One of the most effective ways to save time and money in your kitchen is to get into the habit of meal planning. For some, meal planning seems to come naturally, and for others, it is a blank calendar staring at them.
Let’s get you past that blank calendar, and take the intimidation factor out of meal planning!
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Meal Planning Is a Part of My Lifestyle
I’ve been an off-and-on meal planner for most of my 23 years of marriage. In our early days, planning was easier–we had very little money so our meals were a variation of a theme of rice and beans, tuna casserole, and whatever happened to be on sale. I was cooking for the two of us, neither of us was picky, and Pinterest was not even a thing. As we added more kids, I had to get a lot more creative!
My meal planning journey started out with using some subscription type plans, such as eMeals or PrepDish. Honestly, when life gets busy or overwhelming, I still treat myself to a month or two subscription and take the extra thinking out of the equation. With the addition of meal delivery services, I can easily take a week off of even grocery shopping. BUT, this is not the norm.
Meal Planning Does Not Have to be Complicated
Meal planning does not have to be complicated. Start with using the tools you have on hand and build from there! Here is the process I use in creating our meal plans. (I plan for a week at a time, as we have a large, busy family and I live very close to our grocery store. Others prefer to plan two weeks, or a month at a time.)
My Meal Planning Process
- Take an inventory: At the beginning of your meal planning journey, sit down with your family and make a list of your favorite meals. You may be surprised at what the favorites are for various family members. Break the list down by type of protein, length of prep time and cooking technique (freezer meal, slow cooker, Instant Pot, etc.). When we did this in our family, I had family members write their favorite meals on to Post-it notes that we could then shuffle around on a large calendar.
- Look at your calendar: Look at your schedule for the week. For example, we have soccer on Monday and Wednesday evenings–we have to have dinner first, but we only have about an hour to get everything done before we leave for practice–we need quick (but energy-filled) meals on these days. On Thursdays everyone is home and it is a great day for a more leisurely family meal.
- Create a pattern: Our family is a big fan of Taco Tuesday, so we always have some sort of Mexican food on Tuesdays. One night a week, the kids are in charge of cooking, so I will choose a recipe they know how to cook well, or that I want them to learn. We have pasta one night a week, and, especially in fall and winter, we have soup or chili one night a week. Though I plan menus for seven days, I really only plan five or six meals as there is almost always one day we are busy, or get invited out, or we need to eat all the leftovers in the fridge. Planning five meals is way less intimidating than planning seven! Refer to your inventory and use the bulk of those meals in your plan, introducing one new recipe a week.
- Make a list, check it twice: Once you have decided what meals you will be preparing for the week, make a list of the groceries you will need (check your freezer and pantry first!) I line up my list with the layout of my grocery store. With online grocery shopping options, I can usually even skip a trip to the store. (I am a HUGE fan of WalMart grocery Pick-Up–I’ve referred to it as life changing–but mostly it is time and money saving!)
- Post your meal plan. I post our plan for the week on the fridge. I know that we may re-arrange meals according to our schedule, but the posted plan helps your family know what to expect (and what to stay out of in the fridge!)
- Prep ahead: Every week when I get home from the grocery store, I immediately start cooking up a batch of eggs in my Instant Pot. By the time my groceries are put away, I have boiled eggs ready for easy snacks and salad toppings for the week. I also take time to chop vegetables and fruit for snacks and salads throughout the week. If you planned any meals with browned ground beef for the week, you can brown that now and toss in in the freezer in a ziplock bag and save time later in the week. I do the same with cooked, shredded chicken (I use my Instant Pot to cook frozen chicken breasts and my Kitchenaid mixer with the paddle attachment to shred it!)
- Delegate. When it comes to meal prep during the week, assign a different child as your “sous chef” each day. It is a great one on one time, and it teaches them valuable kitchen skills.
- Enjoy mealtime as a family: Family dinner is one of my favorite times, and even our adult children make it a point to join us for family dinner as often as they can. It is one of the few constants in busy family life!
My Favorite Meal Planning Secret Weapon
I’m a systems girl. This is no secret! Meal planning is a big part of my working mom sanity.
I have found a system that allows me to clip and save all of the fun recipes I find online, plus add recipes from our family favorites. This same app allows me to plan my meals onto a calendar interface, and then GENERATES A SHOPPING LIST! Seriously, I cannot chat up this software enough, and all of my friends who have decided to try it have LOVED it and thanked me!
Here is a real time demonstration of me planning meals using Plan To Eat. As you can see, it takes a lot of the sorting and scribbling out of meal planning. Then, each day, I can just pull up my recipe for the day on my trusty laptop!
Chime in! What is your favorite meal planning hack? Let us know in the comments.