events in the evenings? Those nights, no meal is needed so I only plan what we will need. Ask your family if anything sounds good to them. Even a food blogger has a hard time deciding what to cook from time to time. Sometimes Paul has great ideas and he usually brings up recipes that we loved but haven’t had in a long time. We don’t repeat very many meals in our house!
- I visit the websites of my favorite grocery stores to look at the weekly ads. I shop at Schnuck’s, Gerbes, and Aldi where we currently live; I also buy some staples at Wal Mart and Target. (If you missed Ali’s Aldi 101 posts last week, make sure to check them out!) In KC, I shopped at Trader Joe’s probably 85% of the time so I would skip this step unless I knew I needed to go to a different store for something. I also receive emails from a couple of grocery stores with weekly specials so if something catches my eye, I will keep that in mind for a meal.
- I use the ads to determine if there are any “special” meals that we have. We do not eat meat every night of the week – more like once or twice per week and I try to buy grass fed beef and cage-free, organic chicken when I can. Since we don’t eat meat all that often, I can justify that splurge. Just use the ads to your advantage when scoping out meals for the week.
- Browse recipes! I open up Pinterest, my blog, cookbooks, etc. and do a little looking around at things that I have saved that week.
- When I find something I like, I plug it into the spreadsheet and take a look at the actual recipe and make note of ingredients I need to get. Yesterday I made slow cooker chicken tikka masala for dinner. I added it to my spreadsheet and knew that I would need. I knew I would need chicken, diced tomatoes, yogurt and limes so I added them to my grocery list. I have everything else on hand so no need to buy more rice, garam masala, ginger, etc. Also, think simple sides like steamed veggies, simple salads, easy-to-prepare grains like rice or quinoa.
- And I repeat for the other nights of the week. I finish off my list by adding butter (a weekly purchase!), yogurt, bread, eggs, lunch meat, cheese, any condiments we need, chips and salsa (we always have on hand!), bananas, etc.
- Use the weekends (or a weekday if you work weekends) for prep work. Clean and chop veggies; prepare casseroles or parts of meals; make homemade stock, etc. and make note of how much work you will need to do on each night of the week. If you know you’ll be home from work late one night, plan for a simpler meal.
I try to stick to this list at the grocery store. When I’m tempted by random pasta or produce, I remind myself that I have a plan for the week and if I buy those things, there is a chance they won’t be used and go bad.
All in all, there is no right or wrong way to do it. This is what works for me. It is NOT flawless. Sometimes plans change but I’m human and there is always room for a little error! Plan your meals in the most effective way for YOU!
I simply love grocery shopping. Call me crazy if you will but I really enjoy it. We stick to a monthly budget in our house – for everything, not just groceries! I do 99% of the grocery shopping in our house and spend $70-80 per week on groceries for the two of us. That might sound like a lot – but a lot of times I am buying more sugar, butter, eggs, etc. than the average person because of blog and freelance projects.
I know many of you don’t so I would also love to share a few grocery shopping tips for you:
- Plan your meals around & buy what is in season. Buying strawberries in the middle of winter might break the bank. However, you can probably buy avocados in February for $1 or less. Win.
- Stick to your list and to help with this one, don’t take anyone with you. Might be easier said than done but we always spend so much more money when Paul goes with me!
- Cross things off your list as you go through the store and if you are really type-A, organize the list by grocery store sections…this way you won’t have to backtrack through the store.
- Take cash. I am not kidding. Take the amount of money you intend to spend for that trip out of the bank and leave your credit cards at home. This works, people.
- Jot down the price of each item as you cross them off your list, especially if you do #4 – this will prevent more impulse buys!
- Check the ads. (see above!)
- Plan for leftovers. Make a little more on one night than what you really need and then have some for leftovers the next night – or freeze for a couple weeks down the road.
- Stay stocked on pantry staples – and buy these things at stores like Aldi and Wal Mart, they are much less expensive!